Made on Earth: Road to recovery – The drink that kept us going through COVID-19

BY WILLIAM PARK
One of the world’s most popular beverages has overcome remarkable hurdles to carry on during the COVID-19 pandemic. What does it take to make a cup of coffee in 2020?

In what has been strange year for those people forced to work from home, little daily habits have helped to sustain normality. But there are a lot of people consumers have to thank for their mid-morning coffee break.

This year has not been easy for people in the coffee industry, including 25 million smallholder farmers who are responsible for growing 80% of the world’s coffee. In total 125 million people depend on coffee for their livelihood, from transporting and roasting the beans to selling the final product. Baristas and coffee shop owners were some of the first to close the doors to their businesses as lockdowns began. Some never reopened.

Despite the challenging working environment imposed by COVID-19 restrictions, consumers have been able to get their hands on their favourite drinks, due to the resilience of coffee producers and supply chains.

Why have some parts of the industry thrived while others struggled to survive? And how did producers and retailers innovate to keep delivering daily caffeine hit?

The world’s largest producer of coffee, Brazil, is having a bumper year. Coffee harvests naturally fluctuate year-on-year as the premium bean – arabica – follows a biennial cycle. Arabica makes up the majority of Brazil’s coffee crop, and while efforts to smooth out the year-on, year-off cycle have helped to make each annual return more consistent, there is still a bit of a dip in bean production in off-years.

With an output of 67.9 million bags of coffee, each weighing 60kg, 2020-21 is set to be the vest year on record for coffee production in Brazil – up more than three million bags compared to the previous on-year for arabica.

Coffee producer Daterra are no exception. João Reis, chief agronomist for Daterra, forecasted an “exceptional” harvest for quantity and quality this year as weather conditions worked in their favour. The problem posed by COVID-19 for Reis was in harvesting the crop.

Reis had seen the news about business closures in Asia at the start of the year and began to make preparations. He is reliant on migrant labourers from the north-east of Brazil, who stay in lodgings on Daterra’s site. With social distancing rules, he had to prepare to have half the number of migrant workers staying on the farmer, meaning the harvest would take longer.

The race was on to harvest the bumper crop safely with fewer workers before the rains spoiled the beans. Fortunately for Reis, the skies stayed clear. The farm’s harvest this year is set to be 6,000 tonnes, he said. “In 2019, we filled 70,000 coffee bags.”

“The impact of COVID-19 on coffee production is relatively minor,” said José Sette executive director of the International Coffee Organisation. Governments moved to safeguard workers by declaring coffee production an essential economic activity. Despite the difficulties finding sufficient migrant labour, even much smaller coffee-producing countries like Ethiopia, which exports about four million bags of coffee per year, have largely been able to continue production as planned.

“But with consumption, the uncertainty is greater,” Sette warned. “We do not know how the global economy will settle after this shock. When government support is no longer possible, we may see mass unemployment.”

Italy is a country of coffee lovers. As one of the first nations in Europe to impose tight restrictions on leaving the home, consumers had to adapt quickly to get their daily fix.

Coffee grocery sales increased by 23% in the first full week of lockdown in Italy. Renata Bracale of Italy’s Molise University and Concetta Vaccaro of the Censis socioeconomic research institute in Rome compared Italians’ weekly grocery purchases with the equivalent sales in 2019. The method is not perfect, as year-on-year sales might fluctuate for any number of reasons, but compared to single-digit growth for wine and beer, coffee was a product Italians could not go without. A daily caffeine boost remained essential but Italians were happier to miss out on their aperitive, Bracale and Vaccaro said.

For cafes and coffee shops, the picture was less rosy. Leonardo Lelli, a coffee roaster in Bologna, knew immediately that COVID-19 would cause chaos for his business. With the centre of Italy’s outbreak in the north of the country, Lelli was in the eye of the storm. 90% of Lelli’s beans are sold to coffee shops, restaurants and hotels, which were among the first to close down.

“We found ourselves out of work with warehouses full of raw materials,” said Lelli.

He was not alone. Reis said that some of Daterra’s clients are choosing cheaper beans or delaying orders as they ride out the pandemic.

Coffee was already the top e-commerce grocery product before 2020
With few options to sell his stock, Lelli decided to give a portion of it away to frontline workers and sell some online before waiting for the storm to pass.

Online grocery retailers seem to have coped well with lockdown. Coffee was already the number one e-commerce grocery product before 2020 and the prevalence of subscription services and partnerships between delivery services and high-street chains have ensured consumers could still get their hands on some.

With people confined to working from home and limited options to leave the house, making coffee was one of few ways to take a break from work. It became a kind of self-reward, said Francesco Visioli, who studies active compounds in food at the University of Padua in Italy and co-authored a recent paper on lifestyle lessons from the pandemic. “Spending your day working in front of a screen, doing long-forgotten chores, calling your mum, friends, whomever might have increased the need for something rewarding, energising.”

Unlike aperitive, coffee does not have to be consumed socially at a bar.

“Many people in Italy do not really drink coffee in social settings,” said Visioli. “As a recent example, I took a break at 10:30, went downstairs, crossed the street, entered a small local coffee place, had an espresso, went to the bakery, bought bread and came back upstairs. All by myself.”

Consumption of coffee at home offset the decrease in drinking in bars, restaurants and cafes around the world, from Brazil to Bali. But countries who reopened their cafes early are already seeing a bounce back.

Markets in Asia have been among the quickest to rebound
“Before the pandemic, Asia was the fasting growing coffee market in the world,” said Sette. This is one trend the pandemic has not changed. The Asian coffee market is growing between 4% and 5% a year, Sette added, while the rest of the world is growing at between 2-2.5% a year.

But even the Asian marker was not untouched by the pandemic. “There was a slight dip at the start, especially in China,” Sette continued. “Many coffee shops had to close in that initial phase. But everything seems to be picking up again and we’re returning to normality – whatever that may mean these days.”

And in coffee markets harder hit by lockdown, there are again signs of regrowth. Fortunately for Lelli, restrictions in Italy were eased in June and he was able to open his business again. “It was not a complicated transition,” Lelli explained. “One of the great advantages of being a craftsman is flexibility.”

After three months of losing about 90% of his normal turnover, things are picking up. “Today we are almost at the pre-lockdown turnover,” Lelli added.

In an industry where so much is changing fast, from where people buy coffee to how they consume it, there are some upsides. “E-commerce has grown a lot and now it’s very easy to use for the consumer,” said Lelli. It’s a change that could alter the face of the coffee industry as we know it. “In my opinion, it’s here to stay.”

The world’s trading routes have seen a year like no other in 2020. Many industries, makers and markets have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with ingenuity. Delivered in association with FedEx Express, a global logistics network, Made on Earth: Road to Recovery explores how the trades in eight everyday products are adapting – from bicycles to whisky, spices to semiconductors – and how resilience and innovation are redefining the way the world trades. For more information, please visit https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/made-on-earth/ or to watch the episodes visit https://www.bbc.com/reel/playlist/made-on-earth.

Made on Earth will air at 0230 and 0830 GMT on Saturdays and 1430 and 2130 GMT on Sundays on BBC World News for eight weeks from 7th November 2020. Audiences can also visit www.bbc.com/madeonearth for special features, and @BBCFuture for the latest from the series.