Book Review: The Coffee Dictionary by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood

The Coffee Dictionary is a useful tool for navigating the world of coffee and all its terminology. For the newcomer to specialty coffee drinking, or anyone with an interest in coffee more generally, sometimes the various terms used can be a little overwhelming. The Coffee Dictionary, as it says in the title, provides an A-Z of coffee from growing and roasting, to brewing and tasting. Written by owner of Colonna Coffee, former UK Barista Champion, and co-author of Water for Coffee, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, this book helps to demystify some of the terms and provide a helpful guide to different aspects of the coffee industry.

I wouldn’t usually read a dictionary cover to cover, as usually they are more useful as reference guide, but actually this one is quite easily read all the way through. Entries are short, punchy and often accompanied by nice illustrations which very much help this feel less like a standard dictionary. This is likely to appeal to anyone with an interest in coffee, who might want to understand a little more about the terms and definitions that are used both regularly and rarely. Even for those who consider themselves to be well versed in coffee-lingo there’s likely to be something here than enhances their knowledge – I found the entries on some of the different coffee varieties like Castillo useful. There are entries on most things across the coffee supply chain from processing methods to brewing methods. There are also quite a few entries on countries, and while they are interesting, the short nature means there is little room for detail – nevertheless it highlights some of the important countries in the global coffee industry. If you’ve heard words related to coffee you don’t understand, or just want to learn a bit more about different aspects of the coffee industry, then this is a god book to have on hand.

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Thinking about the ‘waves’ of coffee

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a lecture about the economics of the coffee industry as part of an international business module. At one point I ended up discussing the so-called ‘waves of coffee’ and how they relate to the way coffee has been viewed not only as an economic good at the international trade level but as an object of consumption in households and coffee shops. This focused predominantly on the three waves of coffee that are commonly referred to: first wave (commonplace consumption of coffee), second wave (increased awareness of roasting styles etc. associated with the proliferation of chain coffee shops) and third wave (focusing on the origins and craft of coffee).

Waves of coffee

On various occasions I have seen reference to fourth (the science of coffee) and fifth waves (the business of coffee) too, though there seems to be even less consensus about latter two.

Shortly after the lecture I ended up listening to a Tamper Tantrum Podcast from December 2017 in which Trish Rothgeb (Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters), who is credited with the creation of the term ‘third wave coffee’, explained where the idea for such a concept came from (see original article in Flamekeeper from 2002, here).

She begins the talk by congratulating the audience on ‘completing the third wave’, but also highlights how it has become a bit of confusing term as some people think they’re stilling going through the third wave, while others feel it has been done for years. I’ll return to this point a little later.

In the talk Trish explains how she experienced things in Norway in the late 90s and early 2000s in the coffee industry that she hadn’t seen before (working in the coffee industry in San Francisco) – little exquisite drinks, baristas who cared about the craft of coffee etc. She noted how people were caring about how they took their coffee, paying more attention to their coffee – there was a wave of change taking place. Her idea of ‘waves’ was inspired by a concept that had emerged about feminism in the US – with the third wave of feminism emerging in the 1990s.

In this podcast the first wave of coffee is noted as an era when it became common to sell coffee to people in supermarkets, the arrival of canned and instant coffee for the masses. This wave was about consumption – and about how it was realised that coffee could be consumed at all times of the day. Essentially, this set up the habits that many of us still have.

seattle-starbucks-and-needleFor the second wave we are reminded of the TV series Friends coffee shop Central Perk with its large comfy sofas, and the introduction of cappuccinos into common vocabulary. It is often associated with the introduction of espresso based drinks to a wider audience and the rise of Starbucks and other coffee shop chains.

Then there is the third wave which Trish argues is about personal expression, about how people were engaging with coffee, it meant that coffee shops started to change what they looked like (less of the Central Perk look) and started placing more emphasis on the coffee, its origins and the way it was served (the popularity of the pour over for example).

It’s interesting that she makes a comparison with the waves of feminism and in particular with the concept of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 which referred to particular injustices and social inequalities. Trish makes the argument that there are a number of ways in which the concept of intersectionality  (around gender, race, economic power, political unrest) should be important to consider in the coffee industry – and that many of the barriers in the industry can be broken down by considering them more carefully – thinking beyond just the coffee shop and consumption habits.

What is striking about this talk is about there is much deeper thinking behind the ‘waves of coffee’ than is often considered. It’s usually mentioned in commercial terms around the rise of commodity coffee, coffee shop chains and specialty coffee shops. It’s in these commercial discussions that I’ve seen reference to the fourth wave around the science of coffee, and the fifth wave, the business of coffee. These include no discussions of any of the concepts highlighted by Trish about inequalities in the coffee industry that need addressing – and the importance of addressing them for the sustainability of the industry. Perhaps this should be more of a focus than waves of coffee that are focusing on business models for expansion and the rise of boutique coffee shops.

The other issue with the discussion of ‘waves of coffee’ is around dates. There are now lots of references to these waves and when they took place. But in reality there are no definite dates, which can lead to some of the confusion I mentioned earlier. For some places the third wave may seem relatively new – in the UK context many smaller towns and cities are only in the last couple of years experiencing the emergence of specialty coffee shops that might define themselves as ‘third wave’. For others, with well-established coffee cultures, big cities in the US and UK for example, third wave is an old concept – and hence why in this podcast Trish (talking in San Francisco) congratulates the audience on having completed the ‘third wave’. In this sense, the terms are relative, depending on the place and its coffee history. The introduction of references to what’s beyond the third wave too adds to the confusion, and the use of the ‘waves’ in commercial terms has somewhat devalued some of the concepts that lay behind the term in the sense that Trish describes in this podcast. The issues around inequalities in the coffee industry highlighted earlier certainly have not yet been fully addressed, and so should future discussions of waves focus more around these issues – and less about the commercial opportunities a new wave might bring. For many people I’ve spoken to in the coffee industry, the term ‘third wave’ has been overused, and as such has lost its meaning to some extent, but if you listen to the podcast it shows how the thinking that inspired the discussion of waves was a more profound than just changes in the way we buy and drink coffee.

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Book Review: Coffeeography by Stephen Leighton

Coffeeography Stephen Leighton Book Coffee ProducersI mentioned a previous post about how Stephen Leighton founder of Has Bean Coffee has demonstrated how important building relationships with specialty coffee producers can be. Has Bean Coffee is well known for its specialty coffees which showcase a range of farms from across the globe – they are explored on the website, and in the video series In My Mug. The details about the farms and coffees on offer from India to Costa Rica make the transparency about where the particular coffees come from to the forefront of the business. In establishing so many relationships with coffee farms over the years Stephen has had the chance to meet and work with people passionate about coffee from across the globe. Coffeeography: The Coffee Producers showcases some of these producers highlighting issues for coffee producers in a number of countries, and illuminating the stories of some of the people behind the bags of coffee that end up in our coffee shops and homes.

Coffeeography Stephen Leighton Book Coffee Producers

This is a great ‘coffee table’ book. I ended up reading it cover to cover, but you could easily pick it up and just look at a couple of chapters, all of which are supported by great photographs of the people and places involved. The book covers producers in El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya and Nicaragua; for each country a short summary of the coffee production situation is provided before moving on to the human stories. Coffeeography is filled with stories of how coffee farms (and various processing operations etc) came to be, how they have developed, and how particularly people have been influential in helping these developments take place. Each producer has a short profile asking about their achievements, influences, challenges, where they would like most to grow coffee in the world, and so on, to give a few personal insights into the people behind the coffee. It’s unsurprising that the most commonly cited challenges were climate change, disease, the costs of production and lack of labour – these are well documented challenges for the coffee industry – but reading them in this format highlights how these challenges really do have a human impact, and how they need addressing to ensuring these families (and millions of others reliant on the coffee industry) can continue to foster sustainable livelihoods.

Coffeeography Stephen Leighton Book Coffee Producers

The author has clearly made a world of friends in coffee, and had many coffee adventures along the way. The book begins by Stephen saying how he has the best job in the world to travel the world exploring coffee farms to source the best coffee for his company, and his passion for coffee, the industry and the people in it, comes across very clearly. Through the stories of these coffee producers this book successfully showcases the human side of coffee production, with so many coffee and coffee industry books and publications focusing on the consumption end of the supply chain, this provides a welcome shift in focus to think more about where our coffee comes from, and more importantly who is behind it. I have bought coffee from Has Bean in the past, and always been interested in the details about the farm, but in reading these more detailed accounts, it brought many of the people and places I had seen on the website to life.

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Considering standards and certifications in the coffee industry

Recently I’ve been exploring more of the coffee industry focusing on the production side of the industry, and in particular thinking about the role of standards and certifications (and alternatives) for fostering a more sustainable approach to coffee growing.

coffee tree sustainability

Source: Flickr user Schlomo Stern

Growing coffee in a way that conserves the environment and better livelihoods for those involved in growing it is challenging. With over 120 million people relying on coffee for their livelihoods, many of which are small scale farms or farm workers, and the increasing vulnerability of coffee growing to climate change, the need to ensure sustainable practices are embedded in the coffee producing process is vital. The International Trade Centre (ITC)  has suggested coffee is on its way to becoming the first sustainable agricultural product because of the various standards and certifications programmes that are in place. A recent ITC report estimated at least a quarter of all coffee grown in 2015 was compliant with one of the five largest standards and certifications. However, it’s hard to gauge an exact figure as it is common for producers to hold multiple certifications in part due to the varied form, purpose and criteria of various certification schemes in the coffee industry.

Ultimately there is still a large proportion of coffee grown that is not certified, and there are a number of reasons for this for example suitability and costs of certifications, lack of ability to produce goods to standards or awareness of such standards, as well as a proportion of those in the industry who choose not to engage in certification but voluntary sustainability programmes, or direct trade arrangements instead.  Questions have been raised from across the industry about the benefits and impacts of standards and certification schemes for those involved, and what alternatives might exist.

Certification Schemes

certificateThere are a range of standards and certification schemes in the coffee industry, with some of the larger ones including: Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, 4C, and UTZ.

  • Fair Trade: designed to support a better life for farming family, focusing on sustainability and community development. Producers guaranteed a minimum price for the coffee.
  • Rainforest Alliance: designed to integrate biodiversity, conservation, community development, workers rights and agricultural practices to ensure a comprehensive sustainable farm management system.
  • Organic: works towards a sustainable agriculture system, protecting biodiversity and sol health. Normally costs of production are higher for organic grown coffee.
  • 4C: designed to unite coffee stakeholders working towards improvement of economic, social and environmental conditions of coffee production.
  • UTZ: designed to achieve a sustainable agricultural supply chain where producers and professionals are implementing good business practice which also protects the environment.
  • At the end of 2017 UTZ and Rainforest Alliance announced they would merge. It has kept the name Rainforest Alliance and suggests that it will endeavour to tackle environment and social issues including climate change, deforestation and unsustainable farming in a new certification standard to be launched in early 2019. The intention is to reduce costs for producers with less audits and lower costs of implementation.

The 2017 State of Sustainable markets report from ITC suggested: 4C, Fairtrade International, Organic, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certified between 2.6 million hectares and 4.6 million hectares in 2015 (a 63.3% increase in certified areas from 2011). As an indication of the scale of these schemes according to ITC (2017):

  • 4C highest share of licenced coffee in 2015 – 15.2% of global coffee area (1.6 million ha), 2.6 million tonnes of compliant coffee.
  • Fairtrade International 12.4% of global coffee area (1.3 million ha), 560,000 tonnes coffee
  • Organic estimated harvested almost 7.6% of global coffee area (800,000 ha), 340,000 tonnes coffee.
  • Rainforest Alliance/Sustainable Agriculture Network certified 405,000 ha, 520,000 tonnes.
  • UTZ certificated 550,000 ha (5.2% coffee area), 821,000 tonnes coffee.

Some of the largest buyers for these certified coffees were the large commodity buyers and coffee chains including Nestle, Mondelez, D.E. Master Blenders, Tchibo, Keurig Green Mountain, UCC Coffee and Starbucks. However, the global growth of the coffee (and coffee shop) industry has meant there is a wider array of coffee business involved in the industry, many of which do not engage with the larger programmes, or even certified coffees.

Alongside these larger schemes, there are a range of smaller independent initiatives, and private voluntary sustainability initiatives (such as the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Coffee Programme, or Starbucks CAFÉ Practices), as well as direct trade arrangements with coffee producers. Direct trade has been a practice that seems to be favoured among many in the specialty coffee industry.

Coffee farm

Source: Flickr user Colleen Taugher

While there remains strong support for many of these schemes, they have their critics too for their associated costs and auditing requirements, while others cite corruption from preventing benefits reaching farmers. International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) documented that while prices for certified products increased and producer income from certified products was slightly higher overall, average household incomes or asset ownership did not increase. Much of the academic and consultancy literature that has focused on these models questions the role of these models in generating real impact for farmers and their influence on consumer behaviour.

Many retailers are looking for alternative models. In 2017 Sainsburys dropped the Fairtrade label to pilot their own ‘Fairly Traded’ label for tea, seen as a symbol that big companies were reassessing their supply chains and considering ways to devise their own environmental and labour policies. In 2017 Tesco announced plans to swap its own label coffee from Fairtrade Coffee for Rainforest Alliance, another indicator that changes are taking place in the certification landscape.

Even Fairtrade International are altering their practices, launching a new supply chain services for business and expanding range of services for commercial partners, recognising that changes need to take place for them to maintain their position in the industry.

Specialty coffee and certifications

A particular area of the coffee market that has a low level of certifications for its coffee is the specialty coffee sector. Many specialty coffee roasters and coffee shops do not sell certified coffee, preferring the Direct Trade model citing preferences for being able to deal directly with farmers in order to have a better knowledge of the coffee’s (and farms) they are working with, as well as the inadequacies of other certification programmes (e.g. Fairtrade isn’t as concerned with coffee quality as many specialty coffee companies require) (Haight 2011). Has Bean Coffee has an excellent blog post on their view on the alternatives to Fairtrade.

One feature of the specialty coffee market mentioned in this post which appears to have become more prominent in recent years is the Cup of Excellence organised by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) who state that their aim is to ‘live in a world that embraces excellence and sustainable economies’. Under this route coffees enter a national competition for consideration by judging panels with the winning coffees sold on online auction. In 2017 Cup of Excellence competitions took place in Brazil, Burundi, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. Coffees sold here are found to be of the highest quality and consequently can command higher prices, which should in theory provide greater income for farmers allowing them to make greater investments in their coffee production systems, and to foster sustainable livelihoods more generally. I’ve been reading about many of the farms that have submitted coffees in Cup of Excellence competitions in the book Coffeography by founder of Has Bean Coffee, Stephen Leighton, a volume which demonstrates the importance of building relationships in the coffee industry.

Stephen is also co-founder of Tamper Tantrum a podcast about the coffee industry I listen to regularly. There is a series of podcasts about certifications and trading models that is worth listening to if you want to get up to speed on some of the current discussions in the industry.

Cracking Certifications Vol. 1 with a panel that discusses various certifications and trading models in the context of specialty coffee.

Cracking Certifications Vol.2 with a slightly different panel, including some coffee producers (via video shown below); here the focus on the views of some producers, as well as the more consumer side of the coffee industry and the role of baristas in consumer education.

Trading Models and Certifications: includes a panel which considers certification standards across the supply chain but with a particular focus on some of the issues faced by coffee roasters.

The importance of consumers

A repeated point in discussions of standards and certifications for coffee is about whether consumer values them, and how it affects their behaviour. Some argue that there is a consumer ‘perception that certification sector is outdated and not delivering on its mission to improve the livelihood of producers’.

While others highlight that ‘Consumers are powerful, and not afraid to wield their power both on their own behalf and on that of the planet…They are helping to ensure that the environmental impact and labour conditions associated with agriculture are duly monitored, and that appropriate sustainability standards are adopted and respected’.

Given the various certification schemes are marketed to consumers to obtain a higher price for coffee, it is important to understand consumer preferences in this area (and misconceptions).

A bit of a longer post than usual, and I don’t come to any particular conclusions other than this area of the industry, needs greater attention in terms of research to consider their impact on the coffee industry, and the people and places involved in it.

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Book Review: The Philosophy of Coffee

It’s always a good day when another coffee-related book arrives at the house, and Friday saw the arrival of the ‘Philosophy of Coffee’, written by the author of (the increasingly global) Brian’s Coffee Spot, Brian Williams. I first came across Brian’s work through his contributions to Caffeine magazine, documenting the different coffee shops around the country, and have since found both these articles and his blog very insightful on the breadth and diversity of the specialty coffee world – I have found many great coffee shops and drank many tasty coffees thanks to his blog posts and suggestions, and was delighted  to hear he’d written a book.

Philosophy of Coffee Brian Williams This short volume is essentially a condensed history of the global spread of coffee and coffee shop culture, taking you on a whirlwind tour from its origins in Ethiopia to the global industry it is today. Divided into short punchy chapters the book begins with an introduction to coffee and its origins, moving on to the expansion of the coffee house, the importance of particular countries in the growth of the coffee industry (through trade and coffee production), through different coffee booms, modern coffee shop culture and even some considerations for the future. The book is clearly well researched and at several points refers to the work of Dr Matthew Green, a leading authority on the history of coffee houses in London (he does an interesting walking tour if you’re ever in the area).

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the ‘The Birth of Espresso’ learning about the people and devices that helped this come a more popular drink, and ‘The Italian’s and Post-War London’ for its insights into the espresso bar boom at the time. The chapter on the rise of the modern coffee shop highlights the important role of TV programmes like Friends and of the global coffee giant Starbucks in making visiting the coffee shop a mainstream activity.  Looking to the future the book also highlights some important future considerations for the industry, around the production of coffee, pricing of coffee and why building a sustainable coffee industry is so important.

Philosophy of Coffee Brian Williams

This book is likely to appeal to anyone with an interest in coffee, whether you consider yourself an expert or not, the narrative in this book helps illuminate the globalisation of coffee and coffee shops, and provides lots of insights into the people, places and events that made the coffee industry what it is today. This isn’t an academic text, however, I’m giving a lecture later in the week in an international business module about the coffee industry, and because this book gives such a good overview of how and why the industry developed so it’s now been added to the recommended reading list. It’s also nice and short, and if you have the time would be great for sitting in a coffee shop to read while letting the world pass you by for a while – in my case I read it while my daughter was asleep but I can at least imagine myself sitting in a coffee shop reading it!

The Philosophy of Coffee is available to buy from the British Library, and also directly from Brian on his website, he’ll also be doing a small tour with the book which he talks about here, if you’re interesting in meeting the author!

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Book Review: London Coffee by Lani Kingston

Having read lots of books about the coffee and specialty coffee industry, what is often missing is the personal nature of how the industry develops – without the dedication and efforts of individuals in creating and fostering businesses in coffee, the industry wouldn’t be what it is today. London Coffee by Lani Kingston (also author of the book How to Make Coffee: The Science Behind the Bean) takes a different approach, focusing on the businesses and people that have been important to the development of the coffee and coffee shop industry in London (and beyond).

London Coffee Lani KingstonI’m relatively familiar with how the coffee shop industry has developed and flourished in London – partly through research, but also through multiple visits for work and plenty of stops in coffee shops over the years (and trips to the London Coffee Festival). But even so, there were insights into businesses that I was less familiar with (Mercanta, the specialty coffee merchants, for example), and new snippets of knowledge of those I thought I knew quite well (such as Square Mile Coffee or Prufrock).

London Coffee Lani Kingston

It’s more than a guide to coffee shops in London, although it does have a nice map included, which appeals to my geographer background. It’s essentially a series of vignettes into the people and places that have helped the London coffee industry develop into the coffee hub it has become. It includes coffee businesses that were seen as pioneers in London coffees such as Monmouth Coffee, to more recent coffee businesses such as Pact, the coffee subscription service. Recognising that the coffee industry relies on a diversity of businesses the book includes cases from coffee machine and repair business (AE Stanton), to dairies providing ‘barista milk’ (The Estate Dairy), and of course a range of roasters and coffee shops in between (for example Square Mile Coffee Roasters, The Gentleman Baristas and Climpson & Sons). While the book brings the reader up to speed on some of the more modern highlights of London coffee, it also shows how some business have been important in London’s coffee history, from Bar Italia serving endless espressos to customers in Soho since the 1950s, to Algerian Coffee Stores providing people with coffee since 1887.

London Coffee Lani Kingston

London has a rich coffee history dating back to the mid-17th century when the first coffee houses begin to appear, and has transformed over the centuries becoming one of the global centres for coffee culture, and specialty coffee. London Coffee provides insights into how London’s modern landscape came to be through a range of people and coffee businesses.  Anyone with an interest in coffee shops, coffee culture, and London in particular, are likely to find this book a delight.

London Coffee Lani Kingston

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Innovate Magazine: Café Society

Innovate Magazine Cover Coventry UniversityLanding on my desk at work this week was the most recent issue of Coventry University’s Research and Enterprise magazine, Innovate. Some of my work around the importance of cafés and coffee shops for many people in modern society is featured. It’s just a short piece which explains a little about why I ended up researching the coffee shop industry, why I think its important to study, and some potential future research avenues. The article can be read in the online version of the magazine (page 16) alongside lots of other interesting articles about research at Coventry University (from renewable energy in Brazil to edible insects). 

I was quite surprised to see a double page spread of a photo of me in the magazine – when I had been to the photoshoot for this article in a local coffee shop, I was told a selection of images would be used. The barista went to great efforts to make the Coventry University logo on the latte (pictured here).

You can find out more about the ‘Spaces of Community’ research project which inspired this article here, or my new research project around the coffee shop industry and the circular economy here.

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Tackling the coffee cup mountain: Will a ‘latte’ levy make a difference?

While the rapid growth of the coffee shop industry in the UK has been important for the retail economy it has had significant environmental consequences, most notably the huge amount of disposable coffee cups. It is estimated that 2.5 billion coffee cups are thrown away each day (around 5,000 every minute), with only a very small proportion being recycled, due to lack of facilities to do so. Current estimates suggest this could grow to 3.7 billion by 2025 if measures are not introduced to tackle the issue. The Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into disposable packaging (both plastic water bottles and coffee cups), to try and gauge what can be done about the issue.

coffee cup report environmental audit committeeIn January 2018 it published its coffee cup report arguing there needs to be action along the Environmental Waste Hierarchy – to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. It recommend government introduce  a 25p tax on disposable coffee cups, with a suggested target that all disposable coffee cups should be recycled by 2023; and a total ban by this date if efforts to recycle the cups are not drastically improved.

“There is no excuse for the ongoing reluctance from Government and industry to address coffee cup waste. Disposable coffee cups are an avoidable waste problem and if the UK cannot be confident of their future sustainability, the Government should ban them.” House of Commons (2018: p19)

It has been suggested that the money from this tax could be used to help local councils fund more recycling facilities, or a more extensive ‘binfrastructure’ as it was termed in the report, as well as a clear public awareness campaign on recycling food package waste more generally .

“A “latte levy” on disposable coffee cups would remove some of the financial burden from local authorities and council taxpayers.” House of Commons (2018: 23)

Pret A Manger, one of the largest high street retailers of takeaway coffee recently introduced a 50p discount for consumers who bring a reusable coffee cups, with a very positive response on social media. When asked consumers are likely to say a reduction in price will encourage them to change their behaviour, rather than an increase, but only time will tell if it actually makes a difference.

More generally it is suggested that not enough is being done by industry to recycle coffee cups, and there was confusion from consumers about what was happening to their coffee cup waste, an issue that was highlighted in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste TV programme back in 2016. While technically recyclable, a polyethylene layer in the coffee cup makes them difficult to be recycled, and very few facilities in the UK are equipped to do so. There have however been several voluntary schemes since to try and increase the number of cups being recycled; Costa Coffee launched a nationwide programme to recycle coffee cups, and The Square Mile Challenge in London saw efforts to recycle coffee cups in the very centre of the city. Although as the report suggested, efforts across the industry are inconsistent, and not widespread enough.

The report highlights that not enough has been done to incentivise consumers to make use of reusable coffee cup options. It notes that while many coffee shops offer discounts to bring their own reusable cup, only around 1-2% do so. It is hoped that a tax on disposable coffee cups would lead to the level of reduction that was seen after the 5p charge on carrier bags was introduced in 2015 (83% reduction in use in the first year). To make the way coffee cups are treated clearer to consumers, the report also suggests there needs to be clearer labelling on coffee cups as to whether a cup can be recycled or not, and if it has to be recycled in store or not.

As more regular readers of blog may be aware I have been investigating sustainability in the coffee shop industry, including the issue of disposable coffee cups, and responded to the inquiry (the submission can be read here). My research highlights the points that consumer confusion is widespread over how to recycle their coffee cup, often placing their cup in a recycling bin on the street and assuming this was going to be recycled. It also reiterates the point that while many consumers are turning to reusable cup options, it is only a small proportion as many people find them inconvenient because they need to be carried around in between, and washed after use. In a recent press release from Coventry University I highlighted that while a tax on disposable coffee cups may instigate change, it might not be as quick in making a difference as the 5p plastic bag charge was, because some consumers don’t like to carry around a dirty cup, they feel they take up too much space, they are confused over how much they will be charged for their use, or whether coffee shops will use the cup if it’s not clean enough. Furthermore she argues the issue goes beyond coffee shops:

‘The change in behaviour needed has to go beyond when people grab their coffee on the go in town. A lot of disposable cups are thrown away from offices, and events where tea and coffee are served at meetings and conferences . If people are in the habit of drinking tea and coffee out of the home, then they should be encouraged to carry a reusable cup more regularly’.  (Dr Jennifer Ferreira, Coventry University, 2017)

I’ve also highlighted that it is important to remember that reusable coffee cups are just one of the wider environmental issues facing the coffee shop industry, alongside more general reduction in packaging and waste, as well as energy use reduction. There are several articles on the ‘cafespaces’ blog about resusable coffee cups and other innovations in fostering sustainability in the coffee shop industry. My new research project  explores the issue of fostering sustainable business in the coffee shop industry, focusing on these wider issues, as well as coffee cups investigating more international examples too.


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Inspired by Standart: ‘Why the Social Sciences Matter’

Standart magazine Issue 10I have mentioned Standart magazine before in a post about magazines I read to learn about coffee and the coffee industry – now on Issue 10 it’s becoming a growing store of coffee knowledge. In the most recent issue which landed on my doorstep just after Christmas (with free coffee socks!) I was delighted to see an article on ‘why the social sciences matter’ for the coffee industry. Written by Professor Sarah Grant, an anthropologist from California State University – Fullerton, the article discusses how there needs to be greater links between industry, natural scientists and social sciences to create a more holistic understanding of coffee; and considers how social scientists can contribute to coffee research in the future.

Social scientists have long considered coffee worthy of their attention – an attention that ranges from historical (colonial) contexts and neoliberal development to the use of ‘native’ bodies to market products and the implications of certification schemes for farmers, trades, consumers and everyone in between’ (p 60).

As a social scientist myself, the arguments presented here resonate with much of my own thinking about the nature of research, and in particular research around the coffee industry. The study of coffee and the coffee industry is by nature interdisciplinary, incorporating both the natural and social sciences, depending on which area of the industry is the prime focus. In any area, research could benefit from collaboration, not only between disciplines, but with industry too. In fact, it is collaboration with industry, and all those involved in it, that remains a crucial area where more social scientists could get involved.

‘Industry is late to the social science dialogue many of us are keen to have. And social scientists are late to working with industry. Either way there is a necessity for social scientists to engage with both natural science and industry experts.’ (p.60).

She highlights how social scientists might consider everything from the impact of third wave shops in inner city neighbourhoods and communities, to the impact of climate change on producing communities. ‘If we want to address gentrification and third wave cafes popping up in urban metropolises, we need to better understand the history of the neighbourhoods in which we consume coffee and what is means to posit specialty coffee into that landscape’ (p.61). As Prof Grant notes, the concept of studying coffee is not new to social scientists, citing a number of important ethnographic studies, and highlighting the breadth of literature that is available, but stresses that where the gap remains is for collaboration between social science scholars, industry, and the natural sciences which could help address some of the important issues that face the contemporary coffee industry. The social sciences are wide ranging and have the potential to contribute to greater understanding in all areas of the coffee supply chain from growing communities and the impact of climate change, to understanding how supply chains work, to the nature of coffee shop businesses and the influence of consumers.

At one point Prof Grant mentions a moment where she has had to defend her ethnographic work to a ‘real scientist’, and explains how the qualitative methods she uses help develop an understanding of real lives in the coffee industry. In the past I have been in similar situations where someone from another discipline questions my research – often with ‘but how is it ‘science’?. Social scientists undertake rigorous research projects with a wide array of methodologies – it’s not always just interviews, surveys and observations. As an economic geographer I have utilised a range of both quantitative and qualitative methods to explore different facets of society; in some of my previous work this examined the development of the temporary staffing industry and labour market change; while my most recent work considers the impact of the growth of the coffee shop industry. In both cases, input from industry and other academics has been fundamental to developing knowledge and understanding.

Prof Grant suggests there are number of areas for collaboration in the future, around climate change, sustainability, gender equality, in particular. I would agree here and also add the areas of global coffee supply chains, the globalisation of the coffee shop industry, and the role of consumers in driving coffee industry change. As I mentioned earlier, the nature of the coffee industry is interdisciplinary, and once you start to conduct research on it, this becomes ever more clear. To understand the growth of the coffee shop industry, you need to understand coffee supply chains, and in doing so you develop greater knowledge of producing countries, and around the issues faced by growing communities. They are all interlinked, and at each stage there are contributions that can be made by different actors – from industry, the natural sciences and the social sciences. Climate change remains a pressing issue for the coffee industry, which the natural scientists can make a significant contribution, but these changes also have an impact on people – both in terms of those who grow the coffee and those who buy it. Prof Grant argues that ‘to some degree it is on us, as social scientists, to make our work accessible to a broader public and the coffee industry wherever we are welcome’ (p.67), and that she will make efforts to reach out to industry, in the hope that it will do the same. This is something I wholeheartedly agree with and in part is the reason I created the ‘cafespaces’ blog in an effort to make the work I do accessible to people who are interested, producing publications such as the ‘Spaces of Community: Research Summary’ last year, in addition to the academic publications which are part of the requirements of my job. My research, wouldn’t be what it is without the engagement of people involved in the coffee industry, so I’m very keen for people to learn about what I do, and build up connections and collaborations where possible, so I can learn from them too.

In summary, I strongly support the arguments Prof Grant makes in this article and reiterate that I too hope to see greater collaboration between different stakeholders and interested parties in future coffee research, and I hope to be a part of it. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) currently has a survey which is designed to find out stakeholder interests in different research areas and topics to try and guide their future research initiatives – a great opportunity for those in the coffee industry to guide some research that takes place in the future.

Aside from the article on the importance of the Social Sciences, Issue 10 of Standart is packed full of beautifully illustrated articles (as usual) about the coffee industry, from discussions of why perceptions of Brazilian coffee need to be challenged by Sabine Parrish, a PhD candidate examining coffee drinking in Brazil, to a discussion of the challenges of being a green coffee buyer and running a coffee business, from Jon Allen the founder of Onyx Coffee Lab.

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Changing coffee culture in Mexico

According to the ICO (2017) Mexico produced 3.6 million bags (60kg bags) of coffee in 2016 making it one of the world’s most significant coffee producers, and yet it’s rare (in the UK at least) to find much Mexican coffee being served outside of the country*. The reasons why, along with an exploration of the developing coffee culture in Mexico City are the focus of a recent issue of Drift magazine which provided inspiration for this post. I’ve read a few pieces over the last couple of years about how coffee culture is developing in Mexico, in particular a growth of specialty coffee in Mexico City. In April 2016 an article in Caffeine magazine introduced a few specialty coffee shops in Mexico City (Kitain, 2016), while both Perfect Daily Grind  (Plascencia, 2016; Yanez, 2016), and Sprudge (Yentch, 2017), have published articles about different specialty coffee shops and changing coffee culture in the Mexico.

drift mexico cityThe Drift issue includes articles which focus on the activities of particular coffee shops and individuals such as Café El Jarocho to Café Avellaneda, to discussions of coffee leaf rust, and changing trends in consumption in Mexico. It takes the reader on a journey through the people and places that are influencing the developing coffee culture in Mexico City, and the country more broadly. It prompted me to think a little bit more about the coffee culture in Mexico, explored in this post.

Coffee culture in Mexico

Unlike in many other coffee consuming countries coffee is not seen as the morning on-the-go staple, but an important part of sobremesa at lunch or dinner time (where customers take time to have a break after they dine to  socialise and relax), and consequently many coffee shops don’t open until late morning.

“As Mexico City’s coffee culture integrates immigrating coffee influences, the tradition around sobremesa still seems uniquely untouched. Invading second wave coffee giants, like Starbucks, have brought a fast paced high-volume coffee experience with it, a portfolio of Italian inspired drinks, such as cappuccinos and Americanos. But this hasn’t affected the native coffee culture: step into the dusty streets of Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood around 4pm and you’ll still find its residents leisurely sipping cortados, lingering and chatting after their afternoon meal.” p.36

This creates a very different coffee shop culture with places staying open later and a different daily consumer pattern. While specialty coffee culture may be a new and developing concept in the country, as highlighted in the Drift issue, drinking coffee more generally has a much longer history, and is an inherently social affair.

In Mexico city, everyone drinks coffee – but few drink it the same way. Some are loyal to decades-old institutions such as El Jarocho. Others keep up with the hot new specialty shops on the block. Many drink Starbucks. The common thread that binds them is that coffee in Mexico is a social activity.” p.8.

The Drift issue puts the spotlight on a number of establishments from the institution of Café El Jarocho to the well-established Café Passmar, in Mercado Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico City. Its owner explained how the approach to coffee is beginning to change but that many people still don’t understand the wide variety of flavours on offer through their coffees. It’s one of many coffee shops in Mexico that only uses Mexican beans.

Coffee bags mexico

Source: Flickr user – Joe Driscoll

There are many producing regions in the country with very different climatic conditions  and elevations, which means  there is huge diversity in the coffee produced there. Much of country’s coffee growing is in the south, with Veracruz, Chiapas, and Oaxaca being well known producing regions. And collectively there are thought to be over 500,000 smallholder coffee farming families in the country – highlighting just how important the coffee industry is for both Mexico’s economy and people.

Specialty coffee in Mexico

Whilst Mexico has a long history of coffee production (dating back to the 1700s), only recently is it developing a reputation for producing a range of specialty coffee, as explored in this video:


Source: Flickr user Melissa

“Mexico City is transforming itself into one of the most important capitals of specialty coffee as, every day, its citizens learn the language of coffee”  (Yanez, 2016). The proximity of producers allows coffee roasters and coffee shop owners to have direct connections with farmers in order to obtain the highest quality coffees, and to foster relationships to ensure this quality remains. The Drift issue explores several different specialty coffee shops and roasters in Mexico city, highlighting their challenges from operating in a coffee producing country (and convincing consumers to pay a higher price for high quality coffee), to issues around coffee leaf rust.

Source: Flickr user Bex Walton

While there is still a small number of specialty coffee shops in Mexico by international standards, numbers are growing. There are too many to name individually, and the articles I highlighted earlier in the blog post do a great job of providing an overview of the different coffee shops you can find there, in addition to those explored in-depth in Drift,  including: Café Avellaneda, Almanegra Café, Casa Cardinal, Buna, Centro Café, Chiquitito Café, El Ilusionista, Borola Café, Dosis Café, Hey! Brew Bar, to name just a few. Many of these specialty coffee shops either roast their own beans or serve largely only Mexican coffees. You can even go on  Specialty Coffee shop tours around neighbourhoods like Roma and Condesa  in Mexico City if you need help navigating the specialty coffee landscape.

Despite the recent boom in coffee shops, the specialty market remains niche in part due to preferences for instant coffee, demand from commodity coffee buyers, and costs involved in producing specialty coffee. Although there are lots of examples of small companies trying to change the way things work in Mexico – establishing projects to work with local producers to source their coffee directly. For example Café Los Serenos which sources from four growers in Puebla, and two growers in Oaxaca according to Drift magazine; or larger projects such as Café con Jiribilla which works with producers from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz.

If you’re a fan of specialty coffee and live outside Mexico then you probably haven’t had much opportunity to sample the various flavours on offer as: “Mexico is unique because much of its high quality coffee never leaves the country. Demand for high-quality coffee has been increasing in places like Mexico City as more and more specialty coffee shops are popping up. Between roya decimating coffee production around Mexico and local coffee shops buying up the higher quality beans, it is rare to find Mexican coffee in specialty coffee shops outside of Mexico p.67.

For those in Mexico however, the opposite is the case with many coffee shops only using Mexican coffee beans, in part due to high import prices for other coffee (20% tax on green coffee, and 60% on roasted coffee).

Coffee leaf rust

Coffee leaf rust

Coffee Leaf Rust Source: Wikimedia

One of the greatest challenges to production of coffee in Mexico (as it is in many other countries) is coffee leaf rust, known as ‘la roya’. The rust is a disease caused by a fungus which bleaches the leaves which means they can’t photosynthesize effectively, stunting growth (Saliba, 2013). The disease has been present in the region for decades but it is only in recent years that it has got to such damaging levels, affecting previously unafflicted areas. While there are many initiatives being put in place to try and combat this, such as planting more resistant varieties, it takes many years for the new trees to grow – during which time the farmers cannot make the living they need. Even Starbucks has a Coffee Tree Initiative in Mexico (launched in 2014) to try and address the coffee leaf issue (Starbucks, 2016).

The future for coffee culture in Mexico

So thanks to Drift magazine I was inspired to learn a bit more about coffee culture in Mexico and how the coffee culture is changing, in part due a rise in specialty coffee. The discussions in the magazine, and in other pieces I’ve read highlight how there are increasing influences from Europe and American in terms of coffee preferences (drinking espresso, filter coffee, the design of coffee shops and so on), but that there’s still a long way to go before specialty coffee can become mainstream. Mexico has a rich coffee history, intertwined with politics, economic, social and environmental change in the country which the Drift issue touches upon. While there are challenges for the coffee industry in Mexico it is clearly an area of the world where the coffee culture, and the coffee growing industry, is experiencing change; one to watch closely in future years.


*After asking on Twitter I was introduced to a number of  UK based coffee roasters that have (or are about to have) some Mexican coffee: Carvetti Coffee  Roasters have a Sierra Azul Decaf; Rounton Coffee Roasters  have the Mexico Finca Muxbal; Volcano Coffee Works have their Finca Muxbal; and Sendero Coffee said they are likely to have some specialty Mexican coffee from May. If you know of any others, please do let me know.


Posted in Cafe Culture, coffee culture, Coffee Growing, Latin America, Mexico, Specialty Coffee | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment