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303. “We underestimated water”

2012 September 12
by Michael Sheridan

The eminent James Hoffman recently published a post suggesting we have underestimated the importance of water in the coffee process.  I agree with the sentiment entirely, but for very different reasons.

THE IMPORTANCE of PERSPECTIVE.

The post on the jimseven blog is a (characteristically thorough and thoughtful) exploration of the importance of water in the brewing process — just what you would expect from a celebrated roaster, former barista champion and all-around coffee oracle based in London.

I have been writing here over the past month (for an infinitely smaller audience, to be certain) about the threats that the coffee process poses to water resources in the coffeelands — just what you might expect from a development professional living and working with coffee farmers in South America.

The gap between these perspectives on water and coffee is natural given the places from which James and I relate to the coffee chain.  But I continue to hope that the gap in understanding between origin and the marketplace will narrow when it comes to the relationship between water resources and coffee production and processing.

FALSE HOPE.

When I saw the title of James’ post, I fell into a familiar trap — I felt a surge of hope that he was going to weigh in on “my” water issue: the importance of water resource management in the coffeelands.  I should have known better.  More than once in the past, I felt a similar rush of excitement at seeing reference to water quality in the list of SCAA lectures, only to be disappointed by the exclusively retail focus of the presentations.

CLOSING THE KNOWLEDGE-ACTION GAP ON WATER RESOURCE MANAGEMENT.

The gap between the way people in the marketplace and people at origin approach the issue of water is natural.  But the revolution in specialty coffee has been driven by transparency in the supply chain — greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities that other chain actors face has narrowed knowledge gaps and catalyzed win-win innovations all along the chain.  This has been especially true in the area of coffee quality, where the “upstream” transfer of knowledge (from the market to origin) has been significant.  But in recent years, there has also been a sharp increase in “downstream” learning (information from origin reaching the market) on a broad range of issues related to different aspects of life at origin.  In both cases, increased knowledge has led to action.

For some reason, water resource management has not been a central part of the industry’s enriched understanding of origin or its expanding action agenda in the coffeelands.

Fully aware of my bias, I would suggest that while the average smallholder coffee farmer doesn’t need to understand the finer points of flowmeters, total dissolved solids metrics or ion exchange filters, roasters who trade directly and care about sustainability should have a basic understanding the relationship between coffee farming and water resources at origin.  More specifically, they should understand how the coffee in their supply chain is affecting the availability and quality of water in the coffeelands.

If even a handful of the industry’s leading importers, roasters and retailers started thinking half as seriously about water resources in the coffeelands as they do about the quality of the water used to brew their coffee, the water gap would close quickly.

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