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189. Exploring a “grey area” in coffee communications

I started asking questions a few weeks ago about communication standards among Direct Trade roasters.   My series of posts on this issue did not generate much of a conversation here, but did prompt some very good offline discussion.  One of the best-known and best-regarded roasters in specialty coffee — let’s call this person “Sam” — suggested in an email exchange that I had wandered into a pretty big “grey area” that could use some more clarity.

I started down this path after I noticed that a Direct Trade roaster sourcing coffee from one of the cooperatives we support in Central America is using intimate details about the farm in presenting the coffee.  Talking about the landscape of coffee farms is common enough in presenting origin coffees.  Except I happen to know that this roaster has not visited this particular farm.

“Sam” doesn’t see a problem with this.  Sam reasons that if it is ok for roasters to talk about varieties and post-harvest process in their coffee biographies, then why not shade cover or other (bio-) physical characteristics of the farm?  It may sound like a reasonable assessment.  But there are still important distinctions in my mind between variables that a roaster can discern in the cup and those she can’t.

Why?  Because varieties and processing are factors that have a direct impact on cup profile.  All cultivars are not created equal.  Catimor is not likely to compare to a Bourbon.  And when a natural process fills the cup with berry flavors, or a special selection produces an exceptional cup of coffee, we expect our roasters to explain that since they are our link to the growers.

But the contribution of shade, or the diversity of shade trees on a particular farm, contribute less directly to flavor profile.  Even a cupper with an exquisitely calibrated palate can’t attribute a flavor profile to a farmer’s shade management practices in the way she might with a post-harvest process.

When a roaster tells me how lush a farm is, I know it isn’t because she tasted it in the cup.  I assume it means she has visited it.


  • Julie says:

    I agree with “Sam” that it is all right for a roaster to talk about the bio-physical aspects of the farm, whether or not the roaster has visited. Some consumers like me consider how the coffee was grown a vital fact in choosing a coffee. (As you indicated, some roasters and experts would also argue that shade does indirectly add to cup quality.) Roasters indicate that a coffee carries particular certifications, most of which have nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of the coffee, but add value (for some) nonetheless.

    The issue of whether a roaster can accurately evaluate the ecological value of a “lush” farm, even if she does visit, is another story. I often take these descriptions with a grain of salt, but trust they are not complete fabrications, when I choose a coffee.

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Thanks for weighing in. Your comment helps remind me that there are more dimensions to a direct trade roaster’s “value proposition” than just the directness of its trade. There are important sustainability indicators that concerned consumers like you look for that roasters need to communicate to their customers. I get it.

      I had been thinking that the Rainforest Alliance Certification on this particular coffee represented a more robust indicator of the farm’s sustainability than a reference to shade diversity and cover from a roaster that is not necessarily qualified to assess forest management practices as rigorously as the folks at Rainforest Alliance. Against the backdrop of everything an RA certification represents, this one comment didn’t seem to add much value in terms of consumer guarantee. Which is why it seemed to me to be really implying a physical presence on the farm.

      I will let up on this a bit, as I understand “Sam’s” point and yours that this is a grey area. I also do think that the kinds of supply chain technologies that are increasingly being implemented in coffee will make it even more complicated to infer physical presence from a roaster’s narratives. In our work in the field, we are working with Cropster, a web-based supply chain management platform where farmers can post pictures of their farms, mills, houses, etc. In other words, there will be more intimacy in supply chains — and more roaster references to the relative lushness of forest canopies — in the future whether roasters travel to origin or not.


  • Michael says:

    PS: I should add that I never meant to suggest shade cover is not an important contributor to quality. I firmly believe that and we promote that concept in our work in the field. What I meant to suggest is that the way shade regulates humidity and ambient temperature to slow maturation and produce a more complex cup, for example, doesn’t have the same kind of direct impact on the cup profile as a semi-washed or natural process. M

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