Monthly Archives: April 2010

Open Letter to our local political candidates…

Dear Mike, Jenny and Edward (and any others who haven’t sent me leaflets yet – I confess I forget who our UKIP candidate is, since I only gave your leaflet space on my doorstep for a few seconds before moving it to the recycling bin.)

I am very interested in what you plan to do about supporting and maintaining jobs in Darlington, and creating new opportunities, given that the North-east remains an economically deprived area, and in my experience, graduate jobs in particular are especially hard to come by.

Jenny Chapman for Labour says she “will work with business to bring high quality jobs to Darlington so the town never again suffers the unemployment of the 1980s.” Very nice. How?

Mike Barker for the Lib Dems says very little other than that he will “fight to ensure future developments are in keeping with our traditional status as a thriving market town.” (Interesting use of the word “thriving” – but more on the market in a minute). Oh and the Lib Dems will “create jobs by making Britain greener.” Same question applies Mike, how?

Edward Legard for the Conservatives points out that he started Darlington Job Club, because “under Labour, high unemployment is back and manufacturing is in decline. The North-east deserves better.” Yes, we do, but even though I barely remember Thatcher’s government, I am pretty sure the Tory record on unemployment and industry decline would not count as “better,” especially in the North.

Let me explain a little about my situation. Whilst I appreciate that I am not exactly an average Darlington resident, I am sure my experiences and frustrations are not entirely unique.
At the moment, I am doing my Phd at Sheffield University. (Disclaimer: these are my thoughts, nothing to do with the views of the university). My husband and I bought a house and moved to Darlington in 2004. I am currently supported by a research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, and I also run my own business part time, my little coffee cart on Darlington market two days a week. I am unable to keep up the coffee cart over the summer, because I am now seven months pregnant. I am now very concerned about the future and particularly my job prospects, because I am due to finish my PhD in April 2011, leaving me unemployed, with no real form of income and with a nine-month-old child to care for. My husband’s salary could not support all of us, and I wouldn’t want it to anyway.

In terms of qualifications, the PhD is in Human Geography. Prior to that, I have achieved a BA in Anthropology and an MA in Social Science Research Methods both from the University of Durham, and hold a University Certificate in Professional Development in Marketing from Teesside University. Although I have the ESRC grant for the PhD and I self-funded my fees for my Masters (with help from my parents), I received a statement from the Student Loans Company this morning gently reminding me that I owe £11,300 from my undergraduate degree. ‘Fortunately’ since I graduated in 2004 I have never earned over the threshold that warrants me having to pay this back (£15000 per annum).

Outside of university, I have eighteen months experience working as a project coordinator for a community development group in the voluntary sector. I also worked as a chef and cafe manager for a year, and did small group tutoring in Anthropology at Durham University. However, my community development job ended in constructive dismissal in 2006. This was a horrible experience anyway, but confounded by the fact that I have never yet managed to find a decent job in the local area since. I have worked for various pubs and coffee shops and on Darlington market, but all on minimum wage. I was also forced to sign on for Job Seekers Allowance briefly in 2007, and when discussing my qualifications with the jobs advisor, was asked “how do you spell Anthropology?” I consider myself extremely lucky to have found the PhD placement not long after that, otherwise I am fairly sure I would still be signing on or working for £5.60 per hour.

Four years of frustrating underemployment in Darlington have led me to believe that there are virtually no graduate opportunities in this area. I have plenty of qualifications and I am not really lacking in actual work experience; more significantly, I actively want to work. However, I really really do NOT want to finish my PhD and have to go back to working for minimum wage in an unskilled job, especially with a child to support as well. I would love to leave Darlington entirely: I do think my coffee business would be more successful in another area as well. Essentially, I need reasons to stay in the town.

My questions to the political candidates are therefore:
Do you agree that this area needs some form of economic development, and if so, how is it going to be developed and in what way?
Specifically, how are you going to create jobs in the town, and what sort of jobs will they be?
How will you support local small businesses and people wanting to start their own business in the area?
What are your thoughts on Darlington market and do you have any plans to promote it, improve it or even just resuscitate it?

I would be very keen to hear your responses, but I am interested specifically in your own party’s policies rather than hearing a list of your rivals’ various failings.

Yours sincerely,

Annabel Townsend


Posted by on April 26, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Great Coffee Taste Test

… was absolutely exhausting. Which is my excuse for only getting round to writing about it now.

The Premise?

Get two coffees, one “good quality”, one less so. Get as many people as possible to try them. Find out if people preferred the high quality or not.

The Venue?

Last week, taking over what currently passes for the ‘Cafe’ on C-floor of the Geography Department, University of Sheffield.

The  partipants?

Simon from Pollards Coffee Company and I, manning the espresso machine, and over 100 willing participants from the (mainly geography) students and staff. Not exactly coffee gourmets, but certainly plenty of addicts (I quote: “I’d be on drip if I could plug it in”)

If only it were that simple!!

This experiment was not a full-proof design anyway, but a few things ‘distracted’ from the scientific precision, shall we say.


The New C floor "cafe". Ahem.

The venue served us pretty well once Simon had lugged the Fraccino espresso machine up in the lift and plugged everything in. There (as yet) is no furniture in the cafe, so there was very little for our participants to sit on, let alone write out our reply slips on whilst holding two cups of coffee…. but not the end of the world. However, although I had arranged to hold the taste test on Tuesday and Wednesday several weeks ago, it was left until Monday until someone informed us that there was a department open day on the Wednesday, who also wanted to use the space. Great! I thought. More people! Sadly, no, they all appeared at 4pm, just as we were packing up. A few rather lost looking parents-of-prospective-students appeared though, looking for the department cafe… and only found us. We were of course, happy to oblige but methinks for the sake of the geography department in general, it would have been wise to build and furnish the cafe first, and then put the signs up to it…. And I can suggest someone very willing to take over the space and run it as a cafe properly, by the way... hint hint.


In terms of research design, we had tried to keep the experiment as simple as possible. We gave our participants the sort of coffees they asked for,  cappuccinos, americanos, etc. because we wanted to test the average coffee drinker, drinking what they normal would in a coffee shop. We hoped this would give a more accurate picture of how people taste coffee – the differences should still be apparent even with added milk and sugar etc. If they are not, this is still significant because it implies that it would not matter what sort of coffee goes into a cappuccino, if people are just drinking them for the milky flavours. Also, we were likely to get far more participants this way, than if we forced them all to drink espressos. However, it does leave it open to flaws in the consistancy of our drink construction though – we may well have added more milk or foamed one better than the other or screwed up the espresso at times etc etc etc. Not a highly accurate test in this sense!


Simon setting up.

The biggest test for us though, was how to define ‘quality’ in the first place. A very large proportion of my whole thesis revolves around this issue! Simon helped a great deal here by basically using his knowledge of roasting and then absolving us of responsibility for defining quality. He chose three coffees for an espresso blend, that had all rated very highly on the Speciality Coffee Association of American’s cupping scale. Then, he got three more lots of beans from farms very close by to these first three, but had not been rated by the SCAA. Another factor was the price. The SCAA-rated blend would have cost £12 a kilo, the other, £3 a kilo. Was the ‘higher quality’ one really four times better? Pollards people roasted both sets of beans identically and on the same day, so there was as little variation in the roast as possible. All was set!

We both did this test blind – the beans arrived in bags marked A and B, and we had two grinders, also marked similarly. We then marked all the cups before giving them to our guinea-pigs.  Neither of us knew which blend was which as we made the coffees (although Simon worked it out pretty quickly!), so we couldn’t unconsciously make one coffee better than the other and so on. This is a further issue regarding quality. Quality is not just an inherent characteristic of the green bean – it also depends on the roast and the skills of the barista (amongst other things). We could just about controi these variables, so hopefully all we were testing were the difference in quality of the beans themselves. Complicated, though!


Moi as experimental barista and bemused guinea-pig


More caffeinated guinea pigs.

The Results?

Pretty evenly split!!!

This is a fascinating result and is already causing controversy at Pollards and with Simon’s suppliers. I am not going to put the exact figures on here – I am still waiting for some responses anyway, but mainly because we want to put together a proper paper about this for academic and hopefully some trade journals. For simplicity’s sake, there was no significant difference between the number of people preferring Coffee A to Coffee B. There were a very few people who couldn’t tell the difference at all, but not nearly as many of these as I had thought there might be. If anything, there was a very very tiny skew towards a preference for A, but not enough to make definite assertations.

B was the SCAA rated, high quality blend, worth four times the price of A.

I’ll let Simon explain the origins of Coffee B:

“The El Salvador is La Avila Estate, which came 5th in the 2009 Cup of Excellence awards with a score of 89.43. It is a fantastic cup on its own in a filter of cafetiere but is it worth 4 times more than the standard SHG from the farm next door?
The Brazil was a Daterra Special reserve coming in with a score of 85.5 last year. It is the Catuai varietal and again is fantastic on its own in a filter. But again is it worth the extra?
The monsoon was specially prepared for me by a neighbours estate, Ratnagiri, in Chikmagalur. It costs just the same , but, unlike me he is very good at producing exceptional quality green coffee. This does not carrry an SCAA rating but does have the indian coffee boards gold medal for last year…. “

Coffee A came from neighbouring farms in El Salvador, Brazil and India, but did not have these accolades (a fact which could be used to advocate the idea of ‘terroir coffee’ and geographical indicators… but that is a whole other chapter!).

And roughly half our participants (including me, to my surprise) preferred the cheaper, unrated Coffee A.

What does this actually mean?

Because it was such an even split, I can’t conclude that people actually prefer cheaper, supposedly lower quality coffee, because an equal number did prefer the high quality one. Judging by the comments on the day though, no-one really thought that B was worth four times as much as A.  The overriding conclusion, however, is that Quality and Preference are NOT the same thing. In short, and within reasonable parameters, (ie: not mouldy, not stale, not burnt) the quality of the beans is not a real factor in coffee preference. Take away the price (a major factor for consideration amongst students!), the marketing, the certifications and accolades on the beans, and the comfy pulls of coffee shops and their fashionable social spaces, and really, any coffee seems to be useable – and drinkable.

Where does that leave the idea of “quality” amongst coffee producers and retailers then? For the producers, all the highly skilled techniques employed to enhance the quality of the green beans are not necessarily demanded by the average consumer. However, since producers do not deal directly with consumers, if the buyers and importers are still willing to pay the farmers more for what they consider to be high quality, then it is still in the interest of the farmers to keep the quality as high as possible.

For retailers, however, this does appear to give businesses the perfect excuse to buy in cheaper, low quality coffees, and still sell them to consumers for the same price. Why would any coffee shop want to pay £12 a kilo for coffee, when half their customers are quite happy to drink stuff that costs just £3 per kilo? Quality in this case is very much constructed by the retailers: packaging, exoticism of the country of origin, certifications and labels, cafe branding, presentation of the drink (Simon is going to do another test looking at people’s perception of quality between coffees served with latte art and those without) – and also, price. If coffee costs more, the general assumption is that is must be better quality. Are we naive in this view? It is self-perpetuating – it is thought to be high quality because it costs more, and it costs more because people think it is high quality.

I was reprimanded last week for calling the SCAA’s scale, and various certifications ‘meaningless’ in my thesis chapter. As my supervisor rightly points out, the certifications and quality assurances are not in themselves meaningless, but the meanings they actually represent are not necessarily the most obvious – or what the customer believes them to be. In this case, the SCAA scale is not actually meaningless, but instead of the ratings meaning that the El Salvadorean beans are in the top 15% of all the beans tested, it means that a handful of the self-appointed experts at the SCAA liked the taste of them enough to give the coffee a high score – and in doing so, also gave retailers and importers the leave to charge four times as much for those beans than those from a neighbouring farm. However, this is NOT a quality rating; the points simply show an SCAA taste preference. If, like half of our participants, you happen to agree with the SCAA, then that coffee will be high quality to you. If you prefer the other blend, then so be it; personal preference is, after all, personal, and as our test seemed to show, “quality” is entirely subjective as well!


Posted by on April 18, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Little things that make life so much more fun…

Oh so now there is a gadget for this! Perfect! I want one.

Basically, someone has invented an electronic nose, to “scientifically” grade coffee’s quality. Like a cupper, but without human errors, biasses, or catarrh problems. Since the ‘human impartiality’ element is the main problem I have with coffee cupping, this is a very good device.

But it is still DOOMED.

As we are hoping to find out next week at The Great Coffee Taste Test, it is not necessarily the *quality* of coffee that drives sales. It would be great if it were – and on a personal note, I think it should be, given the sheer amount of skills and hard work that goes in to producing good quality – but from my own research so far, the coffee that people actually prefer the taste of is not always the good quality stuff. Just look at the success of chain coffee shops. The Taste Test next week will involve our participants trying one very low quality coffee, and one very high quality – and getting them to say which one they prefer. I am expecting a large number to claim they can’t tell the difference. And if they low quality one is the preferred option, then this could have major implications for the whole industry, let alone just my own business! If this is the case – if lower quality tastes the same, or better than the other, then what is the point of this gadget? Indeed, what is the point of cupping or all the other procedures to enhance the quality in the first place?

If, on the other hand, this electronic nose does work and its results are meaningful to the consumer, then it may prove to be extremely unpopular with some big coffee brands. I wish the developers all the luck in the world trying to get funding to produce these!


Posted by on April 8, 2010 in Uncategorized