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Shocking the System

“When the two beans are squeezed from a fresh fruit and the slimy coating is removed, each bean remains loosely contained in a tough but thin shell known as the parchment.”
—Dr. F. L. Wellman1
Illustration of AJ

Our second edition of Parchment is dedicated to Kenya. The farmers, pickers, sorters, millers, cuppers, roasters, and managers who people this country’s distinctive supply chain produce coffees of unmatched vibrancy: striking and potentially perplexing at first pass, but revealing of great richness and complexity once you draw back the curtain.

A decade ago, as an aspiring barista attending my first blind cupping, I detected a stewed sweetness in a brew of Kenya Nyeri AA but couldn’t pinpoint its flavor notes. Without missing a beat, the head roaster hosting the tasting called them out: “Raspberry, caramel, and candied orange.” I still couldn’t wrap my head around the cup’s intricacies, but before I could walk away from the table he beckoned me to sip again. As I tasted, he coaxed me along and encouraged me to visualize specific notes. Mixed berry shone through, and I’m forever grateful he sent me into orbit.

Behind the layered flavor notes in Kenyan coffee, there is a complex, evolving marketplace at origin. And yet there’s so much more to a transparent supply chain than reports of FOB and farmgate prices2. In publishing Parchment, we aim to reveal what’s happening on the ground, offer some context to those ready to dive beneath the surface, and highlight the many leaders and organizations worthy of recognition—among them Wycliffe and Mie, whom you’ll meet shortly.

Addressing the current price crisis, confronting equity in the farm-to-café supply chain—are matters like these best left to scholars and specialists? To a barista facing an endless line at the register, asking questions deeper than “for here or to go?” and pushing consumers beyond the familiar classic flavors may seem like luxuries, perhaps even distractions from the demand for caffeine right here on our doorstep and the challenge of working through pandemic-driven conditions.

Still, a moment comes when something extra is called for: a shot in the arm, a jolt of electricity to clear the cobwebs and forge new paths. For me, a cup of Kenyan coffee, with its broad spectrum of unmistakable flavors, its saturated sweetness, and crisp acidity, is an answer to that moment.

At a fundamental level—past the cupping table and florid tasting notes—we’re dealing with a complex food system in urgent need of careful redescription. Coffee converges with the bigger issues of our generation. We must be ardent, industrious, and open-minded as we navigate its terrain, and we must bring everyone to the table.

At Parlor, we believe that electrifying flavors can shock the system, enrich the dialogue, and provide a spur to meaningful action for consumers and coffee professionals alike. We’ve seen this come to life in Kenyan coffee, and that’s what we want to share with you in this issue.

Note 1: Dr. Frederick L. Wellman, Coffee: Botany, Cultivation and Utilization (London: Leonard Hill, 1961), 370.
Note 2: These terms refer to the prices paid at different points along the coffee supply chain. FOB, or free on board, customarily precedes the name of the port where the product is shipped from, e.g. FOB Mombasa. Farmgate refers to the point at which goods are purchased directly from the farmer.

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