Through centuries, since the early rise in the popularity of coffee, the meaning of quality for this famous beverage has evolved through many stages. One can imagine that in Islamic times, the meaning of quality coffee might have meant roasted beans, ground and brewed with spices, and that in colonial times, quality may have meant simply that the beverage was served. Through most of the 1900’s consumers learned to drink ground coffee from a red or blue can. But with the advent of the specialty coffee market in the 1980’s, the definition of quality grew to include new origins and flavor profiles. Now, as we enter the 21st Century, consumers are demanding a more compassionate kind of quality, in conjunction with the great tasting specialty beverage they have come to appreciate.
In diverse industries and companies around the world, a new definition of quality is emerging - that of total quality - encompassing intangible elements that have value to the consumer over the long run, namely in terms of quality of life for all. The Wall Street Journal reported in December that “many companies have experienced significant financial gains from paying attention to issues such as the environment and human rights.” Mutual funds that focus on socially responsible investing have also grown over the past few years. There is an unmistakable growing consciousness of corporate responsibility.
As we begin the new millennium, the specialty coffee industry finds itself at a crossroads: looking for a meaning for quality that encompasses and supports all sectors of the industry and secures a path to continued success for the industry. An evolution toward total quality might just be the answer. More and more companies are turning to aspects of total quality as an expression of their commitment to corporate responsibility, and reaping the benefits of the growing consumer demand.
Demand for Quality
A complex web of issues faces the specialty industry today - every sector is confronting challenges. Growers are looking for the right combination of techniques to produce a better quality in the face of rising costs, unstable prices and precious environment and resources. Importers are struggling to manage price volatility as they secure unique coffees and provide service of value. Roasters and retailers continue to search for ways to differentiate themselves from among strong competition, and wholesalers find that there is an ever-increasing demand for quality at a competitive price.
|Coffee drying screens, Finca Lerida, Boquete, Panama
While overall world supply of coffee is generally increasing, the available quantity of quality coffee is not keeping pace with the growing demand for quality. To the roaster, it seems as though it is getting increasingly harder to find really great coffees, in part because the existing supply is spread more thinly among the roasters serving the growing demand for them.
Overall, farmers are delivering better quality. Since the mid-1980’s, there has been a growing access to more sophisticated sorting equipment, and a better understanding of quality control management. However, the definition of quality in this sense, as applied by the grower, is often not the same as the definition for the specialty buyer. Quality to the grower often means no defects as classified by comparing a specific lot to the SCAA green qualifications. While this is of course a significant improvement from the days when fermented lots and black beans were common - it is not this quality which specialty coffee buyers seek at the cupping table.
As Jim Reynolds, coffee buyer for Peet’s Coffee and Tea in Emeryville, California, attests, “There has been a dilution in quality from just about every origin” having to do with the “tendency to increase production for more turnover. While samples we receive are clean and look nice, they don’t necessarily have the unique taste profile that we demand for Peet’s customers.”
The Cost of Quality
As with any product, real quality has its cost. Growers struggle with how to best produce quality in the face of rising costs and a volatile market. The inherent price volatility in the market makes it difficult for farmers to plan for the long term and invest in harvesting and processing improvements that contribute to a better quality product. Such investments are often too risky for a farmer to make when there is no guarantee of a future return. And too often “many farmers get discouraged that the price premiums do not compensate for the extra efforts involved in producing better quality,” as Panamanian grower Price Peterson points out. “It is harder to produce coffee at high altitude - there is a longer wait to production at a higher cost to produce great
Bob Fulmer of Royal Coffee in Emeryville, California states, “The sufficient quantity of coffee keeps the “C” market artificially low, and has created a secondary market defined by differentials. This becomes confusing to roasters who try to figure out why some coffees are priced at +60, and others at +14.”
Without proper incentives for quality, it is unlikely that the industry will see significant increases in the supply of quality in the upcoming years. “Farmers don’t see the opportunity presented by the industry for producing an excellent quality and, in general, the roasting industry is not encouraging premiums - this is the conundrum in which the industry finds itself,” says Jeremy Woods of Atlantic USA. “While there is sufficient quantity of quality coffee available on trees, many times the selection and processing required to produce excellent coffees is lacking - often because price premiums do not add up.”
True specialty coffee buyers agree that traditional farming styles produce the best quality - old varietals grown under shade canopy, using traditional hand-picking and husbandry. It is the labor intensive care, harvesting and processing methods that require price stability and a premium for quality that compensates for the investment made in order to survive in the long run.