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Assessing and Reflecting on
Estate Coffees

By Timothy J. Castle

Estate coffee has endured a difficult journey in trying to establish itself as a strong, prevailing industry. Timothy J. Castle examines the great history of this trade, as well as the possibilities and uncertainty of the future.

While coffees from specific estates have been available for purchase by roasters for decades, the idea of marketing them as such did not get much attention until the late 1970’s. Nonetheless, a good source of coffee from single estates has often meant that roasters had coffees they could depend on yearly. Ties between roasters and farmers have existed, in fact, for over a hundred years and in some rare cases, even between hotels, restaurants and farms. Many of these relationships, however, did not survive the economic expansion and modernization of the mid 20th century. It was assumed, or at least the consumer was lead to believe, that modern methods of roasting, processing and selection would obviate the need for anything so quaint, as a coffee estate.

Yet, consumers are always drawn to a good story and they love to believe that one can taste a good story in a great cup of coffee. In the case of an estate coffee, that story has to do with the person or family responsible for growing and processing the coffee, which is then special enough to be labeled as having come from a single farm. This is the reason that people buy estate-bottled wines and are willing to pay hefty premiums for the same. There is a belief that says: well-known estates are well-known for a reason, and that if a wine is produced by the individual, whose name appears on the bottle, that wine will be better than a similarly priced wine that is not so labeled and produced. The concept of “estate coffee” then is a powerful one, and comes highly recommended from the wine industry, where it has obviously served its participants well. Until the coffee business can generate some ideas of their own, it seems that they will continue to turn to the wine industry, one way or the other. However, there have always been good reasons for not drawing attention to the farms where particular coffees come from.

Many specialty roasters have long understood that buying coffees from single farms ensured them consistently great coffee, year after year. The roasters only needed to identify those farmers and make sure that no one else comes across these farms. Of course, there was a benefit for the farmer.

Throughout the early and mid-20th century, the number of roasters looking for truly fine coffees was decreasing and once a farmer found a roaster who would pay a premium for their coffee year after year, they were not likely to shop around for their coffee. They knew they had a good thing going. Farmers were also not too anxious to tell their neighbors where they were selling their coffees. Often, the exporters to who these farmers were selling their coffee to did not make this information available in the first place.

For the roaster, then, identifying the farm, while it had its merits, did not seem like the best call from the playbook. Traditionally, specialty roasters spend a great deal of time trying to communicate to their customers the most basic facts about coffee, as well as introducing another variable that flew in the face of everything they knew about the coffee business. In view of the complexities of this simple beverage, roasters generally opt to first credit themselves with the responsibility for making their coffee taste great, and are not anxious about telling their customers, ‘Hey, this Guatemalan coffee tastes great because of the guy who grew it, not me. I’m just the person that roasted it.’ Furthermore, the coffee business, or at least those on the trading side, has been traditionally fond of secrecy, and the idea of disclosing the names of sources to one’s customers (whether they are coffee drinkers, roasters or even importers) was not the first choice of traditional exporters and traders. In parts of the world where it is still possible to keep background information confidential, it is still done so.

Further, young roasting operations (even those dedicated to roasting fine specialty coffee), have always looked forward to the day that they would outgrow the ability to sell one farm’s production as their single origin offering, no matter how large. Larger operations dedicated to fine coffees have usually not said the particular estate that they are selling to, but rather that it is simple great coffee from that region.

It also must be noted that just because a coffee is from a single estate, and even if the farmer has done everything possible to ensure that the coffee is as good as it can be, it may not be great, or worthy of selling alone. It may be highly acidic and have some nice sweetness, yet it might also be mediocre, but contributing its strengths to a blend that otherwise makes up for its weaknesses.

The Impact of Estate Coffees
Buying coffees at the farm level introduces accountability, and the assumption that this responsibility is taken up by only the farmer is false. An estate coffee is one in name only if the farmer is identified to the roaster (and consumer), but the reverse is not the case. In other words, a true estate coffee defines not only the coffee, but also a relationship. This may sound a little sentimental, but the fact is that when a coffee drinker buys coffee from a single farm, there is an implicit understanding that there exists an ongoing commitment on the part of the farmer, and the roaster to provide a great cup of coffee to the consumer cup after cup, and that every effort will be made to make that cup of coffee, if not totally consistent, then at least true to form - much in the same way that wine drinkers expect certain characteristics from certain estate bottled wines, year after year. Even if a roaster offers different estates from a particular origin from crop to crop, that roaster is wasting money if they don’t acknowledge that the farmer’s coffee possesses a certain taste profile. How that profile is interpreted is the job of the roaster, but the basic style, character and flavor have to be there, or there is nothing to interpret. In short, one of the best results of the trade in estate coffees is that it teaches both farmers and roasters to work more closely together in their effort to deliver a better cup of coffee to the consumer.

Lately, the initial interest in estate coffees and the estate coffee model has led many roasters to divide things even more finely. The owners of large estates have understood that certain parts of their farm produce better coffee than other areas, and they would often pick and choose which of their customers received lots of their coffee. Today, specialty roasters are asking to select from several lots of coffee of the same farm. Twenty years ago , however, these lots would have been thought to be identical (except by those who were let in on the secret). Additionally, roasters are asking co-ops to show them and allow them to cup the individual lots of coffee that were delivered to the co-op by each farmer. This phenomenon has led to hard feelings amongst some roasters, because if one roaster has the opportunity to pick and choose the best lots of coffee, it obviously means that other customers of that co-op will get lower quality deliveries.

At the same time, the effort to analyze the coffees going into co-op, in the areas where this has been tried, encouraged individual farms to try to learn more about what to look for, and also what they can do to fetch the premiums that can be earned for each lot. The Cup Of Excellence (COE) auctions have also created a great deal of excitement in farming communities by encouraging farmers to go all out in producing the best coffee they possibly can. Often, in the past, such farmers might have elected to coast with the rest of their co-op members. This means that the overall quality of a co-op’s production has a chance of improving when farmers are trying to produce better coffee, even if it is for their own personal glory and profit. It is not purely a case of a rising tide lifting all boats, but perhaps one of an improved fleet being able to sail at a slightly faster, average speed.

Not a Silver Bullet
Buying estate coffees, whether they are identified to the coffee drinker or not, does not guarantee that they will be consistent and of the highest possible quality. Although the term “estate coffee” implies a relationship between buyer and seller, it does not guarantee that such a relationship will go smoothly. Some buyers may enter into a transaction with a single farm on a purely opportunistic basis with no intention of buying the coffee regularly or calling out that coffee’s special characteristics. Farmers, on the other hand, may pretend that they want to produce great coffee year in and year out, but be more concerned with short term profits than with investing in the reputation of their coffee and farm. Other farmers may want to develop a great name for their farm’s coffee, only to fail - despite all their best efforts - due to their micro-climate, elevation, soil or a simple lack of managerial talent. Just because an estate coffee exists does not mean that it should be sold as such.

The Future of Estate Coffees
It used to be that to produce an estate coffee, you had to produce several containers worth of coffee a year. Even one lot a year was not sufficient to interest exporters and importers, much less roasters, in buying your coffee as a unique coffee worthy of selling unblended. If you could not produce at least one thousand bags or more, then you’d have a hard time getting anyone to think of your coffee as a worthy option. As was implied to earlier, roasters are offering microlots, some of which are very large companies. These lots are not intended to appeal to everyone, but to those that are searching for something truly special and are willing to pay. Some roasters use the opportunity to sell microlots in another way. However, they can get into the business of selling estate coffees and benefit from the halo effect of that distinction while, ironically, making a minimal investment in it. Whether these lots are obtained through a COE auction or by working with co-ops to separate the best lots, the phenomenon of small lots selling at big premiums has enlivened many small farmers to the possibility that they can get more money for their coffee by improving its quality.

There will always be the “first growths” when it comes to estate coffees, the larger, professionally managed farms producing impeccable coffees year in and year out, but there will also be a few smaller farmers, working very hard to produce a few bags of something very special.

The idea of estate coffees may even eventually become outmoded, as the arbitrary property lines that define an estate become less relevant and the microclimates, soils and farming methods that deliver the best, most distinctive cup of coffee possible are identified. This is not to say that such separations lead to better coffees, so much as they might lead to more interesting and unique coffees. Such a sensibility already exists in parts of the wine business, as well as where vintners are bottling the production from specific ‘blocks’ of land, since they believe that each of these blocks produces wine that is distinctive enough to stand on its own. Perhaps, some day, the coffee trade will have a thing or two to teach the wine business, however small that possibility might seem today.

About the Author: Timothy J. Castle is a past president of the SCAA. He is currently the head of Castle Communications, which specializes in marketing and publicity for the coffee and tea industries. He is a regular writer for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal.

Tea & Coffee - March/April, 2006


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