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365 Days of Coffee

This is an essay I was asked to write to accompany Monique Martin’s art exhibition entitled ‘365 Days of Coffee’, which will tour Saskatchewan art galleries later this year with the OSAC. For more details, see Monique’s site: http://moniqueart.com/365daysofcoffee/365daysofcoffee.html

Monique Martin’s exhibition explores our daily rituals of coffee drinking and how coffee travels with us as an otherwise unremarked on part of everyday life. We clutch our travel mugs and make sure we have enough caffeine to face the day, but few of us truly consider the process involved in getting us our daily fix. Also unnoticed is the epic journey the little beans take before we even see it. Coffee beans travel from remote mountainous regions and tropical cloudforest along the equator, during which it is stripped of its fruit, dried in the sun for days, hand-sorted by meticulous plantation workers, measured, weighed, graded, bagged and transported around the globe, roasted in giant fiery ovens by expert artisans then moving off again to meet their fate in coffee shops before finally making it into our mugs. The coffee production process employs over 125 million people across the world, and this often brutal journey means that over 2.25 billion cups of coffee can be enjoyed each day.

Tasting gourmet coffee can transport you from your daily routine and familiar surroundings into a whole other world of exotic flavours and aromas. The old but favoured mug you grab from the kitchen each morning looks and feels familiar, but its contents can be evocative of strange and faraway places well beyond the daily grind. Every cup tells a story; fragrant coffee in souvenir mugs from tropical holidays may allow you to relive past adventures (such as in Martin’s piece “Mexico”) or you might find that coffee tastes so much sweeter in a cup that was a gift from a loved one (“Sweetheart”).

Presenting coffee to gourmet standards has become an art form in its own right. There are baristas who swear you can only get ‘a perfect pour’ in ceramic mugs (much like Martin’s piece entitled “Froth”), The skills required by the barista to pour milk onto espresso just so, to create intricate patterns as ‘latte art’ has become a global phenomenon. Latte art is visually beautiful, but so too is what it represents: the culmination of so many artisans – farmers, quality graders, roasters, baristas – all connected by the little beans that are so well-travelled already. It’s no wonder that taking a few moments out of a busy day to enjoy this little luxury in a cup is so welcomed by so many people.

But we don’t just drink it for the taste. Coffee also connects people. The Fair Trade movement and trends towards ethical consumerism have made coffee drinkers more aware of coffee farmers. The turn towards quality over convenience coupled with people’s increasing knowledge and appreciation for coffee has meant that coffee lovers are now more likely to know of the local small business who roasts their beans. Early morning conversations with your friendly barista can start the day in a positive and sociable way. And then there’s the discussions to be had on ‘coffee row’, or in the line-up as you wait, or
between office colleagues taking as much time away from their desks as possible while on the morning coffee run. Coffee is as much a small break from routine as it is a routine in itself.

The caffeine in your drink is not physically addictive, but its effects can be psychologically so, and the daily coffee ritual is certainly habit-forming. Monique Martin’s work on the ‘365 Days of Coffee’ explores just how deeply entrenched our coffee rituals are in our everyday lives. We go out for coffee as a break from work. We arrange dates with friends around it, or we feel compelled to make it in the mornings as preparation before leaving the house. We carry it around with us constantly– and as the exhibition shows, the receptacles that we do this in are very significant. Our mugs are a little piece of personal identity in a corporate work environment, they can evoke the familiar comfort of home, or act as the catalyst for daydreaming and escapism. They are decorated, well-worn and well-loved, almost fetishized objects, always comfortingly by our side as our precious coffee accompanies us through life, every day, the whole world over.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Buying a better world?

Due to a random series of events involving storytelling and poetry last September (long story!) I was invited to do a talk at a “Gathering of Global Minds” event organised by the Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation. This happened on 23rd January at a very nice cafe bar here in Regina. I was honestly not expecting there to be as many people in the audience as there were, so it was quite scary – especially given the subject matter. “Buying a better world?” Or, more simply, Fairtrade! Again! And they wanted me to critique it! Again! And I was told in advance: “The people coming to the event will range from moderate to radical supporters [of Fairtrade]”. Woopedoo! I was more than a little worried about getting harrassed by the Traidcraft mafia again like last time…..

Anyway, I was sharing the panel with Alicia from a shop called 10,000 Villages that sells artisan, Fairtrade crafts, and Nathan, who’d been working with Fairtrade cocoa farmers in Ghana. It proved to be a really interesting night; our separate talks actually had a lot in common and the audience engaged really well, asked a lot of questions and didn’t take any offence at Nathan and I pointing out some of the problems with the fairtrade system!

My critique was, as normal, mainly based on economics. Alicia’s emotive talk about how Fairtrade helps impoverish communities and empowers women and preserves traditional crafts etc was spot on – the system does do a lot of good and I am not denying that for a minute. Neither can I fault the original intention of the Fairtrade movement. My issues are just with the execution of that idea.

I’ve already posted on this blog about how the Fairtrade minimum price for coffee ($1.36 per pound) was just half the price of coffee on the New York Commodity Exchange in the last few years (which reached a 35 year high of over $3 per pound in 2010) – and whatever the bigger coffee companies claim, it is very naive to think any large importing company would volunteer to pay more than they actually had to for the commodity. Case to point, in 2010 when the commodity exchange price for coffee was at its highest and the fairtrade minimum was less that half that price, Starbucks and McDonalds both suddenly switched their entire coffee range to Fairtrade in the UK. Now call me cynical, but I’m fairly confident that this wasn’t because they’d magically become ethically aware over night. Nevertheless, (also as pointed out on this blog) the Fairtrade Foundation did react eventually, and by August 2011, had altered the rule and now said that buyers should pay the fairtrade price or the normal market price, whichever was higher. . This meant that farmers would get the same higher prices and benefit from the global market, but those in Fairtrade-certified cooperatives would also get the social premium and the benefits of all the Fairtrade community development projects as well. All very well and good, but it was a very long time coming – and I’d argue, too little, too late.

My main concern though, is still with Quality. Regardless of the new rules regarding the Fairtrade price, the demands of capitalism mean that the highest prices will still be paid for the highest quality coffee, regardless of its fairtrade status or lack of. I had workers at the cooperatives in Nicaragua telling me as a statement of fact that coffee which achieves 85 or more points on the cupping scale is sold off as ‘specialty’ coffee for the highest prices, then the crops that fall into the 65-85 points range are sold to Fairtrade buyers for a lower price. This means not only that the fairtrade price is still lower, it also means that stuff sold with the Fairtrade logo could actually be much lower quality than the stuff sold outside of the Fairtrade system. But when we buy it, we can’t tell! The Fairtrade logo tells the consumer nothing about what the coffee tastes like, but too often those who try to shop ethically automatically make the link between “ethically good” and “tastes good” – which may not be the case at all.

I also tried to explain the cupping process and issues with knowledge inequality. In very simplistic terms, cupping coffee is a very skilled job and one that takes years to perfect. The vast majority of these skilled cuppers (who have a huge influence over the price the farmer receives for his crop) are employed by the large roasting and importing companies. They visit the cooperatives, sample the coffee and grade it, (the points system described previously) and then “negotiate” a price for the coffee based on their assessment of its quality. The problem is that it is rare to find the equivalent cupper employed by the cooperative. A cupper from a multinational importing company can go to the cooperative, pronouce the coffee to be only of average quality, and then refuse to pay a high price for it, yet the farmers or the cooperative workers have very little means to argue against that decision. It proves to be a very unequal negotiation, just because the farmers in the producing countries often cannot share in the same understanding of coffee quality and knowledge of cupping that the rich, educated and trained cuppers possess. This situation isn’t likely to change without some serious investment in training at the cooperatives – maybe this is what those coveted Fairtrade social premiums could be used for?

At the end of this talk (all 7 minutes of it) I had to sum up and give my “recommendations”. I know it is a very lame admission but despite all my criticisms, I don’t have many plausible recommendations as alternatives to Fairtrade, and I do still see the need for the concept’s existence. I advocate direct trade – small coffee companies going directly to the point of origin and buying directly from the farmers, and therefore cutting out the middle men. However, this is just not practical on a large scale. So few business can afford those trips on a regular basis and those that can are the multinationals I’d like to get rid of. From an economic viewpoint, I think the Fairtrade minimum price should track just above the global market price, but doing this for every single commodity they certify, in every country they operate I imagine would just be impossible. Of course, it would be far nicer for everyone if Fairtrade didn’t have to exist at all – if ALL trade was fair all of the time. But then, we live in a capitalist world and therefore that isn’t going to happen.

I’ve said it before repeatedly on this blog… as a consumer, be aware of not just what you are buying, but what you are buying in to. And then buy what you like the taste of, and (in as far as possible) what you are comfortable with investing in. Easier said than done, I know!

The audience, all ready and enthused to fire questions at me. (Photo stolen from Jenn Bergen's twitter - thank you!)

The audience, all ready and enthused to fire questions at me.
(Photo stolen from Jenn Bergen’s twitter – thank you!)

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Happy Baristas

Or,

What makes a coffee shop, part 2.

 

In the last ten years, I’ve worked in seven different cafe/bar/restaurant/coffee shop type places, both independent and at branches of the big chains – everything from Caffe Nero, to my own coffee shop and previously, my little coffee van in the UK, to the most recent move to this vegetarian restaurant/coffee house here in Saskatchewan. I’ve also spent a lot of time, and an eye-watering amount of money, hanging around in coffee shops all over the world. I think this has given me a fairly good idea of what makes a good one!

I posted previously asking my loyal follower(s) to say what makes a place worth visiting to them. After good coffee, most answers seemed to revolve around the idea of “comfort” – ie: “no metal chairs!!” “big squashy sofas” and “free wifi”. I agree. To me, what makes a good coffee shop is as much about atmosphere and environment, as it is about the coffee. I’ve worked in, and spent time in places where the coffee is not that great. but everyone in there were so friendly and fun that attendance was habit forming. Conversely, I’ve visited places (typically, in the posh parts of London but also significantly in Darlington and one here in Regina) where the coffee itself was exceptional and expertly crafted, but the places themselves felt at best sterile and at worst, pretentious and actively hostile.

Coffee can be sold by image. Some places are just Fashionable: if you can make the coffee look pretty, and if you are in the right location (for example, in the city centre where people with a lot of money reside or work) and build up a popular brand image, then people will pay for it regardless of whether or not the coffee itself is any good. The same is true of ethical branding – serve fair trade/organic/bird friendly/rainforest alliance/ 30% raw/gluten-free/anti-oxident-packed GRIT in recycled cups with 10% going to charity in a ‘social enterprise’ café and position yourself in the midst of the hipster part of town, and that burnt grit could make your fortune.

I am not trying to say that all coffee shop customers are gullible fools – they are not, and consumers are getting more and more demanding of higher quality coffee, hence the increasing preference for independent places over the chains in the UK. Happily, people are starting to appreciate what they are drinking more, and becoming more discerning. My point is really that it is not just the coffee that makes a good coffee shop. People visit for other reasons.

In my experience, creating the right atmosphere is heavily based on personality – that of the staff and of the business owners/designers. Friendly, chatty, informal people who don’t treat customers like they are just walking ATMs. The chain coffee shops attempt to artificially create this atmosphere by effectively scripting their staff, and designing the branches so that baristas can never actually sit down visibly, so that we constantly looked busy and active but never relaxed! Unsurprisingly, this approach usually failed, and gave rise to the chain store baristas being called “robots” “button monkeys” or “drones in green aprons”! (all real quotes from my customer focus groups).

Baristas have to enjoy what they are doing to be good at their job, and should be given the opportunity to showcase their creativity and individuality – coffee and creativity always go hand in hand! A huge amount of Coffee Shop Success is based on personality; particularly in small businesses, it is as much about selling your personality as it is selling coffee. Community is also important, as an article in our local paper showed the other day:

Fully 71 per cent like to support owners who live in their community, and 68 per cent like the personalized service from small businesses.

That’s no surprise to Craigen, who said people note her firm’s visibility in community events and tell her, “we’re going to support you because you support us.”

“People like businesses that participate in the community, their ‘nearness’ and the fact that they get to know the owners,” agrees RBC’s Mike Michell

Read more: http://www.leaderpost.com/business/Consumers+loyal+local+businesses/7041277/story.html#ixzz22v6Ya4kn”

So there you have it: good coffee shops need good coffee, great, personable, happy staff, a sense of community and big squashy sofas. You heard it here first!

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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What makes a good coffee shop?

My wonderful husband gave me an Idea this morning when we were chatting online. This Idea is growing and evolving already.

Also, my friend pointed this out to me: http://www.thegridto.com/life/food-drink/playful-grounds/

But first, a little research. Please help me out here and answer me this:
What, in your opinion/experience as a customer makes a good coffee shop?

 

I’ve posted the same question on google+ and twitter, and here are some of the responses so far:

Aside from the obvious, (good coffee) lots of nice sofas, always dissapointed when I can’t get a comfy seat,friendly staff too 🙂

clean, free wi-fi, good food and coffee and open early in the morning

aside from good, straughtforward coffee… Comfy armchairs. Newspapers. Nice cake.

open way freaking late. like 2am or 24 hours. There have been a few coffee shops locally that tried to do this. I liked having somewhere to go and get feen’d up and hack on stuff in the wee hours. Baristas that know a good mix when they taste it, and can reliably reproduce a tasty treat. I like it when baristas have a drink that’s distinctly their own. Obviously, I prefer they not be the type that’d correct someone who asks for a “medium” latte.

Comfortable and clean. Non-wobbly tables and non-scrapey chairs. Not echoey. I hate having to hear scraping chairs and wobbling tables banging about or loud people from the front of the shop as though they were right beside me. NO METAL CHAIRS! They’re not comfortable to sit in, clang, and are bloody cold in winter.

More to come I hope! Please feel free to add your comments below too! all appreciated.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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An “expert panel”.

One thing I do appreciate about being a relative “underling” in academic circles still, is that my supervisors tend to fob things off on to me. I presented at a conference about Fairtrade and upset a lot of people because one supervisor didn’t have time to go. I wrote a magazine article on coffee waste because the other supervisor couldn’t be bothered. And this week, one of the examiners from my viva passed on an invitation to go on an ‘expert panel’ hosted by an “innovation consultancy” for an unnamed “major coffee company.” This was the first time I’ve ever done this sort of thing and it was a truly bizarre experience.

As far as I could tell from the enigmatic and brief email invitatiion, I had to go to London Bridge, all expenses covered, be given “drinks and canapes” and be paid to talk “about coffee vending” for two hours. So I did. I made it down there, got on the right tube line but promptly walked the wrong way out of Borough tube station and got a bit lost, finally presented myself at the reception of this huge, posh looking office/studio building, where I was wordlessly handed a white envelope with £150 in cash in it!! I could get used to this!!

I actually really enjoyed the evening, and not just because of the Free Wine and Free Sushi. (I noted they didn’t even attempt to serve us coffee!). I was definitely the Token Academic, but the rest were all from different backgrounds – advertising and marketing people, restauranters, a nutritionist, a trade journal editor and a coffee historian. Given the location and the words “Future Panel” and “innovation consultancy” on the invite, I was fully prepared for an evening of playing Bullshit Bingo. However, I needn’t have feared! It was all very interesting and most of the other panelists were refreshingly cynical, especially for advertising folks.

I have a feeling I talked too much. I hope I didn’t make a giant tit of myself. I did get very, very involved.This tends to happen when I am Interested in something. I hope they realised this.

The discussion was mainly about the Future of Coffee Vending Machines – specifically the self-service ones, with no barista involved like you get at motorway service stations. The “major coffee company” who commissioned this remains nameless but I’m sure informed readers can make a good guess! Although there were at least three unashamed Nespresso machine fans, the overriding impression we had about vending machines was that they were notoriously shit. Not even just the taste of the low quality, cheap coffee that is usually found in them, but the mistrust that they will just swallow your money or give you chicken soup by accident or something. No one thought anyone in this country would be willing to spend serious money in vending machines.This is true. There are lots of different coffee markets to my mind: there are ‘gourmet’ coffee snobs like me who want the best quality and want to see it handmade. People who are willing to pay for, and wait for, espresso. Then there are people who work out of coffee shops who come in for the free wifi and to get out of the house and don’t really care about what they’re drinking. Then there is the social element – friends meeting somewhere that has fewer negative social connotations than a pub or is more family-orientated for example. There are people who have no choice – those dying for “refreshment” whilst stuck on trains or the motorways and are forced to pay for whatever crap is available in a very restricted environment. Finally there are caffeine addicts who just want a hot, wet fix for minimal cost. At the moment, vending machines only cater for the last two groups. But we were asked to think about how they could be developed to access the other sorts of markets.

By this point I had got talking to the guy next to me, a historian and magazine editor from California with a passion for coffee who has spent years writing a book on the history of coffee. VERY interesting guy. We were asked to pair up and try to design The Coffee Vending Machine of the Future! Perhaps inevitably, we got sidetracked talking about the history of coffee houses…. To this end, my “made up off the top of my head” vending machine was STEAMPUNK! Only one person in the room knew what I meant by steampunk, and I am eternally grateful to him. Syphon-style coffee makers (like french presses, but sucking water up through the coffee rather than squashing it down) lend themselves to the imagined Victoriana style – all steaming glass tubes, hissing noises and brass plates. Big heavy machines. Mine would be a cylindrical tank with several glass syphons arranged around it, allowing several high quality single origin coffees to be served simultaneously but without the faffing about, waiting time or expensive of espresso. Brass robot arms would then add milk, sugar, cream, flavourings etc. The customer would pull a large lever to start the thing, and set a dial to Weak or Strong. The whole contraption would be encased in a glass booth, with a canopy over it and a small ledge all round it for people to lean on to drink their coffee. It could be a centre piece to any service station, or a talking point in an office block, fulfilling the same role as the water dispenser conversation point does now. Better still, the weirdness and clockwork/steam intricacy of the machine itself would provide the spectacle needed so that people part with quite a lot of money for the coffee it made. You would be paying for the thrill of seeing it in action as well as for the convenience of not having to make coffee yourself. However,  to avoid queues and to embrace modern technology, the machine would work via a barcode scanner. A complimentry phone app would allow you to design your favourite coffee – say “Strong, Costa Rican, no milk, two sugars, 12oz cup” which would then be represented as a barcode on your phone. You’d then find the machine, wave your phone at it, pull the lever, and your personalised, favourite coffee would be dispensed from the test-tube syphons by the robot arms and payment would be taken from your phone bill. Personally, I think this is the future.

More sensible ideas included using face recognition software to personalise your coffee (ie: if it measured large bags under your eyes then it would automatically give you extra caffeine!). Others wanted a machine that took payment only after it made the drink so you never lost money if the machine broke down and so on. However, the main thing to come out of the discussion was that if the company wants people to pay good money for vending machine coffee, the vending machine absolutely cannot look like or feel like a conventional vending machine. They just have too many negative connotations!

I really hope the ‘major coffee company’ take in board all our views, even if we/I did get a little sidetracked and carried away! I was thanked profusely for my contributions but I am never any good at telling whether people are just humouring me or not. But, if a major coffee brand introduces a range of huge brass steampunk contraptions into your office, please let me know!!

***

EDIT:

Someone has already come up with a similar machine!! I mean like this, but with at least 5 syphons and more arms.

Clicky the image for the artist's Deviant Art page

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Coffee Shops

A little project looking at how coffee shops market themselves. What goes on the shop front? How is coffee marketed actually on the building? More tellingly though, what do coffee customers notice about the shop fronts? How much of an effect does the shop decor have on people’s decision to go there?

This is a work in progress – I would love to get people to send me a picture of their favourite coffee shop and give me a short sentence about why they like it. I will update this page as I receive more pictures. If you’d like to contribute, I’d be eternally grateful. Please email your pics to drcoffee@live.co.uk. I won’t publish anyone’s names if you don’t want me to, just say in your email if you want to stay anonymous.

Here’s a few I’ve received so far. Analysis will follow!

Esquires, Durham: "Spiced Apple punch = nom nom. They also have free newspapers!" - Richard, Durham

Gusto Italiano, Sheffield. "There are two reasons why I go here: the coffee and the service. Both very good." - (Ol, Sheffield)

Beckett's, Skinner Street, Whitby. "We looked everywhere for a coffee shop that delivered a proper espresso - bingo! The service was friendly with smiles and faultless." (J.C., Whitby)

Afternoon Tease, Parkgate, Darlington. "I like the tea, hot chocolate, and soup, and the fantastically friendly atmosphere combined with their love of books and writing." (Chelle, Hartlepool) "It frakkin' ROCKS!!" (Dave, Darlington)

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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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.

cafe

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.

But ANYWAY.

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!

setup

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!

barista

Moi as experimental barista and bemused guinea-pig

guineapigs

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!

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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