Response: Are we all just 1%-ers too?

This is a response to Nick Cho’s post which can be found here.  I’m going to quote the entire post, and respond to different questions and sections within it.

Of the many things about coffee that Trish has opened my eyes to, the most valuable is embracing the full spectrum of coffee quality as the true human condition of the coffee world. During my college years, I spent a year abroad in Dhaka, Bangladesh, teaching music at a Christian missionary school. Despite the life-changing lessons I learned back then about what the world is really like, I was lulled into a very sheltered perspective on specialty coffee. Great coffee = good. Poor-quality coffee = bad.

The problem is that when you delve deeper, past the over-simplified memes, you’re forced to make a choice: Do you care more about coffee quality, or about people? Let’s set aside the barista/retail/consumer end of the chain for a moment, and focus on the producer-side. We claim to be supporting coffee producers, but it appears that what we really mean is that we support producers of the coffees that we really like the taste of. We go to events in the US to meet coffee producers and feel good about the experience, but what really happened is that we just met some of the most rich and prosperous coffee producers in the world.

The most celebrated coffee “farmers” and farms in specialty coffee are also among the most successful, with many if not most of those people being the sons (and in a very few cases daughters) of prosperous families. Upward-mobility is but a flying unicorn in these countries. A wonderful idea, but not reality.

I don’t mean to disparage or insult any of those successful coffee producers. Their coffees are indeed worthy of acclaim, and the heredity of those people shouldn’t take away from that. But if our affinity for those producers and those coffees defines our scope to only the tip-top best-of-the-best of what coffee has to offer, we are building a temple for worshipping the rich in a self-perpetuating cycle of aggrandizement and affluence.

What’s more deserving of celebration: Producers of 88-point coffees improving to 92’s, or those with 81’s improving to 85 scores? In real-world terms, that’s like comparing those making $500,000 per year bumping up to $750,000, versus someone making $20,000 now getting $30,000. Improvements are improvements, but in the US, the $500-750K bump helps 0.5% of the population, whereas the latter group represents about 20-40% of the population (depending on the data source and the way you look at it). There are no good figures in the case of coffee quality as a percentage of total production, but suffice it to say, it’s a much more severe disparity.

And what of the below-80 scoring coffees, those deemed below-specialty grade? As we glorify the top-tier quality producers and commemorate them by putting their photos on our company websites and Instagram feeds, do we believe that those who produce lesser coffees are somehow lesser human beings? When we cup these coffees and laugh and mockingly push them away and shut them out of our minds because to us, they’re not worth even thinking about, can we really claim to be working to help coffee producers?

The specialty coffee industry has, at least within our boutique segment, done a shitty job of actually helping coffee producers. If we used specialty-coffee logic to help women in Nepal better their lives, many of us would choose to gather together the most beautiful of them and hold a bikini contest for cash prizes. Then we’d walk away, patting each other on the back, feeling warm and fuzzy inside for “helping” those poor, impoverished people. Harsh? Maybe, but you get the point.

I think we definitely have a problem, and I think it would be worth splitting out what we’re actually trying to do as a specialty industry.  Firstly many of us are trying to run successful business that compete on the quality of the product they produce.  You might argue that the quality of coffee is rarely the actual reason for a (wholesale or retail) customer’s decision, and I may well agree with you.  Nonetheless – when making decisions many companies are basing that decision against its impact on the cup.

An interest in origin and traceability is not just about social responsibility, nor is the speciality coffee industry’s investment and focus there.  It is about supply chain management.  I know that sounds like an awful term; cold, corporate and dispassionate.  The difference between speciality and a multinational is that the interest in quality inevitably ties into interest in sustainability, and in relationships.  Quality takes time, and a relationship gives the investor a better chance of a return further down the line.

This is not charitable work, and that’s ok.  Charities do charitable work, and they do it better (I hope!) than coffee companies.

The challenge of a slow return is what encourages coffee buying that Nick describes as a bikini contest.  If you’ve got the cash, then you can have something better right now.  It is appealing, and I don’t think they’ve done more harm than good.  Competitions like Cup of Excellence have acted like a dating service, doing introductions and hopefully from there relationships can blossom.

But it’s too easy to criticize. What of solutions? What should we be doing then? I don’t have all of the answers, but here’s what I have to offer right now:

As with most things like this, it starts with awareness. Consider the majority of coffee farmers and their families that we dismiss as below our standards, and remember that they are real people deserving of our consideration… perhaps even more deserving than their more well-to-do countrymen. This would hopefully inform the way we talk about our industry and our coffees, and maybe we’ll be a little less dismissive when describing how we differentiate ourselves out there.

I think we should certainly avoid promoting ourselves by pushing others’ faces down into the mud.  While comparison is an excellent way to display quality, and explain value, it wouldn’t hurt to follow “Wil Wheaton’s Law”.

“Awareness” also includes the current and future efforts of those within our industry family who are working with a focus on the poor farmers, like Fair Trade USA. Throwing Fair Trade under the bus as “not doing enough” ignores the great work that the program does accomplish, albeit more often with coffees that you might not choose to serve at your shop or sell from your roastery. They are doing great, great work. Just because their work isn’t perfect enough for you doesn’t mean dissing them makes you look cool.

The Coffee Quality Institute, in the midst of some significant changes due to new leadership, has always been focused on improving coffee quality and the people who produce it. The recent development of CQI’s R-Grader program has had a lot of coffee people scratching their heads, unsure of how robusta coffees fit in to our understanding of what’s good in and about coffee. But why must all of our industry’s efforts be about making great coffee even better? What about expanding markets and exploring desirable coffees from lower altitudes and geographies that simply can’t produce high-quality arabicas? Supporting CQI’s work is not only helping those who we don’t directly affect through our own purchasing and work, it’s working to develop a sustainable specialty coffee industry by helping to improve the quality of below-specialty grade coffees up to a level that we’d actually be proud to roast, brew, and serve.

Lower quality coffee has to go somewhere.  Unfortunately it can’t go into businesses that require high quality as this is the central idea to that company.  So what can a specialty coffee company do about the lives of producers of lower quality coffee who would most benefit from earning more per pound?

This is an incredibly difficult question.  Specialty coffee – the real stuff, not the stuff pretending – is a very small part of world production.  However, I believe we can have a small positive impact.  Coffee is too cheap.  You’re probably sick and tired of reading this and hearing this.  Doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  As long as it is commoditised, and traded the way it is under the impact of the stock markets, then we’re going to have problems.  Price paid won’t reflect the cost of production and people’s livelihoods will be, to some extent, beyond their control.

So we have two challenges:  make coffee more valuable, and get people to think of it less as being a commodity and more as being the crop from a place.  This is something that I believe specialty can have a positive impact on.

We can also invest in programs like World Coffee Research, in the hopes of a better understanding of quality and the open sourcing of that knowledge to those who produce coffee to help increase its value.

We talk a lot about the unfortunate fact that baristas are generally the lowest paid people in the consuming-world side of the coffee chain. This is true, and something that the entire industry should work to change. But how is it that the lowest-paid individuals on this side of that chain are spending so much time celebrating only the highest-paid folks on the other end? Is that irony, or tragedy?

Something about this ending didn’t sit right with me.  My response can probably be considered a little fallacious too.

To answer the question:  Honestly, neither – though it depends how you want to see it.  Would you rather that baristas don’t try to communicate coffees to their customers, in the hope of improving their coffee experience?  Or would you rather that they don’t talk up the coffees that are more likely to produce the “ah-ha!” moments for people which, like or not, often come from the more successful producers?