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Q&A | Erika Koss

Northeastern’s ‘The World in Your Cup’ spotlights the culture of coffee

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For the past several months, Erika Koss at Northeastern University has been doing a lecture series called “The World in Your Cup: Conversations on the Politics & Culture of Coffee.”

The whole series — which is co-sponsored by the NU Consortium of Food Sustainability, Health, & Equity; the School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs; and the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion — has been quite popular, with some attracting 100 attendees.

The next event is Friday (Dec. 4), with a focus on sustainability and trade, which will feature Keith Lemnios, the chief executive of Sun Coffee Roasters (it will also feature their coffee).

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We recently caught up with Koss — an assistant dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities — by e-mail to talk a little about coffee, the series, and the growth in the industry.

How did you get into coffee?

I’m a Californian who grew up with two non-coffee-drinking parents and no coffee rituals of any kind! But there was this one restaurant in Los Angeles where my parents and I would regularly dine with my grandparents. It was called “Tic Toc,” and it no longer exists. The walls were plastered with old cuckoo clocks of all kinds that would chime, sing, or ring. There was also a beautiful old train set that would circle the entire restaurant, which had these loud and wonderful noises. After dinner, my grandfather would always order coffee after dinner. I loved that scent! As an only child, I would always bring a book and read while all the adults were talking, so my earliest coffee memories have to do with all these noisy, beautiful sounds juxtaposed to that unique scent of coffee, alongside the chatter of adults who loved me while I was reading my books.

Much later, when I went to Africa one summer, I was actually doing a similar thing. By that time, I had started drinking coffee myself (my first “real” cup was at a Starbucks near my southern California college), and I loved the coffee in Kenya. At the end of the summer, while recovering from a terrible bout of malaria, I often went to read and write at the tea room and garden that was on Baroness Karen Blixen’s coffee farm (most of us know her better for her pen name Isak Dinesen). I had been deeply influenced by several novels and memoirs written by African writers, as well as books set in Africa. At that time in my life, Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” and Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” had transformed my view of the world and my place in it, so it was particularly moving to be able to spend afternoons at the Blixen’s coffee farm.

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What’s your own routine like?

I’m not a morning person, so I can relate to everyone who feels like they don’t have time to brew coffee at home. But last month, a friend gave me my first-ever professional grinder, and it has transformed my morning coffee routine at home. There is nothing like the scent of freshly ground coffee. In the afternoon, sometimes when I have meetings in my office, I will brew east African beans with my French press. It sets the perfect mood for meetings — the scent of freshly brewed coffee has its own alchemy.

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Tell me a little bit about the lecture series. How and why did you start it?

To be able to enjoy coffee is a gift. The series is a labor of love, grown out of my own research, my own relationships with brilliant, passionate people in the coffee industry, and my time spent this past summer in Uganda. I am passionate about coffee, but I am more passionate about people. The series was particularly inspired by the thought-provoking conversations that I was having one-on-one with leaders in the specialty coffee industry. In particular, when Phyllis Johnson (of BD Imports) and I met for coffee one day this past summer, I kept thinking, “the conversation we are having right now would be interesting to so many people.” She and I had been talking about sustainability, food insecurity, gender injustice, and the future of coffee – all topics my colleagues and NU students care about so much. So I created the series really as a mechanism to open up these conversations to a wider audience. It was an honor that she joined me for the inaugural talk of the series where we enjoyed coffee she imported from Burundi and roasted by Coffee by Design in Maine.

Most of all, I hope the series “The World in Your Cup: Conversations on the Politics and Culture of Coffee” will encourage the audience not to take coffee for granted. When I look into my coffee cup, I see a world of debates, a world of sorrow, a world of people. Coffee’s complexity stems in part from an incredibly complex supply chain. So many hands – and especially so many women’s hands – have touched it as seed, as tree, as cherry, as green bean, before I ever get to grind, brew, or taste it. Most Americans who drink coffee are either purchasing it as a roasted bean or as an already-brewed drink. But most producers of coffee worldwide have never tasted the fruit of all their labors. In many countries, coffee is a cash crop and drinking coffee just isn’t part of their culture – not to mention the fact that both roasting and brewing take machinery that isn’t easily available to smallholder farmers in poverty in remote areas worldwide.

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Coffee can be a vehicle to bring us all together, and it thrills me that the series is doing just that. The series is supported by the School of Public Policy and its Consortium of Food Sustainability, Health, and Equity. I also received a small grant from Northeastern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, which made it possible for me to create the marketing materials and promote the series. My guests have all been people who I respect deeply, who have been so generous with their time and their coffee. And I’m learning so much from the way audiences are responding to the political, economic, and global questions related to coffee. Students want more, and there has been a great deal of faculty and staff interest in the series as well. There is so much work to be done, and the specialty coffee industry has inspired me that it is possible for this devil’s brew to become transformed into magic beans.

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Is there any explanation for why people are receptive to this now? Any changes in how people think about or consume coffee?

At Northeastern University alone, there are more than a dozen places on campus where a student can purchase coffee. One day earlier this year, I was sitting on a bench on campus, and I started counting the number of students who were carrying a cup of coffee or some kind of mug. Of course, I don’t know for sure how many of those vessels actually contained coffee, but the very fact that the majority of students were carrying such cups struck me, since when I was in college in the mid-’90s, it was not that way at all.

I hope the series will inspire consciousness in one’s coffee purchases, as well as a deeper appreciation for quality, taste, and scent. At each event, the coffee is also a star of the program. There’s no cream or sugar so that we can truly taste the flavor notes. I have realized quickly that this is a new experience for many students.

Coffee drinking is so embedded in our culture now that we sometimes might not even recognize it as culture. And one’s “coffee culture” is inextricably tied to the politics and trade of coffee. I’m ever-mindful that I’m speaking to a diverse audience located on one particular university campus, which happens to be in Boston. While the story that I’m telling here is generally through an American mainland lens, the series consciously features stories from around the world. If I were leading this series at a university in Hawaii, Sweden, Ethiopia, or Puerto Rico, I would frame the issues rather differently.

Do you have a favorite coffee shop?

Barrington Coffee’s Newbury Street café. If I could, I would rent a corner table and move my office there!

“The Supply Chain in your Coffee Cup: A closer look at sustainability and trade,” part of Northeastern’s “The World in Your Cup: Conversations on the Politics & Culture of Coffee” series, begins at 11:45 a.m. on Dec. 4. It is open to the public and will be held in Renaissance Park 909, located on the university’s campus at 1135 Tremont Ave. in Boston.


This Q&A has been edited. Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.