Review: Making Better Coffee

Edward F. Fischer. Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value. University of California Press. Berkeley: 2022. ISBN: 978-0-520-38696-9

David Sutton (Southern Illinois University)

Back at the end of the 1980s, in the midst of graduate school, I took a job waiting tables at a place called Caffe Florian, in Hyde Park, Chicago. Owned by two interrelated Greek families, it claimed to be, and was to my knowledge, the first Chicago restaurant to introduce the French Press, or the “Melior Pot” as we called it at the time, featuring about a dozen different coffees to be pressed, a process we would explain to each table that ordered one. The coffee was supplied by one of the owners, who also was a distributor for Superior Coffee. This was in the midst of the “Second Wave” of coffee (later documented by anthropologist William Roseberry in a much-read and much-cited article).[i] The second wave occurred, as reported by Edward Fischer in Making Better Coffee (2022), “in the coffeeshops” as opposed to the first wave (“in the home”), and the third wave (“in the cup”) (19). My favorite variety at Caffe Florian, where the staff often consumed as much as we served, was “Guatemala Antigua,” which my boss referred to as “Guats,” and which I assumed at the time was a blend of coffees produced in Guatemala and the island of Antigua, having no idea that it was from the region of Guatemala known as Antigua. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about coffee as part of becoming a food anthropologist. But reading Making Better Coffee allowed me to understand just how “second wave” my experiences were: a time when quality was reflected in the higher growing elevations for “Strictly Hard Bean” coffees.  At this point there was not yet  a significant concern for terroir and single-origin beans, the flavors of which would be extracted through the new pour-over techniques (among others that would come to define the “third wave,” which Fischer defines in relation to symbolic values as much as to material changes in the coffee itself).  

 Making Better Coffee is an engaging exploration of the value and values that surround coffee, in which Fischer takes up much recent work that notes the ways that economic value and social values often blur into each other. Indeed, he suggests the term “value worlds” to define value(s) in a way that allows for “loose boundaries and scalar promiscuity…to move back and forth across levels of analysis, between the global and the local, the structural and the personal, and to trace the varied threads that all intersect with the material object of coffee” (29). This book traces coffee across the value chain from production to consumption, though with a particular focus on the Mayan coffee-producing farmers in Guatemala for whom third-wave coffee production provides certain opportunities, but also many risks and neoliberal dilemmas.

Various chapters alternate between considering coffee as a measurable, quantifiable and essentially commodifiable substance, and as a beverage that defies such metrics in various ways. Chapter One “Creating Third Wave Values,” describes the current wave of coffee in terms of shared values around notions of craft and authenticity, thus very much in line with recent work by Trubek, Paxson, Weiss, H. West and others. It explores how some of the social conventions around notions of quality coffee are “linked to symbolic and imaginative values.” Thus, even while there is strong emphasis on creating objective “quantifiable metrics” (49) about what’s in a particular cup of coffee, at the same time taste descriptors are unavoidably associated with what is “an ultimately subjective sensory experience” (53). One roaster/barista “studied English in college at the University of Georgia, and like many in the Third Wave world, forwent the usual college-graduate career path to pursue his life passion in coffee. In assigning flavor profiles, he calls on his love of poetry and prose, he sees it like writing a haiku, an act of creative expression…” (53). I’m reminded here of debates about the objectivity/subjectivity of wine tasting[ii], as one wine portfolio manager described his embrace of the more creative side of things: “my sense memory is heightened by not breaking the wine down into its component parts, so I kind of have an idea of the wine almost as if it were a person or a character in a book, you know, and so I remember it that way….”[iii]

One interesting idea that Fischer raises here concerns  the “value co-creation” that takes place dialectically between coffee shop customers and baristas, as the latter balance the relationship of desire and profit in the customer experience. He suggests that it is through such encounters that “symbolic value worlds are created and sustained at the grassroots level’ (58), a process that potentially marginalizes the input of farmers and even the importance of terroir, subjects that he delves into further in later chapters.

Several chapters lay out the biology, economics and history of coffee growing, both providing a global overview (Chapter 2) and a recounting of Guatemala’s specific coffee producing trajectory over the course of several centuries (Chapters 3-4), all against the backdrop of colonial and neocolonial relationships. Chapter 3 traces the history of Guatemalan coffee production from the nineteenth century through the 1970s and 1980s, showing the role of German coffee merchants in creating the mass demand for coffee (“productive” German factory workers, paralleling Mintz’ famed account of sugar) as well as supplying the equipment and knowledge needed for coffee production on Guatemalan plantations, creating a dependent relationship from the beginning. Fischer also documents the role of forced labor laws enacted “to force Maya to work for wages on pain of imprisonment or corporeal punishment” (101). This and the creation of debt relationship were the only way to ensure that local populations would agree to work under such miserable conditions, though Fischer notes constant resistance as well: “The government and employers had the coercive power of the army, the telegraph, and the repeating rifle on their side. But the Indigenous population had the numbers and an awareness that without their participation the export economy would collapse” (101). Fischer traces these forces through the course of the 20th century, noting the long tail of these violent and exploitative relations: “…there is a direct link between coffee plantation exploitation and the formation of revolutionary groups in the 1970s and 1980s, and the resulting genocidal violence” (120).   

Chapter 4 provides interesting insights into the growth of neoliberal ideologies among the ruling classes including the coffee oligarchy (often referred to as “the Germans” (151), and represented by Anacafe, the coffee producers association. Fischer shows how their Hayakian-derived “follow-the-market” approach led the coffee oligarchy to push Guatemalan coffee production toward the “quality turn” and away from the kind of mass-production, price supports, etc., characteristic of the first wave and toward the high-altitude Strictly Hard Bean production of later waves.

The impacts of these changes are documented in Chapters 5 and 6, where Fischer presents ethnographic research among Maya coffee producers conducted in conjunction with a number of colleagues and students. The focus is on the contrast between second-wave production, which typically involves cooperatives often under the aegis of “fair trade” certification mechanisms, and the single-origin terroir focus of the third wave, which obviates these collective mechanisms. Some of the most fascinating materials are provided in contextualizing how coffee fits into Maya worldviews, which focus on balancing individual gains with “fairness” and  in which it is maize that brings together the spiritual, the human and the natural worlds (156). Maya themselves don’t typically focus on coffee as a flavorful product, but rather as a commodity that allows them to earn extra income and, while creating certain kinds of risks, it “represents an opportunity in a context of few opportunities, an imperfect means to a marginally better life” (147).

Fischer does a good job showing the dilemmas for farmers caught between the relatively greater security of 2nd wave approaches: selling at lower prices to cooperatives that aggregate the harvests of many farms, and thus providing insurance that their crop will find a home as well as providing some of the more expensive processing equipment vs. the “winner-take-all” individualist approach of the third wave (174-176). The cooperatives also provide important aspects of community building in line with traditional Maya value worlds, although Fischer notes that they are still, ultimately, market-based solutions (186). Third Wave coffee, by contrast, with its “preferences for ‘single estate’ lots tied to the biographies of individual growers” (174) as part of the romance of replacing alienation and commodification with “singularized” narratives of passion projects rewards those farmers who have the university education and English skills to promote these narratives (181-82). These are usually not the indigenous Maya farmers. Fischer’s project compared the quality of the coffee itself with what it fetched in the third wave market, concluding that ““The [Maya famers] may control terroir in the gritty materiality of dirt and land, and thus the ability to produce beans of a certain quality, but the real economic power lies with those who define the symbolic values of ‘quality’” (175).

The conclusion reiterates the overarching idea that economic value is deeply embedded in other value worlds. As Fischer sums up: “Lives take place at the intersection of numerous value worlds, and the action is in their interaction, when we have to translate moral values into economic decisions, or make trade-offs between religious values and political choices, striving for that delicate balance between things held dear” (200). This is a useful framing, capturing some of the struggles around taste which are familiar to food anthropologists working on numerous subjects beyond coffee. Indeed, Making Better Coffee makes a nice complement to Sarah Besky’s recent book on the intersection of taste, economics and culture in the pricing of tea: Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea.[iv] Fischer does a good job in capturing the dilemmas of farmers, concluding that “Today coffee stands for both the best and the worst of global commodity chains, a posterchild for economic dependency and a model of market-based solutions for smallholding farmers” (210). This book will be very useful for researchers, providing an excellent review of the literature. It could be used in graduate or advanced undergraduate classes. My one stylistic quibble is that Fischer relies very heavily on extended endnotes in discussing theoretical approaches to value and other key topics. While this will once again provide a good resource to those researching this topic, I found these endnotes at times distracting, and I wished that more of the discussion of different approaches to value, for example, had been incorporated into, and evaluated in, the main text, even if it might have meant less complete coverage. As it stands, I came away from these endnotes with the impression of a kitchen sink approach, no doubt useful in recognizing the many factors making up “value worlds,” but perhaps less satisfying nonetheless. This does not detract from Fischer’s overall point that “the real power is defining what value is: in this case, constructing quality by translating the material qualities of the beans produced in places like Guatemala into the narratives of consumer values.”[v] It will be interesting to see what the next wave brings.

[i] Roseberry, William. 1996. “The Rise of Yuppie Coffee and the Reimagination of Class in the United States.” American Anthropologist 98(4):762-775.

[ii] See Hou 2021, reviewed on this weblog.

[iii] Slate “Working” podcast

[iv] See my review in American Anthropologist:


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