Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies researches coffee as a global product

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Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies researches coffee as a global product

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Alexa Bussmann, Content Development Director

Ted Fischer’s favorite kind of coffee is a variety called “Borbon,” a rich brew with chocolate and caramel undertones from the El Injerto Coffee Company. Fischer found this blend while researching coffee production and trade in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. As the Director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies, Fischer studies not only coffee production and trade, but also the anthropology and economics of the coffee industry.

The Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies was founded in 1999 under the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to study the health benefits of coffee. The institute was funded by major players in the coffee industry like Nestle, Starbucks and Guatemalan coffee producers.

The institute’s early research found that regularly drinking coffee prevents Alzheimer’s, type II diabetes and several forms of heart disease. Compounds within coffee, such as chlorogenic acids, give it these preventative health benefits.

“It turns out that coffee — and we’re talking about coffee and not caffeine, a lot of people conflate the two — it is very beneficial,” said Dr. Ted Fischer, Director of the Institute for Coffee Studies and anthropology professor at Vanderbilt.

In 2007, ICS became part of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies and shifted its focus to studying coffee as a product. Coffee is native to East Africa but is closely associated with Latin America and has historically been exported to developed countries in the north. Fischer describes the coffee industry as a microcosm through which the world can be understood.

“Our idea was that coffee is this unique product about which you can sort of tell the story of the whole world,” Fischer said.

ICS’s recent research has focused on the social and economic aspects of the coffee industry, specifically in Latin American countries. Fischer and his team are currently researching third wave coffee, a high end coffee trend that emerged in the last decade. Third wave coffee is regarded as an artisanal good, with complicated flavor profiles similar to wine, and sells for over $25 per pound of beans.

Nashville is a hub for third wave coffee because of coffee shops like Barista Parlor, Crema and Revelator Coffee Company. The sudden popularity of third wave coffee over the past decade intrigues Fischer and his fellow researchers–they wonder how consumers have developed a desire for this more expensive and specified type of coffee.

ICS is focusing on the production of third wave coffee in Guatemala, which Fischer describes as ground zero for third wave coffee. Guatemala has a long history of coffee growing, as its altitudes and climates make it the ideal place to grow third wave coffee beans. However, some smallholding Mayan farmers are not able to sell their coffee beans at prices similar to nearby estates who are producing beans of comparable quality. ICS is working with business students from Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management to create a business model for these farmers.

“We see our sweet spot as sort of like what I described to you with this work, where we can actually discover something new about the coffee business, or discover something new about society through coffee,” Fischer said. “But combining that with actually helping these coffee farmers.”

Lottice Taylor is a junior at Vanderbilt and is currently interning in the Institute for Coffee Studies. She stresses how ICS’s work focuses on the people and culture involved in coffee production.

“The coolest thing (about ICS) is that it’s tied up with the Latin American Studies Office, because that makes it much more cultural.” Taylor said. “(Coffee is) not just some kind of market product, it’s got lots of layers.”

ICS is also looking at the consumer side of the coffee market. The sudden popularity of third wave coffee interests ICS researchers, and they want to find out how Americans learned to want high-end coffee.

In the future, the ICS looks to continue using its research to help coffee farmers and producers.

“When we can, it is our obligation to use the kind of research that we do in the service of the people that we’re studying” Fischer said.

What does Fischer think about the coffee offered on campus?

“I think it is a tragedy,” Fischer said.

Several years ago, Dining Services switched from selling Bongo Java coffee to Caribou Coffee.

“They’re probably saving a couple of cents a pound, which I’m sure adds up, but they rejected a local, fair trade, sort of the most virtuous of companies that you could imagine, to go with some corporate behemoth to save a couple of bucks,” Fischer said.

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