“Noa Berger is a Ph.D. candidate at the EHESS Paris, studying the social construction of quality in the Brazilian and French specialty coffee markets. She is incredibly active within the French coffee scene but also the larger specialty coffee industry. Noa is one of the main reasons I have opened up my mind to many of the anthropological questions coffee asks and she is responsible for many in-depth conversations… we are so grateful to have someone like her invest her mind, time, and energy in our industry. Noa is definitely someone to look up to and be inspired by.”
Nominated by Mihaela Iordache
Sprudge: What issue in coffee do you care about most?
Noa Berger: My research is focused on the question of how notions such as quality and authenticity are constructed in the specialty coffee market, and how that has to do with larger questions like globalization, nationalism and borders, economic reasoning, and class dynamics. I also find the discussions (academic and industry) around quality and inequality fascinating, meaning, how to balance the pursuit of quality and experiences with sustainability and profitability for producers, and accessibility for consumers.
What cause or element in coffee drives you?
It’s diversity. Throughout its history, coffee has been a drink that is both popular and elitist, foreign and national, democratic and colonial, an object of social cohesion but also of distinction, of compliance but also of dissent. Researching coffee is studying a drink that is rooted in tradition and takes cues from wine, but also a trendsetting global movement that traces new paths for the culinary world, in transparency and traceability for example. And of course, the people who work in coffee come from an astonishing diversity of backgrounds and produce it in very different circumstances. Not many objects generate so much richness and complexity.
What issue in coffee do you think is critically overlooked?
The risks and inequalities that a quality-based market can introduce and how to address them.
What is the quality you like best about coffee?
I think that because specialty coffee is a relatively young industry, it generates a fair amount of research, debate, reflexivity. It also attracts people with very diverse backgrounds, which makes these debates particularly enriching. As a global social movement, it fosters a culture of sharing. This results in interesting and open exchanges with people from across the globe.
Did you experience a life-changing moment of coffee revelation early in your career?
Reading a book about the Matsutake mushroom (Anna Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”) had me interested in the way that the symbolic value of coffee changes across the supply chain (for example, commodified and emotionalized and commodified again), and also drove me to pay attention to how the material aspects of coffee (taste, aroma, color) shape the meaning and value we attribute to it.
What is your idea of coffee happiness?
Economic, social and environmental sustainability.
If you could have any job in the coffee industry, what would it be and why?
The position of social scientist is unique in that we get to have in-depth conversations with a wide range of people with the guarantee of anonymity and lack of judgment. We get insight into intimate stories and concerns. We try to use our tools, which are existing theory, methodical analysis and large-scale data to turn this into analysis which attempts to shed a new light over what we take for granted, or rather, suggest that sometimes what we perceive as our personal problems or failures might have something to do with normative, ideological and economic structures.
Who are your coffee heroes?
There is an incredible amount of great work being done by coffee researchers across the board and globe. A very (!) partial list: Edward Fischer, Sabine Parrish, Merry White (Anthropology), Jonathan Morris, Shachar Pinsker (History), Stefano Ponte, Peter Roberts (Economics, Business), Sarah Brinkley (Horticultural Sciences), Veronica Belchior (Food Science) Fabiana Carvalho and Sara Marquart (Sensory Science).
If you could drink coffee with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I would love to go back to Brazil and have more coffees there. I still feel my time there was too short and I that I have a lot to learn. Also, Sir David Attenborough because of the stories and the voice.
If you didn’t work in coffee what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Before studying coffee I was researching the anthropology and demography of Japan so I might have been doing that.
Do you have any coffee mentors?
I have a few academic mentors and I find it enriching to think of coffee through different prisms such as music, wine and even romantic love, the domains that my mentors study. I have also learned a lot from Peter Giuliano’s work and insights.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were first starting out in coffee?
To start learning Portuguese sooner!
Name three coffee apparatuses you couldn’t do without.
“The World Atlas of Coffee,” “Coffee: A Global History,” “Sweetness and Power.”
Best song to brew coffee to at the moment.
“Gastropod” podcast, recordings of talks given at coffee events (e.g. Re:Co, Tamper Tantrum, Co;Lab, Nordic Roasters Forum) or any of the many coffee podcasts out there (see Sprudgies nominees of previous years).
Where do you see yourself in 2040?
Engaged in food studies, making academic research accessible in novel ways, in several languages and across borders through media, exhibitions, talks and events. I hope to grow my project, Stimuli, in a way that engages academics, actors across food supply chains and activism in a fruitful dialogue.
What’s your favorite coffee at the moment?
I try to alternate between Paris’ specialty coffee roasters.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I would say the main impact has been on my friends, family, and informants (coffee people) whose livelihood is at stake due to their inability to “open shop”, as many are small business owners. On a personal level, I have had many trips and conferences cancelled, but my ability to perform my work as an academic has not been impacted; on the contrary, I have a newfound sense of meaning and motivation as an anthropologist/sociologist at a transitional time where many social categories (public/private, nature/culture, self/others) are under public discussion.
The Sprudge Twenty Interviews are presented in partnership by Sprudge & Pacific Barista Series. For a complete list of 2020 Sprudge Twenty honorees and a complete interview archive, please visit sprudge.com/twenty.