The Coffee Conference

by JulieCraves on November 2, 2008

My husband and I attended the Coffee Conference at Miami University in Oxford, OH. I’ve now been to meetings that covered coffee from every angle: ecological (ornithological conferences), trade (SCAA annual meeting) and now the academic and scholarly. This event had a wide range of speakers on a variety of topics. The audience was also varied. As far as I could tell, there were perhaps 75 registered participants, including small roasters, academics from many disciplines (history, economics, literature), and representatives from producing countries and NGOs. Many Miami U. students also attended.

I will be following up with a more detailed post on what for me was the most interesting message I came away with: the fairly uniform negative attitudes toward certification agencies, ranging from distrust to disgust. Right now, I’ll just try to burnish my own legitimacy by doing some name dropping and showing you photos of famous coffee people.

Geoff Watts, left, of Intelligentsia gave a talk about Direct Trade relationships. In his discussion, Geoff noted that environmental sustainability has to be part of what is fostered and encouraged in direct relationships with farmers. He said that although a farm might be producing great coffee, if the land isn’t taken care of then it cannot continue to produce the same quality coffee over the years. Ecological integrity is part of the equation.

Geoff also offered a lot of the kind of insightful commentary on other talks, especially regarding Fair Trade, that only someone who has been intimately involved with producers can provide.

Ken Davids gave a great talk on interpreting the iconography and images of coffee through time. He grouped them by theme, such as the 1950s “Good Cuppa Joe” — coffee as every man’s luxury — or the “Safari in a Cup” adventure at exotic origins symbolism of the early specialty coffee movement. If  Ken hadn’t noted that his early background was as a novelist and college writing teacher, I would have guessed it by his presentation. It was creative, clever, and reminded me of the kind of deep interpretation of literature that I recall from my undergrad days. Very enjoyable — and I can’t imagine seeing a talk like this at any other kind of coffee conference.

At dinner, George Howell (center in front of laptop) showed off his new Extract MoJo software to Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia, David Waldman of Rojo’s Roastery in New Jersey, and yours truly.  Just listening to coffee guys talk about coffee was quite a learning experience. I was glad that I could keep up with a lot of it, and that I was able to make some contributions from a consumer and ecological viewpoint.

George and I, in fact, had several great talks about some of the pros, cons, and the future of various certifications, and he was very gracious about answering my questions. He gave a really lively presentation on the many points from crop to cup where quality can fall off. I was once again amazed that we ever end up with a decent cup of coffee, much less brilliantly delicious cups. And also again, I am sure that if more people know the many steps involved in bringing this crop to market, and the intense labor that goes into it, that they’d be willing to pay a lot more for it. As they should.

I asked Hacienda La Esmeralda’s Price Peterson some coffee-growing advice. I brought home some beans from Panama last winter, and have five little plants growing right now. A couple of them are looking a little anemic. Price was a bit stumped and was not sure exactly what to recommend. The guy can grow some of the most lauded and expensive coffee in the world, but didn’t know what to tell me about some mundane Caturra growing under lights at 193 meters in Michigan.

It was a really great conference, and all the other participants I talked to agreed. The small size allowed for a lot of interaction and discussion. Its interdisciplinary nature, and the varied backgrounds of participants made for a wide range of opinions as well more balance. There is a plan for a book derived from the proceedings which I look forward to. Kudos to the organizers, especially Robert Thurston. I’ll be incorporating more information from the conference into future posts, especially regarding the backlash against certifications.

Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany

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