Making Better Coffee by Edward F. Fischer

Title: Making Better Coffee
Author: Edward F. Fischer
Publisher: University of California Press
Published: 2022
ISBN: 978-0-520-38697-6
My rating:     

I was first introduced to Edward (Ted) Fischer’s ideas about Third Wave Coffee through his paper titled “Quality and inequality: creating value worlds with Third Wave coffee.” The book brings forward and further develops several of the ideas and research documented in that paper. I enjoyed the paper and wrote an article in response to it, titled In Defense of Tastemakers

See also: In Defense of Tastemakers

Making Better Coffee has six chapters plus a conclusion:

  1. Creating Third Wave Values
  2. Plant Biology, Capitalist Trade, and the Colonial Histories of Coffea arabica
  3. German Oligarchs, First Wave Coffee, and Guatemala’s Enduring Structures of Inequality
  4. Austrian Economics and the Quality Turn in Guatemala Coffee
  5. Maya Farmers and Second Wave Coffee
  6. Cooperation, Competition, and Cultural Capital in Third Wave Markets

Fischer intends for Making Better Coffee to be a study of the interplay of material and symbolic values. These values are also at the core of the SCA’s new Coffee Value Assessment System. In 2019, Fischer spoke at the Re:co symposium and will return as a speaker this year. This review will primarily focus on the book’s exploration of value and values, due to the relationship between the SCA’s value system and Fischer’s work in the book.

I think that most people who read this blog and follow the SCA will be interested in that connection, especially with the SCA rolling out it’s new system. But readers should know that the book provides much deeper and broader information and has value beyond just understanding the SCA’s value system in relation to Fischer’s research and ideas. He provides an anthropoligist’s view of the history of coffee production in Guatemala, doing so with a level of detail that requires five chapters. Making Better Coffee is as much a history book as it is a presentation of his study of what value is in the coffee supply chain, who gets to define that value, and what are the ramifications of that power dynamic.

In the first chapter, Fischer lays out the foundation for the rest of the book: the material and symbolic means of production:

The rarefied price of high-end coffee is justified through the artful translation of qualities and connotations across symbolic and material value worlds. This is to say that the values of terroir and authenticity are created not just by the material conditions of the farms but also by the narratives of roasters, baristas, and tastemakers. It is the interplay of material use values and more effective and symbolic values—and how these come together in the meaningful and sensual act of consuming a craft coffee—that justify Third Wave prices.

(Fischer, 2022)

Fischer is talking about something more than just marketing, though at its core, that’s what it is. The focus of the book is largely on the consequences of that interplay between material and symbolic values that produces successful marketing and what that success means for smallholder producers, such as Maya farmers in Guatemala.

The structural disadvantages imposed upon smallholder farmers are the consequences he talks about. Chapter 6 discusses what this might look like:

[D]espite growing coffees that score highly on the hundred-point SCA scale, most Maya farmers lack the social and cultural captial to access the more symbolic and narratively driven high-end markets. Further, farmers' need and desire for cooperative forms of organizing, which aggregate the harvests from many small farmers, do not mesh with Third Wave preferences for "single-estate" lots tied to the biographies of individual growers. Finally, as the Third Wave market matures, there has been a growing focus on roasting techniques and brewing technologies, adding more value at the consumer end of the circuit.

(Fischer, 2022)

This is the crux of the problem as identified by Fischer; the shift towards greater valuation of intangible, nonmaterial, symbolic assets and objects, away from the material means of production. The shift toward greater valuation of intangible, nonmaterial, symbolic assets and objects means that more power is being shifted from the supply side of the value chain toward the demand side. As coffee moves through the value chain and is transformed into a consumable product, value is added both mechanistically and romantically.

raw material → intermediate product → consumable product
farm → mill → roastery

Fischer argues that the Third Wave market is at a point where the generation of romantic or symbolic value is instrumental in disproportionately more wealth being generated from coffee in importing countries than in exporting countries.

Thinking about this has had a strong influence on my development of a concept I call the central dogma of coffee. The central dogma explains the one-way transition of seed to coffee bean and how that transition impacts the value of the coffee.

See also: The Central Dogma of Coffee

In the final paragraph of his book, Fischer writes:

What we need is a post-Enlightenment approach to political economy that recognizes the interrelatedness of domains of life and the qualitatively different value worlds in which they are enmeshed. Toward that end, we might return to humanistic, narrative approaches to decision making that address policitcal and moral issues as such, and not just as technical problems of humans failing to conform to rational expectations.

(Fischer, 2022)

What tastemakers can do with an understanding of Fischer’s ideas and the results of his research is a question I hope to be able to pose to Fischer in a future interview. 🤞

Update: I was able to sit down with Ted at Re:co Symposium 2023 and talk about his experience there at Symposium as well as his book and his work in Guatemala:

The interview is also available as a podcast episode that is transcribed. You can listen to it on the episode’s home page: [S4:E9] Interview with Edward (Ted) Fischer.

Edward Fischer is a professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He directs Vanderbilt’s Institute for Coffee Studies. Other books he’s written include The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing. Fischer has also published a number of scholarly articles and research papers.

  1. Fischer, E. F. (2022). Making better coffee: how Maya farmers and Third Wave tastemakers create value. University of California Press.

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.