In Defense of Tastemakers

Before you start: terms to understand

Raw material: A basic material used to produce a finished product. Customers for raw materials are rarely end consumers. In the coffee industry, green, un-roasted coffee is a raw material that requires additional processng (roasting) to become a consumable product.

Symbolic value: From Quality and Inequality: "the artful translation of qualities and connotations across symbolic and material arenas of valuation." and "a vague ethic of artisanal quality and authenticity and a connection to a distant Other."

Third Wave coffee: Third Wave Coffee is concerned with the artisanal aspect of coffee and tends to focus on a narrative of sustainability, fairness, etc. Often seeks to draw attention to the producers; those distant Others of symbolic value.

Value chain: Another name for the supply chain, but with the added concept of value. Each link in the supply chain adds value to the end product by performing some necessary function or action with the product. For example; exporters who move green, un-roasted coffee out of its country of origin.

I recently read a paper titled “Quality and Inequality, Taste, Value, and Power in the Third Wave Coffee Market,” in which the author, Edward F. (Ted) Fischer talks about tastemakers; some of the most-popular cafe’s, which are able to leverage their influence to steer consumer preference in the coffee market.

The tastes of the Barista consumers – and, even more importantly, of the roaster and baristas and their tastemaker peers at Stumptown, Intelligentsia, La Colombe, Counter Culture, and the other “Third Wave” coffee pioneers – have serious consequences for folks in Colombia, Yemen, Vietnam, and the other tropical countries that produce coffee.

(Fischer, 2017)

One critique made by the author is that because these tastemakers influence the market’s preferences, they have a power advantage over producers and the producers are left reacting to market desires rather than influencing the market themselves.

A key function of this elaborate apparatus is to obscure that it is a social artifice, a shared aesthetic valuation regime shot through with economic interest and power relations.

(Fischer, 2017)

What I would argue is that the two ends of the value chain have different but related and dependent products and different but complimentary skills. Furthermore, I would argue that the tastemakers are essential to the success and progress of the producers. Therefore, to truly empower the farmer, I recommend the farmer leverage his unique skills as a farmer, while depending on the unique skills of the tastemakers in order to coexist and improve the effectiveness, and therefore the livelihood of the entire chain, the existence of which is absolutely necessary.

See also: The Chains That Bind.

Different products, different goals

The two ends of the coffee value chain have completely different goals and produce completely different products. At the production end, the farmer is producing a raw material; green, un-roasted coffee that has very little value to the end consumer. There are cases, in which producers do roast and sell their own coffee and in those cases, the farmers maintain a considerable amount of control over the product. But not all farmers, arguably not many, want that. They want to be farmers.

In the case of farmers who just want to be farmers, they are producing a crop that when harvested, has a value to intermediary players in the value chain who can then sell the product to roasteries and cafes who turn the raw material into a consumable product. The intermediaries have language skills, marketing skills, sales skills, marketing channels, etc that make them successful at finding a raw material that a roaster and/or cafe wants to buy and turn into a consumable product.

Almost 80% of the world’s coffee is produced by smallholder farmers; farmers who were born and raised in remote, mountainous regions of developing countries, likely with minimal education, minimal exposure outside of their remote region, and largely without the disposable income (Sowell, 2015) that would allow them to experience the kind of consumption of coffee that happens in developed nations, especially in the Third Wave coffee scene.

Without the language skills, farmers have a hard time marketing and selling their raw material to roasteries and cafes (the same problem exists on the opposite end of the chain; ‘direct trade’ is challenging primarily due to language and distance barriers).

It's all about the skills

Another reason why those closer to the consumer are the tastemakers is the difference in skills. The tastemakers don’t generally have the skills to produce the raw product — most times they don’t even have the proper geographical needs i.e., a mountainous, tropical climate. But they do have the roasting skills, the cupping skills, the marketing skills, the sales skills, etc. to create a symbolic value in the product that makes it more desireable to the end consumer.

The Third Wave of coffee is focused on the story; the story of the producer, where he or she is located, how he or she grows and produces the coffee, etc. This story then drives ethical consumption, which further benefits producers with its goal of responsibility towards society.

Yes, this creates a ‘shared, aesthetic valuation’ and yes, all of the players throughout the value chain have economic interest at stake. But when leveraged in the right way, these things benefit the entire value chain.

Tastemakers drive consumption

The entire value chain depends on consumption and conspicuous consumption especially drives up coffee prices and that eventually benefits the entire chain. Consider the history of the Second Wave of coffee. The First Wave of coffee was wide-spread consumption of Foldgers Crystals (instant or soluable coffee), Maxwell House (good to the last drop!) and in general, pretty crappy coffee. The coffee was pretty crappy for several reasons.

We didn’t have a solid understanding of coffee staling. We now know that ground coffee, when exposed to oxygen, has a fresh life measured in minutes. Whole-bean coffee has a fresh life of just a few weeks once exposed to oxygen. Before we fully understood the staling process in coffee, we routinely drank old, stale, flat coffee—we just weren’t aware of it. We didn’t know there was a better way. We needed the tastemakers to tell us.

Another reason the coffee was crappy is because most coffee was a melange of different qualities of coffee breeds, processing techniques, etc. Even today, instant or soluable coffee is very often a mixture of poor quality coffee; robusta content, as well as defective beans (damaged by insects, rotten, moldy, etc). There are two economically important breeds of coffee tree; arabica and robusta. Arabica has better sensory qualities (flavor, aroma, etc) and robusta has better agricultural qualities (pest/disease resistence, higher yield, etc). But thanks to the tastemakers of the Second Wave, we’re drinking less instant coffee and more espresso-based coffee and especially of better quality than what was the norm in the First Wave.

Commercial grade coffee on the left, specialty grade on the right.

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Enter Starbucks. Regardless of what you think of Starbucks, they are largely responsible for introducing the mainstream West, especially the U.S. to espresso-based drinks. They were largely responsible for ushering in the Second Wave of coffee consumption, which laid the groundwork for Specialty Coffee. The result of the popularity and the ubiquity of Starbucks increased consumption drastically and an eventual outcome of that increase in consumption has been a significant increase in the value of coffee in all its forms, but especially green, un-roasted coffee.

See also: What Is Specialty Coffee

specialty shops 1991 -2017
Number of specialty coffee shops in the United States from 1991 to 2015, source: Statista.com
Coffee Value History
Coffee's value over time, source: UN FAO

Part of the solution

Part of the solution to the problem of producers reacting to the preferences generated at the consuming end of the market is for them to bake-in optionality to their business.

See Also: Producers’ Optionality

By planting various breeds of coffee shrubs on their farm, they can then experiment with different products for their buyers; generally the intermediaries. As the consuming-end of the chain changes preferences (which takes years); the farmer has different options to provide. And these preference swings are often cyclical if you take a long enough timeline. Therefore a farmer who has the potential for four or five different products (different breeds or different growing conditions, or even different processing methods if the farmer also has the ability to process his own coffee) has a better chance of survival over the long term.

I would also argue that Q Graders, acting as go-betweens for farmers and roasteries/cafes, have the ability to reduce the negative impact of tastemakers on farmers. Through a defined and shared lexicon, or language of quality, Q Graders can help communicate the goals with both sides, as well as how to reach those goals. For example, currently the predominant flavor profile of Third Wave coffee is a floral, fruity character. Things that contribute to that are the processing method, the breed of coffee tree, the altitude at which it was grown, etc. Part of the training in becoming a Q Grader is learning these things so that Q Graders can bridge that gap between the two ends of the value chain.

Bridging the information gap between consuming trends and producing techniques will empower producers. They will have a better understanding of what the trends are and how to accommodate them.

Conclusion

The coffee market needs tastemakers in order to grow and improve. We need experts who explore coffee and inform us on what they have learned and how we can use that knowledge to become better consumers. As we become better consumers, more money flows through the value chain and eventually finds its way to the producers. The system isn’t perfect but its not intractable nor rigged — it’s complicated.

  1. Fischer, E. F. (2017). Quality and inequality: Taste, value, and power in the third wave coffee market (MPIfG Discussion Paper No. 17/4). Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10419/156227
  2. Sowell, T. (2015). Wealth, Poverty and Politics: An International Perspective. Basic Books.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader and an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST).

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