🏆 Qualities of Quality Coffee 🏆

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This week: a question from my pal Saab in Finland! He was way back in the archive reading about green buying and ended up at the very informative “Problems with Firm-Led Voluntary Sustainability Schemes”. His question: “after reading through so many terminologies, I am now super confused about the very basics, like ‘quality coffee’. This concept of ‘quality’ is so muddled after reading through so many details.” So, what is ‘quality ‘coffee?

Brief background: the article outlines how the self-governing nature of ‘direct trade’ means anyone can adopt it, sticker a bag with it, or build a campaign around it. Without a administrative body to oversees its usage, the term lacks clear and concise ethical guidelines. Accordingly, its meaning is hazy and vague.

Saab linked this passage, which highlights how slippery all our coffee language can be: “The founders of direct trade schemes prefer high-quality coffee over ethically produced certified coffee of lesser quality, which demonstrates that sustainability is not the primary driver of direct trade”. The authors are arguing that often in ‘specialty’ coffee, ‘quality coffee’ is more appealing than those with certifications like ‘fair trade’, ‘organic’ or ‘rain-forest alliance’. Saab’s confusion is very understandable as all these different terms muddy the water with divergent aims or criteriafor inclusion and exclusion. It becomes a question of who is making the classification, for whom and why? 

In one camp, we have categories and phrasing that reflect a coffee’s green score. The most familiar of which is likely ‘specialty’. The great Erna Knutsen first coined the term in a late-70s speech, arguing that certain small microclimates produce coffee that require an elevated status, treatment, and price point. Today, licensed cuppers will evaluate green for defects and determine a score, with those over 80-points receiving the ‘specialty’ designation. The coffees below the 80-point mark fall into groups based around other criteria, like bean size or growing altitude or total defects, and these coffees bottom out in c-market/commodity pricing. This has been covered in past dispatches, but I will relentlessly isolate the c-market as an apparatus for exploitation. It is the trading-market value that farmers must contend with for per-pound pricing; it currently sits at $0.97, which is well below the cited “price threshold for producer profitability” of $2.50. 

When we use these green score terms, we adopt the language of importers. Hence, “ninety-plus” or “cup of excellence” or “auction coffee”. To loop back to Saab’s question, the term ‘quality’ in the article falls in here, as it is isolating or referencing quantifiable degrees of excellence.  The author’s driving argument is that most modern roasters pursue sensory-based value over context-based designations like Fair-Trade or Organic; hence direct trade typically seek attributes in the cups over ethics in production. 

And thus we arrive at the other camp: third-party bodies who will certify coffee for a number of traits beyond green score. You have likely heard of several: Fair Trade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Bird-Friendly and Shade-Grown. Not to shade-throw here but the authors of that article do put a great deal of faith in these designations and – while they are all valuable in a plethora of ways – they are third-party designations meaningthey cost producers income. If you think of scale you must have certain amount of capital to invest and some do little to ensure living wages. If you buy a bag today that has both Fair-Trade and Organic badges, the farmers could be receiving as little as $1.70 per pound, which is stillsignificantly beneath the threshold for farmers to make a living. 

To regroup: you can generally clump together the varied jargon of coffee into two groups. In the first, the lexicon of green buyers and importers. In the second, corporations and associations who certify a specific element of environmental, economic or agricultural quality. The odd thing for me is that very few of these operate to tell a cafe customer or home brewer much about the holistic qualities of the chain. I frequently evoke the term ‘value proposition’ to explain ‘what we do’. We are trying to get people to pay more for coffee, so that farmers can get compensated for their immense labour and institutional knowledge; so that roasters and baristas can make a living; and so that we can move beyond a long history of exploitation. One of the very few terms that focuses on the mugs and cups end is ‘third-wave’ and its far from friendly or intuitive.

It is easy to see how certifications, like organic or rain-forest alliance, operate as attempts to bridge this gap to the home-brewer but the problem is they simultaneously isolate a limited aspect of elements (such as environmental benchmarks) and univeralize the aspects of origin (badges are global). To insert my typically polemic argument into a simple question: our extensive vocabulary has little actual room for famers. As much as a super expensive ‘ninety plus’ auction lot coffee might seem like a boon, the money often goes to importers and brokers by virtue of the auction process. Fair trade andorganic! What could go wrong? Well, a near dollar deficit between loss and just breaking even. It is like the styrofoam tray of the grocery store meat department: an erasure of actual conditions and assurance that everything is a-ok.

So what words to choose in making the value proposition? I would argue we let the farmers speak for themselves. Amplify their voices. Make the roast profiles, bags, and cups about them. The language of importers is always transactional and purposely minimizes labour. The terminology of third party certification says little about actual place by virtue of being universal stamps. Forget waves, let’s find out about the actual origin through the words of those who live there because that sounds like the route to real ‘quality’ cups. 


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila