Translating the Language of Water

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By Peter Giuliano, Director of Symposium, Specialty Coffee Association of America

We think we are in the coffee business, but really, we’re in the water business. It takes something like 35 gallons of water to make a cup of coffee, mostly as water consumed by the coffee plant itself. We then often use water to process the coffee: the major distinction in the green trade is whether a coffee has been “washed” or not. The coffee miller then spends most of his time and energy removing most of the water in the coffee seeds. Perhaps the most powerful quality control measurement during green coffee export is moisture content, and precise control over this is essential to the green trade.

Essentially, all coffee is transported from its country of origin by sea, and during that critical part of its voyage after shipment it is said to be “on the water”. Most of the energy used during coffee roasting is used to drive out the remaining water bound up in the coffee bean. After roasting, we protect coffee from water absorption during storage, but re-introduce it when brewing. Most of the energy used in the entire coffee chain is used to heat that brewing water. Ultimately, the coffee we serve in our coffee shops is mostly water, as is the milk we sometimes mix with it. The thing about water is that it’s almost invisible. I don’t mean transparent—although it’s that, too—but that it is so ubiquitous, so universal, that it is often forgotten. Many of us live in cities where safe, clean water flows magically out of gleaming faucets in our bathrooms and kitchens. Sadly, this is not as common as it should be: almost a quarter of the world’s population does not have access to the infrastructure needed to take water from rivers or aquifers. Water use has been growing at a rate of more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, and according to the UN, two thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions by 2025. Some coffee producing countries—including Ethiopia and Kenya—face water scarcity already. This presents a human challenge as well as an agricultural one. And, of course, wherever there is a challenge, there is opportunity for advancement. New coffee processing techniques are exploring ways to maximize quality while reducing water use. Water chemistry and flavor, and its impact on coffee quality in the cup, is improving all the time with new technology and understanding. People all over the world are finding ways to give more people access to better water, through conservation and innovation. This issue of the Chronicle explores issues of water in more depth, from environmental effects; to the necessity of water on the quality of specialty coffee, to sustainability, all the way to how we can help cafe owners better utilize this precious resource.


Peter-GiulianoPeter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer and business owner.  The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA,
committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.

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