Even the words terrify me now. "Upgrade Proposal". I have to write exactly what I want to do with this project, 4000 words, and then a panel interview to defend The Plan. I've still got a couple of months, but it is now becoming obvious that before I can convince other people that this is a good, plausible idea, I need to figure out once and for all what that idea actually is.

I've been faffing. Farting around with vaguely academic concepts and seeing how they could possibly be applied to my main obsession of the moment: coffee. I am employed to work on the Waste of the World project, which incorporates a lot of different themes, but focuses on reexamining what we think of as 'waste' in social terms. Our "team" - that is, Joby, Anna and I, are charged with research the concept of Food Waste. To me, this meant Coffee Waste.

There are a lot of different forms of 'waste' in the coffee industry. Physical waste on the plantations - what happens to coffee that doesn't sell? What happens if the crops are diseased? What happens if the roaster screws up somehow? And then at the retailers - what about all the crap espressos trainee baristas make that cannot be served? Then there is all the branded packaging - most of it can be recycled, but generally isn't.And even if you throw away your branded cup, is it somehow worth it if you have become slightly more aware of that brand? Storage packaging: if you don't store it right, the coffee goes stale and you have to throw it. If you do store it well, you can't recycle the foil bags...

And then there is the idea of waste of knowledge. An infinite and complex array of skills go in to this industry, everything from grading green beans, roasting to perfection, to baristas drawing rosettas as latte art on the top of our drink.. Does all the effort that's gone in to making the coffee get wasted if the bored barista screws it up in the shop? And even if she gets it perfect, is all that expertise wasted on customers who come in for their venti, 1-shot decaf syruped-to-hell soy crappyfrappemockacino and then go home and drink instant?

Most significantly though, is trying to find whether or not all this waste, physical and conceptual, is actually necessary. If there is a demonstrable demand for high quality, speciality coffees in the UK, and if these specialty coffees inevitably create more waste to produce, then the waste is justified. However, if in the UK we are still clinging to our teapots and drinking Nescafe instant, or perhaps, going to Caffe Nero or Starbucks for the 'lifestyle' - buying in to the brand, for instance rather than the coffee itself, then the waste involved in this industry becomes meaningless.

How do I go about answering all these questions? The anthropologist in me is bouncing up and down going "Participant Observation!" "Multi-site ethnography!" I don't know if human-geographers have other methods, but good ol' PO sounds appealing to me. With emphasis on the PARTICPANT bit. I WANT to see what it's like to pick coffee: I am going to a tiny co-op farm in Nicaragua, and a big commercial farm in Costa Rica. I would love to learn how to roast coffee professionally, so I am going to try and find an independent roaster and the one that supplies a big chain like Caffe Nero. Finally, I want to see if my own barista experience is 'typical' of the industry, and so I intend to compare the goings on in an independent cafe (hopefully, Gusto Italiano in Sheffield) and at a branch of Caffe Nero. Constantly comparing big and small, independent and commercial will, I hope, give a better all-round view of the industry...

So, I've got a lot of Ideas, and when I get really into this, I buzz... it's exciting, I want to get on with it!! But, first, I've just got to translate all of the above into formal academic speak, then add in references and inteliigent sounding theory, and then timescales and costings and ... aaaaaaaargh. Bureaucracy and academic prostitution!! aaaargh indeed! Sometimes, the fact that I have a certain responsibility to the uni to produce intensive, innovative, accessible and practical research is enough to crush any creativity and enthusiasm. I am Lost in Caffienation, again.

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Comment by Bel Townsend on March 17, 2008 at 2:33pm
That would make a difference in terms of skill as well (ie:less of it!) but I've not found that to be the case over here! Every Caffe Nero and Costa coffee has a proper gaggia machine, and so have most of the starschmucks I've seen. We don't have drive thrus over here either! Training baristas properly and have them making espressos 'by hand' is more of a performance, so they get away with charging more for it. It's not often in cafe manager's interest to install automatic machines.
Comment by Jason Dominy on March 17, 2008 at 7:47am
Most of the big brand coffee shops have gone to superautomatics, which leave very little waste, other than the spent pucks. I will agree that they don't necessarily care as much, but thanks to the fact that it does influence costs, they do pay attention to waste when they can.
Comment by Bel Townsend on March 17, 2008 at 6:39am
Thanks for the vote of confidence! I think most good baristas do take care and respect what they are doing. What I am interested in, is the comparisons with large companies and big brand coffee shops - whether their baristas actually don't care as much, and how much of an affect this actually has. It's getting there, but sometimes I just feel totally overwhelmed with how much there is to take in!
Comment by Jason Dominy on March 17, 2008 at 6:23am
Good luck with that! Sounds like you have a good basis for what could be something really cool. And yes, baristas should bear a responsibility to take care of that which has been worked so hard on all along the way, and waste is a key component. That's why it's cool that in the competitions the baristas are judged on how much waste they have. It's more than just a cost thing. Good job Bel!

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