Monthly Archives: October 2008

A plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a Weasel!!!

I have been charged with writing A Plan for this trip, for uni. My supervisors thinks it would be a good idea for me to really give some thought as to what I expect to find out there, and what I intend to do. This Plan may help reassure them, but it has the opposite effect on me. Thinking about what I actually hope to do makes me realise that I have No Idea of that. I just do not know what is going to happen. I’ve never done a trip like this where I actually have to *work* and produce something useful at the end of it. I am a great believer in this magical thing called “the luck of the traveller” and just trust that everything will always works out eventually – and it always has before.

There is added Worry on this trip because I am going via this conference in Ohio. It will be my first big international conference, the first time I’ve ever been to America, and I’m going on Halloween, and four days before the US election, in one of the few states that is still completely undecided in regards to the election. I’ve just looked it up today (15th) and the polls in Ohio put Obama at 48% and McCain at 46%….It could be really interesting, but I can’t trust myself to keep my big gob shut on my opinions!!

After Ohio, I get another two short flights to Nicaragua, which requires more preparation. Planning requires forethought and organisation. And maps. Maps are good, apparently.

This is, obviously, Nicaragua. I am heading towards the North west area, the El Porvenir coffee plantation is somewhere between Leon and Esteli; a “bone-jarring two hour drive uphill”. This is about as good as the directions get, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the sort of place that has paved roads and regular, punctual bus services!! I am flying in to Managua, and arrive at 9.30pm. I am going to have to stay in Managua the first night which I am not looking forward to, because Managua is an ugly, noisy, hot, smelly, often dangerous atrocity. But there we go. I have somewhere booked for the first night – an ecolodge place called Los Felipes, which sounds nice actually (“nice” being a code word for “has air conditioning”).

After that, I am going to head to Granada for a few days, to acclimatise, meet up with Donna, see the kids and the clowns, and try out Cafe Chavalos (a wonderful project where Donna has got former street kids training as chefs and running a restaurant themselves.) Cafe Chavalos uses El Porvenir’s coffee after all, and Donna (I hope) will be able to give me a little more information about the plantation itself. I then have the offer of this internship with the Jubilee House Community, who are the administrators of a great many community and NGO projects, including the El Porvenir plantation. They also export the coffee to Pittsburg (Donna’s ‘Building New Hope’ NGO is based there). JHC are based in Managua, so if I go and work with them, it will mean spending the first month at least in the capital. Whereas I know there are more pleasant places to spend a month, I do think the JHC internship will be very useful indeed. I can interview the people there about coffee exporting – these are the people in charge of judging the ‘quality’ of the coffee, as well as making sure the plantation, and the coffee itself, adheres to the requirements and standards that its organic and fairtrade certifications require. I also hope that they can get me better access to the plantation itself since they work so closely with the El Porvenir community – which will be invaluable in both social and logistic terms! I am not sure exactly who I am going to meet at JHC, I have the name of one contact, and that is all. But I hope to do at least a few in depth, but individual interviews with the people who work there, particularly with regards to ideas of quality and about the certification. Finally, if I can do something useful – as in, practical work in the export office or something, I’d rather do that, try and give something back to the organisation in return, since they are helping me out so much!

After the first month, I am going to head up to El Porvenir on my own – I am hoping that I should know some people there well enough by that time to do my own thing without the JHC.  November -February is harvest season, so I expect things to be pretty manic. I don’t know yet how El Porvenir operates: I’m told it’s owned collectively by around 40 families, but I don’t know if anyone has specific roles. If so, I’d need to interview different people involved in different stages of production; coffee pickers, sorters, dryers, etc and also find out how it is de-pulped (as in, getting the cherry flesh off the bean) – is this done by machine? Who operates this? What happens to the leftovers? Is it done this way deliberately to improve the coffee quality? I’ll interview  the farm manager if there is one, and I’d also be interested to see if they hire any extra workers during the harvest, and where these come from and so on.

Then it’s gonna be Christmas and my Carl is coming out to visit and we’re going Volcano hiking from the black beaches of Ometepe island…. Yay!!

In January, I’ll head to Costa Rica overland on the lovely Ticabuses to San Jose, where I will attempt to do the same thing again, only at Doka Estate on the side of Volcan Poas, a massive commercial farm that supplies Starbucks – so their ideas of quality will be really important! (If the green coffee from this farm is as good quality as their website will have you believe, the fact that Starbucks coffee tastes so bad MUST be because of their roasters… right? Charbucks!!)  Again, this is entirely conjecture at the moment, but I imagine processes in this plantation to be a lot more automated; the sheer volume of coffee produced would seem to require it. Does this produce more waste or less? Perhaps less human labour involved then, so less “human waste” – of effort and skill? Also, I expect that labour to be rather less permanent; Doka Estate is not community owned, it is a private endeavour, so they might well just hire in seasonal workers. Actually, I hope I can join in and pick coffee! Whoever I interview in Nicaragua, I will try to interview the equivalent people in Costa Rica so I can make meaningful comparisons.

Costa Rica is potentially problematic, however, because Doka Estate is located so far out of the nearest town that transport would be difficult and expensive, and possibly not that safe – and I don’t have the equivalent of Jubilee House to pave the way for me in terms of making contacts there. There is a B&B actually on the farm which they suggested I stay at! Woohoo! But: Doka Estate also offer touristy Coffee Tours where a guide explains the workings of the farm to you, and you can then stay at this B&B/ecolodge as part of the ‘experience’. I do not really need to see the Coffee Tour because I am cynical enough to believe that would be a very airbrushed version of events, I want to see the real thing, which could be pretty difficult. Also, the B&B cost $85 a night!!!!

I’ve found a hostel in Alajuela (nearest town) for $15 a night which sounds far more reasonable, except I would then have to negotiate how I am going to get up the volcano every day – at 15km it’s not exactly walkable, and I don;t think there is a bus. So, hitch? Not a great plan. Taxi? Could prove more expensive than staying at the B&B… I have even been toying with the idea of doing my CBT and hiring a little motorbike out there… Given my driving skills though, this could be even more dangerous than hitch-hiking!!

Meh. This part of the plan, I honestly cannot do right now. There is no way of knowing what to do until I get there and see what the situation is. Something will turn up!!

But I do know where to head, at least, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what I want to do, who to interview, what info I need to collect etc. I just can’t be more specific than that at the moment! I am surrounded by guidebooks and travel insurance policy documents and Teach Yourself Spanish books and boxes of anti-malarial tablets… this is enough preparation for me!! Of course the other part of the plan is working out how to record all this data (I have a notebook with a picture of a cappuccino on it! yay!). I have a 4gb memory card for my uber-phone, and the guidebooks tell me where there are interweb cafes to send it all back to the uni! It will be Fiiiine. Trust me, I might be a Doctor (soon).

Tengo miedo, gente. Por favor, deseame mucho suerte – lo necessito! Adios!


Posted by on October 15, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Old news is still bad news for Starbucks.

The great drain robbery | The Sun |News

Have a looksee at that, dear reader. It may be tabloid sensationalism but it is still pretty shocking all the same. (I haven’t read the Sun in years, and to be honest the simplicity of the language in it surprised me more than the content of the article – but I admit I am turning into an Guardian-reading intellectual snob very quickly!)

So, they leave taps running constantly so that “germs do not breed in the tap”. Riiight. It makes me wonder why the person who came up with that is allowed out in public really. I thought nowadays, there was help for people with that level of germ-phobic OCD.
Flippancy aside, it does defy logic. Does anyone who turns a tap off at home then risk catching … I dunno, typhoid (?) from all these evil bugs in the taps? What about bugs breeding in the constant puddle of water that must collect in the sinks under these taps? Are Starbucks now going to be responsible for a UK outbreak of malaria?

If you extend this train of thought though, what about the other machinery in a coffee shop which use water? Are the dish washers to be in constant use, in case water stagnates in the pipes at the back of them? And what about the coffee machine itself? Those are plumbed directly into the mains, and water is drawn into the tank and heated until it is used in coffee. As the tank empties, more water is drawn into it. Presumably even Starbucks closes for a few hours a day – to stop germs breeding inside the coffee machine, minimum-wage baristas should be employed 24/7 to continually pull water through the tank! Just in case!

Ye Gads, people….

All coffee shops have a lot of waste, mostly organic waste too. Everything from water waste (even without idiotic policies like that, there is still a lot of waste water; at our Durham Caffe Nero, we had to hand wash dishes, and then put them through the glass rinse as well to make sure – we did not have room for an industrial dishwasher!) – to waste coffees when the baristas made mistakes, to branded packaging, to throwing out un-sold sandwiches and pastries that are still perfectly edible, to wasting 10-15 kg of used coffee grounds per shop, per day – which could all be composted but usually ends up in landfill. All these forms of waste are usually an accepted, or at least, unquestioned part of coffee shop life.They only become an issue – they are only labelled as ‘Waste’ with all the word’s negative connotations, when people outside the coffee shop become aware of it. For those working there, it’s just ‘what you do.’

For example, here Starbucks Responds To Water Waste Criticism In China
– it is the same issue, someone found out about Starbucks leaving the taps running all day, criticised the company in the media, and Starbucks then tries to justify it with their imbecilic healthy and safety policy. But more significantly, LOOK AT THE DATE OF THE ARTICLE: October 2007. The Sun’s expose is not actually a new revelation, but more significantly, it means that Starbucks have carried on wasting this water, even though there were public concerns about the issue a full year ago.

For me, the issue is not just the unjustifiable, unethical waste of water, it’s the fact that Starbucks are so big, they think they are beyond criticism. They continue with their wasteful practices because the company is arrogant enough not to take any heed of the views of its customers. I avoid Starbucks anyway, but I am in the minority. If what I’ve written here has affected you – vote with your wallet. Just don’t go there!!



Oo, guess what? They’ve decided there might just be other ways to wash things up other than leaving taps running…

That’s big of them…

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Posted by on October 6, 2008 in Uncategorized


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The beginnings of the conclusions of the consumer focus groups…

I have been asking lots of people what they think “high quality” coffee is. The following quotes are from professional Baristas, coffee shop owners and other industry specialists from Barista Exchange.

“coffee made from a barista, so he can have the best blend but if he dont know how to grind and dose or he or she are overheating milk, whats the point of ‘best beans’?”

“For me everything start in the coffee bean. At least for my country coffee is an art. We want the best quality all the time, not every once or sometimes. For instance Bell I can have a SHB, and everything has been taking care as planned but if I do the handpicking a day after or a day before , the taste will be different. Or even when we roast the coffee, you can have a SHB or a specialty superb coffee, but if we mess up in the roasting, that’s it. An entire year of harvest to the garbage indeed.”

“1M: select green beans

2M: roast

3M: blend

4M: grind

5M: brewing

Nothing esprecial, but none of them can be missed.”

“Quality coffee goes along with quality buyers, and quality roasters, and quality shops with (more than likely) quality management and baristas. It’s almost safe to say it’s in good hands. But as with anything in coffee, it can EASILY be mishandled and ruined along annnny of those steps.”

“The greatness is in the bean already, I want only to present as much as possible of the bean’s potential in my customer’s cup. Not to understate the role of the barista – coaxing out this potential is not easy, and doing it well seems to be the exception, not the rule. I think if everybody in the chain, from the plant to the cup, shares the same philosophy, you’ll have true quality.”

“Making something drinkable from lousy ingredients does not strike me as “creating quality”. It is a useful skill to posses, but I don’t think you can create quality by artfully masking defects.”

That said, I have also been asking customers in both chain coffee shops (Caffe Nero, Esquires and Coffee Revolution) and independent shops (The Voodoo Cafe, Coffee@Elliots and Gusto Italiano) what their views on coffee quality are – and the differences are quite apparent!

“erm, it doesn’t taste like crap?”

“and Elliots – I like it but its not really what I’d call quality coffee. It’s just put cup under, push button, there you go, there’s your coffee, no skill!”

“good service – so, politness, the coffee not overdone or whatever, not taking too long to be served. All that stuff. And, yeah to be in clean stuff and everything. That’s always nice. And, like, essential really.”

“Freshly roasted beans (of a good quality), properly brewed.”

“Low quality coffee is very acidic, it’s got things other than coffee in it. I’ve no idea of quality comparisons cos I don’t take much notice. I don’t know where this stuff comes from, but I like the way it’s made here.”

“Tasty. A certain thickness. It kinda warms me, warms the innermost caverns of your soul. It’s very beautiful. You must realise, I’m not the coffee aficionado, I’m very much the layman. Neophyte as it were. it’s just shy of £2 and yeah I enjoy it, it’s the coffee, it’s the environment, it’s happy associations.”

“You’ve gotta say Fair Trade haven’t you. I feel really guilty coming in here if it’s not fair trade. Organic would be good too.”

“It should have the consistency of mud. The best coffee I’ve ever tasted was Turkish coffee and you could practically turn it upside down without it pouring out. It’s really thick and you know you’re probably going to feel like a lie down afterwards. Until you’re actually lying down and you can feel your heart pounding.”

“A bit fluffy, but: it depends who makes it. You know it does make a difference.”

“I mean the thing with like, having this kind of a market where there are a lot of big chains, they are trying to advertise having the same thing at every one of their stores – there’s probably too much in who makes it to be able to say that. I mean, I don’t generally like African coffees, I much prefer Latin American ones and so I’ll notice the difference, and how well it’s been tamped and how strong it is and things like that, so you can’t really say, one shop over another.”

Since I am also posting this on Barista Exchange, I’m including some customer views on other aspects of coffee-shop life that the cafe owners and baristas may find interesting….

On Latte Art:

“It’s nice but it takes way longer for them to do it so I’m just ‘give me a drink, I want to sit down’ you know…”

“I don’t think much about presentation – it’s completely off the loop for me. If they put a pretty pattern on, then you’re only going to stir it up anyway before you start drinking it.”

“Yeah, the whole thing about foam – it belongs there but like, I only just feel like I’m messing something up. I like Ugly food, ugly drinks, you know,”

“it’s much more the taste I think.”

I don’t particularly care what it looks like – I don’t drink lattes so I don’t know about latte art. I’d rather they didn’t bother with the little chocolates on the side though! You can have it!”

“(Having just Googled it) I think it’s pretty mint. If it’s done right that is. I once went to get a coffee, and the guy who served me (who seems to think he’s the coffee king…) says “I’ve left you something on top.” So i looked at my fresh coffee, then back at him saying “You spat in my foam?!” I think it was meant to be modern art of some description, but it did look more like something from the recesses of his lungs.”

“I LOVE THEM. Haha, I went to Costa in Darlo once and they did this lovely star pattern in my mates Latte which was so nice. She didn’t even ask, he just did,it was niceeeee. I took a pic of it, they’re so cool. But erm, yeah I like them, it makes you feel like you’ve spent money on something good but once the pattern goes away you feel a bit sad.

“I’m not too bothered about that.”

It’s good, but I don’t really care if they don’t.”

On why they go to coffee shops:

“Mostly with coffee shops…it depends where I’m going. I go to Esquires for the coffee, I probably come here because other people wanted to come here, a lot of the time when I go to a coffee shop is determined by other people suggesting it more than my personal preference.”

“As a rule I don’t go to chain coffee shops for the coffee. Like in here, it’s not the coffee, I guess the atmosphere, but I mainly get pulled in by other people, and it’s in a convenient location.”

“Decent tea, nice food, nice people. I want somewhere I can sit, and enjoy myself even if I don’t know anyone there. It’s always nice.”

“I like the place to have a buzz about it – i hate silent coffee shops because i think they’re places for talking, and you can’t do that if the place is silent – it just feels oppressive.”

“I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.”

“It’s like a habit – it’s the going in and sitting down, not the coffee itself. I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!”

“I go out to cafés fairly regularly, for good coffee. I come in here probably once a week at least, cos the coffee is very good. I avoid Starbucks and Costa, Starbucks cos it’s shit, Costa cos it’s too expensive.”

“I do go to coffee shops, for lunches generally, um, for Cake. Definitely Cake. I’m not sure beverages come in to it too much! I tend to go for more accessible places. Where in particular? Where my friends happen to be. Again, places located around where I live in Broomhill, or in the Union area. If I happen to be in town shopping then it might be that I’ll pop in somewhere and get a piece of cake. And a drink to go with that.”

And finally, on value for money:

“Total rip off.”

“It’s why I don’t usually go to chains, cos I find they generally charge more than like, more independent ones.”

“They don’t pay their staff that well either, as far as I know.”

“I assume you are buying the ceramic as well, so I usually take that with me!”

“The prices have gone up and the cups have got smaller!! This is now £1.95 and the cup is smaller than the ones you used to get for £1.60! It is smaller! I swear it!”

“They are just trying to sell you the brand though aren’t they? The atmosphere! You are paying for coffee but you’re also paying for a pleasant environment to sit in.”

“I think, in here you can expect it to be reasonably expensive, just by the appearance of the place, If you like that setting then you’d pay for it, I mean for me, I just like the sofas.”

“It’s probably about 10p isn’t it? The fact that they’re giving it away… I mean, you can’t buy ten cakes and get a free cake, can you? Or juice or anything, so it must be the cheapest thing.Well I’ve seen people in here give them away to their friends and so on so they can’t be that expensive.”

“You know, they say that, like, people don’t like things if they are cheap, like they think they’re not good. We’ve all had the wool pulled over on us, in that this is better than filter coffee or something.”

“It’s just marketing though, isn’t it?”

“i think that espressos are a rip-off, but i wouldn’t have it any other way. A coffee shop once tried to give me my money’s worth of a espresso – a cappuccino mug filled to the top with double espresso; but it just felt wrong.”

“I actually think they are [good value for money], cause they give you a variety of things and are very professional about it all – plus the service is nice and fast. It’s groovy.”

That will do for now – but there is plenty more. And I have another group scheduled for tomorrow. I will add my thoughts in soon when I’ve had a chance to digest it all. Until then, please feel free to add your comments and suggestions! All feedback very welcome!


Posted by on October 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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