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SCAA Scientific Poster presentation – The Costs of Quality

In 2010, I met Kate at the World Coffee Conference in Guatemala City. At the time, we promised to keep in touch with the view of writing a paper together, “probably about quality”. It took us 6 years, 2 PhDs, multiple trips to Costa Rica and 2 babies,  but we finally did it!

The annual SCAA Expo was in Atlanta this year, and we submitted our proposal for the scientific poster session and got approved quite quickly. So then we actually had to write the thing. Unfortunately time and money (or rather, lack of) meant I couldn’t make it to Atlanta to present it, so poor Kate had to go alone, but by the sounds of it she did it wonderfully!

Here’s the abstract we submitted:

Introduction:

Specialty coffee is, by definition, concerned with quality. But how that quality is determined, and by whom, is not the wholly objective process many would like to think of it as. Moreover, the details that are so important to SCAA members are often received very differently at either end of the coffee chain. Not only are many of these details misunderstood by, or irrelevant to the consumers and producers,  the focus on quality at all costs may be detrimental to both farmers and consumers.

Objectives:

Drawing on research at origin (in Costa Rica and Honduras) and consumption (in Northern England and Saskatchewan) as well as at previous SCAA events, we use qualitative, social scientific methods to answer a) how ideas about quality are understood and evaluated and b) how the focus on quality impacts consumers and producers.

Results:

We argue that the focus on quality to the exclusion of all other considerations is a problematic path. At origin, many farmers are not interested in meeting buyer requirements that can feel arbitrary and which seem to fluctuate daily. Others are not able to access the higher end specialty markets, and so end up selling very good coffee on the conventional market. In Costa Rica in particular the price is far too low for the efforts demanded by specialty buyers, so that many who would prefer to grow coffee have left the industry.

Consumers in Saskatchewan and northern England likewise feel excluded from, or overwhelmed by, the specialty industry’s idea of what coffee should be. In the majority of coffee shops in these areas, coffee is rarely even labelled by origin, and certainly not by SCAA cupping scale scores. Consumers are more heavily influenced by individual taste preference and by price, as well as the vendors’ marketing. With so many factors contributing to the consumers’ idea of ‘Quality’ coffee, it is difficult to determine whether  the demand for very high quality is driven by the consumers at all.

Importance and Interest:

The results of our work and of that of other social scientists indicate that the SCAA focuses only on quality at its peril. There is good reason to distinguish specialty from conventional, and of course there must be a way to indicate that distinction. To insist on only one idea of coffee is, however, to risk alienating both potential customers and current or future farmers. The SCAA does not need to embrace instant coffee to recognize that there is room to consider other factors in the determination of quality, nor are we arguing that a drive to improve growing, processing, shipping and preparation is unwarranted: rather the opposite. Indeed, the story of coffee as one of the humble, hardworking farmer who transmits love and care  through the coffee chain to the tattooed, bearded barista who then prepares your beverage with that same love and care is a compelling one. We suggest, however, that particularly in light of the coffee rust crisis and the success of ‘basic’ coffee brands using lower quality beans, there is room for more nuance and complexity in that story. This would benefit farmers who are marginalized by low prices and unrealistic expectations as well as shop owners who want their customers to love coffee as much as they do, if not in the same way.

Scientific posters are HUGE:

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Here is the full thing, if I can upload it:

SCAA_poster_2016

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Posted by on June 23, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Building the bumpy road towards sustainability

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Look! I dressed up and everything!

I was recently invited to speak at the Engineers Without Borders fundraising Gala at the Royal Saskatchewan Hotel. This was a little intimidating: very posh hotel, 150 people all in formal dress, paying a lot of money to hear me waffle on…. and me knowing very little about engineering! They knew I was the Official Local Coffee Geek though, so somehow I had to link coffee knowledge to engineers, along the general theme of “Building the Future”. This is what I came up with!

(Be warned, I had to speak for 20 minutes. Long Post Klaxon!)

What has coffee got to do with Engineering?

Well, the coffee was the first commodity and food industry to become Fairtrade certified. The Fairtrade Foundation was set up to help farmers who were living in poverty as a result of the crash in the global prices of coffee. The Fairtrade movement guarantees a minimum price for farmers to help stabilize the industry and to guarantee at least a minimum income from the crop of coffee. Furthermore, when international coffee buyers negotiate a contract under the Fairtrade scheme, they agree to pay not only a fair price for the coffee, but also an additional ‘social premium’ – around 10cents per pound of coffee. This social premium goes to the coffee cooperatives, and is used to fund projects that benefit the coffee farming community a whole. These projects can be anything from building schools for the local children, or irrigation and clean water projects to investing in new coffee processing technology at the cooperative’s coffee mill. This is where engineers and development workers are crucial to the coffee communities. Fairtrade schemes just provide the money, they don’t often get involved in the actual building!

I am going to talk about coffee farming in Nicaragua because this is where I did a lot of my own fieldwork. Nicaragua is a developing country, and nearly a third of its GDP comes from its coffee industry. The vast amajority of Nicaraguan coffee farms are less than 3 hectares in size, and are also located in remote, hard to reach areas. High quality coffee needs high altitude – over 800metres above sea level, and a very humid, warm climate and very fertile soil. Some regions of Nicaragua in the Northern highlands, in the cloudforests and on the side of volcanoes provide near-perfect coffee-growing conditions. A great deal of Nicaraguan coffee is grown organically too, in an effort to preserve the cloudforest biodiversity, so the coffee plants are grown in amongst other plants and trees, with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides used. This technique means the coffee tastes great and fetches higher prices for the farmers, but it also creates a great many infrastructure problems.

Small coffee farms are generally grouped together into cooperatives, in fact, the Fairtrade Foundation insists on them, and only gives Fairtrade Certification status to recognised, democratically based cooperatives. The cooperatives process the coffee from hundreds, sometimes thousands of farms. The coffee production process is very complex – it’s not just a case of picking it off the tree and roasting it. The farmers pick the coffee by hand, then depulp it, (meaning, take the fruit off it) on their own farm, meaning that each farmer has to have their own depulper machine (either handcranked or diesel powered). The coffee beans are then washed to remove the sticky fruit muscelage. The coffee beans then have to be dried out so that they lose at least 10% of their moisture, before they are transported to the central processing mills operated by the cooperative. At the processing mill, the coffee is “trilled” in a huge machine which essentially removes the now-brittle parchment like layer covering the beans. Then they are dried out further, spread out on huge concrete patios in the sun and turned regularly, and finally they are meticulously sorted to remove low quality, defective beans, first by hand, then by a very clever complicated machine, which detects the beans’ weigh, size, shape, density, and colour, and grades the crop accordingly. Only then can it be sold to international buyers.

In recent years, the coffee commodity price has recovered well, and the price of it on the global markets has far exceeded the Fairtrade guaranteed minimum. But to get the very best prices, farmers have to produce the very best quality coffee – and customers are getting more and more discerning. The quality can be affected by any number of climatic and environmental factors, and much like wine, there are good and bad years for coffee, and variations between coffee grown in Nicaragua and coffee grown in Ethiopia, for instance. Some variation in quality can be controlled by the farmers, and their skills and most significantly, the access they have to some resources has a huge bearing on the coffee’s quality.  This is where the Fairtrade social premium comes in.

In order to preserve the coffee’s quality, certain parts of the production process have to be performed within certain time frames. On the farm, the fruit has to be removed from the beans within 24 hours, otherwise it can start to ferment, which damages the flavour of the coffee. Similarly, the beans must be transported to the cooperative’s processing mill as soon as possible, so that the beans can be dried out quickly and farmers can minimize the risk of damage from unexpected rain or from pests whilst the coffee is on the farm.

Transporting coffee to the cooperative processing mill is not as simple as it sounds. As mentioned previously, the farms are usually halfway up mountains and in tropical cloudforests. In many parts of Nicaragua, irrigations is a huge problem too: in winter, it is too dry and the ground cracks or turns to sand, and landslides are common. In summer, areas can flood and roads can be cut off entirely by mudslides. If there are actual roads, they are usually unpaved, steep and tightly curled around the mountains, and can be virtually impassable without a large and powerful 4×4 vehicle – which are well beyond the budgets of the farmers. With hundreds of farms spread out over large areas, the cooperative cannot practically manage coffee collections themselves, so the farmers have to transport their coffee by their own means. I did see one farmer negotiating a steep mountain track with a 100lb sack of coffee beans strapped to the back of his little 125cc motorbike, but otherwise, they are forced to use the rural bus service, that is, very old yellow school buses donated from the United States, which serve as the only form of public transport. As you can imagine, neither is a particularly ideal option, but the risk of damaging the coffee crop – that often represents the entire annual income for the farming families – is too great, and so they always find a way!

Another big issue in Nicaraguan coffee regions is that of water pollution. Washing the sticky fruit mucilage off coffee beans on the farms requires a source of clean running water, and quite a lot of it too. Whereas most farmers do have access to this at least, supplies are still limited and washing the coffee has its own set of problems.

In neighbouring Costa Rica, farmers are required by law to purify and reuse water on coffee farms, which is far easier to achieve when Costa Rican farmers have the resources to purify water already installed on the farms. In Nicaragua however, farmers cannot afford this sort of technology, and the cooperatives are not in a position to implement it either. Water containing coffee mucilage is extremely acidic, and if it is left to just run off the farms and soak into the earth, it can strip important nutrients from the soil, which potentially damages the following year’s crop, as well as any other plants in the vicinity. In the worst case scenario, run-off water can enter the water table and exacerbate existing flooding, and also enter the water supply intended for human consumption.

Maintaining and enhancing coffee’s quality is paramount to the farmers’ livelihoods, as the best, most sustainable prices are paid for the highest quality coffee. However, the quality of the crop depends a great deal on the farmer’s ability to manage the logistics of processing coffee beans, and on his access to resources and technology.

The Fairtrade social premium paid to the cooperatives provides the financial resources to aid the farmers’ often precarious situation, but in practical terms, a lot of the work needs to be developed by skilled, knowledgeable engineers. If farmers cannot afford 4×4 trucks, then mountain roads must be improved and maintained so that transporting coffee is made easier and more efficient. To avoid pollution, irrigation needs to be properly managed and developed, and the farmers must be provided with the technology (and technical know-how) to purify and reuse their water supplies. None of these problems are insurmountable but they do require the help of skilled infrastructure experts, and most importantly, engineers who actually understand the coffee industry, and who can see what needs to be done to help the farmers and to improve the quality of the coffee we all take for granted.

 

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Oil slick rescue!

Ye gads!!!!
What an adventure. Today I (unintentionally) came to the rescue of a coffee shop (which had better remain nameless). The problem? Espresso machine pulling shots too short (ie: not enough water running through the coffee.) It was also flashing its lights rather pathetically, hissing worryingly when it refilled and also beginning to leak hot water out of the side of the machine!

Pressure and temperature dials seemed normal and there was no obvious cause of the leak. So, I tried to reprogram it to increase the volume of water going through the coffee. No joy. The espresso was just dripping out, incredibly thick and black and sludgey, and a double shot took over two minutes to pour. It tasted vile and coated the roof of your mouth like bitter tar.

So I thought, maybe it’s just ground too finely. I adjusted the grind – it was very finely ground, like icing sugar, but seemed to be clumping together too. Even turning the grinder to its most coarse setting didn’t improve the espresso, so I turned it back again and ground some more in case it was a one-off blip. It was no anomaly; the second batch resulted in the grinder getting blocked as well and I had to poke the stuff out with the end of a spoon. So we decided to give the machines the benefit of the doubt, and tried to pull a shot using decaf espresso from another grinder. This shot worked perfectly!!

The Doctor’s diagnosis?

REALLY terrible coffee!

Seriously.

The decaf shot was what gave it away. There was nothing wrong with the espresso machine, it was the coffee going in to it that was causing the problems. On closer inspection, it was roasted really, really darkly. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but next to the decaf espresso, the beans looked black and very shiny. Rubbing ground coffee between my fingers felt really greasy – a sign of very low quality coffee (higher quality arabica has less oil content). The fact that it was blocking the grinder tells me exactly how greasy it was – coffee should not do that! And even very very finely ground coffee should never be so thick as to withstand the espresso machine pushing water through under 15 atmospheres of pressure.

Here’s the beans. They look safe enough, don’t they? Looks can be deceptive.
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In the end, we just had to throw the beans away. A different blend of espresso roasted by another company but made in the same grinder and with the same espresso machine, worked fine and poured a nice shot. The roast can make A LOT of difference!

Here is the bag of machine-breaking beans, just in case you were wondering. Take note of the roaster’s logo.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 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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My Book is out!!

Here it is!!!
http://amzn.com/3659229288

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2012 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.

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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!

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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!

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Moi as experimental barista and bemused guinea-pig

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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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Starbucks Via and why I should have done a Physics degree

I am sitting in Starbucks again, contemplating the two cardboard cups in front of me.

posterI am here wearing my metaphorical “suffering academic” hat; this is all in the name of research. Somewhere along the line I have gotten myself on the Starbucks UK mailing list, and lo and behold, I received an invite to the Starbucks Via Taste Test. They are launching their new product, called Via, which although has no mention of being “instant” coffee, comes in single-cup satchets and is completely soluable. Yep, they are figuratively – and literally – scraping the bottom of the barrel and selling instant coffee. Three sticks of the stuff will set you back £1.20 (at the introductory rate, £1.45 in a few weeks’ time.), and I am assured it is made from “100% natural roasted arabica beans – the same high quality as all our coffee.” Now, we can “never be without great coffee” thanks to Via Ready Brew – as if I am going to carry sticks of instant “coffee” around in my bag, like tampons or something.

Starbucks “believe Via tastes as delicious as our fresh filter coffee. But don’t take our word for it. Try it yourself.” they beg. The Taste Challenge involved being given two free ‘tall’ cups (that is code for ‘small’ in here, or “not-served-in-a-bucket” to everyone this side of the Atlantic). One contains their Colombian single origin filter coffee, and the other this Via stuff which is apparently made from the same Colombian beans. Could I tell the difference?
Well yes, of course I could.

The whole ‘blind’ test idea was rendered obsolete as soon as the poor barista had to stir the soluable stuff for me, but even if I had attempted this blindfolded, the differences were immediately obvious.
I can’t be sure on this, but I am fairly confident that the process employed to make coffee soluable results in the loss of any natural fragrance and aroma of the brewed drink, and certainly a great deal of the flavour. Consequently, as I mentioned in my recent rant about Nescafe, any aromas that are present in instant coffee must therefore be chemically added back in afterwards. This is exactly how Starbucks Via smells – artificial. My nose maybe going in to overdrive at the moment with pregnancy hormones, but I could smell coffee candles – that artificially sweet scent with vanilla and malt that makes up most coffee-esque air fresheners and scented candles. As it cooled, I swear I could smell powdered vegetable soup as well. Definitely not natural. On the other hand, the filter smelled extremely citrussy and mildly alcoholic, like dry white wine – to my (limited) knowledge of cupping, that implies overly acidic coffee and possibly over-fermented beans where the cherries have been left on too long.
On tasting it, the Via taste liked instant coffee. There are few other ways of describing it. Flat. Smooth. Not incredibly bitter, almost waxy, if that means anything. And no aftertaste at all – it doesn’t linger in the mouth. The Colombian filter tasted very very bitter in contrast – stronger tasting all round, but with an acrid aftertaste – like the flavour you get in your mouth when you smell burning rubber. It also tasted very “thin” which to my mind, most single origins do. But the overwhelming flavour and smell was just BURNT. In my opinion, Starbucks burn their coffee anyway – that is the way they can guarantee the same flavour in every batch of coffee in every shop in the world. They bake the coffee to effectively flatten any nuances in the beans, to keep the flavours consistant. But even so, the filter was especially burnt – the roast was far, far too dark for filter coffee.

I have to admit I am now feeling bad about not liking this. Whatever else I can say about this place, the staff are lovely and I kinda feel obliged to enjoy my Third Place experience, or something….Yes, I am weak.
One barista has just said she can’t tell the difference between the Via and the filter!!! I am keenly following other people’s views on this on the Starbucks Facebook page too. There are many, already, who “failed” the taste challenge, and couldn’t tell the difference. This actually frightens me. However, after experiences in Sheffield over the past few days, I am now rekindling my interest in what non-coffee-geek people actually think. I have always tried to avoid customers’ opinions throughout my PhD research because they are just messy, most of the time, and so much has been written on coffee shop culture already. Yet, if I am going to look at ideas of quality, I need to find out if that quality is recognised, appreciated and demanded by consumers. The basic premise of my thesis was that in order to produce high quality coffee, more has to be wasted in the process. But if customers do not actually recognise ‘quality’ and don’t necessarily demand it, then the waste cannot be justified and the extra effort that goes into improving the quality is also wasted. And then we are back to my (now infamous) question at the Ohio conference: Why not let them drink crap if they want to?

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get invited to see Pollards coffee roasters in Sheffield (actually thanks to a throw-away comment on this blog! yay!). hooverSimon, the owner, seems to be a kindred spirit – ie: equally cynical about many aspects of the coffee industry and proved very very interesting to talk to. The roasting is done on a very hands-on basis still, using roasting machines which are “partially” computer controlled. The computer monitored the time, temperature and energy consumption of the roasting beans, and the roast profile for that particular batch was neatly plotted on a graph on the screen in a neat curve. As the beans roasted, the computer plotted another line showing the actual temperatures of the beans – it was pretty close, although with a few extra wobbles – thanks to the proportion of the blend that came from Honduras, apparently. I asked Simon how he had learned to roast, and all the intricacies that go with it (he had also designed a roaster machine that could potentially run off vegetable oil, and made an ingenious contraption out of plastic piping and a hoover to move the roasted beans around the workshop without breaking any – and saved himself £25,000 in the process). He said most of his knowledge was as a result of his physics degree!! NOW I know where I’ve been going wrong, messing around with arts and social sciences for all these years…..

On the subject of academic research, however, Simon is very keen to do the Quality Test. That is, to get a goodly sized sample of coffee drinkers together, and do a taste challenge a la Starbucks, only offering one very high quality coffee and one low quality (based on price of the beans involved from origin – he will do the roasting and it’ll all be espresso based.). Basically, we want people to tell us which one tastes better to them. This should tell us once and for all, if your average coffee consumer actually notices and prefers “high quality”. This could be EXTREMELY handy for me too – not just for my research, but also for the Doc Coffee van. All being well, I could print posters like Costa’s – 80% of people prefer high quality (Costa advertise the fact 7 out of 10 “coffee lovers” prefer Costa. Tested on 174 people. In Glasgow.). And if the cheaper blend is preferred, I shall jack it all in and buy up loads of Starbucks Via for the van…. ye gads I hope not!!! To this end, I am planning on getting something together at the uni – I’ll hire a room there, Pollards will supply the coffees and the espresso machine, I can bring cups and round up coffee drinking students and university staff. We’ll do this over two days, and it would be great to get over 100 people. I’ll be plugging this as much as possible when we’ve decided a time so if you’re at all interested and fancy a couple of free coffees then pleeeeeeeeeease get in touch, come along, and give us your opinions!

On that note, if you’ve done the Starbucks Via Taste Challenge, PLEASE give your views on here! I’d be really interested to hear from you. Thanks all!

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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