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Sustaining a Quality Cup
By Abigail Levene

Coffee certification programs demand rigor in farming and handling. Does this improve coffee quality?

It is common knowledge that sustainable coffee production is kinder to the environment and better for farm workers. But is it better for the coffee? Producers, roasters and consumers are now learning that the rigor demanded by certification programs also translates into higher-quality coffee.

Certification-inspired improvements such as smarter chemical use and irrigation, better washing and drying, or enhanced living conditions for farm workers, have a clear impact on cup quality, according to Christian Wolthers, c.e.o. of Blaser & Wolthers Specialty Coffee Trading Co. in Florida and former president of the SCAA.

“I’m a coffee buyer and I’ve noticed much better coffees coming out of these communities than before, as well as better commercial skills,” he says.

Transparency and Traceability
Bill Mohrweis, vice-president of coffee at Seattle-based Java Trading Company, believes the improved flow of information and knowledge generated by coffee certification programs really boosts quality.

“Our business model is built around better quality coffee. For us, having a consistent quality product is a must,” he says.

“The more information everyone in the cycle gets, the more transparency and openness there is, the better-educated the decisions that get made. Traceability of the bean throughout the system is especially important: as a roaster we want to be able to trace all our coffees back to our source of supply.”

What is more, making the production process more professional means coffee farmers can separate out their coffee qualities. By separating qualities, producers gain access to multiple markets, from the specialty buyers to the makers of mainstream blends. And they get a better price for each quality, explains Wolthers.

He describes a “coffee triangle,” which has specialty coffees at its peak, above premium grade, then top commercial coffees, lower-screen tenderable coffees, low-grade and finally, at the baseline of the triangle, triage. “A producer who is skilled will probably extract the same kind of volumes in the same number of quality categories as you find in the coffee triangle,” Wolthers says. “If he’s a beginner, he’ll be mostly in the baseline. As he improves, he starts going up the triangle and he discovers that prices on his lots are better than the price he got before.”

Exchanging Experiences
Java Trading Company participates in several certification programs, one of which is global coffee certification scheme Utz Kapeh. Utz Kapeh requires farmers to comply with a strict code of conduct covering the internationally recognized elements of social and environmental responsibility, including fertilizer and chemical management, worker training, housing, healthcare and schooling.

“We do lots of programs, but Utz Kapeh fits in with our business model probably better than everything else,” says Java’s Mohrweis.

“Farmers in the Utz Kapeh program get more information on, and exposure to, better practices they can implement on their farms. Traceability and record keeping mean for instance that records are kept of how long the coffee has been in fermentation tanks or in dryers. And farmers are exposed to people with a lot of experience in cupping coffee,” he explains.

“Besides helping farms become more cost efficient, I’ve seen a real teaching and sharing of information that I believe also helps improve cup quality.”

Mohrweis says many of Java’s direct relationships with farmers have been developed through Utz Kapeh. He has visited several Utz Kapeh-certified farms, such as Ipanema and Santa Cruz in Brazil. “To be able to work with these people, to cup with them and show them the quality of coffee we’re looking for - being able to have that connection goes a long way.”

Worldwide Trend
David Rosenberg, executive director of Utz Kapeh, sees plenty of room for quality improvements in growing, harvesting and drying. “There is no shortage of quality initiatives. What is unique about our program is the link between the farmer’s efforts and a buyer looking for a broader definition of quality,” he says.

Utz Kapeh is seeing quality improve in coffee farming around the world. “We are seeing it even in areas such as Vietnam and Uganda, which produce Robusta coffees considered lower quality. Utz Kapeh-certified farms are spread across the world, and we are witnessing this trend everywhere,” says Rosenberg.

“Utz Kapeh combines a quality program with price transparency, and that’s a powerful driver for producers,” says Wolthers, who is also chairman of the board of Utz Kapeh. “Farmers see not only the production benefits of better farming practices, but the business opportunity as well - they know there’s a market for their product.”

Quality Assurance
The market for certified coffee is growing fast as the definition of quality expands to embrace not just taste but also responsible production.

In Colombia, Utz Kapeh-certified farms have found that giving temporary workers better housing and cooking facilities has boosted morale and working behavior. Five percent of cherries were previously picked green and unripe. “With a better feeling of belonging among workers, this has been reduced to 2 percent,” says Francisco Bustamante, technical manager at Hacienda Venecia, the first Utz Kapeh-certified farm in Colombia.

Just as importantly, a much higher number of seasonal workers is coming back to work each harvest, meaning that farms are seeing a greater return on investments in training.

In Uganda, where Utz Kapeh participation has taught small-scale farmers to dry their coffee correctly on tarpaulins, losses due to mold on dried cherries have decreased and so too has the number of defective coffee lots that have to be discarded. “Farmers are producing higher quality coffee and reducing risks along the way,” says Andrew Falconer, director of exporter, Kawacom, in Uganda.

In Tanzania, where Utz Kapeh farms have introduced a managed irrigation program, beans have become bigger because they are receiving more water and nutrients.

Last year, Utz Kapeh-certified producers scooped a host of cup quality prizes. Coopro Naranjo and Coope Palmares, both members of Costa Rica cooperative alliance Suscof, were the Gold and Silver Cup winners in the Sintercafe Cupping Contest organized by the Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica. “The implementation of Utz Kapeh at these cooperatives contributed to a better understanding of the importance of bringing together the grower and the roaster for a common goal: quality,” says Henry Chacón, general manager of Suscof.

At Brazil’s Cup Quality Contest of Cerrado, 18 international judges, including representatives from the U.S. and Japan, gave high marks to Utz Kapeh producers. Among the top 10 of the Pulped Naturals, six winning samples came from Utz Kapeh-certified farms.

In the first annual Ecafe Gold Cooperative Coffee Competition of Ethiopia, an international jury awarded Utz-certified Bokaso Cooperative a quality prize in the category “Sidamo washed.” And a Bolivian producer, member of the Agricabv group, currently working on its Utz Kapeh certification, came first in that country’s Cup of Excellence contest.

Market Awareness
Consumers expect roasters to be able to assure them their coffee is produced responsibly. Buying from Utz Kapeh-certified producers means brands can credibly answer two key questions: where does my coffee come from and how was it produced?

Transparency is a key element of the Utz Kapeh scheme. It has a unique web-based “track and trace” system, which monitors the certified coffee from bean to cup, making the product traceable throughout the coffee chain.

Utz Kapeh is a market-driven opportunity model: certified producers get access to market information and buyers and sellers negotiate the prices to be paid for Utz Kapeh-certified coffee. Producers are not guaranteed a minimum price. However, assured of the producers’ responsible credentials, roasters and traders pay a modest premium for the coffee - rewarding farmers with a better price for a better product.

By coming into direct contact with the market, farmers become acutely aware of how quality affects price, says Wolthers. “Under the Utz program, the market becomes aware of the farmer’s existence and he can see who are the buyers associated with Utz on the other side. He asks himself ‘What is my coffee worth?’ and the answer is: ‘What’s the quality like?’”

“He has to start evaluating quality, and when he starts doing that, he quickly realizes quality will reflect his skills through the agricultural process and that the code of conduct gives him a series of advantages and new tools not only to know what to do but also how to do it.”

Tea & Coffee - April/May, 2006

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