Edward Fischer. Source: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green

An anthropologist uncovers how “great coffee” depends not just on taste, but also on a complex system of values worked out among farmers, roasters, and consumers.

What justifies the steep prices commanded by small-batch, high-end Third Wave coffees? Making Better Coffee explores this question, looking at highland coffee farmers in Guatemala and their relationship to the trends that dictate what makes “great coffee.” Traders stress material conditions of terroir and botany, but just as important are the social, moral, and political values that farmers, roasters, and consumers attach to the beans.

Edward F. Fischer is Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, where he also directs the Institute for Coffee Studies. He has authored and edited several books, most recently The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing.

There has been an explosion in artisanal and specialty coffee in recent years. Have tastes changed or has the marketing changed?

This gets at a deeper question: do we know what we want, or is it taught to us by markets and marketers? With coffee, as with most things, it is a bit of both: consumer tastes have changed and the market has helped change those tastes. Food preferences at the upper end of the market have been changing over the last decades, from the farm-to-table movement to high-end bourbons and single-origin chocolates. This was, at least in part, a reaction to the bland homogeneity of cheap processed and packaged foods that had come to dominate the US food landscape in the later half of the twentieth century.

So, the market was primed for something new in the coffee sector. A few visionary coffee roasters—places like Counter Culture, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia—started searching out smaller farms that were producing different and unusual coffees. In promoting the virtues of these single-origin beans, these pioneers helped turn on, and train, a new generation of coffee enthusiasts to new—and increasingly wild—flavors. So, the artisanal turn in the market created a demand for better quality coffee, and in this book I show how what “quality” means gets worked out by trendsetters and tastemakers.

Many of the new, high-end artisanal coffees really taste different if you are used to drinking Starbucks or Keurig or any sort of “regular” brew. The beans are usually more lightly roasted, and the more delicate coffees can taste more like tea than a cup of Folgers. And with a little experience, the distinctions between regions and processing methods become clear. You can pretty quickly learn to distinguish an East African coffee profile from a Latin American one in side-by-side comparisons. They simply taste different. But then the judgment lies in whether we value the more floral and fruity flavors of the African beans or the more chocolatey flavors of the Latin American ones.  

How do we distinguish a cup of great coffee? Are there objective measures? Subjective measures? And who gets to decide? 

The high-end artisanal coffees have opened up a whole new world of taste possibilities. It is no longer just what I call “coffee coffee” (the stereotypical classic taste). Now we have flavors ranging from blueberry and jasmine to bubblegum and cotton candy. These are not additives or syrups, but qualities of the beans themselves, stemming from several factors: There is the varietal of coffee plant—almost all specialty coffee is from the Coffea arabica species, but there are dozens of different arabica varietals, each with its own distinct tastes. There are also a growing number of processing methods: washed (where the pulp of the cherry is stripped off in a water bath before the beans are dried), natural (where is the pulp is allowed to rot off of the beans), and even fermentation styles. Add to that different roasting levels and brewing techniques. All of these come together to produce a particular cup profile.

As with all sensory experiences, everyone is going to have their own personal coffee taste preferences—and, of course, the golden rule is that whatever tastes good to you is good coffee. But there are individual preferences and then there are insider norms, with their own prestige hierarchy (much like wine). What is considered to be top quality coffee by connoisseurs is not necessarily what the average consumer would like. And what is valued by the cognoscenti changes over time. The fruity flavors of natural East African beans were once considered inferior, and now they are all the rage. That is to say, what we consider to be quality is a moving target.

The Specialty Coffee Association has put a lot of effort into standardizing coffee quality ratings—crucial to facilitate trade between distant roasters and producers. They developed a 100 point scale that functions much like Robert Parker’s wine scores. Coffees that cup in the 80s are considered “specialty” and those in the high 80s and 90s are Third Wave. But behind those numbers is a lot of expert judgment about what is good and what is bad in terms of tastes and experience. Tastemakers often talk about “quality” as if it is an objective trait, in the case of coffee something to be found in out of the way places. In fact, the designation of “quality” is a convention, a contrivance, but no less meaningful or motivating because of that.

We are asked to pay more for organic or Fair Trade coffee to support small farmers, but how much of that money actually makes it back to producers and what does it mean for their lives?

The truth is that nobody is pulling themselves out of poverty with Fair Trade coffee, but it does provide an important safety net that can keep farmers from hunger during market downturns. Growing coffee is a long term project—it take three to four years from planting to first harvest, and coffee bushes will produce for twenty years or more. So, farmers will go through several market cycles, and smallholding Maya farmers who mix subsistence and cash crops, are always in a precarious position.

Graphs of coffee prices over time look like a roller coaster—and they are felt that way by all growers, especially smallholding farmers. And when coffee prices drop below about $1 a pound on the international market, most small-scale producers cannot break even. When that happens, the minimum prices set by fair trade can keep farmers afloat—at least those fortunate enough to belong to a cooperative with fair trade certification.

The truth is that nobody is pulling themselves out of poverty with Fair Trade coffee, but it does provide an important safety net that can keep farmers from hunger during market downturns.

Ted Fischer

Coffee production is often associated with poor labor conditions and exploitation. In Guatemala, in the highland Maya communities, working on coffee farms was seen as employment of last-resort because of working conditions and wages. Is this still the case with the indigenous workers on larger coffee plantations?

Unfortunately, it is still like that on many large farms. Of course, it depends on the plantation, and some really make an effort to improve pay and conditions for their workers. But, the large farms depend on volume trade. Theirs is a commodity product, and the best, and sometimes only, way to maintain profits is by keeping labor costs down. That means low pay, harsh living conditions, and long, hard days of labor. This is seasonal and migratory labor, and workers are mostly recruited from land-poor Maya communities, and the distance from home only adds to the hardships. There is less child labor today than in years past, but it still exists, as parents have no alternative but to bring their kids with them into the field and bosses don’t mind the extra hands. One finca owner told me that child labor is actually the culturally appropriate thing to do, that Maya families don’t value education and would rather their kids learn to work and contribute to the family. While there is a tradition of families working together in the fields, virtually every Maya parent I have talked to wishes something better for their children, but circumstances often give them no alternative.

You note that specialty coffee has fueled new dreams and aspirations for Mayan farmers yet small-holding farmers lack the social capital to make the most of what they have. What do you mean by this?

Part of the appeal of artisanal coffee is the story behind it. The Maya highlands of Guatemala produce some of the best coffees in the world. So, one would think that Maya farmers, with their rich cultural heritage and traditional practices, would do well in this market. Yet, these Maya producers are excluded from the higher-end Third Wave micro-lot market because they lack the social capital (language skills, social networks, familiarity with cosmopolitan tastes and international markets). The bigger, more established, non-Maya famers speak Spanish and some English, know (better) what specialty consumers are looking for, and are able to use that knowledge and social capital to command a premium. They are able to translate the material and symbolic values of their product into the rarified language of Third Wave consumers and the ever changing tastes and cultural preferences of the upscale market.

In this, the real power rests with the capacity to convert the material qualities of the beans produced in places like Guatemala into the narratives of consumer values. And that power still rests with roasters and taste-makers.

So many of us have a personal relationship with coffee, and I think it is important that we understand where it comes from, how our daily dose of caffeine connects us in hidden ways to the lives of others. 

Ted Fischer

What is the economic value of a cup of coffee? The value of terroir? The value of our emotional attachment to the ritual of drinking coffee? How do these come together to produce the value world around coffee? 

Coffee is an ideal subject for a study of the interplay of economic value and other value worlds. The economics are pretty straightforward: there is the price of cherry sold at the farm, the cost of beans bought by a roaster, and what you pay at your coffee shop. But your cup of coffee also has other values attached, some of which are social (perhaps paying a Fair trade premium to support a moral value) and some of which are personal and idiosyncratic (maybe a comforting morning ritual). Then think also of what the beans that go into that cup mean to those who pick them, how they link to their life projects and moral worlds.

The coffee trade is, of course, about beans and dollars, but that is only part of the story. Importantly, it also involves political ideologies, cultural meanings, and individual hopes and fears—all based in different sorts of value worlds. Third Wave coffee aficionados are earnestly pursue a passion, trying to find new flavors and trying to make supply chains more just. For Maya farmers, coffee fits into traditional understandings of cosmological and agricultural cycles of regeneration—as well as providing income to pursue their aspirations for a better life. 

What is really fascinating to me is how the quest for quality among Third Wave tastemakers in the U.S. is linked, usually in invisible ways, to the lives and internet-fueled aspirations of Maya farmers who grow that coffee. In this book, I show that while we may think success is in accumulating value, the real power is defining what value is: in this case, constructing quality by translating the material qualities of the beans produced in places like Guatemala into the narratives of consumer values.

What surprised you the most in working on the book? What’s your favorite anecdote from the book?

The elaborate lengths it takes to standardize how people taste and assign scores to coffees. The top designation in coffee is becoming a Q Grader. For most, this takes years of preparation and months of intensive training, sometimes with a coach. Q Graders have to be able to identify the presence of (and name) a particular, random acid added to a cup of coffee; to unique identify over 90 coffees in triangulated tastings; and to pass dozens of similar feats of skill and perception. In the book I tell the story of a Brewer’s Cup competition in which the winner scored a 162.83 out of 200 points to win—that is an almost absurdly precise score for what is ultimately a subjective measure, but judges have been trained so well, so calibrated are their tastes, that there is surprisingly little variation between their scores.

What do you want people to take away from this research? 

So many of us have a personal relationship with coffee, and I think it is important that we understand where it comes from, how our daily dose of caffeine connects us in hidden ways to the lives of others. The psycho-pharmacology of coffee is linked to the rise of global trade and Enlightenment ideas, and consumer trends in the US are connected to traditional Maya agricultural beliefs and practices. Coffee illustrates the point that everything is connected, but also that the particulars of those connections matter. Yet, the Enlightenment divisions we have created between areas of knowledge and domains of life (morals, economics, chemistry, psychology, etc.) often hinder us from recognizing the connections and interconnections—and lead us to view the economic aspect as determinant. Coffee, in the ways that it brings together different sorts of values, points the way toward understanding the world’s complexity—and making things better.

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