Last month, Amsterdam’s Bocca Coffee Roasters hosted Europe’s first The Coffeewoman event. Roasters, buyers, educators, business owners and baristas gathered for a series of candid and sometimes challenging discussions about ways in we might all break from the status quo for the betterment of an industry in which men typically hold the positions of power.
“The event was about taking a break from topics that are talked about on a day-to-day basis — like quality, roasting, profiling — and instead focusing on social issues that are happening in the coffee industry,” explained Sara Morrocchi, one of the event’s organizers.
Inspired by The Coffeewoman movement in the United States, which aims to “support, encourage, and inspire” women in the coffee industry, Morrocchi, Cerianne Bury, and Karina Hof decided to bring the concept to Europe.
“The idea started on a rainy day at Bakers & Roasters, where we found ourselves venting about the politically charged moment that we live in, like Trump elections, Brexit and some very disappointing political referendums that were happening in Italy. And the common thread of all these events was the sense of exclusion,” said Morrocchi. “When we look at our industry, we often pat ourselves on the back for working in a liberal and progressive environment. Yet when you scratch beneath the surface, there are issues that we struggle with — issues like gender, race relations and social injustice.”
Keynote speaker and renowned ambassador to coffee producers Aida Batlle kicked off the event, sharing the story of her her beginnings in coffee farming before eventually becoming the first woman to win at the Cup of Excellence coffee quality competition in 2003. Battle is a fifth-generation coffee producer and today operates four farms (Finca Tanzania, Finca Los Alpes, Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Mauritania) in El Salvador’s Santa Ana region.
In her keynote, Battle discussed the importance of developing respect-based connections between the people on opposite ends of the supply chain — producers and baristas. “Sometimes for a coffee producer it can be quite heart-breaking because we put all this work into it but then it’s out of our hands,” she said. “It then depends on the miller, exporter, importer, roaster and finally the barista. That’s when it hit me, when I was watching the baristas behind the counter, they are the ones that represent us at the end; and if the barista pours a bad shot, we are all screwed.”
Following Aida, Colleen Anunu and Melanie Landthaler led the discussion on gender equity and coffee supply chain development.
A longtime green buyer for New York’s Gimme! Coffee, Anunu is on the board of directors for the Specialty Coffee Association and works to support producer empowerment and advance sustainable trade on behalf of Fair Trade USA. After a quick recap of Gender Theory 101, Anunu discussed gender disparity in many households at origin, where men typically own the land and have title ownership, while overseeing all the household finances. Women, on the other hand, generally do the hidden labor, which is called non-productive, as it doesn’t make money.
Prior to becoming a freelance consultant for clients like Nestlé Nespresso, Landthaler worked as a sustainability manager for a green coffee merchant Ecom Trading in Indonesia. Her team was responsible for building the company’s arabica supply chains with an emphasis on productivity and quality, as well as working toward improving the livelihoods of more than 6,000 smallholder farmers.
After conducting a gender analysis with the IFC World Bank, her team found that 13 of the 15 predominant coffee production tasks (e. g. pruning, weeding, harvesting, pulping, drying) at farms visited in North Sumatra, women were doing majority of the hard labor, yet men were receiving essentially all the training in agricultural practices.
“The problem is everywhere. In the U.K people say, ‘he the producer,’ ‘he the farmer,’ ‘his farm,’” Landthaler said. “It’s so embedded in our thinking that we don’t even realize.”
Landthaler urged coffee buyers such as roasters or importers — or anyone attempting to forge direct relationships with coffee producers — to dig deeper into their own supply chains; to be more involved in tearing down barriers to training access, especially among women; and to better understand the flow of money once coffee is purchased.
“You can’t be neutral on this,” Landthaler said. “Any owner that has something to do with coffee can’t say ‘I don’t touch this because it’s too complicated.’ If you keep buying coffee and you don’t address the issue then you are continuing the status quo.”
Cultural anthropologist and Q Grader Lisanne Oonk moderated the event’s final seminar, where panelists discussed a range of issues such as rooted gender norms, victimization, prejudices, and motherhood.
Oonk posed the first question of what it’s like to be a woman in the coffee industry in The Netherlands to celebrated barista competitor and longtime coffee industry consultant Rose van Asten.
“I started my own training consulting business; I bring in the money, and my husband takes care of the kids,” van Asten said, adding that while there may not have been moments of overt sexism that have impeded her career, there have existed throughout it some “small things that creep into the cracks that you ignore because you are so used to them.”
One of van Asten’s notable experiences was at the 2006 World Barista Championships, where she placed 8th. “I had good points for customer professionalism, but the head judge made all the judges score me down half a point because I hadn’t smiled enough,” van Asten said. “If those points weren’t taken away, I would have been in the final.”
Manhattan Coffee Roasters Co-Founder and 2017 Dutch Cup Tasters Champion Esther Maasdam also shared opinions related to coffee competitions, beginning with a basic discrepancy in participation.
“What I see a lot of the time is that males just dive in,” Maasdam said. “They’ve been a barista for a year, and they say, ‘Yeah I’m going to do it’. But females tend to say, ‘I need to learn more; I need to be better before I get on that stage.’”
Maasdam further suggested that more males competing translates to deeper support networks for male competitors, a phenomenon that perpetuates itself from year to year as competitors gain more connections, skills and confidence.
According to Paula Koelemij, manager of category management and sourcing for Simon Lévelt, there is also a problem of denial in The Netherlands that extends well beyond the competition ring and into day-to-day business throughout the coffee industry.
“Even if companies see gender injustice there is still no awareness to change this,” Koelemij said. “Women also don’t like to see themselves as victims… We need to stop this, and women who are in the industry need to use their positions to make steps ahead.”
Inge Bulthuis, co-owner of Amsterdam café/roastery Back to Black, said that prior to entering the industry she wasn’t aware of gender issues, but that changed quickly as she became a woman roaster in Amsterdam, a city dominated by male roasters.
“I started to notice that it’s a man-run business,” Bulthuis said. “People are often surprised to see a woman, and they tend to ask, ‘Why are you actually doing this?’” To that, Bulthuis said she typically answers, “I like coffee.”
The night ended on a high note with Anouk Rodenburg and Marieke Scholten winning the sensory challenge and espresso preparation competition that was aimed at women, transgender women, gender-queer and non-gender-conforming folks. “The idea was to target the population that usually feels excluded from the traditional coffee competitions,” said Morrocchi. “And seeing the winning couple getting a little emotional was remarkable. It means that creating that space was important. I hope we can do more.”
(note: This story has been updated to clarify statements attributed to Melanie Landthaler regarding gender analysis work in North Sumatra.)
Anastasia Prikhodko is a freelance journalist currently based in Amsterdam. She writes a lot about coffee, as well as travel, social issues, agriculture, gender, and the hospitality industry. Previously, Anastasia was based in Sydney and worked for two B2B magazines.