Chérmelle D. Edwards, a self-described “Coffeetographer,” is a globe-trotting caffeinated ball of energy who has navigated around the country detailing the “complex and diverse world of coffee as a culture.” Edwards launched her Web zine that focuses on the intersection of culture and coffee a few years ago, and it has since grown to encompass news, style, art and film. Central to Edwards’s mission is getting up close and personal with a cross section of people, who she believes are the essential ingredient toward fueling coffee culture. And she has gone about it in the most familiar and approachable way possible: inviting strangers to share their story over a cup of Joe.
Earlier this month, Edwards was invited by the organization Cafe de Colombia to explore the culture of coffee drinkers beyond the concrete and steel canyons of New York and travel to meet the farmers of Colombia. Sooner after, Edwards began posting vibrant vignettes of the landscape, harvesters and food that make up the rich tapestry of Colombian life to her Instagram account. Edwards sat down with In Sight last week to talk a little about the experience, and note the similarities and distinct differences between Colombia and American coffee cultures.
In Sight: What initially took you to Colombia?
Chermelle Edwards: Colombia has long been a travel goal. However, I received an invitation to travel there by Café De Colombia, an organization that represents 100 percent Colombian coffee through the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation. Café de Colombia launched a digital campaign called the Bean Bang Theory detailing research on the habits and preferences of coffee drinkers. To that end they organized a trip to Colombia to cover the research firsthand, including visiting farmsteads, research facilities and coffee cooperatives and points of interest.
In Sight: What has fascinated you so much about coffee as a subject, and how do you perceive “coffee culture”?
Edwards: Coffee is so much more than what it is on the surface. At the base level, yes, it’s a cherry, a fruit grown under variable conditions taking up to two years to produce a ripe coffee cherry tree which can then be picked, processed and eventually roasted. And yet it’s so much more than that. It is a universal connector of humanity. I’ve always seen it this way; it has the kind of social DNA that can obliterate cultural boundaries, that can bring people together over communal moments in time, and because of that it becomes a fundamental force that can change someone’s life. Coffee is such a powerful, universal stimulant — physically, emotionally and visually — for unimaginative connections.
In Sight: What struck you most about the culture in Colombia?
Edwards: I was taken with the vitality of the country. So much is alive and teeming, specifically in Colombia. Everywhere you look, whether in the city, in the campo, on the farm, at a food cart stand, there are textures, colors and stories! One moment I’m looking at local graffiti on the walls in the context of a museum; another moment I’m watching men carrying cash crops on the street. In another moment I’m seeing a farmer bringing years of effort to a point of sale, and then another moment I’m talking to a local about their life and their culture in a town not bigger than my neighborhood in New York. It was as if everywhere I turned there was a story in the waiting, and I loved it!
In Sight: Did you have any preconceptions that were dismantled or impacted during your visit?
Edwards: For as long as I’ve read blogs and posts about travels to coffee producing countries, the word “origin” is referred to as this place, talked about as if it’s a land far away, a never-never coffee holy land. Like a place that the protagonist of Paulo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist” would travel to only to realize that the journey was personal — it was about him all along. For me, I’ve sought “origin” and still do, but I realize that I’ve consumed origin for years as a literal beverage, and as a culture each time I’ve interacted with something authentic from its place. After visiting just one origin, I realize how small the world is and also how tangible “origin” is, which is so inspiring. At origin, there are people, homes and stories just like in my origin of America. And I’m even more committed to getting to as many places to find those simple human similarities for myself and for those who tune into my journey. Going to Colombia, I was more wide open to discover what was there. I think the only real assumption I had was that there would be hundreds of farmers picking coffee cherries on the farms. I learned that many farmers in Colombia are so diverse, and many farmers own just a few hectares so they maintain smaller lots than the bigger ones that are sometimes portrayed in blogs and in films.
In Sight: How does Colombia’s coffee culture differ from America’s in your impression?
Edwards: From the short impression that I saw, Colombia’s coffee culture is hinged on 100 percent Colombian coffee. From what I experienced and the stories I heard Colombians have a lot of pride in the coffee that is from their native regions, and many can tell you which region they like and why. From riding in the car with a cabbie in the city, to walking on the street in Candelaria, to talking to locals in el campo, their rituals are specific, but coffee is pivotal and sacred. There is a reverence for coffee and I believe that comes from nearly half of its workforce being in the trade. Whereas in America, where consumer culture is big, our connection to coffee comes from function and for an experience; the latter becoming more dominant by new and enthusiast consumers. Since coffee isn’t a product we grow at our origin, I feel there is not so much a reverence for it but a romanticizing of the bean itself, which is beautiful, too. We value it highly and it’s become a social celebrity in our lives. And that is different than how Colombians view it. In the specialty coffee culture there’s a lot of knowledge and applied skill that is more evident in the States, and I think Colombia will grow to have the same as it’s now only beginning to develop a wider expression in communicating specialty coffee in coffee shops and its present-day culture, while it retains more quality coffees for its personal consumption.
In Sight: Do you feel the conversation of coffee to be a unifier or a way to establish a common bond among people?
Edwards: Indubitably! Coffee is a culture. This is a bedrock belief in my work. Culture comes from a people and from the interrelationship between a human and the field of the Arts. Art is a conversation starter; coffee is a conversation. Together, the bond it creates allows for a spiritual element of connection to occur no matter where one is in the world, no matter what coffee shop or gathering one finds themselves. Coffee and it’s culture is a universal connector – that’s my gospel.