Fabricating Origins …One Coffee Bean at a Time

photo (4)During a recent coffee run to Starbucks, an advertisement caught my eye – it read – “Ethiopia Single-Origin.” They’re many things about this ad that strike me as curious, especially the ways in which ‘Origin’ as a single and monolithic “thing” is juxtaposed over and against the country Ethiopia which is, like all places, quite heterogeneous.

These terms coupled together create a homogenizing effect through mythological constructions of singularity and originality. What could possibly be singular about the country Ethiopia and the coffee beans produced there (consider, for example, in Ethiopia, there are over 90 individual languages/communication systems operative)? Just a brief consideration of the (cross-cultural and geographical) travel involved in the producing, manufacturing and selling of commodities like coffee beans from this place and that ought to shift such discourse on the perceived distinctiveness of such claims. This manufacturing (and marketed) sleight of hand helps to produce a compelling illusion of cultural authenticity based in and on a fabrication of a certain sort of mythological past that can be consumed in the present without accounting for (a wide variety of) change over time and space.

So … come sample coffee ground and brewed here made from coffee beans of that place over there all while purchasing and consuming such a product right here with the swipe of a card.

Seems to me that claims of origins always begets new discourse of origins on prior origins of which such origins are used in the present to create new claims of beginnings which in the future will be posited as “The” origin point for a new discourse on authenticity. Only until …a new (origin) narrative takes its place and the cycle begins again.

How do you study origin narratives?

6 Replies to “Fabricating Origins …One Coffee Bean at a Time”

  1. Has it become so competitive, that marketers go to such lengths to romanticize overly priced usually watered down coffee? I’m wondering if the pull of an exotic (a.k.a., five syllable word that intends to invoke mysterious Orientalism or privilege of travel) location helps dispel the doldrums of a need for a morning cup of caffeine inspired work ethic?

    Funny though, I found similar thoughts in the study of other beverage origins as well. Maybe we could grab a cup of joe and discuss further?

  2. The interesting analogy, to me, is how we study our own origins, i.e., genealogies. No one seems to descend from humdrum or lost-to-time circumstances; instead, we all trace ourselves back to heroic/tragic (i.e., dramatic) feats and situations, settings that we seem to assume set us apart today in a no less competitive economy of identity/rank.

  3. Far from imposing homogeneity on Ethiopia, the label actually is imparting important information to anyone with the knowledge to read it. There are only 3 regions in Ethiopia from which specialty-grade coffee comes, Harrar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe. Each region, due to factors of climate, soil, and preferred methods of processing (to name just a few factors), produces a distinctive coffee. The preferred processing method of a region, by the way, whether it be wet-processed, dried in the sun, monsooned, how the cherries are removed from the seeds, etc., is a human part of the equation. I personally like the Harrar, which has a muted fruit taste to it, reminiscent of blueberry, while Yirgacheffe, which many people highly prize, seems to me to be too bright and lemony. That’s personal taste. Sidamo is too mild and milky.

    Now, I would be hesitant to purchase a coffee only labeled as “Ethiopian,” without additional information, because I know that 7 or 8 years ago, the Ethiopian government seized control of coffee production in that country, and ever since that time the quality of coffee from that country (yes, it is a specific country with specific policies) plummeted. So I need to know that the coffee is from one single region and that it is FTO certified, that is, Fair Trade Organic. Otherwise, now I can’t trust it. The label told me all that.

    So, you can see, that origin does matter, even single origin. I want to know if my coffee is from Guatemala, which I like, and which region, even which farm, or Sumatra, which has an earthy, dirty flavor to it, and so needs to be roasted dark, which I don’t like. I do like Mokha Java, however, a blend of Yemini (Mokha) coffee and Sumatran (Java), which makes for a bold and interesting cup. This is not just a myth or an illusion of cultural authenticity, these are realities. Not all coffees are the same. Again, there are different soils, climates, altitudes, varieties, and so on, and the origin label says something about all those things. You don’t have to be privy to all that information, but if you buy a bag of coffee from Guatemala Huehuetenango and you like it, you might want to look for that coffee again, with the same label, because it is going to have roughly the same taste.

    Oh, and speaking of the “cup,” where, I think, God resides (I throw that in since this is a religious column), I agree with the poster that if it is weak and overpriced, one should not buy it. DO NOT buy weak and overpriced coffee. Amen to that. In fact, do not buy weak and overpriced wine. And do not buy wine without a label. Unless, of course, you don’t care if you are buying French, Italian, Californian – oh, I like Malbecs the best. They are spicy and rich. Yikes, there I go labeling!

    1. “…there are different soils, climates, altitudes, varieties, and so on.”

      Indeed–and I think that is the point–the discourse on origins is the manner in which a social actor in a a present position, who happens to have just these tastes and preferences, selects from the many possible differences, prioritizing some and ignoring others. So “I personally like the Harrar,…” makes great sense to me, but the move that might then go on to say “that’s therefore the best coffee” or “only coffee from there is…” is thus the discursive move that’s of interest, for the contingent preferences that made it stand out are thereby erased…

  4. But the fact remains that a low-grown Brazilian robusta tastes different than a high-grown, Ethiopian Harrar, and so I like for coffee shops to label their coffee as to origin so I can make an informed decision. It’s not just a marketing trick or sleight of hand, even if it is a good and logical thing for them to do from a marketing standpoint. And I promise not to erase anything if I like it.

    1. No doubt–but difference is unmarked, there’s no vector or valence to it, i.e., “different than,” as you say, is not “better than.” That’s where the taster’s preferences come in–preferences that the signage is universalizing, for it’s not saying “those who like this trait will like this coffee” but, instead, “like this coffee because it has this trait.” As if the trait (i.e., some particular taste) stands out of its own accord. What’s more, “different from” with regard to one trait is no doubt “same as” with regard to another trait–hence the interesting way that variability gets managed by the discourse on origins when used as an identity-technique.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.