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Third Wave Coffee

Americans are drinking much less coffee than they did in the 1940s and 1950s — down by almost half from a peak in 1946. And such changing trends in Northern countries have profound impacts in the global South where coffee is produced.

The sharp U.S. decline has levelled off in recent years, buoyed by a dramatic rise in speciality coffee (defined as scoring above 80 on a 100 point cupping scale). The very best of these speciality roasts are what the cognoscenti term "Third Wave coffees."

Retailing for $20-$50 a pound (and going much higher), third wave coffees usually come from single farms, with provenance, terroir, and cup quality discussed in the language of fine wines. Coffee's complex flavour profile is especially sensitive to climate, moisture, and soil conditions; and third wave coffees are varietals provenanced from single estates.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the booming online auctions that can cost as much as silver per ounce. The Guardian notes, however, that while this coffee is pricey, it does not mean that farmers are getting rich.

Today, the best coffees are grown on formerly undesirable high altitude lands where the country's majority Maya population live. They are grown by small farmers, who may never get rich but still see growing their own coffee as a chance for a better life.

Three Waves

The first wave of coffee consumption lasted from the late nineteenth century up through the 1960s, marked by the spread of commodity coffee and the rise of Folgers, Maxwell House, Jacobs, Douwe Egberts, and all the other familiar grocery store brands.

The second wave started in the 1960s in the U.S. with Peet's in San Francisco and Zabar's in New York, and culminating in the spread of Starbucks to every nook and cranny of the country. Anthropologist William Roseberry describes this as a shift in coffee as the beverage of capitalism (coffee and sugar serving as great proletarian hunger killers, as Sidney Mintz has pointed out) to a beverage of postmodernity (an outlet for expressing identity and difference).

The Third Wave coffees take this to the next, artisanal infused, level, and is sold by online retailers such as Scotty D's Jamaican Coffee, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Blue Bottle and a growing number of high-end coffee roasters that offer quality coffee.

Changing face of production

Growing coffee is tough, back-breaking work and these farmers mostly live in very modest circumstances, with limited resources and opportunities. They are acutely aware of the perils of dependency on fickle global markets; and while coffee prices have shot steadily up over the last decade, this follows a historic low in 2001.

Yet, as they describe it, coffee represents an opportunity in a context of few opportunities, an imperfect but valued means to realizing their desires for a better life; it is tied up with hopes, dreams, and desires that go beyond mere income.

These producers view the coffee market as a mechanism, a tool, a technology, a way of mobilizing available resources toward desired ends. These ends do not generally extend to the sorts of major structural changes needed for Guatemala's long-term and sustainable human development.

Rather, the coffee market is a means to achieve algo más (something more) given the actual context of limited opportunity and material resources.

The desires farmers in our sample expressed inform and motivate the ways new producers engage the coffee market toward their own ends — an instrumental moralization of the market at once similar and distant from the values ascribed by Northern consumers to their provenanced and fair trade gourmet coffee.

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