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May 18, 2007

Just Because It's Beautiful

You've never seen anything like this.


This is Ray Bethell, 8-time-Multiple Kite World Champion .

He is 79 years old, and this is an absolutely stunning film.

May 16, 2007

My coffee smells like tuna fish

My friend Paul writes:

Here's a question that hopefully won't tax your superior barista knowledge banks too greatly. A co-worker of mine once mentioned that occasionally brewing coffee smells like tuna fish to him. I thought that was odd until I noticed it too. Now it doesn't happen all the time, but sometimes when I smell brewing coffee there is a distinct odor of tuna. I've done a google search and found other people who have had this experience, but I've found no satisfactory explanation.

My guess is that somehow it's related to the chemical trimethylamine, which is what gives fish a "fishy" odor. The chemical has an extremely low odor threshold, so it can be detected by scent even in very low concentrations. But what could be producing the trimethylamine? Do you have any idea what could be causing this?

I have no idea, actually. I checked my copy of Illy and Viani's Espresso Coffee, a collection of scientific papers about coffee, and couldn't find anything on it. A table reviewing odor compounds found in ground coffee doesn't include trimethylamine. The compound with the closest description is probably methanethiol, which leaves a "putrid, cabbage like" sense impression.

Another possibility is that the coffee with that smell was stored improperly and picked up off flavors from something else. Any other possibilities?

[Cross-posted at Eternal Recurrence.]

May 11, 2007

Cups and councils

City councillors in Toronto are proposing a tax on paper coffee cups. Of course I recommend ceramic whenever possible, but this is ridiculous:

Hundreds of millions of paper cups are tossed into trash bins across Ontario every year, and they all wind up in landfills. That's why the city's Works Committee wants to put a stop to the endless waste and is proposing a 25 to 30 cent tax on every cup of coffee that comes in either a cardboard, styrofoam or wax-lined cup.

That would be more money per cup going to the city for doing virtually nothing than goes to the farmers who grow the beans. Whatever the marginal cost is of collecting and disposing of a paper coffee cup, I'm sure it's less than 30 cents. Such a tax would also place downward pressure on the prices shops are willing to pay for coffee. Increasing the price of cups is only going to make it harder to sell high quality, sustainably grown coffee, an unintended consequence with it's own negative environmental impact.

None of which is to say that the paper cups that get thrown out every day aren't a problem. A better way of addressing it might be to turn heaps of office waste paper into the cups people drink from. The story behind why this isn't happening much is actually pretty interesting.

If you frequent Starbucks, you might have noticed that the cups there advertise being made from 10% recycled paper. For that you can thank the company's eco-marketing. For the fact that their cups can't be higher than 10% recycled, you can thank the federal government:

Starbucks asked its suppliers to take up a new crusade: Get the FDA's approval for a beverage cup that contained recycled paper, not just on the outside, but the inside as well.

Says one of the company's executive VPs:

The new regulations that the FDA had come out with required testing to be done to really infinitesimal limits. So we not only had to test to those limits but in many cases had to develop the test protocol itself, because it hadn't been done before.

Whether or not increasing the percentage of recycled paper will prove to be cost-effective remains to be seen. What is clear is that the coffee industry is getting greener all the time quite independently of meddling city councils.

[Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

May 4, 2007

Flaws in Fair Trade

A few months ago I visited Padgett Station, a coffee shop in Carrboro, NC. Offering a wide selection of coffee, wine, beer, cigars, meats, and cheeses, it seems like the kind of place I'd love. And I did enjoy it, but the experience was marred by the store's self-righteous attitude about using Fair Trade products. One sign behind the counter, for example, says something like, "Fair or Unfair? It's that simple." No, it's not that simple.

A new paper by Jeremy Weber in the Cato Journal does a good job explaining why, presenting an interesting economic analysis of the system's flaws. For instance, how requirements that grower groups operate self-sufficiently force them to lose out on gains from trade:

Since Fair Trade eliminates “unnecessary” intermediaries, producer organizations must perform the tasks previously conducted by those intermediaries. In this arrangement, an organization must obtain financing to buy coffee from its members, sort and process coffee, and coordinate export logistics. Each of those activities generates expenses which, if not managed effectively and efficiently, can consume much of the higher Fair Trade price before it reaches growers. In some cases, organizations’ export costs have been high enough to induce member producers to sell to the local market instead of to their organization for the Fair Trade market.

There's also the predictable excess supply of eligible coffee created by setting a price floor:

Increased barriers to entry have made it increasingly difficult for marginalized producers, which Fair Trade supposedly targets, to participate. As in most industries, increasing barriers to entry benefits those already established in the market. Such is the case in the Fair Trade coffee market, which is dominated primarily by those privileged groups who entered the market in its less competitive days. The Fair Trade model based on a minimum price will inevitably produce a tension between concentrating market shares to a few groups, which leaves many out of the Fair Trade system, and distributing market shares to many groups, which results in each producer selling only a fraction of his production to the Fair Trade market.

Read the whole thing, in PDF, here.

Libertarians like to bash Fair Trade, primarily because of the stupid name that implies free trade is unfair. In truth, libertarians should embrace certification of various kinds as a free market tool consumers can use to advance their causes. That said, it's important to look beyond the stated goals of certification to its actual effects. As this paper and other critiques have shown, the Fair Trade label in particular is of limited application. At the very least, consumers shouldn't limit themselves to buying exclusively Fair Trade coffees. They'll be missing out on some great coffees from other dedicated growers.

[Via Marginal Revolution. Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]

3 Cups gets slower

And that's a good thing! If only more shops were this dedicated to quality.

3 Cups -- Doing more with less

May 3, 2007

Organic coffee update

In response to the thousands of signatures received in protest of the ruling that would have made jeopardized the certification of organic coffee and other crops, the USDA is holding off on making any changes. The rules will be up for a more thorough review in the fall.

[Hat tip to one of my new favorite blogs, Coffee and Conservation. Cross-posted on Eternal Recurrence.]


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