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  • Thomas Haigh

The Politics of Flavour in Coffee

Autumn has arrived. After our strange and tumultuous pandemic Summer, darkness is once again creeping into the morning hours. In his book Greenfeast: Autumn, Winter Nigel Slater writes that he first notices Autumn as “a damp, mushroomy mist [that] hovers over the gardens and parks”. For Slater Autumn signifies a change in both season and appetite; “no more am I content with a bowl of couscous with peaches...what I crave now is food that is both cosseting and warming”.

For coffee drinkers perhaps the same is also true. As we meander towards Winter we are also shunning the iced lattes, frappuccinos and cold brew coffee for something hotter and cosier. Of course, for each of us the arrival of Autumn will mean something slightly different. Maybe it is the early frosty morning run in the park followed by a Flat White. Or an Italian espresso brewed on the stovetop. For the seasoned specialty coffee drinker, Autumn might signify the arrival of fresh crop Rwandan coffee, whose harvest finishes in late July. For others, it signifies the return of the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Due to the numerous processes involved in growing, harvesting, processing and roasting, there are over 800 flavour and aroma compounds available in coffee. This makes coffee extremely complex. Even more so than wine. But with all of that flavour to explore, and with innumerable trends to navigate, our tastes in coffee might actually say more about the company we keep than anything else. In his book Distinction (1979) French social theorist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu suggests that our tastes are more related to the socio-cultural influences that surround us than our internal dispositions. Our interaction with social spheres develops within us learnt behaviours and biases, creating what Bordieu terms habitus; deeply rooted habits that influence our tastes. These can affect anything from the food we eat, the clothing we wear, to the coffee we drink. Anthropologist Susanne Højlun describes these shared tastes as a social sense, an activity related to socio-cultural context, rather than as an individual matter of internal reflection”. So whether we are a Pumpkin Spice Latte or a single origin filter drinker, perhaps it is just our habitus guiding each of us into what we think is tasty or not.

The Specialty, or third wave, coffee industry has a particularly strong habitus. Specialty coffee prides itself as being at the forefront of ethical and transparent trade. Since the term ‘Specialty coffee’ was first coined - by Erna Knutsen, the forward-thinking feminist voice of coffee, in a 1974 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal - the industry has blossomed into its own subculture, now representing a 55% value share of the $48 billion coffee industry. It is unquestionable that Specialty coffee has done an awful lot for both farmers, businesses and the future of the industry. With some 25 million smallholder farmers producing 80% of the world’s coffee, the transparency and quality focus of specialty has created a better priced, fairer route to market for coffee growers than traditional market models. Quality-focused structures and scoring models of procurement does increase potential revenue for coffee growers. Specialty coffee constantly strives towards new, exciting and innovative flavour. But sometimes the trends in the coffee industry can have a negative impact in the farming communities who grow it.

In the 2017 paper Quality and Inequality Edward F. Fischer explores the idea of value in the Specialty coffee chain and the impact it has on the people operating within it. He draws upon Marxist theory highlighting the difference between the material value existing in the physical aspect of coffee, such as the land, soil, plants and cherries, and how it is overshadowed by the symbolic value assigned to coffee through the narratives of the Specialty industry. Fischer writes “farmers may control the material means of production and may even be blessed with the auspicious geographic and climatic endowments to grow high-end coffee. But it is control over the means of producing meaning (through cultural and symbolic values) where the pecuniary surplus value is added in this assemblage.” The true power in the coffee chain therefore lies not in the hands of the farmers who grow the material products, but in the Global North where symbolic and cultural value is constructed and assigned to these products.

The distribution of value throughout the coffee chain is uneven. However, this can also be compounded by trends within the industry. Taste preferences in Specialty coffee can be fickle and fleeting. As the industry looks for newer and rarer flavours and tastes, more innovative varieties of coffee, processing methods or post-harvest techniques come into the spotlight in the Global North. These coffees gain a higher price than others due to their quality or interesting flavours, which are a wonderful thing for both coffee drinker and the grower, as each benefit from the increase in the financial and symbolic value gained. But it is important to note and understand that certain resources are required to grow coffees of this quality and these are not evenly distributed.

Some coffee producers are marginalised, or excluded from certain social spheres or institutions, such as women, rural or indigenous smallholders, who often suffer inequity in areas including land ownership, access to training, pre-finance and technology. Coffee farmers do not always have the land or financial freedom to experiment with new and innovative cultivars or processing techniques, let alone the access to technology or freedom to travel needed to access Specialty coffee culture in the Global North. Sometimes the trends and popularity of certain coffees may actually increase inequity within coffee producing communities, as those farmers who already have capabilities of accessing, understanding and meeting the requirements of the Global North will inevitably receive the highest prices. And those who do not, will not.

Fischer writes “with tastemakers in the Global North constantly chasing new and ever more exotic flavours, farmers in tropical coffee growing regions of the world find themselves at an impossible disadvantage in making decisions for planting and harvests four to five years down the road” demonstrating how consumer culture can indirectly affect farming systems temporally and spatially. Coffee is a crop that takes up to five years to yield its first harvest after being planted, if a farmer plants a variety of coffee that is popular today, who is to say whether it will be of value when it comes to bear its first fruit. Changing trends in Specialty coffee can sometimes mislead. When coffee farmers learn about certain varieties or new processing methods that gain high prices in the Specialty market, uprooting their existing plants to re-plant new varieties or pre-financing a new fermentation tank can be a boom or bust decision.

The language of Specialty coffee is complex. The lexicon used to describe coffee’s flavour, the terminology used to denote the product’s provenance and, quite often, the story of the farm and the farmer, can create added ideological value to a coffee worth far more than that of the price paid to the farmer. This value is created in the coffee shops and coffee roasteries in the Global North. These ideologies are strengthened through effective visual storytelling, often through the use of images of the farmer and their land. Coffee growers, however, in the Global South do not have access to the habitus created within the consuming markets. Nor do they have access to the value created within these markets.

The binary culture we live in today sometimes makes it the easy option for us to point out other people’s habits. To make judgements about what these choices say about their tastes and values. But within the clamour of innovation and trend, the whitenoise of quality and sustainability, certain industries can travel too fast for us to fully realise the impact of our own choices on the livelihood of others. Taste is something we all appreciate, regardless of the coffee we drink. But how do we create systems which shorten the chains between the Global North’s consuming culture with that of the Global South, so that the conversation becomes a two way street? Sometimes it’s worth slowing down and stopping to look at our own habitus as the tastes we have become accustomed to aren’t necessarily working for everyone.


Thomas Haigh is a specialty arabica Q Grader, coffee sourcer and consultant living in London. He is the founder of Toko - a coffee company that aims to make the industry a little bit sweeter. Thomas has written further about coffee, taste and bias here.

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