Monthly Archives: March 2010

A brief history of coffee and an uncertain future

Over the last few weeks, I’ve started to write the “introduction” to my thesis (chronological order is sooooooooooo conventional, daaarlings). I suppose really this should have been introducing what I am doing and why I am doing it, but I decided, at least for now, to go with an introduction to coffee in general – it’s history, why (I think) it is important. Most of the issues I talk about later are all tied up with coffee history anyway, so it has got to go in somewhere. I am hoping that it is interesting enough to make the “why I chose coffee” question self explanatory – but maybe no-one else shares in my geekiness. 😦
I managed to get 400 years of world trade history down to 500 words, but that was because most of it isn’t relevant to my main focus (though I did get in Kaldi the goat herder and the highly romantic legend of Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu for entertainment factors). Most importantly, I needed to focus on the history of coffee in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Costa Rica is relatively straightforward: other than being ruled over by coffee oligarchs for more than a century, nothing much happens there. Nicaragua on the otherhand has a ridiculously complicated political history, and since coffee still accounts for a third of their GDP, it is virtually impossible to skip over it. I asked for help and got a wonderful response:

“Colonialism. Independence. Some US invasions, some dictators. Long string of dictators. Revolution, shockingly successful despite US antagonism. Revolution falls apart due to US financing of contras and revolutionary overzealousness slash inability to hold to the ideals of the party. Revolutionary party eventually re-elected but not looking very revolutionary. Lots of poverty and racism throughout. The End.” – from Kate, fellow coffee Phd student in Colorado.

I replied:

“Love it Kate! I forgot to mention – it’s gotta be Nica history with circular reference to coffee…. thus:
Colonialism/banana republic, Independence… dictators inviting germans over to farm coffee, most of said germans fleeing during world wars, a few more US invasions and dictators, successful revolution but sandinista land redistribution means coffee farms taken away from some families, birth of the cooperatives, economy buggered and large section of work force missing, earthquake, sandinistas corrupted by power, hurricanes, inevitable grinding poverty of coffee growers. and pretty much everyone else. Very loose interpretation of “democracy”. The End.

Thought those were too good not to share.
I eventually got it down to 2000 not-very-clear words (including mention of Ronald Reagan’s lovely “I’m a Contra too!” t-shirt) and came to the inevitably conclusion – with a few statistics to back me up – that Nicaragua is basically screwed. Now I know why I deserve this PhD….

Next came the bit on The Coffee Crisis – that is, when the world prices fell below the cost of production back in the 1990s. Lots of things led up to this, droughts in Brazil, US drives for “free and unrestricted trade” and of course, the massive, World Bank funded over-supply of cheap crap coffee from Vietnam. I now know far more than I ever needed to about Agent Orange and badly thought out development initiatives. I thought it was bad enough that a lot of Colombian coffee was poisoned, but I didn’t realise that the vast quantities of robusta that Vietnam produces is grown on the land that was sprayed with Agent Orange. Now there is a good reason not to drink cheap instant stuff!!

All pretty depressing stuff really, not that I should be surprised by now. I get very cynical about the doom and gloom, anti-capitalist style books I read (main perpetrators here being Wild’s ‘A Dark History of Coffee” and Pendergrast’s “Uncommon Grounds”), but there is no denying that the history of coffee doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Which begs the question, do I really want to work in this industry?

Hormones and presence of the Cheese (now christened Big Foot) have made me think a great deal about what on earth I am going to with myself, and the baby, once this PhD is over? What on earth do you actually do with a Phd in coffee?! Possible plans of action including hoping against hope for some miraculous post-doc funding (where all this Nicaraguan coffee-history could come in, it deserves a thesis to itself!) allowing me to fester in academia indefinitely: I do love what I do now, I love Sheffield and the real world sounds quite tedious in comparison. Or, finally get out of university setup (for the first time in 8 years!) and *somehow* get a job as a coffee buyer – I’d love to go round the world, sourcing the very best coffee, and learn cupping. But then, would that be selling my soul? I am pretty confident that if I looked at any global commodity industry in this level of detail, I’d find pretty horrible things everywhere, and then I’d never be able to eat, drink, buy or work in anything ever again. On a more practical basis, the chances of finding a coffee company looking to employ an untrained, inexperienced buyer somewhere where I’d want to live (ie: not Darlo or London) are even more remote than finding a post-doc. 😦
The other option is, of course, to go full time with Doctor Coffee and make a living off that. But that involves moving – I am resigned to the idea that it is never going to be successful in Darlington. I can’t make a living off the van alone; and I haven’t got the capital to invest in getting my own cafe.
Sigh. I don’t know. I do know that the idea of being suddenly unemployed and with a small baby is quite a scary prospect though!! Can I just rely on my general faith in “something will show up” and hope it is coffee related?


Posted by on March 31, 2010 in Uncategorized


Starbucks Via and why I should have done a Physics degree

I am sitting in Starbucks again, contemplating the two cardboard cups in front of me.

posterI am here wearing my metaphorical “suffering academic” hat; this is all in the name of research. Somewhere along the line I have gotten myself on the Starbucks UK mailing list, and lo and behold, I received an invite to the Starbucks Via Taste Test. They are launching their new product, called Via, which although has no mention of being “instant” coffee, comes in single-cup satchets and is completely soluable. Yep, they are figuratively – and literally – scraping the bottom of the barrel and selling instant coffee. Three sticks of the stuff will set you back £1.20 (at the introductory rate, £1.45 in a few weeks’ time.), and I am assured it is made from “100% natural roasted arabica beans – the same high quality as all our coffee.” Now, we can “never be without great coffee” thanks to Via Ready Brew – as if I am going to carry sticks of instant “coffee” around in my bag, like tampons or something.

Starbucks “believe Via tastes as delicious as our fresh filter coffee. But don’t take our word for it. Try it yourself.” they beg. The Taste Challenge involved being given two free ‘tall’ cups (that is code for ‘small’ in here, or “not-served-in-a-bucket” to everyone this side of the Atlantic). One contains their Colombian single origin filter coffee, and the other this Via stuff which is apparently made from the same Colombian beans. Could I tell the difference?
Well yes, of course I could.

The whole ‘blind’ test idea was rendered obsolete as soon as the poor barista had to stir the soluable stuff for me, but even if I had attempted this blindfolded, the differences were immediately obvious.
I can’t be sure on this, but I am fairly confident that the process employed to make coffee soluable results in the loss of any natural fragrance and aroma of the brewed drink, and certainly a great deal of the flavour. Consequently, as I mentioned in my recent rant about Nescafe, any aromas that are present in instant coffee must therefore be chemically added back in afterwards. This is exactly how Starbucks Via smells – artificial. My nose maybe going in to overdrive at the moment with pregnancy hormones, but I could smell coffee candles – that artificially sweet scent with vanilla and malt that makes up most coffee-esque air fresheners and scented candles. As it cooled, I swear I could smell powdered vegetable soup as well. Definitely not natural. On the other hand, the filter smelled extremely citrussy and mildly alcoholic, like dry white wine – to my (limited) knowledge of cupping, that implies overly acidic coffee and possibly over-fermented beans where the cherries have been left on too long.
On tasting it, the Via taste liked instant coffee. There are few other ways of describing it. Flat. Smooth. Not incredibly bitter, almost waxy, if that means anything. And no aftertaste at all – it doesn’t linger in the mouth. The Colombian filter tasted very very bitter in contrast – stronger tasting all round, but with an acrid aftertaste – like the flavour you get in your mouth when you smell burning rubber. It also tasted very “thin” which to my mind, most single origins do. But the overwhelming flavour and smell was just BURNT. In my opinion, Starbucks burn their coffee anyway – that is the way they can guarantee the same flavour in every batch of coffee in every shop in the world. They bake the coffee to effectively flatten any nuances in the beans, to keep the flavours consistant. But even so, the filter was especially burnt – the roast was far, far too dark for filter coffee.

I have to admit I am now feeling bad about not liking this. Whatever else I can say about this place, the staff are lovely and I kinda feel obliged to enjoy my Third Place experience, or something….Yes, I am weak.
One barista has just said she can’t tell the difference between the Via and the filter!!! I am keenly following other people’s views on this on the Starbucks Facebook page too. There are many, already, who “failed” the taste challenge, and couldn’t tell the difference. This actually frightens me. However, after experiences in Sheffield over the past few days, I am now rekindling my interest in what non-coffee-geek people actually think. I have always tried to avoid customers’ opinions throughout my PhD research because they are just messy, most of the time, and so much has been written on coffee shop culture already. Yet, if I am going to look at ideas of quality, I need to find out if that quality is recognised, appreciated and demanded by consumers. The basic premise of my thesis was that in order to produce high quality coffee, more has to be wasted in the process. But if customers do not actually recognise ‘quality’ and don’t necessarily demand it, then the waste cannot be justified and the extra effort that goes into improving the quality is also wasted. And then we are back to my (now infamous) question at the Ohio conference: Why not let them drink crap if they want to?

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get invited to see Pollards coffee roasters in Sheffield (actually thanks to a throw-away comment on this blog! yay!). hooverSimon, the owner, seems to be a kindred spirit – ie: equally cynical about many aspects of the coffee industry and proved very very interesting to talk to. The roasting is done on a very hands-on basis still, using roasting machines which are “partially” computer controlled. The computer monitored the time, temperature and energy consumption of the roasting beans, and the roast profile for that particular batch was neatly plotted on a graph on the screen in a neat curve. As the beans roasted, the computer plotted another line showing the actual temperatures of the beans – it was pretty close, although with a few extra wobbles – thanks to the proportion of the blend that came from Honduras, apparently. I asked Simon how he had learned to roast, and all the intricacies that go with it (he had also designed a roaster machine that could potentially run off vegetable oil, and made an ingenious contraption out of plastic piping and a hoover to move the roasted beans around the workshop without breaking any – and saved himself £25,000 in the process). He said most of his knowledge was as a result of his physics degree!! NOW I know where I’ve been going wrong, messing around with arts and social sciences for all these years…..

On the subject of academic research, however, Simon is very keen to do the Quality Test. That is, to get a goodly sized sample of coffee drinkers together, and do a taste challenge a la Starbucks, only offering one very high quality coffee and one low quality (based on price of the beans involved from origin – he will do the roasting and it’ll all be espresso based.). Basically, we want people to tell us which one tastes better to them. This should tell us once and for all, if your average coffee consumer actually notices and prefers “high quality”. This could be EXTREMELY handy for me too – not just for my research, but also for the Doc Coffee van. All being well, I could print posters like Costa’s – 80% of people prefer high quality (Costa advertise the fact 7 out of 10 “coffee lovers” prefer Costa. Tested on 174 people. In Glasgow.). And if the cheaper blend is preferred, I shall jack it all in and buy up loads of Starbucks Via for the van…. ye gads I hope not!!! To this end, I am planning on getting something together at the uni – I’ll hire a room there, Pollards will supply the coffees and the espresso machine, I can bring cups and round up coffee drinking students and university staff. We’ll do this over two days, and it would be great to get over 100 people. I’ll be plugging this as much as possible when we’ve decided a time so if you’re at all interested and fancy a couple of free coffees then pleeeeeeeeeease get in touch, come along, and give us your opinions!

On that note, if you’ve done the Starbucks Via Taste Challenge, PLEASE give your views on here! I’d be really interested to hear from you. Thanks all!


Posted by on March 12, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Colorado Cynic-Friendly Coffee. (Certification Free, since 2010)

I have a fan! This is a nice feeling. I don’t have many fans. I always remember a mate’s classic comment when we were doing our show at Durham theatre: How’s the audience? I asked. “Oh, she’s fine, thanks.” was the response….
We were talking Demotivation Posters last night too.


A woman approached me at lunch time today, and asked if I had a blog about coffee. She’d seen my name badge and recognised it from this site. I am flattered! Her name is Kate, and she’s an Anthropology PhD student at Colorado university, studying coffee in Costa Rica! I am not the only academic at this conference, this is a huge relief. (I am still feeling out of place but have since decided to ignore these insecurities…). Of course she knew a few of the farms that I’d been to, had similar views on the touristyness of some of the larger ones (Cafe Britt, for example) and had even been to Cafe Cristina. And, she’s pretty cynical about Fairtrade too. AND, she reads this blog. Woopedoo! I’ve found a friend! 🙂

I was sitting with Andy and Mark from yesterday, and of course, they are from the same area as Kate… I say again, the world is too small. I was impressed Andy made it at all today actually. He said he’d stayed at the Gala til 1am and was pretty wrecked. He did bow out after lunch for a nap, however. Wimp. I wasn’t particularly awake either this morning, despite leaving so early last night, and the morning presentations just seemed to pass me by uneventfully. That was until the session on Women in Coffee. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this bit – and the first presentation was exactly what I had feared: a video with lots of MEN in suits from important, large coffee companies explaining why it was such a good idea to employ women in their businesses. The statistic that 51% of the world population are women and that “we [who exactly?] should utilise this valuable resource” made me want to do rude things to the big screens. Patronising caca del toro, if you ask me. Which nobody did, fortunately. The session was saved by a woman from Costa Rica representing a very successful and inspiring women’s cooperative, dealing not only in coffee but in ecotourism in one of the poorest areas of the country. Then, there was an Indian woman who started out as one of the country’s first female cuppers. She was a truly excellent speaker and got a standing ovation after her talk.

Then came the session that really incensed our little group. Certification, and lots of talks about ‘sustainability’. Environmental sustainability, sustainable development, social sustainability – in particular, getting young people interested in farming coffee, economic sustainability – through certification and differentiation. But not one single person ever attempted to explain what they actually meant by “sustainable.” The academic within me (maybe the Cheese is an academic already?) was screaming “define your terms!!!” Had this been a university conference, these presentations would have got ripped to shreds. I am so jaded nowadays, it seems. The question remains, however; what exactly are they trying to sustain? We were also repetitively told that of world coffee production, only 5% was “certified” coffee, yet the demand for the stuff was growing every year, and certification was a means of differentition, and differentiation could lead to further economic sustainability. But what does “certified” mean? Certified for what? We concluded that it really just meant anything with a label on it; no-one ‘differentiated’ between Fairtrade (of differing forms) ‘organic’ (again with different definitions), bird-friendly, shade grown, altitude-grown…. etc etc. The problem with this, is that if demand for certification really is growing – due to equally vague notions of “ethical consumption” and “consumer awareness” – then it is in the interests of the retailer to stick as many labels on the coffee as possible. The presentations implied that it didn’t seem to matter what the certifications are actually for, especially since they tell you nothing about what the coffee really tastes like. I’ve already shown how Nestle are pushing their raw coffee via a “Green” label – and of course, it’s all 100% arabica (guaranteed). It may well have been, in a former life, but you might as well say the jar it comes in is made with 100% genuine sand.

certificationTo this end, we started dreaming up our own certification labels. Mark came up with “Dolphin friendly” coffee (of course – I challenge you to prove otherwise!) and for the health conscious – 100% Gluten Free coffee. We could also have “lo-sodium arabica” for the American market. I suggested “Cynic Friendly” coffee (no cynics were harmed in the making of this product), and for Kate and I, “Academically Sustainable” (well, it’s keeping us gainfully employed for the time being!). The all-round favourite though was “Guaranteed 100% Certification Free”. I even started doodling little rosettes to demonstrate this unique coffee characteristic. I may try and put them on cups for Doctor Coffee’s Cafe, just to see if anyone notices.

Another fantastic lunch, with the pool looking even more tempting, and soon it was time for the end of conference summaries and the official closing speeches. By this time, Andy had reappeared from his siesta, just in time to help me search out the spare chocolate cake in the coffee break. I tried the same “estoy comiendo para dos!” trick as yesterday, and managed to snaffle three (small) pieces of the stuff and a cappuccino. Suddenly, as I was stuffing my face, a large crowd of black-suited men came marching past, chased by several dozen people with huge video cameras. El Presidente was in the middle of them! Doh, doh doh and double DOH. If anyone sees any footage of his excellence Señor Colom and this conference, look out for me with a large mouthful of chocolate in the background!!! Andy nearly pissed himself laughing at me, which didn’t help matters at all. This particular president was this time joined by the President of El Salvador, Señor Mauricio Funes, who unlike his “good friend” Colom, actually had some interesting things to say.

el presidente

President Mauricio Funes

El Salvador’s coffee industry is slowly recovering, after the previous conservative ‘government’ suggested that, as a country, they ought to turn towards manufacturing to improve their economy. Lots of people gave up farming, but the plan didn’t work, and El Salvador ended up even more impoverished.  Lorena later described Funes as a gorilla (methinks, ‘guerrilla’ but I appreciated the sentiment). He was a former left-leaning journalist and had his own TV show; CNN describe him as Marxist, (but then, that means very very little) but otherwise I don’t really know enough about El Salvadorean politics to pass judgement!

It has been such an intense few days that somehow that finale seemed a bit underwhelming, so after an argument with the ATM machine (“WHY won’t you give me money, you stoooooooooopid object???”)  I went for some really classy, greasy tacos with Kate (we accidently lost Mark and Andy, sadly). Tacontento – love it. Completely artificial but lovely, smokey chilli sauce smothering Unidentifiable Meat, wrapped in the ubiquitous tortillas, and about $3. A fitting antidote to 5* luxury. I rang Carl when I got back (Lovely Man sat up til nearly 1am waiting for me to call!). I was after an early night since I’ve got another horrendous flight to negotiate tomorrow. However, packing all my new Guatemalan treasures proved difficult. Yes, I did buy some stuff in Antigua, but I deliberately left room for that. But I seem to have generated an entire backpack’s worth of Stuff from this conference – samples of Mexican coffee, at least half a dozen pens, a thermos mug, and folder after folder of glossy brochures, booklets, information sheets alongside the aforementioned Mahoosive Ringbinder. Carl also demanded I brought him back on of the litre bottles of beer – which I object to since I can’t help him drink it. I got it all packed eventually, but with rather creative interpretation of the term “hand luggage” – ie: hands, both arms and occasionally teeth…

I really don’t want to go home. 😦

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Posted by on March 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Brain-ache and Tone Lowering

Lorena insisted on making me porridge with cinnamon this morning, as food for the Cheese since we had such a big day ahead of us. Taxi called for 8.30am to transport me to the 5* hotel for the Conference in Full. No presidents today, sadly, but it did make it much much easier to get in. If I had thought yesterday afternoon was heavy going, I was naive: that was nothing compared to today – sixteen talks, split in to two sections, from 9am to 6pm, some in Spanish, some in Portuguese (the Brazilian continguent, obviously) and one in French (African coffee talk.) 1429 participants. I had to use the little translation headset, and I swear mine was possessed – it had some very, very strange unearthly noises coming from it making it extremely hard to listen to!

The first section comprised of lots of talks from around the world on the coffee industry in different countries. Things still sound pretty desperate in Africa, and there were two nearly identitcal talks from Vietnam which I  summarised in the following way:

“Vietnam produces huge amount of coffee and sells it very cheaply because it’s mainly crap.”

They had vague notions of improving the quality and developing the infrastructure to help farmers… but never actually suggested the methods for doing this. It wasn’t entirely doom and gloom, India seems to be improving things a little, and the Brazillian rep basically ended up concluding that they would carry on as normal!

Outside of producing countries, there were a few talks from consuming countries – mainly facts and figures and pretty graphs of how much coffee Americans drink, and a terrifying statistic that the UK is one of the largest consumers of soluable/instant coffee in the world. Uuuurconferencegh, that’s embarrassing! There was a bizarre but fascinating presentation about the Russian coffee industry – such as it is. Up until 1998, there were two coffee shops in St. Peterburg, and that was it in the entire country. It’s growing, slowly, but it is fascinating, and very difficult to imagine!

The really interesting one for me was on Colombian coffee, specifically the Juan Valdez brand. They made a big fuss about how successful promoting the “100% Colombian” brand, making people aware of Colombia as a coffee producer. Making who aware? The sales and demand figures were very impressive, but Juan Valdez doesn’t exist in the UK, and I think the vast majority of this ‘brand awareness’ comes from the US, where Juan and his donkey are everywhere. This was the first mention of geographical indicators, however, and appellation for coffee.  Juan Valdez has started putting ‘Beantrack’ computers in their stores and on their website, allowing customers to see where the beans for that particular batch of coffee have actually come from. It’s a gimic, and the “Virtual Origin Tours” are very pretty but not the most informative. However, unlike every other large chain of coffee shops, they at least have some form of traceability. Furthermore, the idea behind the Beantrack is to promote the terroir of their different coffees. They are not just selling “Colombian” they are selling specific coffees from specific regions within Colombia – for instance, coffee from this particular area tastes like this, therefore its great for breakfast as a pick-me-up etc. etc. Simplistic, but still the beginnings of customer education and terroir.

I like this. I see absolutely no reason why the region variations and differences in batches of coffee can’t be emphasised rather than blended in to oblivion. Daniele Giovannucci did a good talk on differentiation and certification, of which geographical indicators is a big part. He even said he needed more research into quality and differentiation. Woohoo! (Gimme a job?) This sort of thing has been done in the wine industry for centuries and it seems to work, both from the customer’s perspective as it gives more choice (I’m sorry Anna, but I am still gonna drink my South African pinotage, I am really not a fan of your beloved Italian!) and the producers: differentiation leads to scarcity, which bunps the price up – look at Jamaican Blue Mountain. There are already some relatively well known regional varieties – Kona coffee from Hawaii, Java coffee, Ethiopian Sidamo, and so on. Ethiopia produces a lot of different coffees as well as Sidamo, so it is that particular varietal which is popular. Colombia are trying to show there is more to their produce than just generic ‘Colombian’, and I’m sure Brazil and other big producers should be able to do the same.

Over lunch, I met the Kaladi Brothers, who don’t appear to be brothers, but who run a roasting company and coffee shop in Denver. Really fun, down to earth blokes anyway: Andy and Mark. Mark is most definitely a coffee geek, and they roast and sell very high quality coffees which they source themselves. We got talking ‘geographical indicators’ and they said they used the region name in their packaging, because it makes a lot of marketing sense, even if they do make it a little more flamboyant. For example, they sell my beloved coffee from Cecocafen in Nicaragua, but instead of calling it “Matagalpan” (hardly catchy, admittedly) they borrow the name of the beneficio – Nicaraguan Solcafe coffee. Sounds good to me! Of course, a lot of what they do – and what I do with Doctor Coffee, is espresso based, and single origin coffees often aren’t suitable for espresso. Sometimes you need blends to make the espresso work. There wasn’t much talk of blending today, but plenty of varietals – and plenty of samples of varietals in the exhibition hall which I happily swigged. Mark was a bit sniffy about them.

Sniffyness soon vanished however, as after the conference sessions came the 50th Anniversary of ANACAFE Gala party. I followed Mark and Andy to their hotel since it was too much of a pain to get cabs all the way to Dos Lunas and then come back with me. We stupidly decided to get some food, thinking that the Gala would just involve nibbly things. I got this strange frijole soup thing served in a jug. It was good, but it took me a while to work out how to eat it! When we got to the Gala though, we found we’d not only underestimated the food, but also the whole nature of the thing. It was stunning – outdoor marquees all lit with chandeliers, beautifully laid tables with candles, a live Marimba band… And everyone with suits or evening dresses. I’d obviously come straight from the conference so I still had the maaaaaaahoooosiiiive ringbinder full of conference notes and all the freebies I’d blagged which had to accompany me. I was at least wearing my beloved coffee dress which got a few comments, particularly with the matching tattoo…  There was sooooo much food too! Classic situational comedy moment – Guatemalan waiter trying to explain what sushi is, in broken English, to the African delegates. But suuushi!! and nibbly things, and chocolate covered coffee beans, and that was only appetizers. The menu implied steak was on the cards later… Wine appeared – I had one little glass, and had to physically prevent the waiter topping it up every few minutes. Andy did not bother though, and had *quite a few* refils. Unsurprisingly, the conversation got sillier and sillier…..Andy demanded kareoke marimba, for instance…Definitely lowering the tone, although obviously they couldn’t throw me out, not in my condition…
I bowed out about 10pm. I am soooo old! But I had an excellent night, I honestly couldn’t have eaten steak, and cheese was kicking rather violently. I knew if I stayed any longer, I wouldn’t have the energy for the next day!

lowering the tone


Posted by on March 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


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