Q&A with Ted Fischer: What defines quality in coffee, and who gets to decide?


Many of us have a personal relationship with coffee. But have you ever thought about where your coffee comes from? Or the hidden ways your daily dose of caffeine connects you to the lives of others? 

Ted Fischer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology, has built a career out of researching those questions. In October—close to International Coffee Day on Oct. 1—he’ll publish Making Better Coffee, a book that examines how cultural and economic values intertwine in the high-end coffee market. 

“Coffee, in the ways that it brings together different sorts of values, points the way toward understanding the world’s complexity—and making things better,” Fischer says. 

Vanderbilt University, he adds, has a history and reputation in coffee studies. The Institute of Coffee Studies was founded in 1999 to encourage research into the physiological effects of coffee consumption. More recently, the university was home to the Coffee Equity Lab at the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center.  

“The psycho-pharmacology of coffee is linked to the rise of global trade and Enlightenment ideas, and consumer trends in the U.S. are connected to traditional Maya agricultural beliefs and practices,” Fischer says. “Coffee illustrates the point that everything is connected, but also that the particulars of those connections matter.” 

Fischer spoke to MyVU about his research expertise and how thinking about coffee can teach us more about our place in the world.  

Q: There has been a recent explosion in artisanal and specialty coffee. Have tastes changed, or has the marketing changed? 

This gets at a deeper question: Do we know what we want, or is it taught to us by markets and marketers? With coffee, as with most things, it is a bit of both. Consumer tastes have changed, and the market has helped change those tastes. Food preferences at the upper end of the market have been changing over the past decades, from the farm-to-table movement to high-end bourbons and single-origin chocolates. This was, at least in part, a reaction to the bland homogeneity of cheap processed and packaged foods that had come to dominate the U.S. food landscape in the latter half of the 20th century. So, the market was primed for something new in the coffee sector.  

A few visionary coffee roasters—places like Counter Culture, Stumptown and Intelligentsia—started searching out smaller farms that were producing different and unusual coffees. In promoting the virtues of these single-origin beans, these pioneers helped turn on, and train, a new generation of coffee enthusiasts to new—and increasingly wild—flavors. So, the artisanal turn in the market created a demand for better quality coffee, and in this book I show how what “quality” means gets worked out by trendsetters and tastemakers.  

You can pretty quickly learn to distinguish an East African coffee profile from a Latin American one in side-by-side comparisons. They simply taste different. But then the judgment lies in whether we value the more floral and fruity flavors of the African beans or the more chocolatey flavors of the Latin American ones.    

Q: How do we distinguish a cup of great coffee? And who gets to decide?  

The high-end artisanal coffees have opened up a whole new world of taste possibilities. It is no longer just what I call “coffee coffee” (the stereotypical classic taste). Now we have flavors ranging from blueberry and jasmine to bubble gum and cotton candy. These are not additives or syrups, but qualities of the beans themselves. There is the varietal of coffee plant—almost all specialty coffee is from the Coffea arabica species, but there are dozens of arabica varietals, each with its own distinct taste. There is also a growing number of processing methods: washed (where the pulp of the cherry is stripped off in a water bath before the beans are dried), natural (where is the pulp is allowed to rot off of the beans), and even fermentation styles. Then there are different roasting levels and brewing techniques. All of these come together to produce a particular cup profile.  

Everyone is going to have their own personal coffee taste preference—and, of course, the golden rule is that whatever tastes good to you is good coffee. But there also are insider norms, with their own prestige hierarchy (much like wine). What is considered to be top-quality coffee by connoisseurs is not necessarily what the average consumer would like. And what is valued by the cognoscenti changes over time. The fruity flavors of natural East African beans were once considered inferior, and now they are all the rage.   

What we consider to be quality is a moving target. Tastemakers often talk about “quality” as if it is an objective trait, in the case of coffee something to be found in out of the way places. In fact, the designation of “quality” is a convention, a contrivance, but no less meaningful or motivating because of that. 

“What is considered to be top-quality coffee by connoisseurs is not necessarily what the average consumer would like. And what is valued by the cognoscenti changes over time. The fruity flavors of natural East African beans were once considered inferior, and now they are all the rage.” — Ted Fischer

Q: What is meant by first wave, second wave and now third wave coffee? (Is there a fourth wave? What’s next?) 

First Wave coffee is commodity coffee, often industrially roasted and pre-ground, recognizable in supermarket brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House, many of which have been around for decades. These are classified in the trade as “usual good quality” and generally score in the upper 70s or low 80s on the Specialty Coffee Association 100-point scale.  

The Second Wave of better quality (specialty) coffee goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when roasters like Peet’s started offering differentiated, more unique beans, including from named regions such as Kona and Blue Mountain. The Second Wave really took off in the 1990s, with hundreds of small roasters and cafes opening in cities across the U.S. Starbucks commercialized and mass-marketed the Second Wave trends.  

Trish Rothgeb, then working as a barista and roaster in Oslo, coined the term “Third Wave” in 2002 to refer to the Nordic coffee scene’s focus on unadorned quality—small operations committed to a sense of authenticity, roasting single estate beans and trying to perfect cup profiles. The Third Wave expanded on the Second Wave movement toward better quality but took it to the next level, eschewing added flavors and blends. Third Wave coffees are single origin beans, often unusual varietals of Coffea arabica. They are roasted in small batches, artisanal style, are brewed with pour-over methods and command high prices. The focus here is on the taste of unadorned coffee. 

We often think of these waves as chronological—one did follow the other in terms of introduction—but you can still buy First Wave coffees in your supermarket and find Second and Third Wave coffees in specialty shops (and, increasingly, at your supermarket). They are different market segments, not a strict historical sequence. Reflecting on the adoption of her turn of phrase, in an interview I read, Rothgeb observed that the First Wave took place at home, the Second Wave took place in coffee shops and that the Third Wave is taking place “in the cup.”  

Q: Is artisanal coffee really worth the price? (And, out of curiosity, what is the most expensive coffee?) 

I have paid more than $15 for a cup of coffee before, and it made me feel sheepish—especially thinking of the places I work in Guatemala. At the same time, I would consider it a bargain to get a $15 glass of a special and rare wine, that other liquid intoxicant. In that light it is not so different: an agricultural product, dependent on terroir and careful processing, whose quality and scarcity can produce astronomical market prices. Top lots of coffee have gone for over $1,000 a pound.

Artisanal roasters place great emphasis on quality “in the cup”: the way coffee tastes and the terroir, processing methods and other material inputs that produce sought-after flavors. Beyond that, consumers are also paying for symbolic values—a narrative connection with the grower, the novelty of discovering new flavors, an appreciation of the craft. 

From a justice angle, coffee is generally worth a lot more than we pay for it. If you had to work a day picking and hauling coffee, you would probably think coffee should be worth at least $50 a pound. Farmers make more money on artisanal coffees, even if the bulk of value added is still in roasting and retail, and even if these are generally not the neediest coffee farmers. All the same, artisanal coffees do try to better value the labor and the creativity of farmers growing specialty coffee. 

Q: We are asked to pay more for organic or Fair Trade coffee to support small farmers. How much of that money makes it back to producers, and what does it mean for their lives? 

The truth is that nobody is pulling themselves out of poverty with Fair Trade coffee, but it does provide an important safety net that can keep farmers from hunger during market downturns. Growing coffee is a long-term project—it takes three to four years from planting to first harvest, and coffee bushes will produce for 20 years or more. So farmers will go through several market cycles, and smallholding Maya farmers who mix subsistence and cash crops are always in a precarious position. 

Graphs of coffee prices over time look like a roller coaster—and they are felt that way by all growers, especially smallholding farmers. And when coffee prices drop below about $1 a pound on the international market, most small-scale producers cannot break even. When that happens, the minimum prices set by Fair Trade can keep farmers afloat—at least those fortunate enough to belong to a cooperative with Fair Trade certification.  

“From a justice angle, coffee is generally worth a lot more than we pay for it. If you had to work a day picking and hauling coffee, you would probably think coffee should be worth at least $50 a pound.” — Ted Fischer

Q: In Guatemala, in the highland Maya communities, working on coffee farms was seen as employment of last resort because of working conditions and wages. Is this still the case with the Indigenous workers on larger coffee plantations?  

Unfortunately, it is still like that on many large farms. Of course, it depends on the plantation, and some really make an effort to improve pay and conditions for their workers. But the large farms depend on volume trade. Theirs is a commodity product, and the best, and sometimes only, way to maintain profits is by keeping labor costs down. That means low pay, harsh living conditions and long, hard days of labor. This is seasonal and migratory labor. Workers are mostly recruited from land-poor Maya communities, and the distance from home only adds to the hardships. There is less child labor today than in years past, but it still exists, as parents have no alternative but to bring their kids with them into the field and bosses don’t mind the extra hands. One finca (plantation) owner told me that child labor is actually the culturally appropriate thing to do, that Maya families don’t value education and would rather their kids learn to work and contribute to the family. While there is a tradition of families working together in the fields, virtually every Maya parent I have talked to wishes something better for their children, but circumstances often give them no alternative. 

Q: The Maya are considered the most marginalized and impoverished members of society. How has coffee production changed this? What challenges do they continue to face? How do they coexist and compete with large producers? 

For generations, Maya farmers in Guatemala—pushed off their lands by Spanish and German settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—have been forced to work under brutal conditions as seasonal migrant laborers on the large coffee plantations that took over their territory. With the quality turn in the international market in the 2000s, things have begun to change. In a bit of poetic justice, the steep mountain slopes to which the Maya had been displaced are ideal for planting high-quality coffees. In a number of Maya communities, former plantation workers have started growing and selling their own coffee from their own plots of land. The boom in specialty and Second Wave has benefited these Maya coffee growing communities. They are able to do better, to make more money. But that is relative: for the most part, even the successful small-scale growers still mostly live in conditions that we would consider extreme poverty.  

More recently, demand for Third Wave coffees has been the highest growth sector. The subtle flavors of these coffees need the high-altitude and micro-climates of the Maya highlands to command the highest prices. Yet, just as important as terroir distinctions are the symbolic values—the stories and rarified language of the artisanal market—constructed around the beans. This emphasis on narratives and symbolic aspects leaves Maya farmers disadvantaged, as they largely lack the cultural and social capital needed to participate in the lucrative Third Wave market (where prices routinely top 10, 15, 20 times the commodity market rate).  

“The boom in specialty and Second Wave has benefited these Maya coffee growing communities. They are able to do better, to make more money. But that is relative: for the most part, even the successful small-scale growers still mostly live in conditions that we would consider extreme poverty.” — Ted Fischer

Q: Coffee acts as a vessel for all sorts of values—economic, moral and political—and each of these value worlds has its own measures of success. What are value worlds? How do we assess values like fairness and ecological sustainability?   

When we say “value” (in the singular) we mean price (economic value), but when we say “values” (in the plural) we mean moral and cultural and political and symbolic sorts of value. My interest is in seeing how these different sorts of values come together around coffee—but the implications are greater.  

In policy and public discourse, we tend to privilege economic value. This is partly due to the quest for material gains, but it is also because market value is easy to calculate: with pounds and kilos, dollars and cents, we have solid metrics to work with, ways to compare unlike things. But what about dignity, love, fairness, freedom, justice, health? Such values resist quantification, but they are no less important. They rely on more subjective measures of what is good or bad, better or worse. 

A key challenge of our times is how to balance value worlds. Numerical data and cost/benefit analyses can tell us a lot, but relying on them can lead us to discount the importance of that which cannot be counted. What we need is an approach to politics and economics that recognizes the interrelatedness of domains of life and the qualitatively different value worlds in which they are enmeshed. This would open the door to a more holistic approach to the complex problems facing the world today, from climate change to inequality.  

Q: What, then, is the economic value of a cup of coffee? The value of terroir? The value of our emotional attachment to the ritual of drinking coffee? And how do these come together to produce the value world around coffee?  

Coffee is an ideal subject for a study of the interplay of economic value and other value worlds. The economics are pretty straightforward: There is the price of cherry sold at the farm, the cost of beans bought by a roaster, what you pay at your coffee shop. But your cup of coffee likely has other values attached, some of which are social (perhaps paying a Fair Trade premium to support a moral value) and some of which are personal and idiosyncratic (maybe a comforting morning ritual). Then think also of what the beans that go into that cup mean to those who pick them, how they link to their life projects and moral worlds.  

The coffee trade is, of course, about beans and dollars, but that is only part of the story. It also involves political ideologies, cultural meanings and individual hopes and fears—all based in different sorts of value worlds. Third Wave coffee aficionados are earnestly pursuing a passion, trying to find new flavors and trying to make supply chains more just. For Maya farmers, coffee fits into traditional understandings of cosmological and agricultural cycles of regeneration—as well as providing income to pursue their aspirations for a better life.  

What is really fascinating to me is how the quest for quality among Third Wave tastemakers in the U.S. is linked, usually in invisible ways, to the lives and internet-fueled aspirations of Maya farmers who grow that coffee. In my book, I show that while we may think success is in accumulating value, the real power is defining what value is. 

Q: What’s next for you?  

Coffee has kept me enthralled for the last 10 years—chasing down all the threads that go into the story. I am excited to see the book published, but it also feels like a bit of a loss. Researching and writing it have been such a big part of my life and who I am, and now I am moving on. 

Writing this book led me to think a lot about how the world has outstripped our Enlightenment-era understanding of it. The Western Enlightenment’s neat categories and taxonomies, the measurements and divisions that have organized our way of understanding the world, have not kept up with 21st century realities. We are at a moment in time when the Enlightenment consensus—the conventions and epistemological foundations that came to be taken for granted and that have dominated the world system and academic structures for the last centuries—are in a crisis of legitimation. For now, I am exploring these ideas more and what an anthropological perspective can contribute.