Towards a segmented quality coffee market

by George Howell Terroir Coffee Company
and recently published in April 07's edition
of CoffeeTalk

Coffee farmers across the world have faced crisis ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Just after, the US walked away from the ICO quote agreement established during John F. Kennedy's presidency to help keep Latin America socially and politically stable. Prices collapsed and the market has never recuperated stability since. Today, a large part of the illegal immigration into the US has consisted of coffee farmers and their workers from Mexico and beyond. Throughout Latin America one can see depopulated valleys and abandoned farms. These losses have affected employment throughout their economies. Even though prices have risen in the past two years to somewhat more tenable levels, many farmers cannot find sufficient pickers to harvest their crop. Many of them remain in high debt: costly organic certification programs are a pipe dream. About three out of every five years since the elimination of the quota system have been years where the cost of production in Central America and other producing areas has been at or greater than the market price.

In addition, there is a growing economic chasm between coffee growing areas suited to relatively inexpensive high volume mass production technology - or extreme low-cost labor, as in Vietnam - and areas permanently requiring large pools of human labor in challenging topographies that urgently needs addressing. As technology improves, mass-produced fair-average-quality will improve. Mechanical harvesters are getting faster and more precise; they are able to pass more than once over coffee trees and be more selective in picking. We have already seen a huge drop in production of lower grown prime arabicas in Guatemala and elsewhere. Even higher altitude coffee regions will go the same way, something no quality roaster wishes to contemplate, unless this gap is addressed.

The argument is often brought up that green coffees purchased in the range of Fair Trade prices are unfairly resold roasted, at many multiples higher by roasters in developed countries and that producers should get a larger cut. First-time visiting growers are understandably shocked. Why does it seem no one is around to explain the basic economics of developed countries? Western labor, real estate and others costs, which also go for multiples higher than producer costs, make it impossible not to add a minimum dollar value on top of what is paid for the raw coffee. However, as the price of retail coffee rises over approximately $10 per pound, an ever greater portion should be going to the producer. This is the case with wine. The better values for consumers are to be found in the more expensive bottles, where a greater percentage of the total price goes back to the producer. Consumers are buying what fine coffees there are at bargain basement prices and don't even know it. This is a failure to communicate on our part.
It should be noted that while wine and tea cover a breathtaking range of qualities and prices, from a few dollars to hundreds per unit, forming a real pyramidal quality-price structure, specialty coffee is better represented by a very squat trapezoid. The star-performing exceptions, dollar-wise, might be called insular coffees: they are protected from typical market pressures by being very rare (mostly from small islands, in fact) and having vintage histories: Napoleon's St Helena, Jamaica, and Hawaii,, in descending order of price. No aspersions are meant to be cast on their quality here; but the higher prices which they fetch have nothing to do with qualitative superiority over fine continental origins. Then there is the ultimate insular coffee, Kopi Luac. How ironically reflective of our coffee-romance-culture-trumps-quality is the fact that the one coffee that does go for over $100 a pound comes from the back end of a civet Perhaps what comes with the beans could be served chilled as "specialty" gelato?

What, after all, are we talking about? A twelve-ounce serving at home of a $10 dollar a pound coffee costs less than a can of 12 oz Coke, THE commodity beverage. In fact, for a pound of coffee to equal a 10 dollar "inexpensive" bottle of wine, ounce for ounce, a coffee consumer would have to pay $100 per pound of coffee! Yet we hear some people in the gourmet coffee business, who should know better, grumble when, each year, a handful of tiny exemplary prize-winning micro lots are rewarded with a quarter of such prices. How many consumers have any idea that fine coffee is as difficult and costly to produce as fine wines? The SCAA should be using its powerful annual conventions to wow the media and teach these realities to a thirsty public, gratis. It is in all our interests! We need to extrovert our annual celebration of quality coffee. It cannot be repeated enough: fine coffee at today's prices, brewed at home, is a bargain-basement beverage. For farmers to benefit from the so-called specialty revolution, which most have yet to feel, we need to build above the basement!

The current trapezoid quality-price model needs to be replaced with a fully developed pyramidal structure, with the top qualities commanding world-class prices for farmer and roaster alike. This does not happen overnight. A culture that celebrates exploring exemplary coffee expressions must be created in both consuming and growing countries. Indeed, coffee is a very youthful beverage when compared to wine and tea, both of which have ancient cultures that developed and sustained these products over millennia. Not so with coffee, a newcomer to the world of grand beverages. The technology to process and brew exemplary quality coffee is a product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Espresso and drip coffeemakers are still undergoing improvements that directly enhance the appreciation of fine coffee. It is in our hands to create a coffee culture as the Chinese and Japanese did with tea and as the Middle East and Europe did with wine.

There is a long way to go. The vast majority of coffee farmers with quality potential are still anonymous to the consumer, their coffees buried in blends which only put the roaster in the spotlight, or are lost in mere regional designations. Without real incentives to develop higher levels of quality, they aim for what is acceptable and this in turn fuels more mediocrity. Quality seekers then expend great energy trying to find needles in a haystack. From the farmer perspective the quality buying market is equally meager and tentative. Competition-auctions like Cup of Excellence and the Best of Panama are powerful search engines that put both groups in touch with each other and give unadulterated collective praise in scores, where merited, and later in price within an otherwise remorselessly grey commodity-dominated world where even rewards for miracles, producers are often told, must be "reasonable." Competition-auctions are meant to be the tip of a specialty coffee arrow aimed at encouraging the development of both fragile sides of the quality producer-roaster equation. Both, frankly, are still rare - but growing - perhaps in an accelerating manner. They are certainly inspired.

Visionary roasters, importers and a handful, so far, of exporters, who have participated in and understood the message of Cup of Excellence and Best of Panama have connected with winning farms and coops and are now working with them and others to create tiered qualities. This is the next step. Producers who successfully strive to create the highest possible quality naturally beget multi-tiered qualities in the process, each having its own market and commanding a different price. The pyramid begins.

George Howell is President of Terroir Coffee Company and founder of Cup of Excellence.
For more information on George Howell and Terroir Coffee visit them at http://www.terroircoffee.com

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