San Francisco’s very first Tamper Tantrum event rocked the Github HQ over a buzzy weekend in September, bringing with it a set of spicy conversations around science, relationships, and the future of coffee. Since 2009, the traveling podcast has engaged novel coffee concepts through discussion and debate, and its second journey to the US was no exception.
Part lecture series, part immersive coffee experience, the day started with coffees from Intelligentsia, Hasbean, AKA, Sweet Bloom, Madcap, and host company Wrecking Ball. Tamper Tantrum host and Hasbean Coffee owner Steve Leighton took the stage with 2012 US Barista Champion and Counter Culture‘s green coffee buyer Katie Carguilo, who seamlessly covered TT co-founder Colin Harmon’s hosting duties.
World Coffee Research’s Hanna Neuschwander started us off with a mission to discuss the future of coffee. Setting her reference frame for the talk at 2050, a year well within the professional lives of most audience members, she broke down the challenges facing coffee as a crop, then turned her focus to the opportunities those challenges provide. By 2050, she explained, if demand keeps growing in proportion to the population, we’ll need to double the world’s coffee production. Meanwhile, if climate change progresses at its current rate, we’ll lose half the arable coffee land by 2050. So, she said, “coffee agriculture is at a crossroads.”
While the challenges to the coffee supply are well-known (climate change, pests, labor shortages), the opportunities presented by Neuschwander were novel: F1 hybrids bred not only for drought, frost, and pest resistance, but also for exceptionally high cupping scores, all of which means more profit for producers.
As F1 hybrids, it was pointed out, these coffees won’t breed true to seed and only provide one generation of plants for farmers. When audience members raised concerns about these valuable hybrids being used as a control mechanism in the way that genetically modified corn seeds have been, Neuschwander explained that WCR will be pursuing plant breeders’ rights, which will protect their intellectual property from being monetized and controlled by anyone else, but which will also mean others have to pay to proliferate the plant.
Reflecting on the controversy of releasing only F1 hybrids for trial, some audience members felt that it would be more ethical to keep these varieties open-source in the future. Emma Sanchez, assistant manager at Verve, acknowledged the complexity. “It’s very much a grey area.”
After Neuschwander left the stage, we were joined by UC Davis Professor Bill Ristenpart. A chemical engineer, he pioneered a massively popular freshman seminar on coffee and is working with UC Davis’s new coffee campus to create a master’s program for in-depth coffee research.
Their vision: “To take the work of organizations like WCR and figure out what happens next.”
They’ll be researching the science behind green coffee storage, roasting, brewing, and sensory assessment, among many other variables that have lacked substantial scientific research. To illustrate how much of current coffee science is based on specious or outdated work, he broke down the equations that underpin the popular Brewing Control Chart, which, he revealed, was based almost entirely on the brews of 1950s housewives using percolators.
When asked about the practical outcomes for coffee workers as research progresses, Ristenpart expressed a goal of creating certification programs for higher-level coffee education based on modern science. In fact, he revealed that the SCA is about to fund the development of a new Brewing Fundamentals course.
After an extended coffee break, former investment banker and current owner of Finca Argentina Alejandro Martinez took the stage to discuss the importance of relationships in coffee as a means to achieve equity. He introduced the problem that coffee production does not make money, and because of that, the children of producers don’t want to take over that work.
Martinez then proposed the solution: relationships. When he started his farm eight years ago, he sold coffee at the volatile C price, never knowing if he was actually going to recoup the investment of a season’s planting, harvesting, and processing. When he started to form personal relationships with buyers and focused on increasing quality, he realized that it was the only way to assure consistency and the ability to invest in new projects. When costs shift for a producer or a buyer, real avenues of communication are the only thing that can ensure that everyone’s needs and interests are considered. If the roaster has to shoulder a higher price than they can afford and their business folds, that hurts the producer; if the producer can’t get enough money for their crop and has to stop growing coffee, that hurts the buyer. These symbiotic relationships, he says, are the road to sustainable supply chains.
After a tasty allergen-friendly lunch by Github, we reconvened for a talk by Wrecking Ball owner, former Q Director and current Q instructor Trish Rothgeb on the parallels between the first, second, and third waves of coffee and feminism, as well as some thoughts on what comes next. Inspired by third wave feminism, Rothgeb coined the term “third wave” coffee back in the early 00s. As in feminism’s third wave, which embraced the personal as political, coffee’s third wave allowed companies to realize a personal vision of their businesses, embracing the fact that not every company could please every customer. During the third wave, we experimented with rarefied roasting styles and smaller menus, and we centered personal relationships in the buying process through direct trade. “Congratulations,” she said. “We did it. We completed the third wave.”
So what comes next? Rothgeb introduced a school of feminism that actually predated the third wave, which has recently been gaining traction in the coffee community: intersectionality. Conceptualized by and for black women, the mission of intersectionality is “to legally challenge notions of oppressive institutions,” addressing the interdependent and interlocking structures of systemic oppression that construct society as an individual and group experience. Building on the work of coffee’s black women activists like Michelle Johnson, Rothgeb proposed that there is no fourth wave to coffee or feminism; now that their third waves are complete, there is only intersectionality and the work of dismantling oppressive structures across the globe in every setting.
While inspired by her talk, certain audience members felt that the issues discussed were all too apparent in that very room, where there were no black women invited to speak and only one black woman attendee. Since its introduction into the coffee community’s popular lexicon at Expo 2017, the concept of intersectionality has been thrown around in many contexts without centering black women, and unfortunately, that sidelining is representative of the very real work the coffee community has yet to do, said one attendee who chose to remain anonymous.
After Rothgeb’s talk, Carguilo and Leighton teamed up to interview Pim Techamuanvivit, owner of Michelin-starred SF Thai restaurant Kin Khao. While not a classically trained chef, Techamuanvivit does not identify as self-taught. “I didn’t sit under the bodhi tree and understand all of a sudden how to cook Thai food,” she joked, “I learned from my family, I learned from other chefs.”
She discussed how perceptions of popular Thai food lead people to pigeonhole Thai cuisine in the same way that the popularity of Starbucks has led people to pigeonhole coffee. “People are resistant to paying for what they perceive as ethnic food,” she said, noting that people will gladly pay a higher price for the same ingredients at an American restaurant. Like many specialty coffee shops, she doesn’t feel that she needs to meet every customer’s expectation of what Thai food should be. Despite the fact that she’s not doing what every other restaurant does, she made it very clear that she isn’t “elevating” Thai food; she is just expressing an aspect of it that has been underrepresented in American Thai cuisine.
Last but not least, Carguilo and Leighton squared off in a heated debate on whether or not it is exploitative to use pictures of coffee producers in the marketing and sale of coffee. Colleen Anunu of Fair Trade USA joined Carguilo to argue that the use of producer photos is exploitative, while Royal Coffee’s Mayra Orellana-Powell paired up with Leighton to argue that it isn’t. Wrecking Ball’s Nick Cho moderated.
Carguilo and Anunu started by acknowledging the privilege they hold as white women, then laid out the bones of their argument: these images are supposed to act as proof that producers aren’t exploited, but in doing that, they actively promote the consumption of brown bodies and distract people from the real issues of equity that aren’t being addressed. They’re meant to pacify consumers rather than promote change, the team argued. And, they asserted, given the asymmetries of power between producers and coffee buyers, how can producers give true consent?
On the other side, Leighton argued that these photos aren’t meant to ensure traceability; they’re meant to give emotional impact and personal connection to the stories that sell coffee. If these photos are effective, they allow buyers to pay producers more. Orellana-Powell, a renowned coffee producer, scored what was perhaps the winning point by explaining that if we really see coffee producers as equals, we have to acknowledge that they want their hard work to be appreciated just like we do stateside. If we acknowledge them as equals, we have to acknowledge that they have the agency to give real consent and express their wants and needs, even within an asymmetrical power balance, just like we all do. The audience voted, and Leighton and Orellana-Powell were declared the winners.
The eight-hour jam-packed roster definitely left attendees with a lot to unpack, and a central question throughout the day was the role of equity in the future of coffee. Can interpersonal relationships solve traditional imbalances of power within the supply chain? Will technology empower entrenched systems to move forward uninterrupted, or will it act as a means to question old assumptions? Is the current crossroads of climate change an opportunity to change our base systems, or can we solve problems piecemeal by addressing them individually? Tamper Tantrum isn’t here to answer those questions but to ask them.
RJ Joseph (@RJ_Sproseph) is a freelance journalist, publisher of Queer Cup, and coffee professional based in the Bay Area. Read more RJ Joseph for Sprudge.
Photos by Cris Mendoza, except where noted.