Historical Branding of Specialty Coffee

Publication Year: 
2005

To be able to join the pantheon of specialty coffees, the fundamentals of a new coffee's taste must be sound, and preferably distinctive. It should certainly have no harsh flavours, no 'off' notes. Thus whilst the slightly metallic acidity of some Central American coffees is a desirable characteristic whilst it is held in check by a full body, if that body is thin, as is the case with some Mexican coffee, then the acidity ceases to be in balance, and becomes less desirable. The coffee does not necessarily have to taste like another - although the language used to describe coffee has evolved, like other languages, from shared experience, and even a new sensation is described using the building blocks of the previous ones.

It is easy to see how influential the sense of place is in the way in which coffee is marketed in developed countries. The very names of the varieties on the shelf - Kenya, Costa Rica, Java, et al. - are designed to stimulate interest, much like a travel brochure, an are often accompanied by a suitable image to evoke the country in question. The power of taste experience refreshed by imagination is not to be underestimated. One of the trials of a coffee taster's life is to meet people newly returned from holiday clutching a bag of Togolese Robusta, Peruvian Arabica, Jamaican Blue Mountain or some such. They thrust it into your expert hands fully expecting confirmation of their opinion that it is 'marvellous'. Perhaps it was marvellous in Togo, with the fufu seller's cries echoing across the market, or in the Andes with the breeze carrying a half-promise of snow, or in Jamaica with the parrots swooping amongst the jacarandas. But on the cold workbench of a seasoned taster, it will usually be low quality or very stale, or most probably both. The travellers have stirred their memory of the country into the cup, the ultimate sweetener. The taster, on the other hand, knows how that sleight of mind works and how it helps marketing departments to beef up their copy. This sense of location is most imaginatively manifested by the preference of Japanese consumers for Tanzanian coffees over Kenyan. It may be in part due to the difference in the levels of acidity; it is certainly also due to the chance resemblance of Mount Kilimanjaro to their sacred Mount Fuji. Images of Kilimanjaro adorn many manufacturers' packs of Tanzanian coffee in Japan.

The sense of place becomes more refined higher up coffee's social scale; regional identifiers come into play, such as Antigua and Kona Kai; and at the top, estate names. The more specific the sense of place attached to a coffee, the more it requires 'explaining', in the form of the inclusion of history in the proposition. In a world of proliferating consumer choice, history has the merit of bestowing lineage and breeding on a product, and just as every American heiress in the 1920s wanted to marry an English Duke, so the discerning consumer would like to think of himself (or herself) as a connoisseur. The origins of the historical marketing approach lie in the historical facts that surrounded certain coffees, and the undoubted cachet that accrued from them. Thus to learn, as was commonly believed twenty years ago, that the Queen had Wallenford Estate Blue Mountain Coffee flown to her via the diplomatic bag had considerable allure. It was impossible to buy bona fide Wallenford Estate coffee at that time, and it had been unavailable for years, but this supposed 'history' had contributed powerfully to Jamaica Blue Mountain's long-standing pre-eminence amongst coffees.

What such ambient history lacks, of course, is the history of the coffee beans themselves. Ideally the coffee plants would have traceable origins, and preferably more than a limp and unsubstantiated claim like that of the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros in Colombia, which insists that coffee plants 'were introduced during the sixteenth century by Jesuit missionaries'. As we have seen, this was an era when Europeans had yet to discover coffee at all. The Caribbean likewise is littered with coffee plants apparently derived from those introduced to Martinique by Gabriel de Clieu, undermining whatever value this already highly suspect pedigree possesses.

It is a pity that Napoleon did not drink St Helena coffee on the historical record. Along with Churchill, Napoleon is the most collectable of historical figures, and it would have been a great coup to have been able to report a moment when he actually drank the coffee, an even better, commented on it. We have seen that it is quite probable that he did so, and that evidence in its own right provides an interesting background to the coffee. we have found him drinking coffee regularly, we know where the water which he brewed it came from on the island, and that he briefly grew coffee trees in his garden: we just haven't managed to catch him in flagrante with St Helena coffee.

Image retrieved from Global Organic Coffee on August 13, 2014.

pp. 223-225 Black Gold: A Dark History of Coffee by Antony Wild (2005)

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