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Caffe Culture 2009

This week I toddled down to the 2009 Caffe Culture Show, at the Kensington Olympia in London. Caffe Culture is a huge trade fair for the coffee shop and cafe industry, and although obviously aimed at the retail side of the industry, there were plenty of coffee roasters there trying to find new customers. It was these I aimed to talk to – the next step of this project is finding the people who actually buy in the coffee from the farms I’ve visited, and simply asking, why do they buy this stuff? What is it that makes Cecocafen’s coffee better than all the other stuff in Nicaragua? And so on.

Muchly easier said than done.

Firstly, as always, I nearly had a heart attack when I found out how much a pre-9.30am travelcard now costs in London (£15??). Then I got lost somewhere round Earl’s Court. Then I got chatted up by an ancient Latvian piano tuner with REALLY bad breath – (Sorry, Mr Boris Knarr, but I don’t think I will be calling you when you get back from St. Petersburg in a few weeks….!) But there we go – nothing unusual, a pretty average morning for me!

But when I finally got to Olympia, Coburg Coffee Company (who roast for Caffe Nero) were nowhere to be seen! This was not helpful, given they were my main reason for going. This was also strange because I could have sworn I saw them in the line up on the Caffe Culture website, they were there last year, and all the rest of the usual suspects were there. I mooched about scabbing as many free coffees as I could (and cookie crumbs, and chocolates, and fruit smoothies, and iced coffees, and disgusting neon coloured energy drinks and even an icecream!) whilst soaking up the atmosphere.

This is, admittedly, the only trade fair I’ve been to so I don’t know if this is typical, but even despite the hyper caffeination of most of the attendees, the whole event felt oddly laid back. Everyone there was trying to sell you something, but not aggressively. Only a few of the stalls stood out – as ever, La Spaziale, the espresso machine makers, dominated the right half of the hall, with lots of lovely, cripplingly expensive coffee machines (“As used in the World Barista Championships”!). Matthew Algie (a roasters) covered their stall with black chalkboard and every time I went back, it was covered with different graffitti and coffee-related doodles. Beyond the Bean, who do a bit of everything also had a huge, cheerful stall as well (with lots of freebies) but everyone else just made do with their little red cubicles, relying on their name printed above them as their means of identity. This is why I spent a good ten minutes chatting to a bloke from E-Lites. He was sitting in a stall with “Electronic Cigarettes” above his head. Utterly bizarre.

I felt odd walking round with a badge saying “researcher” on it because this denoted me immediately as “non-customer”. Nevertheless, the vast majority were very happy to talk to me, with a couple of exceptions. Lincoln and York Coffee Roasters were not the most helpful, and neither were Darlington’s Coffee Company – sadly named after a bloke called Mr Darlington, and not because they are based down the road from me! However, I had a lot of fun chatting to others; I admired some lovely shiny steampunkish espresso machines from Fracino, sampled a lot of very fine chocolate from Montezuma’s, and amazingly for me, I got very excited about finding teapigs a really good, funky company who can get me proper Andean Yerba Mate! This does a Happy Bel make. I talked to a LOT of people about biodegradable coffee cups and so on as well. At one stage I was debating whether to research more about coffee cups, as it is the most obvious form of waste from the retail coffee industry. These were all biodegradable and made from recycled materials, and the cake slice trays and sandwich boxes were made from some form of sugar cane by-product. Impressive, but there is a limit to how much paper-cup-related sales pitch I can take in!

There were also plenty of talks, including the SCAE workshops (barista training, roasting etc which I went to last year and therefore avoided this year) and business seminars. I sat in on a few of those (for tips on Doctor Coffee’s Cafe of course!). Deborah Meaden did one! Explaining why hosting the Macmillian cancer charity’s Big Coffee Morning makes sense for your business as well as being a generally good thing to be involved with. James Hoffman was on his Square Mile coffee stall, as the only “coffee celebrity” there, although I am sure I saw Gwilym Davies wandering around too.

So, did I actually acheive anything useful for the project? Well yes. The two most friendly and helpful companies I talked to were Union coffee roasters and Matthew Algie. I actually met one of the buyers from Union, Jeremy Torz, which is exactly what I needed. I explained I was studying ideas of coffee quality, and that I’d been out on farms (coincidentally, his colleague was out in Matagalpa recently too) but wanted to chat to roasters and see if their views of what coffee quality is, differed at all. He reckoned it shouldn’t. Good quality coffee roasters go on “origin trips” – actually visiting the farms they are buying from, in one big happy, consistent joined up industry. Which is nice if it actually happened – but my experiences in Central America lead me to believe otherwise. This surprised him; Union prize themselves on working with the producers so that the coffee is not only high quality, but sustainable as well. If anything, this made me more determined to find Coburg, just to see if this idyllic-sounding method actually pans out with a such a large company. For Jeremy, however, quality meant a lot of factors in harmony with each other, but most importantly is the altitude the coffee is grown at. On the stall, there were samples all from the same region in Guatemala, but from different heights. Roasted to perfection, even I could tell the difference. The higher the altitude, the better tasting the coffee. But surely it’s not that simple?!

200520093701It is not, according to people from Matthew Algie (and fortunately for my project). You can still have great quality green coffee, and decrease it’s quality by roasting it badly, and so on. Under a chalked-on caffeine molecule diagram, someone had written out a coffee roasting how-to on the wall of their stall, complete with details of the actual chemical reactions going on inside the bean. I stood their gazing blankly at the wall, until someone approached me, ‘Ari’ made me a (*very* good) coffee, and said “Oh you must come up and spend a day with us! Talk to…. she’s our master roaster”…. Matthew Algie are based in Glasgow, which makes life that little bit easier. I hope they intended me to actually take them up on the offer!!

So, a little acheivement, and a lot of fun. And hopefully by the next Caffe Culture, I will be in business with Doctor Coffee’s Cafe so I can actually particiate properly!

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Posted by on May 22, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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Jack and the Beanstalk

One day Jack’s mother cried, “We’re stoney broke!
Go out and find some wealthy bloke
Who’ll buy our cow. Just say she’s sound
And worth at least a hundred pounds-
But don’t you dare to let him know
That she’s as old as Billy-O!”
Jack led the old brown cow away
And came back later in the day,
And said, “Mum! I got, I really don’t know how,
A super trade-in for our cow!”
Jack’s mother said, “You little creep,
I bet you sold her much too cheap!”
When Jack produced one lousy bean,
His startled mother, turning green,
Leaped high into the air and cried:
“I’m absolutely stupified!
You crazy boy, you really mean
You sold our Daisy for a bean?!”
She snatched the bean, and yelled “You chump!”
And flung it on the rubbish dump.
Then, summoning up all her power,
She beat the boy for half an hour,
(Using, and nothing could be meaner,
The handle of a vaccuum cleaner!)

(from Roald Dahl’s Jack and the Beanstalk, c. 1988? If its not completely accurate it is because the above is written from memory alone, I learned the whole thing off by heart when at Primary school – 16 years ago, and I haven’t seen a copy since)

It is true, there is very little in the world that I can’t relate to coffee nowadays. I’d like to construct an elaborate, aetelogical myth of coffee origins, of epic length, and possibly even in iambic pentameter. This may yet happen, in a few weeks time I will be embarking on an uncomfy nine-hour bus journey to Costa Rica- perfect opportunity for some wanton scribbling….

But for now, let us stick with Jack and his magic beans. Ahem. The moral of this particular version of the story is that taking baths is a good idea. Jack defeats the giant by having a wash so the giant can’t smell him. (“A bath,” he said, “does seem to pay, I’m going to have one every day!”)
So far, so non-coffee related.
But, and whilst being heavy handed with the dramatic licence, I could argue that an equal valid lesson here is to trust in the magic beans, for they will eventually bring you great wealth. Sure, it won’t be easy, but it’s always going to be better than cattle farming!

Well, maybe. At the top of the beanstalk there is wealth, but that wealth is guarded carefully by the Giant. More on the Giant in a minute.

During my time in Nicaragua, I’ve visited four completely different coffee farms. All the farmers at these places have traded in their cows, received their magic beans, and have grown their beanstalks accordingly.
At the first farm, the beanstalk was of great quality and held a lot of golden fruit, and ‘Jack’ there found that, when you got to the top, the Giant wasn’t actually that big and scary after all. In fact, he and the Giant are good friends now.
At Farm number 2, having discovered the Giant at the top of the first beanstalk, Jack constructed a second beanstalk – ok, it wasn’t a fantastic beanstalk, it wasn’t even organic, but then, the Giant wasn’t that intelligent, and when he was guarding the top of the first stalk, Jack could nip up the other one, and still get to the gold.
At the third farm, Jack roped in all his mates from his village, and even some curious tourists who wanted to see the view from the top of beanstalk. Together, they were too much for the one poor giant, and Jack was able to collect all the gold and share it out with all his friends. Except the tourists, who just went home feeling very good about themselves for helping out poor little Jack.
But at the last farm, the smallest of them all, Jack’s beanstalk grew very very tall, and the Giant was very big. The gold was a long way up, and the beanstalk didn’t look very safe. Jack tried to climb this beanstalk but was scared to go too high in case he fell, so he had to make do with the few tiny bits of gold that he was able to reach. After a while, well-meaning health and safety inspectors came to see Jack’s beanstalk, and constructed a safety net for him around the beanstalk, so if he fell, he wouldn’t fall too far. But even so, this Jack had very little chance of ever even reaching the top of his beanstalk, let alone defeating the Giant and collecting the gold for himself.
However, this Jack, with some help from other members of the Tall Beanstalk Owners Cooperative and Support Group, came up with a cunning plan. They would just get their own Giant, to climb the stalks for them!

Maybe this does need a little more explanation. ‘Jack’ is of course, the different sorts of farmer, and the beanstalk is the coffee crop. The gold is the money they could make from this coffee. And in more than one of these examples, the farmers literally did trade their cows for beans. The safety net on the fourth farm is the Fair Trade guaranteed minimum price. The tourists on Farm #3 are the beginnings of volunteer and ecotourism projects here.

But what is the Giant? I hear you cry…
This is what I have been trying to work out myself. The Giant represents everything unjust in the coffee industry, it is he who gathers all the money for himself, keeping it from the farmers who have actually done the hard work growing the beanstalks in the first place. The Giant is not, however, the average coffee drinker. In this story, the Giant might even be wearing a green apron, and selling huge and very sweet bean-flavoured milkshakes to coffee drinkers, for extortionate prices. It is the money from this that the Giant wants to stop Jack getting his hands on.

This Giant represents the international coffee markets, and specifically the buyers, the middlemen. In Nicaragua, foreign coffee buyers are known as Coyotes, a name which conjours up exactly the same image as these people have in this country – not a pleasant reputation at all. The correct name is actually ‘Catadores’, those who work in La Catacion, or coffee cuppers. They are the people who taste and sample the coffee, and judge its quality using pseudo-scientific, but usually pretty subjective methods. As a result, they also control the price of this coffee – if they think it is not good quality, they will only pay a very small price for it. And then, they have a tendancy of adding on a huge price mark up, and selling it on to coffee shops to make big profits. In this situation, Jack can only hope that his Giant is honest. Jack struggles to produce the best beanstalk he can, so that a little of the Giant’s wealth trickles down to him.

This has been the situation for quite some time. But in the last decade at least, the Jacks of Central America have been fighting back. One tactic, not available to most, is to simple make friends with the Giant, so that he wants to share his gold with you. This requires Jack to be pretty wealthy to start with so that the Giant does not appear too big and scary. In other words, this can only be achieved on huge, successful and usually foreign-owned coffee farms.

Another tactic is to grow a second beanstalk. Growing non-organic low grade coffee alongside high quality stuff, is easier and cheaper to produce, and provides a failsafe for when the Giant guards the wealth on the first beanstalk.

Thirdly, Jack can rope in the help of his friends – as in, work in cooperatives, and share the wealth from all the little beanstalks out fairly. Again, this only works if there is enough good quality beanstalks – and having a great view from the top of them helps to promote foreign interest as well.

Finally, to help the really impoverished Jacks with their tall beanstalks, some places are trying to find their own Giants. Cooperatives and companies like Cecocafen have created their own cupping laborotories, and trained their own cuppers to assess the quality of their own coffee – inside this country. This allows Jack to understand the value of his beanstalk, and also teaches him how to look after it and improve it. However, this Giant is still independent of Jack- he won’t say it’s a lovely beanstalk when it isn’t. But this Giant is at least tame and friendly, and can really help defend Jack against the Big, Scary foreign Giants that might otherwise keep all the gold for themselves.

I’ve already met the local catadores at Santa Emilia, and tomorrow I am set to meet up with Julio, who is one of the cuppers at Cecocafen. I still have my doubts about cupping, but mainly because it still seems to me to be incredibly subjective. However, if having their own cupping lab really does benefit the farmers, then so be it!

Once more Jack climbed the mighty bean,
The Giant sat there, gross, obscene,
Muttering through his viscous teeth
Whilst Jack sat tensely just beneath.
“Fi Fie Fo Fum,
Right now I can’t smell anyone!”
Jack waited til the Giant slept,
Then out along the boughs he crept
And gathered so much gold, I swear
He was an instant millionaire.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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