Thursday, August 09, 2007

on its way

part two of my pseudo political drama blogpost is on its way soon...

meantime, i wanted to make mention of one of my new favorite blogs. not new in the sense that they're new; new in the sense that i had the good fortune of discovering them. "discovering them" as in, they ordered some coffee from me and were kind enough to post a not too harsh critique on their site.

the blog is called coffee and conversation and believe me, this is one of the more thoroughly researched blogs around. they aren't hacks like me; they actually do some homework instead of tossing around opinions. for starters (after reading the brown review, of course!), check out this fascinating and in-depth discussion of what it takes to be called "shade grown" and/or "bird friendly" according to two well-respected organizations: the rainforest allliance and the smithsonian migratory bird center.

anyway, just giving props and thanks to c & c for their shout out toward brown.

also, in a completely unrelated point, if you're not currently using an aggregator, may i suggest netvibes.

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Monday, August 06, 2007


i said a couple posts below that i had nothing new to add to the wbc signals being pumped out across the blogosphere already. while that may be true, i did have a thought that i considered worthy of extrapolation, and that is how gutsy a move it is and how cross current it is for a barista like james hoffman to capture the title of world's best barista by seemingly going in the opposite direction of where the competition as a whole is going.

i guess here's what i mean. watching all the great video posted on zacharyzachary showed the wholesale complexification of the event into the next realm of true culinary events. now, for sure, there is still a long road ahead before the general field is producing performances that are anywhere food network worthy. but it was evident to this blogger that the sheer volume of participants and the overall level of seriousness and skill at which most of the participants competed shows that this competition is ready to take those next steps into acceptance and respect as a true global culinary event. (the fact that we may actually be 3-5 years (or more) away from those kinds of accolades and acceptance is not my point here. there seemed to be a tangible shift upward in the level of competition as a whole this year, which says to me that the event is gaining critical mass.)

therefore, with the level of complexity and sophistication moving generally upward it is mildly but pleasingly surprising to recognize jim as the world's best vis-a-vis the fact that he seemed to consciously go the opposite direction of this general complexification by winning it all with two single-origin coffees.

what i'm not saying is that jim is not deserving of it or hasn't the skills of anyone else. clearly not. what i'm saying--and loudly applauding--is the brilliance of his statement that simple is better, especially when it comes to espresso.

now, who knows but that this fact of simplicity wasn't merely a quick decision based on the fact that jim and company didn't want to have to blend anything, were too low on time to work up a good blend, or that they simply got access to those two coffees first and just decided to run with them for better or worse. etcetera. nonetheless, the move was gutsy and that it succeeded i think justifies their decision (and my long held belief) that striking coffees deserve a platform of their own. better that than blending them, however skillfully, into a symphony of other flavors. i respect that move but it is not a path i like to take.

so hats off to jim. you've reopened a vital conversation vein that is worthy of serious contemplation.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

governmental, pseudo/wannabe-governmental, free market enterprise and the business of guilt assuagion

[this is part one of two (or three?) in a discussion of how certain segments of the coffee industry operate and whether those operations are ultimately viable, relevant and good for coffee and the people who grow and consume it. it is NOT a technical white paper. it is my opinion; and i invite comments, questions and discussion.]

i seem to have the same conversations over and over again. someone i know (or barely know) finds out i'm "the coffee guy" and almost the first question out of their mouth is, "so, you like all that fair trade stuff?"

i've blogged about this many times before; but something i've been thinking about has me blogging about it again. from a macro view, the whole fair trade question is really a question of which engine the majority of people think can most efficiently and effectively assuage their guilt when it comes to the question of first world westerners consuming goods produced solely by third worlders. as i contemplate the many, many moving parts of this question you can see the political arguments coming into play as well and the argument loses its coffee personality and eventually simply becomes a subject matter argued in exactly the same way as, say, healthcare or global warming or taxes or military spending or foreign aid...and on and on.

the question evolves (devolves!) into who do people believe can best execute the solution to tackle problem x, where x happens to be global wage inequities vis-a-vis coffee. it seems there are several candidates for the role of 'alleviating wage inequities' (which, to my mind, is really just codespeak for 'blotting out my rich, western consumer guilt') and bringing poor, helpless tropical farmers into the circle of comfort we in the northern hemisphere enjoy. the players: governments, pseudo/wannabe/para-governmental organizations/departments/bureaucracies and private (read: free market) enterprises.

our first candidate, governments, are easily enough defined and understood. by them i mean actual departments or segments of a sovereign government's actual budget that regulate, influence or otherwise attempt to control the prices of commodoties, goods and/or services. these can be tangible or intangible, bananas or pension funds, if you will. i include the auspices of the united nations in this first group because, even though they are a supergovernmental body, they overwhelmingly tend toward that strain of socialistic paternalism i'm considering in this post.

second are the clutch of players who are not governmental in actuality but who may work in tandem with sovereign national governments, or who present an air of governmental heaviness and officialness with their proclamations and certifications. i think of organizations like oxfam, trans-fair, quality assurance international, and the like, who certify whether, for example, big, rich, western multinational corporations are not taking advantage of small, poor outfits and individuals in developing nations of the world. their work is important and they have a place at the table of the macro-economic table of commodities movements. however, it should be noted that none of the players mentioned in this group or in the first group above make any claims toward issuing their certifications and edicts with regard to actual product quality (i.e., they don't measure taste). they are simply political/economical entities.

finally there are players in the market who are not governmentally associated or sponsored, who, relative to the first two groups, don't get involved in the politics of the situation(s) and whose primary focus is on quality and the appropriate recompense for quality. they are groups such as the cup of excellence program, utz kapeh, many of the online auctions such as the best of panama, and systems such as starbucks c.a.f.e. practices.

none of this is new territory. it has been more articulately laid out by brighter minds than mine. but in this first part i wanted to bring a new perspective of definition as to who ultimately is behind the entities controlling the fate of coffee producers and what the beliefs and stakes are for each.

in a sentence, it comes down to whether an entity believes that a government (or the semi-official proclamations of semi-governmental organizations) are best suited to regulate a product like coffee or is it best left in the hands of the free market.

in the next installment, i will attempt to lay out why governmental bureacracies and their softer n.g.o. siblings are ill-equipped to help the masses of smallholders come out of poverty (if that is even their goal) and produce quality, desired products such as great coffee. in short, why politics makes for a bitter brew.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

here's to that day

first off, a big congrats to james hoffmann of the u.k. for winning the title of world's best barista. hats off to king james. look at his winning perfomance (and that of almost all of the other 44 contestants, here.

other than that, i have zero original thoughts to add to the groundswell of opinions already being posted around the net with regard to the recently completed wbc and/or barista competitions in general, other than to say that it is always inspiring to be reminded, as i was while watching some of those clips, to recognize that there are some really passionate and cool coffee people out there. there are so many more of you out there that i have yet to connect with and just hope for the day we'll get to hang out over beers, without the need to feel we have to impress one another, and coffee. i had a glimpse and a taste of that a couple weeks ago in boston (see snippet below).

here's to that day for more of that.