Quality and Inequality: Creating Value Worlds with Third Wave Coffee

Following the publication of his article “Quality and Inequality: Creating Value Worlds with Third Wave Coffee” in Socio-Economic Review, SASE is pleased to share an interview with Edward (Ted) Fischer, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Fischer is also the founder of Maní+, an award-winning social enterprise in Guatemala that develops and produces locally sourced foods to fight malnutrition, and advises the WHO-Europe on the cultural contexts of health, and serves on the board of the Maya Education Foundation. His research focuses on issues of political economy, values, wellbeing, and development. He has authored or edited a number of books, including most recently The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing (2014). Fischer is currently working on a project that examines the ways moral and economic values are intertwined in the high-end coffee market. 

Interview conducted by SASE Executive Director Martha Zuber.

What brought you to the world of coffee?

In some sense, it goes way back. I have long had a fondness for coffee shops; they are great places to be alone around other people. Writing my dissertation, I would spend ten hours a day on the patio of PJ’s Coffee in New Orleans, watching the world go by.

As an anthropologist, much of my work has been with Maya peoples in Guatemala, particularly their political-economic position in an age of globalization. A previous book, Broccoli and Desire, looked at how the hope and desires of Maya farmers converged with Northern consumer trends toward healthy foods such as broccoli (which grows great in Guatemala). And then about ten years ago, I discovered that the coffee market in Guatemala has undergone a dramatic transformation, so I turned attentions there.

What changed so dramatically?

Coffee in Guatemala has long been associated with a small oligarchical class who deployed land grabs and brutally coerced labor to produce a volume product that competed on price. The Maya peoples who had lived in coffee growing regions suffered the most, with many forced higher onto the vertiginous slopes of the volcanic highlands.

But since the 1990s, the has been a meteoric rise in the market for higher quality coffee in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. And, it turns out, this quality coffee grows best at higher altitudes, the lands to which the Maya had been displaced. So many Maya farmers have switched to coffee over the last two decades, and it has been an economic boom—and served with a dose of poetic justice, as many of the large plantations have gone broke.

In your article, you discuss the three broad waves of the coffee trade as well as Third Wave coffee pioneers. Could you elucidate?

In 2002, Trish Rothgeb, then working as a barista and roaster in Oslo, coined the term “Third Wave” to refer to the Nordic coffee scene’s focus on unadorned quality, and the term was quickly and widely adopted across the coffee world. The chronology that it implies starts with the First Wave, lasting most of the twentieth century and made up of supermarket brand coffees such as Folgers, Maxwell House, Jacobs, Douwe Egberts; the Second Wave marked a reaction to the bland homogeneity of these coffees, and reached its apex with the worldwide spread of Starbucks. Third Wave coffees take quality concerns to the next level: singles estate coffees, often of exotic varietals, that employ the descriptive language developed for wine. The U.S. is the largest market for Third Wave coffees, but interest in growing in Japan and Europe (and, increasingly, in producing countries as well).

You write that most Third Wave affluent consumers are not only drinking a quality cup of coffee, but also buying into a vague moral identity of artisanal quality, authenticity, and connection to a distant Other. While at the same time small coffee farmers whose coffee beans are of great quality in the high mountains of Guatemala are at a great disadvantage. Why?

Yes, you would think that controlling the land, the terroir, in a market for these coffees would give farmers the power in this formation. And to some extent it has and does—the successful farmers can make up to $4 per pound (versus $1 per pound for commodity coffee), and that is life-changing amounts of money. But farmers need some social capital and cultural knowledge to access this market, and these tend to be larger farms run by European descendant producers rather than small operations run my Maya speaking peoples. In the end, tastemakers in the Global North chase new and unusual flavors, and those able to speak their language are able to reap the big rewards.

Can coffee be distinguished from one world region to another, like wine?

Yes. People unfamiliar with the coffee world often tell me that they think all coffee tastes essentially the same. But if you tried different quality coffees side by side, you can taste a difference. There is a real material difference. If you were training as a cupper, world region differences would be one of the first distinctions you would learn to make. There are broad profiles for coffees from world areas (Africa, Latin America, Indonesia, etc.), and increasingly more precisely defined terroir. Guatemala has eight recognized growing regions, with different flavor profiles. Some differences are subtle, but one can learn to distinguish them.

What are some of the markers of the Third Wave quest for rarity and quality? And who are some of the major players?

Almost all Third Wave coffees are varietals of Coffea Arabica (Robusta is the other main species). Third Wave coffees are increasingly heirloom or other exotic varietals (e.g., Gesha, SL28), they are grown at high altitudes, and they are sold in “micro-lots” (i.e., less than a container load). Citrus acidity is a flavor profile that is hip these days; the coffees on my desk right now use the descriptors “blueberry, chocolate, honey” and “blood orange, jasmine, and bergamot.”

The major players in the U.S. are Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. But part of the Third Wave movement stresses artisanal scale, so there are many, many more small operations. (JAB Holdings, owned by Germany’s Reimann family, now own Intelligentsia and Stumptown—along with Jacobs, Douwe Egberts, Peets, Caribou, and others.)

Are global coffee markets regulated?

Interestingly, coffee tracks regulatory changes in the global economy. From 1962-1989, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) regulated trade, setting quotas for producing countries based on projected consumption. Classic post-WWII regulation. But the ICA broke down in 1989, ushering in a neoliberal era of coffee trade, and allowing for this boom in different varieties and types and qualities of coffee.

Is there a big market for high-end coffee?

The term “specialty coffee” encompasses both Second Wave and Third Wave coffees, and it is estimated to be about 25% of the global market for Arabicas. But we do not have any solid figures on Third Wave specifically. The consensus is that it is the fastest growing segment of the coffee business.

What does the market consider to be the best coffee? What is your favorite coffee?

The market has moved toward varietals and a type of processing that emphasizes fruity and acidic notes. Quality coffee has historically been “washed” (depulped and processes immediately after picking) but more and more Third Wave coffees are processes using the “natural” method (letting the cherries rot on the beans, which imparts a particular flavor). These coffees have more delicate flavors, more like tea. And they are very hot right now. At the very upper end, these coffees sell for hundreds of dollars a pound after roasting. If you are interested in one of these unusual flavored coffees, my favorite is a Jabanto natural processed from Ethiopia—it has blueberry notes that explode in the mouth.

Personally, I am more of a traditionalist. My favorite coffee is a Bourbon varietal of C. arabica grown by El Injerto in Guatemala. I tell people, if you like the taste of coffee, this is the best traditional tasting coffee out there.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a book about coffee and values that explores many of the themes in this article in more depth. Stay tuned!