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Diversity in the Coffee Industry

November 01, 2021

Where do you go when you want to know something about coffee? You’d probably tune in to YouTube, the prime source of information for most Americans (unfortunately) and your first results would probably lead you to a video of James Hoffman.

James Hofmann is from England, and he is the 2007 World Barista Champion. He has a prolific YouTube channel with almost a million subscribers, and has written a book called “The World Atlas of Coffee”.

In short, he is the spitting image of authority and legitimacy in the world of coffee.

Authority in the World of Coffee

There is a pervasive notion that a certain type of person is the most knowledgeable when it comes to coffee. Type in “coffee” in YouTube, for example, and most of the results you’ll find are of white men, James Hoffmann included.

That’s not to invalidate James Hoffmann as a connoisseur—not at all. He’s a great barista and his content is absolutely amazing.

However, why is it that we think white—usually European—people are the ones that are most knowledgeable about coffee? This seems counterintuitive. Europe doesn’t produce coffee. Any coffee; coffee is not viable as a crop in any country that isn’t tropical or sub-tropical. That rules out Europe, North America, and Northern Asia.

In fact, most of the world’s coffee is grown in places that most Europeans or North Americans wouldn’t think of as coffee-consuming cultures. Brazil, Africa, and Vietnam, for example.

And yet in these countries there are entire subcultures of coffee that have grown coffee for a living for generations.

There are cultures where coffee, its taste and aroma, are something that pertains to the whole community. Take the Ethiopian coffee ceremony: during this event, the matriarch of the house has guests over and the main event is the coffee that she will make. 

She will roast the green coffee beans herself at home, filling the place with a heavenly aroma. Then she will grind them (often by hand) and subsequently brew coffee with the coffee that she herself roasted and ground.

The ceremony usually goes on for a few hours. While the guests are to be entertained in some way or another by the male members of the family, the women work on the main attraction: the coffee.

This is just one example of a tradition that has focused entirely on the art of making coffee in a deeper sense of the meaning. These are people that probably pick the coffee themselves, process it, roast it, and ground it. Compared to buying it packaged, roasted, pre-ground to make on a $6000 dollar espresso machine that does all the work for you—I’d say these Ethiopian women are far more skilled at making good coffee than many acclaimed baristas.

But let’s go back to baristas.

If we’re talking about authority, people more often than not look at baristas. What isa barista? It’s a person who makes coffee; a person who specializes in serving coffee. Making coffee is their trade, so it’s natural they’d know more about coffee than the average person.

If you take a look at the World Barista Championship, the lack of diversity in the top five is a little overwhelming. The first few years, most of the top five contenders were from Europe; particularly Northern Europe. This makes sense because, historically, they consume more coffee than any other region.

Most countries that made it to the top five the first few years were European, with the exception of Australia, the United States, and Japan (and Brazil, once).

Then, in the 2011 championship—held in Colombia, for good measure—Alejandro Méndez, a barista from El Salvador, gets first place. The following year, Raúl Rodas, from Guatemala, took first place.

(Alejandro Méndez winner of the World Barista Championship in 2011. Image rights owned by La Prensa Grafica) 

(Raúl Rodas winner of the World Barista Championship in 2012. Image rights owned by International ComuniCaffe)

That’s two Central American countries in two years. And although it never happened again, it did set a precedent for more representation in these sorts of championships.

Central America is, after all, a region that has a very long history with coffee. Some countries here have depended heavily on coffee exports for hundreds of years, and it is also where the most expensive coffee is found—the Geisha, in Panama. So it makes sense this region would be full to the brim with coffee experts that can make their way into the world stage.

Japan is also a country that has been seeing an explosion in coffee like never before. This is a country that has historically loved green tea—it still is the number one consumed beverage in the country.

Japan is virtually the only Asian country that constantly makes it to the top ten in international competitions. Izaki Hidenori took first place in the WBC in 2014 and Yusuke Narisawa second place in the 2017 WAC.

There’s also an online presence in Japan that rivals the content (and style) of their Western counterparts, like Ryoka Takashima of Peaceful Cuisine.

Women in Coffee

So there seems to be hope. There are important players in the industry that aren’t necessarily European, or white, or male.

Most notably, the World Aeropress Championship has awarded first place to a woman two years in a row—Wendeliwn Van Bunnik in 2019 and Carolina Garay in 2018.

 

(2018 World AeroPress Champion Carolina Ibarra Garay (right). Photo by Abi Varney)

We can also find women in coffee startups, such as Nguyen Coffee Supply, a provider of authentic Vietnamese coffee with Sahra Nguyen as captain who is incredibly knowledgeable about coffee, and promotes the consumption of Vietnamese coffee. Vietnam, as the second largest coffee exporter in the world, has a very rich and unique coffee culture.

 

(Sahra Nguyen Founder & CEO of Nguyen Coffee Supply)

Although very gradually, we’re starting to see more diversity both in terms of genders and nationality. It would be great to see African baristas making it into big competitions; after all, this is the continent where coffee is native to and the reason that we’re all enjoying coffee.

The Middle East is also a rare sight in these competitions despite many of the countries here being the first to enjoy coffee as a beverage. This region is where the world’s first coffee houses opened their doors hundreds of years ago.

So there is hope; if we all do just the bare minimum to support creators and businesses that aren’t more of the same, then not only can we see more diversity, but most likely our coffee experiences will be better.


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