Schooled: How Two Vanderbilt Students Are Changing the Way We Talk About Coffee

CREMA and Vanderbilt are both committed to education (though we, at the moment, have fewer Pulitzer Prize winners on staff). Another thing we have in common? Coffee.

In 1999, Vanderbilt founded the Institute for Coffee Studies, a division of the University Medical Center focused on researching the medical effects of coffee. The Institute expanded its scope in 2007 (the year before CREMA was born) to encompass the "historical, literary, sociological, and economic importance" of coffee.

Will McCollum and Mac Muir are Vanderbilt students and long-time CREMA-ites. Their freshman year, they’d catch the bus from campus to CREMA, camping out and writing papers, learning about math and anthropology and coffee. Their schoolwork challenged them--and so did coffee, this sneaky little crop that helped hydrate their homework, a tiny bean that was about to blow up in Nashville.

Their coffee interest lead them further down the hallways of academia, where they met two Vanderbilt professors (an anthropologist and an economist, just like Will and Mac) involved with the Institute for Coffee Studies. Their coffee interest also led them to the bottom of several cups of coffee--which is how we met them.

This summer, Will and Mac spent seven weeks in Guatemala as research associates for the Institute for Coffee Studies. The pair designed a project that “aimed to study the conditions of communication and information dissemination along the commodity chain.” Basically, they wondered: how does information get shared among so many people, from small-crop farmers to exporters, to buyers and roasters stateside?

Their seven-week stay took them from Antigua to Lake Atitlan to Huehuetenango, where they visited farms, mills, and cupping sites, having conversations with people all along the coffee supply chain.

What intrigued Will and Mac the most?

The question of coffee quality, and how this is perceived differently in different parts of the industry. 

Here's Will on the matter: 

“On the one hand, exporters (and consumers, of course) evaluate the quality of coffee with complex indexes meant to evaluate the flavor-notes, regional aspects, and mouthfeel. On the other hand, small producers generally don't even taste their coffee, and thus have a much more limited understanding of what their product ideally tastes like.” 

This gets to the heart of Will and Mac’s original goal: studying communication along the supply chain. In this specific instance (though it's easy to see this example being ubiquitous), small growers can be confused as to what quality coffee even is, much less what the standards for growing it are. Will and Mac found gray areas, communication barriers, and gaps in understanding between the different actors in the industry (producers, intermediaries, processors, exporters, roasters, and consumers), even among direct-sourced, specialty-grade coffee.

Among the lingering questions they came home with:

Can we ever really know where our coffee comes from?

A full-bodied question, if there ever was one.

Again, Will:

“A lot of people in consumption in the United States are really interested in understanding the procedure of directly sourced coffee. However, we wonder when these goals are driven by marketing and imaging schemes and when they are driven by a genuine desire to help the growers out. Honestly, we don't know if these distinctions can be made at all, and we aren't sure if the distinction really matters. We just think that roasters and consumers need to be dedicated to recognizing that the industry is so much more complicated than it is generally assumed to be. There are a lot of people who are dedicated to this kind of work.

One problem that we've noticed, though, is that while roasters understand quality, and growers understand production, neither set of the industry really understands both processes. There's the obvious problem: that these actors occupy different spaces in the commodity chain, with different skill sets and spheres of accessible knowledge. Moving forward, coffee professionals should be careful to try and bridge this gap in knowledge, allowing coffee producers the means to actually enjoy the products of their labor and to understand quality beyond a simple supply/demand function.”

There certainly is more work to be done--not branding work, but building work-- to bridge gaps, share knowledge, and communicate expectations all along the supply chain.

But back to the question: Can we ever really know where our coffee comes from?

For us, we are thankful to say yes. CREMA has personal relationships with our farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica--an opportunity and privilege we don't take lightly. As a roasting company, we have the chance to communicate directly with, say, our farmers in El Salvador, Miguel and Guillermo. Including Miguel and Guillermo in the conversation, they better understand how to grow their coffee in San Salvador in order to maximize its potential in a cup in Nashville, Tennessee. As Will and Mac note, it's rare that farmers and roasters are able to communicate so clearly. 

Bridging the gap even further, CREMA is set to make even more origin trips in 2015. In the next year, not only will our roaster visit coffee farms, we'll be giving baristas the opportunity to see the source of our coffees. Giving them the chance to walk the ground and touch the fruit and sit at a table with the farmers--this is one of our efforts to bridge those communication gaps, to learn precisely where our coffee comes form.

As much as Will and Mac have been intrigued by coffee--its tasting notes and its anthropological notes--we have been intrigued by their study of it. As Will and Mac move forward in their work at the Institute for Coffee Studies, they aim to keep bridging the gaps, and are working toward making the Institute a center where knowledge is traded among academics and coffee professionals in Nashville.

Sign us up.

As long as Will and Mac are doing coffee research, we'll have our pens out, scribbling notes.