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Ethical Soluble Coffee

By Dr. Terry Mabbett

Manufacture and marketing of “ethical” coffee is a well-used way of shoring up the stagnating UK soluble market by making consumers feel better about drinking coffee. Soluble sales are stagnant because they have nowhere to go but down from a pre-eminent position that still swallows up 70-80% of supermarket coffee sales.

Ethical when applied to coffee is just like sustainable, another of those in vogue words meaning all things to all men. Bottom line for any ethical coffee is a premium paid to growers for their green coffee over and above the prevailing market price, guided and governed by the principles of fair trading. This is the premise upon which the Fair Trade standard and certification developed to provide a benchmark for all else in the ‘ethical’ coffee arena.

But fair is highly subjective and relative term. Mediocre instant coffee granules can retail in the UK at US$6.00 per 100g jar and a cup of washed-out instant coffee in a “greasy spoon” (native English café or diner) costs US$1.65. At those prices it is difficult in all sincerity to describe any current price paid to farmers for green coffee as fair. Only guarantee is that coffee farming families and communities working within the ethical coffee arena receive a premium over and above that paid to other growers left at the mercy of straight, unadulterated coffee trading.

Be that as it may, ethical coffee now embraces a whole range of price, community support and environmental protection incentives for farmers, their families and communities. Consumers acknowledge and appreciate farmer benefits and preferentially buy ethical brands of soluble coffee.

All sorts of combinations and computations are possible but generally speaking there are four core incentives currently used by manufacturers to embrace soluble coffee under an ethical umbrella:

  • Price premiums paid to growers for their green coffee over and above market prices
  • Support for farmers, their families and the coffee farming community through development projects embracing health, education and infrastructure development
  • Encouraging growers to produce green coffee under sustainable and environmentally friendly conditions
  • Ensuring coffee is grown and produced in accordance with accredited organic certification authorities
These are front-line incentives for farmers’ producing green coffee. However, provided they are presented in the right way on the coffee jar label, within websites and in media advertising they become incentives for consumers to purchase particular products.

That said, pure ethical considerations rarely enter the equation. The whole “raison d’etre” for ethically-profiled soluble coffee is to support specific business models that will automatically provide farmers with a better deal than they would otherwise get. But if consumers remain unconvinced and fail to buy ethical then the business model and framework on which the whole concept of ethical coffee is built begins to fall apart.

Blatant Or Subtle Ethical Profiling
Reading labels on jars of ethically-inspired instant coffee shows clearly how various products are marketed in different ways with regard to ethical credentials. At one end it is blatant, with the product’s ethical profile right up front, in your face and sometimes the only incentive offered by manufacturer or private label producer for consumers to buy the coffee. At the other extreme is the subtle sell, where ethical credentials are almost incidental to other considerations like visual nature of the formulation and taste and aroma, the traditionally used features for successful marketing of mainstream soluble coffee.

The right way forward clearly depends on whether sufficiently large numbers of consumers are prepared to buy ethical soluble coffee on that basis alone even if quality is not good. This is something I am not convinced on. Other practical consideration is whether the manufacturer has anything else of value to say about the coffee. If the coffee is of poor quality either visually or organoleptically then imploring consumers to buy the product to help poor Third World coffee farmers is the last refuge of rogues and vagabonds and in the long run doing such poor communities more harm than good.

Products which rely solely on pricking the conscience of coffee consumers with no attempt to “prick” their taste buds are few and far between. Ironically one of the very few I have come across has no reason to be so retiring and reticent about quality. Good African Freeze Dried Instant Coffee, described in a previous article (Around the world with single origin soluble coffees - Tea & Coffee, May 2009) appears to use pure Bugisu Arabica green coffee from a restricted area of Western Uganda and is therefore something special in soluble coffee.

However, the label says little if anything about quality, taste and aroma (all good), instead relying on consumers feeling sorry for poor African coffee farmers. “Africa needs trade not aid to fight poverty,” says the label adding how 50% of profits are invested in growers and their communities. Consumers wanting some idea about the organoleptic profile of the coffee they are drinking will find few words on the label.

As it happens Good African Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee is very good but how many consumers are put off because the producer does not sing out its taste notes - a high proportion I suspect. Fact that it has already disappeared from my local superstore shelf appears to tell its own story. I don’t suppose infrastructural development of African coffee growing communities comes particularly high on the list of priorities for supermarket chains and if they can’t sell a product then they won’t stock it.

The Kenco approach could not be more different. Every single origin soluble in Kenco’s Pure range, including Brazilian, Colombian, Costa Rican and Peruvian, is individually described organoleptically in a no-nonsense approach and with a high degree of accuracy (see Around the world with single origin soluble coffees - Tea & Coffee, May 2009). But on the back of the jar in small print the label says in a “by the way” manner; “All products in Kenco’s Pure range are ethically sourced from Rainforest Alliance certified farms.”

And does it matter what the granules look like if main selling point is help to coffee growers? That is a vexed question, more complicated than it first seems and perhaps one that could be best answered by FFI (Fair Brands) with their experience of Fair Trade Certified coffee, including two instants that look completely different in color and shape of the granules.

FFI Fair Instant Gold is a freeze dried granular comprising hard, compact and geometric-shaped light-brown granules typical of contemporary freeze-dried soluble coffee products. FFI Fair Instant is a much darker product comprising more amorphous, looser and crumbly granules which break up to leave areas in the jar more resembling coffee powder. The label does not say how the granules are produced but all indications are these are spray-dried and agglomerated.

Both these FFI instants are among the fairest priced of Fair Trade Certified coffees on supermarket shelves in Britain. They retail for between $2.60 and $2.75 per 100 g jar the small price difference indicating that both producer and retailer afford equal value to each, though one is freeze-dried and the other apparently spray-dried and agglomerated.

Answer could lie in the different visual tastes of UK consumers by age group and previous experiences with soluble coffee. Older consumers (50+) would have grown up with spray dried powder and agglomerated granule products and for many in this age group this is how coffee should look in the jar. Indeed some of today’s best sellers in the mainstream UK soluble coffee market are what multi-nationals describe and market as original, with how coffee granules look in color and shape as important as ‘original’ taste.

Dual Profiles
Fair Trade remains the ethical standard and certification most widely used by soluble manufacturers and private label producers and correspondingly the most easily, widely and immediately recognized by consumers in the UK.

Percol (trade name of Food Brands Group Ltd) proudly displays the Fair Trade Mark on their jars of soluble coffee. “Percol Fair Trade Freeze Dried Instant Coffee is made from finest Arabica beans,” says the label. Fair Trade Certification is clearly central to the Percol brand although its range of soluble coffees is cleverly marketed, each product assigned characteristics and qualities that receive at least as much prominence as Fair Trade credentials.

Classic example is Percol’s Fair Trade Americano Arabica Coffee, which gives UK soluble coffee drinkers “an adventure in New York City.” “Americano coffee,” says the label, “whether served black or regular is at the heart of the New York rush. “New Yorkers,” it says, “demand more from their coffee, so think long and smooth. In fact if you start drinking it at Prince and Broadway you’ll probably just have finished it by 59th and 5th and be raring to go sightseeing and shopping.”

Clearly mundane reading for New Yorkers but all good stuff for selling soluble in a London supermarket on a wet Monday morning, especially when you are giving poor coffee farmers pick-me-up at the same time. Americano coffee is well known amongst serious UK coffee drinkers as a mainstream offering in coffee shop chains like Starbucks, Costa and Nero. That said this Latin sounding name still has the capacity to confuse your average coffee drinking Brit who is more likely to think of Mexico than Manhattan.

Even Percol’s Fair Trade African Arabica Instant Coffee Blend, which you might expect to play overly on its ethical dimension claims some pretty powerful properties when it comes to tasting notes. “Excellent fragrant aroma with hints of cinnamon and orange, soft acidity with a delicate flavor of lightly roasted hazelnuts,” says the label. That apart there has an additional ethical dimension where every pack sold raises money for the charity Children in Africa (Registered Charity). Percol clearly sees this as an important selling point. In addition to appearing on the main label there is a separate Children in Africa paper sticker, which you can’t miss since it breaks when you first unscrew the lid.

Percol’s Fair Trade Americano Arabica Coffee has its own ethical extra by contributing to Coffee Kids charity. Also strong on supplementary social responsibility is FFI with their Fair Instant Fair Trade Granules sourced from Colombian coffee. FFI additionally also boasts a unique partnership with Save the Children (Registered Charity) aiming to help over 10,000 children within the Colombian coffee belt get an education. About 12.5% of the retail pack price goes to Save the Children.

Picture Portraits and Story Tellers
Illustrated story telling on the coffee label is an increasingly popular marketing ploy. Percol’s stories are essentially geographical (Adventures in New York for Americano and Adventures in Africa for its African Blend) while others adopt more people orientated and personalised profiles by highlighting individual coffee growers and their families.

A classic and cleverly told story complete with pictures and portraits is by FFI and featuring Jose Urley Florez a 40-year old Colombian coffee farmer one of 1,000 farmers who form part of a cooperative. “Jose has always made a living out of growing coffee,” says the label, “but it wasn’t until recently that he has been able to purchase and raise farm animals that provide him with the basic food and natural fertilizer he needs to continue growing organic coffee.” It allows the consumer to empathize with an actual human story which in this case appears to have an additional organic-environmental angle.

On closer examination the organic angle appears to be a bit of a red herring because there is no mention of organic coffee or organic certification on the label. On this basis sceptics could well argue that this farmer’s coffee production is not relevant to the contents of the jar because organically grown coffee is sold at premium and as such would go into a pure dedicated organic product.

Apparently more appropriate is the story (with portrait) of Lucia Perez Cruz an organic coffee grower at Union Majomut, Mexico and appearing on a Cafédirect label. “Growing great organic coffee takes care and attention. Cafédirect has made this possible for us. I hope you like it [Cafédirect Classics Organic Roast Decaffeinated],” says Lucia. Cafedirect’s approach is more about using farmers to tell consumers why the coffee good rather than how much better off farmers are. Coffee grower Mamukobe Jackson from Gumutindo, Uganda who appears on the label of Cafédirect Classics Medium Roast Instant Coffee says: “Good shade for plants fertile soil and a fair price from Cafédirect all go to make this coffee the best. Enjoy it”

Tesco which is UK’s largest supermarket chain with one of the biggest ranges of private label soluble coffee products frequently uses pictures of coffee growers on the label of its Fair Trade Instant Freeze Dried Coffee but says in black and white: “Any photograph used on this pack is simply representational and does not depict actual Fair Trade farms or farmers that supplied this product.”

Organic Certification
The range of organic certification authorities used by soluble coffee producers offers an interesting insight into the truly global nature of soluble coffee manufacture and marketing, including bulk shipment, packing, re-export and retail. UK consumers most easily recognize and identify with the Soil Association their own home grown organic certification authority for agricultural and horticultural produce including coffee.

As such virtually all organic soluble coffee sold in the UK including Cafédirect, Clipper and big supermarket brands like Tesco proudly carry the Soil Association - Organic Standard Mark on the front of the jar. That apart, further investigation reveals that actual certifying authority is often outside of the UK and reflects where the soluble coffee granules were manufactured and/or packed.

Clipper Organic Freeze-Dried Arabica Coffee (a product of more than one country), Tesco Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee and M&S (Marks & Spencer) Papua New Guinea Freeze-Dried Instant Coffee (organic and Fair Trade) are all packed for the respective producer in Germany, and as such are certified to DE-024-Öko-Kontrollstelle in Germany. Similarly, Café Direct Classics Organic Roast Decaffeinated has CAECyl: ES-CL-AE (Communidad de Castilla y Leon, Consejo de Agricultura Ecologica) Certification. There is no indication on the label as to where the product was manufactured and/or packed but an inspired guess would be Spain the third biggest European hub for soluble coffee manufacture and packing after Germany and the UK.

The Organic Enigma
They say too much knowledge is a dangerous thing and this rings true for organic coffee and its terminology which could cause confusion and conundrum for those of a pure science background. The term organic in physical science parlance means carbon chemistry. In the broadest context this clearly includes caffeine and the hundreds of different flavor and aroma compounds in coffee. But in practice they all come under the biochemistry banner while organic chemistry is reserved for study of chemicals from fossil fuels including petroleum oil, natural gas and coal. To me the word organic still conjures up memories of distilling nasty solvent mixtures in pungent and smelly university laboratories in the 1960s.

That apart, a more likely confusion for coffee drinkers in general arrives through contemporary use of green by the media to describe commodities which are organically grown, sustainable and environment friendly. Only problem for coffee is that green is the established term specifically used to describe washed and/or dried on-farm processed coffee beans, irrespective of whether they were produced by sustainable methods or to organic certification.

And the potential for confusion does not end there. Green coffee may have organic certification but does the type of treatment sustained during soluble manufacture come into organic equation. One stage that immediately springs to mind is at the end when freshly formulated granules are plated with coffee volatiles to impart head-space aroma. Strictly speaking organic coffee should receive no more and no less than the volatile components that were stripped out of the green coffee and retained at the start of the soluble coffee manufacturing process. If something synthetic is put in as an add on extra to soup-up and spice-up the head-space aroma is the coffee still classed as ‘organic’?

The plot thickens further with organic decaffeinated coffee products of which there are many on the market. Water decaffeination should pass organic muster but what about solvent decaffeination. Some solvents are derived from natural sources such as fruit but other more commonly used synthetic solvents would clearly fail any organic test. If green coffee beans are grown and farm processed to organic certification but then subjected to solvent decaffeination are the resulting decaffeinated soluble products still organic?

Clipper Teas Ltd, which in spite of their name offer a range of good soluble coffee, had obviously thought about this long before I did when writing the label for their Clipper Organic Decaffeinated Freeze-Dried Coffee. “This coffee is grown organically by Fair Trade-Certified farmers using only natural methods and no artificial fertilizers or pesticides and decaffeinated without the use of solvents,” says the label.

That said it is generally a difficult question to answer because most labels do not provide any information on the decaffeination method used. Moreover, the wording on most soluble coffee product labels is insufficiently succinct to be sure of what is being organically claimed for the coffee after production and on-farm processing into green coffee beans.

Dr. Terry Mabbett has been covering the tea, coffee and cocoa industries for decades. He resides in England and is a technical writer with a PhD degree in Tropical Agriculture. He has worked in crop production and processing throughout the tropics - India, South East Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean - and in his home country of the UK.

Tea & Coffee - October, 2009
Modern Process Equipment

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