Spilling the Beans: Concepts of Quality in the Speciality Coffee Industry
The coffee industry is a vast, and very complex network spanning the globe, and as the second largest legally traded commodity in the world its production warrants considerable attention. The complicated production process involved from farm to coffee shop gives plenty of scope for value to be added to the commodity through skilled practices and quotidian knowledge; yet this expertise often does not translate into straightforward market economics. The ‘speciality’ coffee industry arose out of a crisis in the existing coffee markets, differentiating gourmet coffees from the conventional commodity, and in doing so, built ideas of quality into the market. However, this concept of quality is far from universal, it is inherently subjective and intangible. This research aims to investigate what is actually meant by ‘quality’, the relationships between the concepts of quality and skill in the speciality coffee industry, and in turn, how quality is generated through the coffee production process.
Just as there is no objective, agreed definition of ‘quality’, there is no globally meaningful definition of ‘speciality’ either: the speciality coffee industry is defined by what it is not, and it is everything deemed ‘not conventional’. This thesis is based on data collected in the form of a multi-site ethnography and involved fieldwork at ‘speciality’ coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and at roasting companies and coffee shops in the UK. The research suggests that producing high quality coffee is not restricted to the abilities of the farmers who grow the crop, but that the concept is cumulative process based on assessment, preference and various skills of actors throughout the commodity network. This study also therefore explores how the concept of quality translates across the industry, and whether or not coffee consumers actually demand this level of quality.
Keywords: Coffee, Quality, Speciality, Skill