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163. How microlots can help everyone

2011-05-10 Comments Off on 163. How microlots can help everyone

Microlots may be the exclusive domain of quality-obsessed roasters who are willing to pay top dollar for the finest coffee a grower or group of growers has to offer.  But that doesn’t mean that microlots don’t generate benefits for those roasters who aren’t.  Microlots may help farmer organizations be better trading partners for everyone in their supply chains.  A baseball analogy might help explain how.

As a kid, I fantasized about being a professional baseball player, like millions of my peers.  I practiced often and played hard for many years in pursuit of that aspiration.  Over time, playing with and against future major league ballplayers, I came to realize that my own skillset was better suited to other, less glamorous pursuits (like writing for this blog).  But it was only by aiming high and working to understand what it takes to get to the Big Leagues that I could come to the understanding that I would never make it.  That understanding was disappointing, but it enabled me to make good decisions about where baseball fit in the bigger picture of my life and find other, better uses for my time and energies.

It is kind of the same way with coffee quality.  For me, microlots are the Big Leagues of coffee quality.  There are millions of coffee farmers out there, but — relatively speaking — only a handful them are producing the kinds of single-origin microlots that generate passionate reviews on roaster websites or in the pages of coffee magazines. Not every coffee cooperative is capable of producing a major league microlot.  Indeed, not every cooperative is interested.  But in the absence of that aspiration and the discipline required to achieve that goal, cooperatives may miss important opportunities to understand the range of quality potential they have, and to make good decisions about how to market their coffee on the basis of that understanding.

Only the best varietals well-managed and painstakingly selected can be presented as microlots.  But with the same skills that cooperatives use to monitor the quality of their own coffee and identify potential microlots, they can also  beginning to segment the rest of their coffee by quality tier.  When cooperatives link specific production areas, harvesting practices and/or selection methods to general quality tiers (or better yet, the preferences of specific buyers), they can offer specific lots to specific market segments (or better yet, specific buyers within those segments) based on their preferences.  This allows cooperatives to capture more value for their coffee.  Instead of offering a single quality at a single price and then trying to get the highest possible price for that undifferentiated product, cooperatives that develop a microlot discipline can separate out their lots based on quality and target each one to specific opportunities in different market segments, minimizing the amount of value that evaporates when coffees with different cup qualities are blended at source.

This approach also reduces the transaction costs of coffee marketing for buyers and sellers alike by reducing the amount of time and energy needed to calibrate on quality, making quality-focused cooperatives better trading partners even for roasters that may be less obsessed with cup quality.  Now that’s big league.