Tag Archives: value

Royal Geographical Society Conference – AcKnowledging Ethical Economies

Last week I arrived in Manchester, dripping wet and freezing, to present my (unrehearsed, over-long) paper at the Royal Geographical Society conference, whilst wearing bike leathers. I think I made myself memorable! The conference was pretty interesting, but I ended up exhausted by the time it came to the equally cold but spectacular ride home across the Snake pass back to Sheffield. I didn’t die. This is good. There were four sessions per day, all with at least four papers in them. It was a lot to take in, and annoyingly, several sessions which I would have liked to go to, clashed with each other. What I did see though, was all useful stuff.

My paper was called “Creating the Quality market – the ethics of Direct Trade in the Central American  Coffee Industry” and was in the very interesting ‘Acknowledging Ethical Economies” section. It was difficult to judge how relevant mine was; my topic did seem to fit nicely with the original call for papers, as did all the other papers, but they were all very different. Coffee, ethical consumption as opposed to consuming ethically, Pampers nappies, and how business schools approach business ethics and corporate responsibilty. Nice to know human/economic geography is such a varied subject really.This paper was going a little bit off on a tangent from most of my thesis right now, but in all honesty, it was a bit more interesting to me that most of the stuff I am supposed to be writing at the minute and a good excuse for a subtly disguised rant. It wasn’t the best presentation I’ve ever done, so I’m trying to tidy it up a bit here, and hopefully something will be salvageable from it to go in the seemingly unending quality chapter I’m supposed to do for the thesis in… about a week. Gulp.

I do think that this ‘quality market’ is very relevant though – and the ethics of it are my main concern on a personal level, if not an academic one. I have written about quality so often, and there are so many ways of defining what ‘quality coffee’ actually is. A huge range of factors affect the coffee’s quality – from human skill in picking the berries without damaging the plants and processing it correctly, to maintaining the crop between harvests and so on; to non-human agents, the weather, the altitude, the temperature, the machinery used in processing.

Interestingly translated cupping form - I love "Not acceptable for Happiness"!

Interestingly translated cupping form - I love "Not acceptable for Happiness"!

For the sake of simplicity in the paper, I used the SCAA’s definition of ‘speciality coffee’ – that is, everything that achieves more than 80 points on their cupping scale. Speciality coffee is sold with the in-built assumption that it is better quality – it is the quality that differentiates it from conventional grade coffee that only gets 60-67 points on the SCAA scale. It is how those points are awarded that is the area of concern here.

Coffee quality is tested and analysed by ‘cupping’ it – essentially, tasting it, and the process is very similar to wine-tasting. Some parts of the cupping process are as standardized as possible – same weight of coffee grounds in the same amount of water at the same temperature, same roast level etc. Cupping laboratories are virtually identical the world over. Most cupping is also done ‘blind’ – that is, the cuppers are not given the name of the producers or the region the coffee is from before tasting, to avoid bias. However, the fact remains that the analysis is still conducted using only the cupper’s sense of taste. Cuppers are specially trained, and able to pick out the subtlties and nuances of different coffees, but their taste perception is still subjective, and extremely variable. Taste can be affected by anything from the cupper having a mild cold, to eating spicy food the night before, or even something as indirect as using fragranced cleaning sprays in the cupping laboratories. However, there are few alternative methods of analysis which would provide useful information. An analysis of the chemical compostion of the beans, for example, wouldn’t really be meaningful to the consumer. Instead, the cupper tests the coffee and grades it on acidity, body, fragrance and aroma, flavour and aftertaste, and overall balance, and gives it a grade out of 100.

This grading is then used to set the price of the coffee. Although the general global price of coffee is set on the New York stock exchange, this is not always an absolute, and there is plenty of scope for negotiation, particularly when coffee is sold by Direct Trade. As explained before on this blog, Direct Trade is an alternative trade model that, in effect, shortens the commodity chain by reducing the number of actors involved – basically cutting out the middlemen. Coffee roasters/retailers go directly to the producing cooperatives to purchase their coffee. This allows the farmers to not only receive a larger share of the final price, but also provides an opportunity for knowledge sharing. Cuppers can share their expert knowledge of the coffee’s flavours, and in turn, the quality, with the producers, helping the farmers learn how to improve their crop. This can be as simple as the cuppers claiming the coffee is overly sweet, for instance, meaning the farmers should not let the beans ferment for so long. It is often the case that within cooperatives who do not employ cuppers themselves, the farmers are effectively working ‘blind’. Most, particularly in Nicaragua, do not drink their own coffee, and so have no idea what it actually tastes like.

Nicaraguan farmers separate good beans from the bad on farms - in this photo, they would sell the coffee on the bottom but drink the bad stuff separated into the basket on the top.

Nicaraguan farmers separate good beans from the bad on farms - in this photo, they would sell the coffee on the bottom but drink the bad stuff separated into the basket on the top.

This lack of knowledge on the part of the producers provides ethical problems within the Direct Trade model. The coffee market is still very much skewed in the favour of the buyers. Coffee is produced in the third world and consumed predominantly in the first world, and so the power inequalities are obvious. Coffee is a cash crop; farmers often have no other income, and consequently are forced to sell their coffee for whatever price they can get. This fact, along with the lack of knowledge of the coffee’s quality, and also very little awareness of the global markets, the demand or the monetary value of their crop. Cuppers and buyers, on the other hand, are equipped not only with a vast knowledge of the coffee’s quality and value, and of the sorts of markets they intend eventually to sell to, but also with the advantage of choice. If they do not think a cooperative’s coffee is high quality, they are under no obligation to buy it. Therefore, the cuppers/buyers can effectively control the whole exchange, and effectively decide the incomes of all the farming families that have produced that coffee. This is not to say that all cuppers are determined to rip off, deceive and exploit the farmers, but simple economics dictates that it is never going to be in the interests of the buyers to pay more for the coffee than they actually have to.

Direct Trade does attempt to address this inequality by knowledge-sharing, as previously mentioned. There are farms and cooperatives in the producing countries, who have their own cupping laboratories and train and employ their own cuppers. Having someone from the cooperative with an equal knowledge of the coffee’s quality and value, who can also feed back this information to the farmers, is invaluable not only for improving the quality of all the cooperative’s coffee (assuming non-human, climatic agencies are also beneficial) but also as they provide the cooperative with more negotiating power when coffee is traded. This is starting to happen certainly within the bigger cooperatives but also on large, private plantations. There are some very obvious differences between Nicaraguan coffee production and Costa Rican here. In Costa Rica, more farms are privately owned, and the country is richer, meaning that most coffee farmers have access to better resources – such as the cupping lab. These farms sell their coffee to the first world buyers independently of the state-run cooperatives. As such, these plantation owners are trying to make a profit for themselves, rather than on behalf of a huge group of people – in a way, they have no choice but to learn about quality and the value of their crop in order to survive in the market. The cooperatives, particularly in Nicaragua, do much to protect the farmers and provide shared resources which farmers could not afford alone. But in some respects this also hinders them, because any profit made is shared out as well, and also detailed earlier, the quality of the coffee can vary so dramatically over a small region that no large cooperative can really hope to produce 100% high quality.


To complicate this situation further, there is the concept of consumer demand. I would argue that the vast majority of coffee consumers do not taste coffee and do not view its quality in the same way the cuppers do. We drink coffee for many reasons – the sociability of coffee shops, fashion, caffeine addiction and so on.

An iced 'coffee' with espresso, chilled milk, cherry syrup, cream and marshmallows. Good, but not really coffee flavoured!

An iced 'coffee' with espresso, chilled milk, cherry syrup, cream and marshmallows. Good, but not really coffee flavoured!

Often, what we drink bears little resemblance to the simply brewed cups in the laboratory – an iced mocha frappe with syrup and cream on top does not leave much opportunity for the taste of the coffee to shine through! When we can taste it, we buy coffee for the flavours we prefer on a personal level, and excellent quality coffee does not necessarily mean that every consumer favours that taste.

We also have very different ideas of what ‘quality’ actually means. My favourite quotation from one of my consumer focus groups is still the response, when asked to define quality, “er.. it doesn’t taste like crap?”. Branding on bags of coffee in the supermarkets, and in coffee shops will always inform the consumer that this is High Quality stuff. But it rarely tells you why it is high quality, because from the consumers’ point of view, how long the beans fermented for, or how thoroughly they were washed is not only not meaningful, it is largely irrelevant. The only thing we have to go on is the price and personal preference. There is also the tricky aspect of ‘ethical consumption’, where coffee consumers are deliberately buying Fair Trade or Organic coffee, and may well be assuming that Fair Trade equals good quality. Although the Fair Trade Foundation do assure us that their coffee is excellent, all the mark on the bag actually tells you is that the buyer paid $1.26 or more for a pound of it, and this is not the same thing at all. In a sense, the buyers and retailers of coffee are not sharing their knowledge and expertise of the commodity with their consumers either, and still leaves me with the question (for which I made myself somewhat notorious at another conference:) Why not let them drink crap if that is what they want??

All this leads to a very odd situation where the buyers and cuppers are effectively creating their own market. The farmers struggle to produce constant, consistant high quality, the consumers cannot and do not demand something which they do not really have much knowledge of. This essentially leaves the buyers/retailers carefully manipulating the branding of coffee to produce a new market controlled by neither producers’ supply nor consumer demand, but by an artificial and highly complex desire for ‘quality’. Most significantly in terms of knowledge-sharing and ethics, it is also a market where both the producer and consumer are in need of ‘education’ in relation to coffee and its quality.

Direct Trade then, does go some way towards bringing the consumers more in touch with the commodity’s producers. It does allows the producers a larger share of the price, and when expert knowledge of quality is shared between cuppers working at the cooperatives and the farmers themselves, it can help reduce the power inequalities during trade negotiations, far more effectively than with similar initiatives within conventional trade models. However, it is not a complete solution. Cuppers/buyers still have an unfair influence over the prices of coffee as a result of their greater product knowledge and market awareness, often leaving the producers unable to challenge them. When these buyers are setting the price for coffee without sharing their knowledge of its quality or value with the producers, then this trade model cannot be the most ethical or egalitarian. Further still, when faced with the idea that the demand for this quality may not actually come from the consumers, it raises further ethical questions about the nature of the whole cupping process, and whether or not it is actually necessary at all.

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Posted by on September 2, 2009 in Uncategorized


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The beginnings of the conclusions of the consumer focus groups…

I have been asking lots of people what they think “high quality” coffee is. The following quotes are from professional Baristas, coffee shop owners and other industry specialists from Barista Exchange.

“coffee made from a barista, so he can have the best blend but if he dont know how to grind and dose or he or she are overheating milk, whats the point of ‘best beans’?”

“For me everything start in the coffee bean. At least for my country coffee is an art. We want the best quality all the time, not every once or sometimes. For instance Bell I can have a SHB, and everything has been taking care as planned but if I do the handpicking a day after or a day before , the taste will be different. Or even when we roast the coffee, you can have a SHB or a specialty superb coffee, but if we mess up in the roasting, that’s it. An entire year of harvest to the garbage indeed.”

“1M: select green beans

2M: roast

3M: blend

4M: grind

5M: brewing

Nothing esprecial, but none of them can be missed.”

“Quality coffee goes along with quality buyers, and quality roasters, and quality shops with (more than likely) quality management and baristas. It’s almost safe to say it’s in good hands. But as with anything in coffee, it can EASILY be mishandled and ruined along annnny of those steps.”

“The greatness is in the bean already, I want only to present as much as possible of the bean’s potential in my customer’s cup. Not to understate the role of the barista – coaxing out this potential is not easy, and doing it well seems to be the exception, not the rule. I think if everybody in the chain, from the plant to the cup, shares the same philosophy, you’ll have true quality.”

“Making something drinkable from lousy ingredients does not strike me as “creating quality”. It is a useful skill to posses, but I don’t think you can create quality by artfully masking defects.”

That said, I have also been asking customers in both chain coffee shops (Caffe Nero, Esquires and Coffee Revolution) and independent shops (The Voodoo Cafe, Coffee@Elliots and Gusto Italiano) what their views on coffee quality are – and the differences are quite apparent!

“erm, it doesn’t taste like crap?”

“and Elliots – I like it but its not really what I’d call quality coffee. It’s just put cup under, push button, there you go, there’s your coffee, no skill!”

“good service – so, politness, the coffee not overdone or whatever, not taking too long to be served. All that stuff. And, yeah to be in clean stuff and everything. That’s always nice. And, like, essential really.”

“Freshly roasted beans (of a good quality), properly brewed.”

“Low quality coffee is very acidic, it’s got things other than coffee in it. I’ve no idea of quality comparisons cos I don’t take much notice. I don’t know where this stuff comes from, but I like the way it’s made here.”

“Tasty. A certain thickness. It kinda warms me, warms the innermost caverns of your soul. It’s very beautiful. You must realise, I’m not the coffee aficionado, I’m very much the layman. Neophyte as it were. it’s just shy of £2 and yeah I enjoy it, it’s the coffee, it’s the environment, it’s happy associations.”

“You’ve gotta say Fair Trade haven’t you. I feel really guilty coming in here if it’s not fair trade. Organic would be good too.”

“It should have the consistency of mud. The best coffee I’ve ever tasted was Turkish coffee and you could practically turn it upside down without it pouring out. It’s really thick and you know you’re probably going to feel like a lie down afterwards. Until you’re actually lying down and you can feel your heart pounding.”

“A bit fluffy, but: it depends who makes it. You know it does make a difference.”

“I mean the thing with like, having this kind of a market where there are a lot of big chains, they are trying to advertise having the same thing at every one of their stores – there’s probably too much in who makes it to be able to say that. I mean, I don’t generally like African coffees, I much prefer Latin American ones and so I’ll notice the difference, and how well it’s been tamped and how strong it is and things like that, so you can’t really say, one shop over another.”

Since I am also posting this on Barista Exchange, I’m including some customer views on other aspects of coffee-shop life that the cafe owners and baristas may find interesting….

On Latte Art:

“It’s nice but it takes way longer for them to do it so I’m just ‘give me a drink, I want to sit down’ you know…”

“I don’t think much about presentation – it’s completely off the loop for me. If they put a pretty pattern on, then you’re only going to stir it up anyway before you start drinking it.”

“Yeah, the whole thing about foam – it belongs there but like, I only just feel like I’m messing something up. I like Ugly food, ugly drinks, you know,”

“it’s much more the taste I think.”

I don’t particularly care what it looks like – I don’t drink lattes so I don’t know about latte art. I’d rather they didn’t bother with the little chocolates on the side though! You can have it!”

“(Having just Googled it) I think it’s pretty mint. If it’s done right that is. I once went to get a coffee, and the guy who served me (who seems to think he’s the coffee king…) says “I’ve left you something on top.” So i looked at my fresh coffee, then back at him saying “You spat in my foam?!” I think it was meant to be modern art of some description, but it did look more like something from the recesses of his lungs.”

“I LOVE THEM. Haha, I went to Costa in Darlo once and they did this lovely star pattern in my mates Latte which was so nice. She didn’t even ask, he just did,it was niceeeee. I took a pic of it, they’re so cool. But erm, yeah I like them, it makes you feel like you’ve spent money on something good but once the pattern goes away you feel a bit sad.

“I’m not too bothered about that.”

It’s good, but I don’t really care if they don’t.”

On why they go to coffee shops:

“Mostly with coffee shops…it depends where I’m going. I go to Esquires for the coffee, I probably come here because other people wanted to come here, a lot of the time when I go to a coffee shop is determined by other people suggesting it more than my personal preference.”

“As a rule I don’t go to chain coffee shops for the coffee. Like in here, it’s not the coffee, I guess the atmosphere, but I mainly get pulled in by other people, and it’s in a convenient location.”

“Decent tea, nice food, nice people. I want somewhere I can sit, and enjoy myself even if I don’t know anyone there. It’s always nice.”

“I like the place to have a buzz about it – i hate silent coffee shops because i think they’re places for talking, and you can’t do that if the place is silent – it just feels oppressive.”

“I tend to go to Coffee @ Elliots cos they don’t pretend to be Italian and you can go in there and say “I’ll have a large black coffee please and you’ll get a Large Black Coffee. No bloody Frenchy americano or whatever it is.”

“It’s like a habit – it’s the going in and sitting down, not the coffee itself. I think I’m just lazy. By the time I’ve walked all the way in to town, I just want to sit down somewhere. Coffee just comes with it!”

“I go out to cafés fairly regularly, for good coffee. I come in here probably once a week at least, cos the coffee is very good. I avoid Starbucks and Costa, Starbucks cos it’s shit, Costa cos it’s too expensive.”

“I do go to coffee shops, for lunches generally, um, for Cake. Definitely Cake. I’m not sure beverages come in to it too much! I tend to go for more accessible places. Where in particular? Where my friends happen to be. Again, places located around where I live in Broomhill, or in the Union area. If I happen to be in town shopping then it might be that I’ll pop in somewhere and get a piece of cake. And a drink to go with that.”

And finally, on value for money:

“Total rip off.”

“It’s why I don’t usually go to chains, cos I find they generally charge more than like, more independent ones.”

“They don’t pay their staff that well either, as far as I know.”

“I assume you are buying the ceramic as well, so I usually take that with me!”

“The prices have gone up and the cups have got smaller!! This is now £1.95 and the cup is smaller than the ones you used to get for £1.60! It is smaller! I swear it!”

“They are just trying to sell you the brand though aren’t they? The atmosphere! You are paying for coffee but you’re also paying for a pleasant environment to sit in.”

“I think, in here you can expect it to be reasonably expensive, just by the appearance of the place, If you like that setting then you’d pay for it, I mean for me, I just like the sofas.”

“It’s probably about 10p isn’t it? The fact that they’re giving it away… I mean, you can’t buy ten cakes and get a free cake, can you? Or juice or anything, so it must be the cheapest thing.Well I’ve seen people in here give them away to their friends and so on so they can’t be that expensive.”

“You know, they say that, like, people don’t like things if they are cheap, like they think they’re not good. We’ve all had the wool pulled over on us, in that this is better than filter coffee or something.”

“It’s just marketing though, isn’t it?”

“i think that espressos are a rip-off, but i wouldn’t have it any other way. A coffee shop once tried to give me my money’s worth of a espresso – a cappuccino mug filled to the top with double espresso; but it just felt wrong.”

“I actually think they are [good value for money], cause they give you a variety of things and are very professional about it all – plus the service is nice and fast. It’s groovy.”

That will do for now – but there is plenty more. And I have another group scheduled for tomorrow. I will add my thoughts in soon when I’ve had a chance to digest it all. Until then, please feel free to add your comments and suggestions! All feedback very welcome!


Posted by on October 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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Genuine Italian Quality?

(NB: This is a follow up for uni – I started a discussion on here a while ago asking why coffee is perceived to be Italian at least in the UK. These are just some thoughts and experiences on that topic)

Walking round Darlington town centre gives you a relatively large selection of places to get cups of coffee. There are numerous ‘traditional tea rooms’ where coffee is an afterthought, and greasy-spoon cafes who will do instant Nescafe in a polystyrene cup. And then there is two Costas, a Caffe Nero and the brand new Starbucks. So far, so uninteresting. Darlington does boast a few independent cafes, however: The Voodoo Cafe which I am still too biased to express an opinion about, Coffee Bamber – an expensive-looking place which, commendably, only sells FairTrade coffee, and “Coffee @ Elliotts.” This company actually has two branches now on either side of town, and I decided to try it out.
Coffee @ Elliotts is done out quite attractively, all art deco with huge chandeliers, ornate mirrors, heavy wooden furniture and the odd bust dotted around on shelves. There are also lots of sepia pictures of old style continental pavement cafes with titles in… French?
This is surprising. I had honestly expected the elusive Elliott to pretend to be Italian. Costa claims to serve Italian-style coffee, Caffe Nero are so Italian they’ve even added the extra ‘f’, Starbucks was apparently inspired by Italian espresso bars… Admittedly, I don’t know enough about Coffee Bamber to know if it claims Italianess or not, and I tried to make the Voodoo Cafe as Latino as possible, but otherwise it is a safe presumption that most coffee shops have some Italian connection. Elliotts does serve espresso, cappuccinos, lattes, and all the rest, but also apparently sell ‘coffee’ as well, without giving it an Italian identity. All drinks come in ‘regular’ or ‘large’ as opposed to ‘grande’ or even ‘venti’. Although the emphasis is on coffees, they also serve panninis and biscottis, but also plain sandwiches, cakes and jacket potatoes. None of which sound particularly continental.

The coffee at Elliott’s wasn’t bad at all, and was actually cheaper than the bigger chains. And then I found out why – they were using a Bean-to-Cup machine, which is about the same size as a Gaggia espresso maker and works on the same principle, but doesn’t require the same human input. This machine will make espresso-based coffee, but only requires that you fill it up with beans, water and fresh milk in different compartments, and press the right button depending on what you want. It presses the coffee and steams the milk all by itself, and the ‘barista’ just has to put a cup underneath.

This makes the coffee cheaper – not because it is cheaper to run, or cheaper on staff costs; the baristas are still there to bring your coffees to you and cash up etc. It is cheaper, I think, because it requires less skill to produce. And also, less showmanship. Making coffee like this, looks easier to anyone watching. Therefore, value cannot be added to it by making it look more skilled. The process does not look sufficiently complex to warrant charging more to compensate for the skilled labour involved. This sort of coffee is less of a luxury.

This does not mean, however, that anyone could do it. It is still highly unlikely for many people to have a bean-to-cup machine at home, and so the luxury of having someone make it for you is still there. Even with a machine like that, there still has to be some product knowledge involved. An example is that the coffee from Interval bar at Sheffield university also comes from a bean-to-cup machine, just like at Elliotts. Elliotts coffee is infinitely better tasting however. Baristas still need to know how to maintain the machine, set it to the right temperatures and pressure, and what coffee to put in it. Elliotts coffee tasted as good, if not better, than Caffe Nero’s equivalent, whereas the coffee at Interval is somewhere between burnt and stale and possibly flavoured with ground up car tyres. This, to me, implies that there is more to making coffee than just which machine you choose.

As shown by the Barista Championships, there is a lot of skill, art and showmanship that goes in to making espresso based coffees, and the fact that these competitions, and this style of coffee-making are still so popular implies that it is still what consumers want – there must be a specific selling point to make the coffee shops invest in Gaggia machines and in training their staff. If the bean-to-cup machines were as good – and they are quicker, more efficient and dare I say it, convenient, then Starbucks and Nero would use them and the art of the barista wouldn’t be so called for. Something has to make the ‘real’ espresso coffees of higher quality.

I would argue that it is the Italianess that is that selling point. Italianess is part of the ‘experience’ which the big brands are so keen to promote. Caffe Nero, for instance, want to offer the experience of a old fashioned Italian espresso bar and continental cafe. It gives the coffee, and this ‘experience’ an identity, which is very important to the brand, Being ‘Italian’ not only makes the place sound sophisticated and if not exotic, then certainly different to the quaint English tea rooms, it also adds an element of performance. Espresso was invented and perfected in Italy, the first espresso machines were designed and patented by Italians. This style also happens to require more skilled human input, more visual techniques and as such, more labour. Increasing the labour involved increases the value of the end-product, the customer perceives it to be of better quality entirely because of the added labour-value, and so espresso coffees become more expensive. This could be the main reason why coffee shops, like Coffee @ Elliotts become Italian, when they are on Darlington high street, run by Americans and get their coffee beans from Brazil.

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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Uncategorized


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