Tag Archives: roasting

Always plan 15 seconds ahead…

I think that is good advice for life in general actually, but especially for my current project, coffee roasting!
I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but roasting is the part of the coffee process that I know least about. I have seen it done hundreds of times, attended pretty high level workshops on it and hung out in roasting companies for the PhD, but knowing what to do is definitely NOT the same as knowing how to do it. As with barista skills, it all comes with practice, but to learn properly, you have to Do, not just Watch. The reason I never got much hands on experience during my research was just that it is very difficult, and can go wrong so easily and when it does it is very expensive (in terms of wasted coffee beans) and potentially dangerous (fires).

Home roasting is possible with minimal equipment and some common sense (herein lies the rub). You can roast coffee badly and unevenly in a frying pan with a wooden spoon (except in addition to burnt beans, you also ruin the pan and fill the kitchen with smoke, fyi). The most effective way is using a air popcorn maker, but that restricts your roast capacity to about 50grams at a time. Roasting a standard sized bag of coffee with a popcorn machine takes nearly 2 hours and even if you acheive it, you might find you’ve burnt out the motor on the popcorn machine. I speak from experience on both these counts.


Now my cafe is up and running nicely and we have a lot of space in it, I bit the bullet and invested in a proper coffee roaster.  It is lovely. And complicated. And programmable. I am so in love with it, I even did the unthinkable and read the manual first! Despite this vague preparation and along with some tips from friends who roast and my notes from the roasting workshops at Cafe Culture, my first few attempts were so good the fire alarm started cheering me on!! Cinnamon/light roast is relatively easy, Charbucks style oily blackness is very easy, tasty medium to dark roast is pretty damn difficult, and a bit scary.

But practice makes perfect, and after playing with the machine for a month (and wasting a huge amount of green coffee beans, unfortunately) I have got to the point where the coffee I roast is good enough to go in the cafe (in bags for home use, I couldn’t keep up with the amount needed for drinks in the cafe). Here is what I’ve learned so far:

1. Always plan 15 seconds ahead.
This is the length of time for the machine to go from heating to cooling. So even after you hit stop, it will carry on roasting for 15 seconds longer. 15 seconds is a long time for coffee. Not even Starbucks Bold roast (ie, black) goes beyond 10 seconds past the 2nd crack. I’ve found the difference between delicious and burnt is 3 seconds.

2. This. This is bollocks.

There is always smoke.

3. Roasting is an inexact science and a precise art.
As complex as my programming and roast profiles may be, no matter how precisely i set the time and temperatures, the vast majority of the time I am relying on what it looks like and what I can hear. Each type of coffee behaves differently (ie: coffee beans from Brazil are different from SHG Nicaraguan etc) and so you set the profile with an educated guess, listen out for the cracks, then watch it like a hawk until it looks right – or rather, until about 15 seconds before it looks right.

4. Unless you can compare, you turn towards the light.
Partly as a result of the Fear of Fire Alarm (for the record, there have been no actual fires, just enough smoke to trigger the alarm), my roasts have tended to get lighter and lighter the more I do. It’s strange, but it seems my version of what “looks right” is less and less brave every time. So, it’s best to have a sample of a good batch next to you to compare!

5. Consistency is king, but beans are variable.
Following on from the last points, I think to call yourself a good roaster, you must be able to produce the same results over and over. I am getting there, but it is not as easy as it sounds. Even after I carefully write down the exact formula and roast profile and repeat the roast to the exact second, I still occasionally get ‘anomalous’ results. Sometimes, the beans just misbehave. At the moment, I can’t figure out any reason for it, but this is something I hope to learn as I continue!

Experiments will continue, and I am now confident enough to try roasting blends too (a whole other kettle of fish). Watch this space! And of course, if you are local, pick up a bag of beans in Dr. Coffee’s Cafe and let me know what you think!

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Posted by on October 6, 2015 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!


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.

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.



Posted by on March 20, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Turning the Ordinary into the Ubiquitous

I have been asked to write about Starbucks.

Oh this shall be fun!

This follows many conversations on Twitter both with local people who dare go in there, and also fellow coffee geeks. I am forever slagging off the place, despairing of my friends who go in there and refusing to name the place inside my cafe. But I am always asked WHY? What’s wrong with Starbucks?

Well, actually, nothing particularly obvious.

I read Joseph Michelli’s “The Starbucks Experience” a while ago. I was quite rude about it on here, and embarrassingly, he actually found this blog and responded. What I didn’t like about the book was just it’s gushing, unquestioning praise for the company. There was virtually no criticism at all in the entire book. Toe-curling.

Far more interesting is the fact that you can read at least two-thirds of the book without realising it is about a coffee shop. Michelli is an expert in business and marketing, and in this respect, you can’t fault Starbucks. They have ‘turned the ordinary into the extraordinary’ as Michelli puts it, or, to the cynic, (moi?) – convinced otherwise sensible people that parting with £3 for a cup of coffee is not only justifiable, it is a lifestyle, a fashion statement and a small luxury we can treat ourselves to in a socially acceptable manner. They have even cornered the market of non-coffee drinkers by building an empire based on serving huge milkshakes with a coffee theme, to people wary of the strong black stuff. “The lactification of coffee” as someone else says (“Cite your sources Bel!” “Ketchup, mayonnaise, and HP…” –get to the point…) has made for an undeniably successful business venture.

Anyway, declaring their coffee shops as ‘the third place’ – by which they mean, not at home, not at work but somewhere in between, and a social meeting place that is far more respectable than a pub – means they have managed to entice people in, even if they are not visiting for the coffee itself. Michelli writes about how the company tries to fit in with the local community and so on; a global brand trying to operate its individual branches on a local level. Starbucks has therefore ingratiated itself almost as a social ‘need’, I would suggest in the lack of other public meeting places. As a business model, you can’t fault it. Where did people ‘hang out’ or meet up before coffee shops? Teenagers have been inhabiting them since the 1950s espresso bars because they were refused entry to pubs, but otherwise I assume the equivalent would have been youth clubs or dancehalls or maybe just playgrounds or something. None of which really exist any more. Do we really have to replace them with a branded, corporate empire of identical shops? But I could just as easily argue, that without Starbucks paving the way and making coffee shops popular social spaces, the likes of my business and of smaller, excellent independent coffee shops would not exist. So, thank you Starbucks for getting the British to drink coffee. Now sod off so I can make it properly!!

Michelli also praises their customer service. I can only assume that things are different in the USA, because over here, the customer service is not terrible by any means, it’s just not particularly good or memorable. Serving customers is brand-specific; I encountered the same thing working at Caffe Nero. They train you how to serve, if not actually scripting it, then certainly suggesting things to say to your customer – the 6 service steps which all begin with S so that you remember them, and the ‘mystery customers’ sent by the area manager to check employees are doing it right. The effect is like talking to a robot, and from the opposite perspective, it gives the barista very little scope for injecting any personality or individuality into the transaction. I run a coffee shop, I serve the same range of drinks as Starbucks and Nero, I promote the place as a social meeting place and I have free wifi so people can bring laptops and work in here. But the BIG difference is, I get to be Me. It’s my business, it is very small and obviously independent of any chain branding, and so a huge proportion  of my success or failure depends on my own personality. In this sort of job and at this level of business development, I am still selling myself as much as I am selling coffee. That gives me the advantage of being unique, and it is not something that big brands can ever emulate.

I admit, I do not like the idea of social space being restricted to branded corporations, neither do I like the generic chain coffee shop feel. However, my biggest criticism of Starbucks is the coffee they actually serve you. There is no polite or academic way of saying this – Starbucks Coffee Is Terrible. This is partially a personal preference thing I know, and as mentioned earlier, Starbucks have been very good at persuading non-coffee drinkers to drink it by making coffee drinks that don’t actually taste of coffee. A Starbucks ‘venti’ mocha, for instance, is 614 calories if you have it with full fat milk, and comprises of 3oz of House Blend espresso, 2oz chocolate syrup, 15oz hot milk, topped with squirty cream and chocolate sprinkles, thus rendering the coffee pretty much obsolete, drowned in dairy and sugar. I am fairly sure that would set you back over £3 too.

Back to the ubiquity though: Starbucks’ house blend has to taste exactly the same in January in Darlington as it does in July in Detroit. It is part of the brand, it can’t from place to place or season to season. But coffee is incredibly variable. Stuff that grows in Costa Rica doesn’t taste the same year on year anyway, and coffee from Indonesia won’t taste the same at all. Using a blend of coffees helps keep the taste consistent to some extent, but Starbucks has a trick to make sure. They actually bake the coffee – roasting it slower at a lower temperature than it would normally require. This helps to bake out the variation in flavour, gets rid of the subtle nuances of individual batches of coffee, to form a bland, generic taste that can be reproduced consistently, year round on an enormous scale. It is also why Starbucks coffee is a.) burnt, b.) rarely served as a single espresso c.) cheap for the company and d.) so bland as to be inoffensive to the majority of latte drinkers. Ugh Ugh Ugh Ugh Ugh.

Starbucks have had a lot of muck slung at them in recent years. Starbucks always seems to be at the centre of the anti-globalisation protests, where the small minority of rioters smash its windows and the Daily Mail get lots of dramatic photos and condemn the violent thugs and miss the point entirely…but I disgree. It is usually targeted because to many, it is a symbol of corporate America, the faceless global monopoly (more or less). That and being charged so much for such bad coffee is sometimes enough to spark all sorts of angst. Actually, their ethics, or lack of them, are no different to the majority of very large companies. But that is not to say they are a highly moral, outstandingly responsible, considerate company, far from it!

In January 2010, Starbucks UK switched its House Blend coffee to Fairtrade. This received a lot of praise – at last, they are being ethical! Fair prices for the farmer! Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation says she was delighted about the swap. However, cynics may have noticed the global price of coffee on the New York Commodity Exchange. In the past few years, the global commodity price has soared, and this year it reached at 35 year high of over $3 per pound, whilst the Fairtrade minimum has remained at $1.31 per pound. It was only very recently that the Fairtrade Foundation changed their regulations to state that coffee buyers must pay the Fairtrade rate OR the market rate, whichever is higher. Until that point, with careful negotiation (easy enough when the company is that big!) Starbucks could have switched to Fairtrade entirely because it was cheaper than buying on the open markets. The fact that being 100% Fairtrade just sounds so good and gives you kudos with the consumer is just a bonus.

So, unethical trading, terrible, burnt coffee, buckets of hot milkshake for rip off prices, robotic customer service, and the very fact that you are never more than ten minutes away from one – those are the reasons I am not a fan of Starbucks, dear reader. Please, if you love real coffee, check out your nearest independent place, support local businesses and don’t buy coffee themed milkshakes from people wearing those ominous green aprons. Please.



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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Uncategorized


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Making sense of the Roaster/Retailer relationships: Caffe Nero

My mission at the moment is to investigate all these ideas of quality and waste in the next stage of coffee production – I’ve seen the farms, now I’m supposed to be visiting the roasters. Easier said than done. I need to know: can roasters improve the quality of coffee? what do they actually do that adds value? what skills are required? What, if anything, is wasted during roasting, and how? what happens to this waste? Finally, and perhaps most specifically, I need to follow up with the retailers of this coffee – why do they choose this style of roast? What do coffee shop owners look for when they find roasters and coffee suppliers? What do they believe is a good quality roast? Is this even important to them?

I wanted to start with Caffe Nero, because in some respects I think it would be a simpler process, but also with perhaps clearer ideas of ‘quality’. Caffe Nero are alone amongst the big chain coffee shops in that they are the only chain which does not roast it’s own coffee; instead, Coburg coffee roasters do it for them. Starbucks has its own roasters, Costa has coffee roasted for them by another branch of the Whitbread group which is essentially the same company. Caffe Nero, however, pride themselves on selling ‘the best espresso this side of Milan’, have apparently designed their own secret blend and roast, but pay an independent company to actually supply the goods. I want to know why.

Coburg, (like many roasting companies in my experience so far), remain elusive. Consequently, the following train of thought is based almost entirely on guess work until I can actually get to see them in person.

Something like this.

Something like this.

I am very intrigued by the relationship between Coburg and Caffe Nero. There is a guy who works for Caffe Nero head office who I have spoken to briefly about all this. He is apparently a ‘buyer’ for the company, and has been for nearly ten years. In all other circumstances, coffee buyers are the people who travel out to coffee producing regions, engage in cupping sessions,  and suggest a price based on their judgement of the coffee’s quality. But if Coburg are roasting for Nero (and as far as I am aware, Coburg also import all this coffee, for Nero, their own label, and for other companies- most notably, Mokarabica, which Gusto Italiano use for their independent shop in Sheffield) – and the roast has been designed specifically for Nero which is what they claim, then why do Nero need a buyer themselves? And why do they need to employ one continously for ten years? What does that guy actually do?

Unless of course, Nero change not only the farms from which they buy their coffee from, but also the roast profile they/Coburg use for the Secret Nero Blend, on a regular basis. This then gives the buyer something to do, but it throws up more questions – do they change it because the coffee harvest varies so much? Can people tell if they have changed the coffee? I’ve never noticed, but then I do notice if it has been made well or badly, or just differently to usual. Am I tasting a difference in the skill of the barista in making the espresso, or a difference in the roast and origin of the coffee itself?  Essentially, I still need to ascertain how important the roasting is to the taste of the final product. Does roasting well or badly, enhance or decrease the quality? And how exactly do you roast badly anyway?

As I said, so far, I haven’t heard a squeak out of Coburg, despite repeated attempts to go visit them. So, I turned my attention to figuring out what Caffe Nero managers actually know of the roasted coffee they serve every day. When I worked at Durham’s Caffe Nero branch, I askedthe manager where the coffee came from. He told me a company called Rizzi roasted it, and he reckoned it came from the Isle of Wight. This worried me a great deal when I first started this project – how on earth was I going to research on the Isle of Wight? Could I commute from Darlington?? I also found virtually nothing during google searches for “Rizzi”, and especially not when looking for links between coffee, Rizzi and Isle of Wight. In fact, it is very nearly a googlewhack. The only reference is to a Mr Mike Rizzi, who is a member of the Isle of Wight fencing club. And even more bizarrely, judging by the dates, I may even have met the guy when I used to fence at competition level. Utterly surreal. But aaaanyway….

By the time I worked at Darlington’s branch of Caffe Nero, I’d been promoted to Shift Leader. I asked the Darlington manager if she knew where the coffee came from, and she told me to just have a look when I had to open up the shop and take deliveries the next morning. Coffee arrived: in unmarked silver sealed bags, in an unmarked box with only the Use By date stamped on it. Not helpful. Further digging eventually led me to discover that Rizzi IS actually a coffee roaster, but it hasn’t existed as a company for many years. It is now owned entirely by Coburg. And they are not in fact based on the Isle of Wight, but on the Isle of Dogs – ie: Woolwich. Much easier to get to. The manager of Durham’s Caffe Nero is a Geordie, and I guess anything that far south is indistinguishable and Foreign. But it does not suggest a particularly close relationship between Nero’s retail staff and the roasters.

I have been contacted by someone who works at Caffe Nero, and has managed the seemingly impossible – visited the Coburg roasters. Given her current position, I will keep her anonymous. But interestingly, she was not very impressed. I quote:

“The guy that showed us… round, really didn’t know his stuff about coffee, he knew about prices, and what they were doing, but not about taste,seasonality, blends etc. I thought as a roaster, who stocked and roasted … he would be more knowledgeable on it. … I do know that Nero make up at least 75% of their [Coburg’s] business though. … their own brand coffee is pretty poor, and I don’t think they sell that much as only a small part of the warehouse is dedicated to its storage.”

She went on to say that the Nero coffee is roasted very quickly at extremely high temperatures (“blast roasted”) and can then be stored for up to a year before arriving at the Nero stores. Neither of these two facts suggest excellent quality to my knowledge. Sure, Nero prides itself on its ‘Italianess’ which usually means roasting the coffee to espresso strength, which is very dark, but it shouldn’t mean burning it. I was also taught (during the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe’s roasting workshop) that master roasters identify flavours within different batches of coffee – based on the altitude and year and geographical location – which can then be brought out and highlighted by roasting in a specific way. Even if Nero’s coffee is not blast roasted exactly, surely it should not be all roasted in the same manner, given that each batch from each harvest would be subtly different?

I cannot verify any of this yet until I actually visit Coburg for myself. Until then, I can only learn through comparisons. I know for certain that the independent roasters, Pumphreys in Newcastle, consider coffee roasting to be a highly skilled art. I’d love to know what they think of large scale roasting for a large chain, as with Coburg and Caffe Nero. What do they do differently, and why? For further comparison, there is of course, Starbucks, who do have their own roasting company within their vast empire. If Coburg are being so elusive, I imagine I would have major problems trying to visit Starbucks; instead, I can quote from Joseph Michelli’s exceedingly unctious book “The Starbucks Experience – 5 Principles of turning Ordinary into Extrordinary”:

There is no hidden inferior material at Starbucks. On the contrary, Starbucks epitomizes a company that has acheived amazing success by not compromising on quality. … The mission statement asserts that Starbucks partners will “apply the highest stardards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.” To that end, Starbucks do what is necessart to meet or exceed their quality standards… The leaders are constantly researching and developing technologies and systems to improve the consistency of the company’s roasting process and the freshness of their coffee.

But that is it. That is the only reference to roasting in the whole book (and yes, I did actually endure reading the entire, excrutiating lot of it.). Roasting at Starbucks is performed, somehow, to high quality standards. Apparantly. But what those standards are, and how you actually go about acheiving them is not mentioned. Maybe roasting is such a skilled art, that to preserve its magic, it has to remain mysterious? We shall see!


Posted by on July 3, 2009 in Uncategorized


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Caffe Culture 2009

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

Muchly easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted by on May 22, 2009 in Uncategorized


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The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in Central America

(And the prize for best title goes to…sadly not me.)

I bought a wonderful book in  Rare and Racy, my most favourite book shop of all time, last summer in a fit of Must-Spend-Money-On-Something-Other-Than-Giant-Boots consumption-frenzy. It is: 
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America by Michael Taussig

Not only am I extremely keen on that title, but the content is pretty good too. Today I finally got round to reading it, while sitting in Caffe Nero, supping espressos to refuel after a gym session. Along comes Grem. “Buy us a coffee??” he says. “Fat chance!” I reply. Pretty much the same opening lines that we use every time we meet. Greetings (!) dealt with, he then picks up my book. I have to explain that commodity fetishism does not mean what he thinks it means. It is not, or at least, very rarely is it “kinky.”. Grem looks disappointed. Next question: “What the fook’s “Cosmogenesis”? I mentally calculate whether the length of time it would take me to explain that would be longer than his attention span. Very probably. Sigh… this was not going to be a productive afternoon.


Three weeks ago, I was sitting in another cafe, drinking espressos as well. Only that place was Cafe Central in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is still very strange to think of it like that. In some ways I feel like I’ve been back for ages, but then, I don’t feel I’ve been away from Central America long enough yet to miss it too much. It both amazes and scares me how easily I seem to have just slotted back in to life in the UK – university work, home life reunited with Long-Suffering Husband, the smell of Ferret, mad, over-ambitious plans and my usual impatience – no place for Tiempo Nica here. And the more mundane stuff: gym sessions, entertaining teenagers, coffee in Nero.

A few weeks ago, I was at the cooperative that supplies some of Caffe Nero’s coffee, specifically, CooproNaranjo, who sell Nero the Costa Rican Peaberry coffee that they sell in bags in the stores, rather than the stuff that goes into their cappuccinos.See the bottom of the Caffè Nero Buy Online page. I’ve bought bags of those beans from Nero before, and it was pretty good. But on the farm, it was EXCEPTIONAL. Completely different tasting, and soooo much better. It could be due to the fact that the coffee hadn’t been transported halfway round the globe, and was very fresh indeed; but then, Nero buys it in green, and it is all roasted in the UK. Green coffee shouldn’t go stale during transportation – that is the point of shipping it green. So, it should be at least partly due to the roasting. In which case, I hope to be able to grill people (pun fully intended – sorry) at Coburg (the roasters) about it when I visit them this summer.

But the same applies to Starbucks too. I tried the coffee on a few of the farms that supply Starbucks, and it was Infinitely Better. Caffe Nero’s coffee isn’t great, but it’s not that bad either. Starbucks, in my opinion, is truly terrible. But it is not that they are buying in low quality coffee. Some of that stuff is world class. So, it all begs the question, What The Hell Do They Do To It To Make It Taste That Bad???

Methinks, they just burn the hell out of it. I have heard several coffee professionals refer to the place as “Charbucks” for that reason. My knowledge of coffee roasting is limited, but I do know that to mask the flavour of low quality coffee, you can just bake it – roast it at a lower temperature but for a longer time, which effectively flattens it all out. It gets rid of the bitter flavours of bad coffee, but it also kills off all the complex variations of good flavour in high quality arabicas. This is also why Costa Coffee’s ad campaign promoting their “slow roasted coffee” amuses my cynical little mind….

The people I met in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica moved me by their obvious passion for their coffee, and the pride they took in their work. But this was not the same thing as my own passion for coffee – they were talking about growing the absolute best coffee plants they could; about organic practices that protected and nurtured the plant and the soil, about harvesting techniques that boosted their crop yield, about working with cooperatives to provide for their families, or about branding their coffee so people would associate their name with high quality. Essentially, it is fetishised. But it was never about a passion for drinking the stuff. Coffee consumption was another world away. And that is exactly what I feel like right now. I am having real difficulty bringing my experiences in Central America together with sitting in Caffe Nero judging Stacey’s barista skills. “Coffee” means something so different depending on where you are, that it is hard to believe I am talking about the same little brown beans.

I do wonder if some of the farmers I met have any idea where their precious crop ends up, or any concept of barista championships or chain coffee shops or a decaf-one-shot-grande-white-choc-mocha-with-cream-and-no-syrup. In his book, Michael Taussig tells of Colombian sugar plantation workers who make a pact with the Devil so they can produce more sugar cane to make more money. This arises because sugar cane is a cash crop – the workers do not own the land they work, instead they are making money for someone else. They cannot subsist off their labour, because you cannot survive off sugar alone, and you cannot eat money. These farmers would prefer to grow food crops for themselves rather than farm sugar to make money to buy food from other people. It is far more logical, if you think about it. Capitalism is Satan’s banking!! Ahem. But having found themselves in this difficult situation, they makes deals with the Devil to try and improve their lot. Taussig’s accounts of this are literal – they visit sourcerers to help make these pacts and summon up demons and so on. Fascinating stuff.

Of course I am going to argue that some of the coffee farmers do the same. I never found any diabolical dealings in Nicaragua (sadly), but metaphorically, coffee farmers share the same plight. Coffee is still a cash crop, you can’t eat it. When coffee growing is fetishised to such an extent, when the farmers are so proud of what they do, do they worry that their precious crop ends up in Nescafe Instant or in an over-roasted blend in Charbucks? Or do they just want to sell it to the people who pay the most? (Probably not Starbucks either…) Is selling wonderful coffee to people who will burn it, like making a pact with Lucifer himself?

Incidently, when I started working at Caffe Nero, someone – probably Grem – pointed out that if working at Starbucks was akin to selling your soul to the Devil, then what does that make working for Nero?;

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Posted by on April 15, 2009 in Uncategorized


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