Tag Archives: Guatemala

My Life in Coffee

Time for some pretty pictures.
It occurs to me that I’ve been messing around in the coffee industry for six years now. I’ve had a lot of adventures and learned a huge amount. Coffee has taken me all over the place, from the Voodoo Cafe in Darlington in 2006 (where it all began in earnest), Durham for Caffe Nero in 2007, to Sheffield for the PhD for the next four and a half years, London for Caffe Culture and other research gigs on numerous occasions, then Ohio, and Guatemala City for conferences in 2010, six months in Nicaragua and Costa Rica for fieldwork in 2008-9, back to Darlington for my coffee van in 2009, Afternoon Tease in 2010, my first ever North East Coffee Festival and Doctor Coffee’s Cafe in 2011, and finally to Regina, Saskatchewan for 13th Ave Coffee House in 2012. Oh and my book is being published by a German publisher. It’s been quite a journey!

Here’s some highlights! These are in no particular order and there are a lot of them!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Leave a comment

Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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. 😦

Leave a comment

Posted by on March 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , ,

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


Tags: , , , ,

“November -January Progress Report”

I have just had to write my latest little summary of what I’ve been up to for the past three months; this little task has to be completed for the sake of the ESRC and the rest of the Waste of the World program to keep up to date with our work, and also for me to occasionally justify my existence at the university!
I found it quite hard to write this time, mainly because all I’ve done for the past few months in relation to work is write – writewritewritewrite. I’ve not done much in the way of active research, I’ve not been anywhere, not attended any more conferences, nothing…. The summary was pretty short. This is Year Three after all: serious thesis writing time. So far I’ve done about 20000 words, and two and half chapters. Typically I opted to do the ‘easy’ chapters first – that is, the more empirical ones on ‘quality’ ‘ethics’ and currently working on ‘skill’. They are all rather lacking in references at the moment though, and read far too much like “this is what I did on my holidays”…. However, I know that this is only going to get harder as soon as I am stuck writing the dreaded literature review or worse – the actual conclusions….

I haven’t really been writing solidly for three months though, but everything else I’ve been up to is hardly academic.
Although, there is this:
from the PHD comics
(with thank yous to the PHD comics)
Not quite at the dirty nappies stage yet! But certainly a great deal of time has been spent recently preparing for the arrival of the occupant of those nappies. When I say “preparing” I mean, throwing up, lying on the sofa with no energy being kicked from the inside, rushing to the loo every five minutes and shopping for increasingly gigantic bras. Unsurprisingly, this does not a productive Bel make,

Fortunately for me, my taste for coffee has finally started to come back, Not to the obsessive, addicted extent that it was, but enough for me to enjoy the occasional cup again. And of course, I still have my regular supply! Doctor Coffee’s Cafe was extremely hectic before Christmas (not helped by aforementioned lack of energy) but has been severely hampered by the snow in the New Year, as I really didn’t think me standing out in blizzards with very little shelter was the best thing I could be doing with myself at the moment. Still, we are back on track: the snow has gone, cakes are being made every week, my source on the ground in Nicaragua (gracias Andie!) is shipping me huge slabs of 100% cacao for hot chocolate, and I got my final delivery of coffee from Cafe Cristina in Costa Rica. This is a sad landmark: the Costa Rican postal service decided to increase their overseas shipping rates by 107% as of December 09 – yes you did read that right, *one hundred and seven percent!!*, meaning that it is simply not worth Cafe Cristina sending the coffee to Europe any more. Craziness. I am savouring my last batch, but I’ve got to find a new supplier now!

This progress report also had to include, for the first time, what we are planning to do in the future. I resisted the urge to say “reproduce”; instead I have another cunning plan, brimful of academic worth. It is:
The International Coffee Organisation’s World Coffee Conference
Conveniently, at the end of February. And better still, IN GUATEMALA.
The conference is all about the future of coffee – in terms of the global market for the stuff, the economic and environmental sustainability of the industry (useful for my waste project), improvements in working conditions, and interestingly, about ‘differentiation’ – specificially, the speciality industry, certification and quality – all exactly what I am interested in! It’s a very full program, over three days, and also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of ANACAFE, the Guatemalan coffee organisation. Lots and lots of industry big-wigs, as well as academics, and it is even being opened by the President of Guatemala! This is a biiiiiig deal. Eep.
My supervisors were not so keen on the idea, but I think, mainly because they are determined that I get my thesis done in draft form the time I go on maternity leave in June, and this is, and I quote, “a week out of writing.” I assured them that I’d have plenty of time on the 22hour-in-each-direction flights. It is also a blooming long way to go for a conference. However, by pure serendipity, I had exactly enough money left in my university pot of ‘conference money’ to afford a flight and the extortionate registration fee, (I have since learned that there are 13.61 Guatemalan quetzals to the pound. Knowing this didn’t make it seem any cheaper!). By the end of February, I will be 23 weeks pregnant, and still apparently safe to fly. I am not about to pop on the plane, anyway. I managed to get travel insurance with the optional extra of “uncomplicated pregnancy as pre-existing medical condition”. All is set!! I am determined to go – I honestly do think it will be really interesting and pretty useful for the project, I can see what the Guatemalan industry is like in comparison with neighbouring Nicaragua and Costa Rica, but it could also be good in terms of networking. I can’t shake the idea of imminent unemployment after this PhD, and with small sprog, this is equivalent to Impending Doom. Scary.
This is obviously going to be my last trip anywhere exotic for quite some time as well. I don’t like that idea much, but I assured for all sides that baby will be worth it! Maybe this opportunity has come along to pacify me? For the first time ever, I am getting a little paranoid about travelling. I will, at the request of darling husband, drink bottled water out there, No volcano climbing. No street food (waa!) I may even spend over ten dollars a night on accomodation (a mortal sin, in my book) and stay in a guesthouse not a hostel… gah. Responsibility does not come easily to me!
But, nevertheless… adventures in many forms no doubt await me and I am excited about love, life and coffee! Hasta la victoria siempre!
Guatemala map and coffee

1 Comment

Posted by on January 21, 2010 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , ,