by Jim Mulligan
While it is likely that you drink coffee in some form or another, either daily or occasionally, with or without additives, do you know how it came to be such a popular drink around the world? Many Americans might harken back to the memorable coffee promotions of Juan Valdez and his donkey tending coffee plantations in the hills of Columbia, but coffee is not indigenous to the equatorial Americas. It was in the climatically similar regions of Ethiopia that coffee may have been serendipitously discovered. Legend has it that a shepherd noticed his flock became noticeably rambunctious after eating the berries of the then undiscovered coffee plant. Thanks to his acumen and curiosity the first coffee drinks were born. Of course, its use quickly spread north into the Middle East and fanned out from there.Coffee, like most intoxicating nutriments, has had its share of lovers and haters throughout history. It wasn’t until the blessing of Pope Clement XIII in the early seventeenth century that its common use spread through Europe. It is said that it quickly became the morning beverage of choice for many, replacing the very common practice at the time of imbibing beer or wine to get the day started. As one might imagine, the electrifying effects it had compared to the alcoholic brews that preceded its use as a morning pick-me-up greatly boosted its use. After becoming ensconced in the culture of just about everyone in Europe, it is no surprise that it traveled with explorers and colonizers to the Americas. Production of the shade-loving, shrub-like tree with waxy, dark green leaves started in earnest everywhere from southern Mexico to northern Brazil. According to the National Coffee Association USA, today coffee is one of the most sought-after commodities in the world, second only to crude oil.
So, where do you get your coffee? More and more, socially aware and Earth-conscious humans are fueling their caffeine habit with coffees that are sustainably produced and marketed by the local farmer or farmer cooperatives. What they find is, not only are they directly supporting the local producers that till the soil and carry the greatest financial burden of coffee production, they are getting great coffee.One such coffee producer actually calls Reedley her home. While a student at Reedley College studying business, an assignment to create her own company gave birth to Zolú Café and a mission to help her ancestral land of Oaxaca, Mexico, build its economy. Natalie Cruz, whose grandparents still live and farm in the southern state in Mexico, were her inspiration. She had recently visited them prior to the entrepreneurship class in which she was asked to build a business. On that trip she become interested in their production of coffee. From the planting of trees to the harvest and from the drying of beans to roasting them to perfection, she was enthralled with the process. And most notably, she saw an opportunity to give local producers more control over their product, more money in their pocket, and more economic stability for their community.
With a passion for coffee and community building, Cruz dove head first into the work of coffee. While her grandparents were versed in the growing of coffee, Cruz wanted to take the beans all the way to market. She needed to learn the ins and outs of roasting and grinding, which she did with fervor. As luck would have it, a Reedley College instructor in the Agriculture Department had dabbled in the roasting and grinding of coffee as part of his Agriculture Business courses. He was eager to help Natalie learn her craft. With the school’s small-scale coffee roaster, Cruz spent many Fridays churning out small batches of dark and medium roasts, as well as fiddling with the varying degrees of each grind. It was not long before Cruz was presented with the opportunity to sell her freshly ground coffee at the fall farmers market at Reedley College. The one-pound bags of the newly coined Zolú Café flew off the shelves.
While selling coffee is a primary goal of Zolú Café, Cruz has much higher aspirations for the company. As a frequent visitor to her grandparents’ village in Oaxaca, she understands the economic plight of the local people. They descend from the indigenous peoples who have lived for millennia in the luscious, green hills of the isthmus between the north and south land masses that make up the western hemisphere. They are humble people who have served as stewards of that land for that time. But many are taken advantage of by large conglomerates who sweep in and buy tons of coffee at a time providing a sure thing, but often at a reduced value. Small coffee farmers who are still afloat are not earning the profit that their product deserves. Cruz wants to eventually change this scenario by marketing the local produce directly to consumers. She wants the youth of Oaxaca to have a bright future; she wants them to be leaders of a coffee empire. Zolú Café’s mission statement sums it up pretty well: provide the world with great Mexican coffee, sustainably produced in a way that is healthy for producers and consumers and the Earth; we aim to connect families and communities through authentic flavors and healthy production methods.
If you’re a coffee drinker, I encourage you to spend a little extra for a premium cup of coffee, a cup of Zolú Café. You won’t only enjoy great coffee, you’ll be contributing to the economic development of great communities and improving the lives of your fellow humans. Her website should be up and running soon! You can find it HERE.
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