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Book Review: Making Better Coffee

Book review of Edward F. Fischer's Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value (2022)

Published onAug 22, 2023
Book Review: Making Better Coffee

Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value (2022), by Edward F. Fischer. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value by Edward F. Fischer is a captivating and enlightening journey that delves into the intricate and multifaceted relationship between coffee production and its enjoyment by consumers. This ethnography explores how value is generated within the Third Wave coffee industry, going beyond the conventional notion that taste and quality scores are the sole determinants of a coffee’s price point. Fischer’s work explains the complex web of factors that contribute to coffee’s value and how this affects the lives of Maya coffee farmers in Guatemala. Throughout his book, Fischer expertly weaves together historical context, personal stories, and academic analysis to offer rich insight into this growing segment of the coffee industry. By employing ethnographic methods, the author provides a nuanced understanding of the experiences and perspectives of both Maya farmers and Third Wave coffee roasters throughout the world, revealing the complex dynamics at play in the overall coffee market.

One of the book’s most compelling aspects is Fischer’s analysis of the historical evolution of coffee production and consumption through the lens of the various “waves” of specialty coffee created by roasters and demanded by consumers throughout the world. As such, roasters can create demand by searching out certain attributes and farmers follow suit by producing a product that the market desires. First Wave coffee, fueled by the emergence of coffee houses throughout Europe, created the origins of coffee farming in Guatemala and other countries during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This era was characterized by German immigrants establishing large plantations, or fincas, where they exploited the Maya through forced labor. Indigenous Central Americans, it should be added, had long been subsistence farmers – but via the political power wielded by these German planters, the Maya people became forced into working on coffee plantations, where they were paid little to nothing, separated from their families, and driven into debt peonage. Fischer brings to light the profound historical injustices and inequalities faced by the Maya during this period, including tragic episodes of massacres to the point of genocide.

The Second Wave of coffee, which gained momentum in the late 1990s, brought attention to superior coffee grown at higher elevations, often with certifications suggesting ethical and fair-trade practices. As roasters and therefore consumers began to search out specialty coffees, a new market was shaped. The Second Wave began to change the power dynamics within Guatemala’s coffee industry, as Maya farmers who had been forced off their lands and into mountainous regions discovered that the terroir there was ideal for producing high-quality coffee. Maya began to plant and grow coffee alongside their normal subsistence crops such as maize and pulses. Families would dedicate some of their labor to the production of coffee as a cash crop, thus allowing them to have more financial stability. The Second Wave coffee movement, therefore, created a cultural shift from the Maya viewing coffee as an evil commodity to them learning how to use it for their benefit.

The book’s focus, however, centers on the rise of Third Wave coffee in the twenty-first century – a movement characterized by an emphasis on cultivating specific varietals, establishing unique taste profiles, and designating single estates with personal biographies of individual farmers. Fischer’s experiences at specialty coffee trade shows and competitions describes how value is assigned after coffee leaves the farm. Always on the lookout for coffee with exceptional sensory qualities, roasters seek to provide distinctive experiences to consumers. As a main force behind Third Wave coffee, they aim to decommodify their product by adding to it forms of symbolic value – such as specific tasting notes, quality scores, information on the uniqueness of varietals, and narratives of pedigree and self-improvement for the farmer. The Third Wave coffee movement in North America and Europe has, as a result, allowed Maya farmers to command significantly higher prices for their coffee, offering them a chance to improve the quality of life for their families and communities. In turn, roasters and coffee drinkers throughout the world have shown that they are willing to pay more for unique coffee experiences. This has created a new dynamic in the market where farmers and roasters can command hundreds of dollars per pound – though most of this value, it should be noted, is accumulated after the coffee is roasted.

Fischer’s interviews allow readers to learn about these farmers’ aspirations, motivations, and the sense of empowerment that they derive from growing specialty coffee. That coffee can provide algo más (“something more”) emerges consistently in Fischer’s interviews – signifying that it, for Maya farmers, is not just a commodity but a means of controlling and improving their future. Most Maya coffee production occurs on small plots alongside subsistence crops; coffee production, as a result, allows these farmers to purchase additional parcels of land to increase their total output. Most Maya rely on family members for labor during harvest time – yet, in a surprising historical reversal, some peasant farmers have even been successful enough to seasonally employ locals to help.

In Making Better Coffee, Fischer details how Maya farmers bring their coffee to market and, in turn, help to define its value. A majority of them are members of coffee cooperatives, which provide essential support during price downturns and manage relationships with buyers. These cooperatives ensure fair-trade practices with price minimums, which help farmers during moments with low commodity prices. Out migration to the United States is often seen during down periods in the coffee market, but these cooperatives nonetheless provide a cushion during hard times. However, the practice of combining many lots together under the auspices of these cooperatives can dilute and devalue coffee quality – as quality is reduced by blending varietals and obscuring traceability to specific farms and producers.

Additionally, the Maya express a constant desire to understand where their coffee goes, yet often lack direct access to roasters or buyers in consuming countries. Intermediaries, referred to as coyotes, are buyers who will pay more for higher-quality coffees; they inspect farms for specific varietals and collect farmer biographies in line with the values celebrated in the Third Wave coffee movement. Regardless, as is reflected in their name, the coyotes are seen by locals as predatory and exploitative. Maya farmers are, thus, faced with a moral decision when deciding where to sell their coffee. The ensuing ethical dilemma – whether to sell to local cooperatives, which offer community support, security, processing equipment, and minimum price guarantees, or to seek out middlemen – explains some of the complexities and trade-offs that shape value creation in this market. The farmers’ decisions often reflect a delicate balance between personal aspirations, community welfare, and the desire for recognition and appreciation from consumers in distant lands.

In weaving together the perspectives and desires of both coffee producers and Third Wave consumers, Making Better Coffee paints a holistic picture of how value is co-created and perceived within this complex and evolving industry. The combination of Fischer’s storytelling, research, and thoughtful analysis makes the text a compelling read for both coffee enthusiasts and anthropologists interested in understanding the intricacies of work in Central America, global trade, and cultural exchange. Ultimately, Making Better Coffee is more than simply an account of creating value for coffee; it portrays coffee production not just in terms of the resulting commodity, but also as a pathway for community empowerment and the pursuit of a better future.


Author Biography:

Alex Centner is a Master of Environmental Science student at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He currently works as the Sales Manager for a specialty coffee roaster. His research aims to help promote sustainability in the specialty coffee industry. 

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