Tag Archives: research

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:


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.


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.


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:



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


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Posted by on June 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


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The Great Coffee Dictionary Project

Reblogging this from coffeebyproxy – another coffee blog by fellow coffee anthropologist, Kate in Colorado. I am going to add my bits as soon as I have time (gulp!), but if you are linguistically gift coffee lover, then please feel free to contribute!


The Great Coffee Dictionary Project.

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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


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My Book is out!!

Here it is!!!

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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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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!

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Posted by on September 29, 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!!



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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A positive little Meme

I survived the Viva.

So, I can more-or-less claim DOCTOR-hood!
Not quite the bestest bestest result I could have hoped for but it’ll do for now. They did like the thesis, and the viva exam went a lot better than I’d expected. It was lovely to meet Eric Laurie finally, whose stuff I’ve been quoting on and off for the past few years! And it wasn’t actually an interrogation, just quite an intense chat. Can’t say I enjoyed the experience but it certainly wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

But, inevitably, I have a few corrections to do, and because I’m emigrating and everything, they decided to be helpful and give me a year to do all these minor revisions. Which means I am not completely shot of it yet! gah!

More disappointingly, it means I was not technically awarded the doctorate on the day. Close but no cappuccino. They were very complimentry about it, saying it was an enjoyable read, and interestingly, that I could get my Ethics chapter published as a standalone paper, without too much editing. This surprised me because I wasn’t actually that pleased with that chapter, but I am sorely tempted to do it just because it is such a controversial topic. The comments I received on this blog alone are testament to that!

My revisions are not too bad either – setting out my arguments more clearly at the beginning of each chapter, yet more bloody references about ‘gender divisions of labour’ in the Skills section, even down to putting subheadings in my literature review.  Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t take too long at all, and if I can find a babysitter occasionally, I would probably manage it in 3 months anyway! But given that Miri is trying to climb on the keyboard and watch Cookie Monster sing Lady Gaga on Youtube as I type this blog, trying to concentrate on these sorts of edits is virtually impossible!!

But, it’s so bloody close.  I shall stay positive.


And now I need to change her nappy. Gotta go, dear reader(s)! I shall leave you with this:

My favourite little meme of the week

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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Plans for 2011

First of all, I hope my dear reader(s) had a good Christmas and happy new year to all!
Second, apologies for the state of this post. I am trying to type it on my phone, that is, my brand new nokia E90. I know that this phone is at least 3 years old now, but it is still the best phone Nokia have ever made and I love it, and darling hubby has bought me a new one for christmas to replace the one that died a nasty death last summer. We are currently driving back from Shrewsbury to Darlington, Miranda is wailing, i am bored but it is dark and I can barely see the keyboard to type, and WordPress Mobile in all its infinite wisdom has rendered the New Post screen a whole 4cm wide for no fathomable reason.
But i digress.

I had a nice message from Simon at Pollards coffee roasters, saying “2011 will be the year of Afternoon Tease”. It kinda has to be really, but also it should be the year I really become an actual doctor of coffee. This means finishing the thesis, which in turn, means a helluva lot of work over the next few months. Intense planning is required.

One possible plan for the thesis is to build up a reputation in Afternoon Tease for good coffee to the extent the Coffee Geeks or glitterati or whatever they should be named; the barista champions, and gourmets and so on start visiting from afar. I could run off a few copies of the thesis with a vanity publisher and try and flog them in the cafe – I’d just need some major geeks and/or academics to come in because I’m sure no one else would be remotely interested!

In this spirit of all good research, I have adapted Gwilym Davies’  (Flat-cap-wearing 2009 World Barista champion, part of the aforementioned coffee glitteratti) idea of the ‘Disloyalty card’ – encouraging people to try out other *good* coffee venues in London on his list, just to get people experiencing excellent coffee. Darlington, in my opinion, does not have enough good coffee venues for this to work here, so instead I am introducing a Coffee Adventurer card – to get people to try drinks they wouldn’t normally have. I am going to do a Tea one too. After the customer tries all the different drinks, they get their favourite free. A bit like Bingo!

I feel pretty strongly that the thesis should not be the be-all and end-all of this PhD. I have absorbed so much, often trivial, information about coffee that it seems a waste (geddit?) not to use this knowledge. Some is being employed in the day to day running of the cafe (embodied knowledge) but I want to expand on that. I think, with a bit more practice, I could do barista training in the cafe. (knowledge sharing?) I know a few people (who I’ve met through my research) who do very well out of teaching people how to make coffee… May need to improve my latte art though.

A long term project is also to roast my own in there. Despite all my efforts, roasting is still the area of coffee I know least about. Off the top of my head, I’ve met and interviewed at least ten roasters, and I’ve seen it done all over the world. However, it is the sort of thing that can go wrong very easily and expensively, and no amount of sweet-talking “helpless-student” begging has resulted in me being let loose to play on the machines. This I see as a distinct deficiency; I need to learn. I was offered a very, very small shiny coffee roasting machine to borrow when we opened the cafe, just enough to fill the place with that fantastic aroma in the mornings. I had to turn it down at the time because we had no air vents to let smoke out of the back! But with a bit of forethought and the potential use of the empty rooms above the cafe, and some ducting, I reckon I could set it all up there eventually and roast my own Miranda blend!

Speaking of Miranda, the final plan, which is both long time and on-going is to set up her own little Penny University within Afternoon Tease. If all this goes well, Miri will effectively grow up in the place, and we were planning on home-schooling her for at least a year. In the cafe, she has Aunty Jo to teach her singing and writing, Aunty Tattoo.Jo to teach her to dance, me to teach her barista skills (needing a basic level of physics and chemistry to understand how the espresso machine works), cooking and baking, we can do coffee origin trips for geography and learning Spanish, she can learn IT through updating our website, her Daddy can teach her enough maths to do my accounts(!) and maybe even some physics and technology if we get the roasting machine up and running! Sorted. she’ll be fine. obviously.

Now all I’ve got to is get going with it all! Oh, and make some money in the process.

Happy 2011 peoples!

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Posted by on January 2, 2011 in Uncategorized


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