From the beginning, Sweet Maria’s Coffee has identified coffees we sell with as much information as possible: detailed farm info, altitude, cultivar, photographs, processing details.. Beyond simply describing a product we sell, we provide clues to the quality that we found in the cup. We also felt that we were doing a “good thing” in a broad sense; we felt that putting the farm and farmer first put the emphasis where it should be, not on Sweet Maria’s as a brand, but on the coffee in a way that was as transparent as possible. So in this way we essentially grew the reputation, or brand image, of that farmer or co-op.
Coffee was traditionally traded, sold to customers, in a very different way. On the production side, for example in Colombia, the coffee system was designed around pooling coffee from smaller farms and selling it all as various grades based on bean size, like “Supremo” or “Excelso”. The same was true for Kenyan coffees that were labeled AA or AB, not with a specific farm or co-op name. On the retail side, US-roasting companies sold coffees this way - as Kenya AA or Colombia Supremo, and often created their own brand names for blends, like a “Breakfast Blend” or another proprietary name masked the name of the farm. (I remember going into Coffee Connection in Cambridge MA back in the late 1980s and ordering Kenya AA and thinking that was really something special! Who knew that 15 years later we would we talking about Kirinyaga region vs. Nyeri?) Blends serve the purpose of allowing a consistent flavor, while the company switches coffees in and out of the blend based on availability; but they also obscure the precise origin of the component coffees.
The small slice of coffee called Specialty has changed a lot in the past ten or fifteen years, both on the supply side and on the retail side. On the supply side, production systems have been adapted to allow for more individually identified (i.e. farm-specific), and smaller, lots of coffee. In many places, the availability of small Penagos pulpers using minimal water gave small producers the ability to pulp and dry their own cherry - a “micro-mill revolution.” Exporters and importers have also become more willing to handle small lots, a shift partly inspired by the Cup of Excellence model. This has opened up a broad range of coffee flavors and styles since coffees are not being pooled and flavor generalized. Individual farms that had outstanding quality could sell their coffee under their own name, instead of selling their cherry to be blended into larger lots.
On the retail side, the proliferation of specialty coffee shops from Starbucks on down, has followed (some might say led) the trend of connecting consumers in the developed world with developing world producers. Specialty coffee, like specialty chocolate, is sold under its origin name and maybe even the names of the producers, be they individuals or a co-op. The Fair Trade movement supports this connection as well. As time has gone by, Sweet Maria’s Coffee has gained a reputation for the quality of our coffee and in-depth reviews, and our business has grown. It means something to other people in specialty coffee when we choose a coffee to sell. We have profited, we have a great staff, we pay well and offer benefits and we pay our suppliers well.
So now a good portion of the so-called Specialty coffee trade has abandoned the old and somewhat generic way to brand their product, as AA or as regionally pooled lots, or as proprietary blends and begun branding with new and (presumably) more accurate designations: farm name, farmer name, “micro-lot” from 1686 to 1784 meters, the plot beneath the spruce tree and the creek, the left side of the tree, only round shaped 15 screen beans, etc. I jest.
And yet what do we gain, and lose, with this new specificity? With this new kind of branding? In what way are we trading an old set of problems and inaccuracies for simply a new set of problems and inaccuracies?
The idea that coffee, grown on a farm known to produce quality coffee in the past, is necessarily good the next year is a fallacy. Inexperienced buyers who treat farms as brands, i.e. are not critical and blind in their cupping, are actually a threat to the single-farm, relationship coffee effort. Farmers are only too happy to be branded so they can sell all their coffee, good, average, or sub par, at better prices. Even a good farm produces a range of coffee in a single season; that is part of the nature of agricultural work. Not all coffee, even from a good farm, is good coffee.
Ongoing selection is key. The name of the farm means something, but what? That varies based on the practices of the particular farmer, and if you, as the cupper, taste the same thing year over year. An experienced buyer understands that ongoing cupping is the way to obtain coffee worthy of a farm name at all. It doesn’t start or end with simply forming a buying relationship with a farm. In the best cases, I can give input to a farmer and tell them what I taste in the cup, so they can gain better control of their procedures and methods, and maybe even understand a bit the influence of uncontrollable variables like rain and flowering.
In the worst cases, we see people buying coffee, even over-paying, based on farm name allow. A coffee trader told us how he had no trouble selling a rejected lot from a known Guatemalan farm (one that SM and Intelligentsia Coffee have sold for years) even though it sold for $.25/# than higher rated Guats. The fact is that supplies of specialty coffee are limited; there is only so much coffee of a certain caliber that is produced by a particular farm in a particular year. Despite all the talk of speculators driving up coffee prices, the fact remains that more people are drinking coffee than ever, both in developed and developing countries. One effect of high coffee prices is crime: shipments being stolen, coffee stolen off of trees. The fact is that there are more buyers than supply right now.
For giant coffee buyers, like Starbucks or Nestle, tight supply means it is in their interest to develop new sources, and often that is at or near the bottom end of the coffee market, investing in places like Yunan, China or Vietnam, places that do not have the cultivars or altitude to produce the highest quality coffee. If these businesses don’t rely on the quality per se of the cup, what difference does it make? For us, since we take pride in the quality of the coffee we offer, it sometimes means saying no to a coffee that we have carried for years, but is just not as good this year, or saying yes to new farms.
Another aspect to this is the limited understanding of what a real Direct Trade program entails. Direct Trade involves building relationships with producers as well as processing, exporting, and importing partners in order to ensure quality and transparency. Direct Trade is often misconstrued, not just by the public but also a large number of coffee professionals, to mean cutting out the nefarious “middle man”. This leads to a paradigm in which small roasters actually believe that they should be going around a “supplier” so that they can be more direct. They think that they have to do it in order to stay competitive and say that they have these “relationships”. The reality is that the 5-10 bags of coffee a year that they might buy is not nearly enough to support a real quality driven production program. By stepping in this way, they may have ruined a relationship which would have meant a higher quality result and a better or at least more realistic and sustainable price for the producer.
There was no problem necessarily with AA or Breakfast Blend when behind it was the difficult and continuous burdensome work of true quality selection. Conversely the new “brands” of farm name, “micro-lot,” etc can be hollow shills that mean nothing and can be misleading. In fact, this can actually harm the effort toward coffee quality if the work implicit behind it does not exist.