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326. The most important conversation in specialty coffee?

2013-01-08 Comments Off on 326. The most important conversation in specialty coffee?

One overcast Sunday last September, Nick Cho published this searching reflection on the relationship between coffee quality and social impact.  Somehow it managed to escape my notice until this past weekend.  Nick’s post is beautiful in its candor, frankly acknowledging the limitations of specialty coffee and honestly exploring “the true human condition of the coffee world.”  And it is blasphemous, courageously challenging some sacred beliefs: “The specialty coffee industry has, at least within our boutique segment, done a shi**y job of actually helping coffee producers.”  When James Hoffmann published this thoughtful reply nearly two months later, one of the most important conversations in specialty coffee was on.

Between Nick’s post and James’ riposte, there is so much to respond to that I am not sure where to begin, or whether I can respond in a single post.  Here is what strikes me as most important.


Nick frames the relationship between quality and social impact in stark terms: “Do you care more about coffee quality, or about people?”  Organizations like ours, whose missions are focused on people, have bet long on the idea coffee quality and social impact are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing.  Our experience — and the data we have gathered in connection with our programming in the coffeelands — suggests that for most of specialty segment of the coffee market, they are.  But for the coffees Nick calls “boutique” and James calls “the real stuff,” the relationship between coffee quality and social impact may be less clear.


Coffee quality evangelists have been preaching the gospel of coffee quality for many years without rigorous evidence to support what amounts to the central article of their faith: that quality of coffee equals quality of life.

Again, this relationship may be clear for the bulk of what passes for specialty coffee, but perhaps not as much for boutique coffees.

When we began working in the coffeelands 10 years ago to help smallholder farmers expand access to specialty markets, this was our hypothesis: that the specialty segment of the coffee market delivers more benefits to farmers than the commodity trade in coffee; that farmers selling coffee scoring 80 points or more into supply chains with some degree of traceability are better paid for their coffee and more profitable than farmers selling lower-quality coffee into anonymous commodity trade channels.  What we have learned over the past decade confirms that hypothesis, and we continue to gather data to monitor the impact of our market-access programming on smallholder profitability that reaffirms our commitment to the specialty segment as a whole.

But what about “the real stuff?”  What about coffees hitting 85 points or more on the SCAA scale and earning quality-based premiums?  What about microlots that require special post-harvest technology, meticulous selection and separation efforts, and may never amount to more than 10 or 20 percent of a farmer’s total production?  Certainly the price points are higher, but are they more profitable?  Do they make sense for resource-constrained smallholder farmers, or would their scarce cash and labor be better invested elsewhere?  Is the market for boutique coffees primarily for estates, or is it inclusive enough of smallholders to contribute broadly to community development and poverty reduction in the coffeelands?  Are farmers translating improvements in coffee quality to corresponding improvements in their quality of life?  Are quality standards in the marketplace rising faster than living standards at origin?  Is there a point of diminishing returns beyond which additional investment to improve coffee quality fail to generate commensurate returns?  If so, where does it lie?

Nick seems to have made up his mind on these questions on the basis of direct observation.  He may be right. I prefer to rely on data analysis, but there is precious little data-based evidence on the basis of which to answer these questions.

One notable exception was this extraordinary initiative undertaken by Counter Culture in 2011 to study the social impacts of its own approach to sourcing microlots.  This detailed research review identifies some of the shortcomings of the study, including its lack of quantitative data, but it represents a worthy and courageous effort by a Direct Trade pioneer to examine some of the assumptions that underpin the “boutique” coffee model.  The economic return to smallholder farmers on investment in coffee quality is a leading research question for us in our Borderlands Coffee Project, but significantly more work is needed in this area.

In the meantime, are there steps that quality-focused businesses can take now to generate more social impact in the coffeelands?


James suggests, almost apologetically, that the interest in origin among quality-oriented roasters has perhaps less to do with a commitment to social responsibility than sustainable supply chain management.  But even this motivation, which James characterizes as “cold, corporate and dispassionate,” creates the possibility for social impact because it fosters the long-term relationships necessary to achieve and sustain coffee quality — relationships that “give the investor a better chance of a return down the line.”  Here it is important to remember that farmers, not just roasters, invest in those relationships.

During last year’s SCAA Expo, Peter Guiliano presented the microlot research mentioned above along with some relationship advice that may also be relevant here.  He said, memorably, that: “Only buying microlots and not buying the regular coffee growers produce is like wanting to have a relationship with another person only on good hair days.”  He continued: “If you are going to do microlots you have a moral imperative to buy coffee you are not microlotting.”

For roasters with clients in different segments of the market with different quality standards — high-end cafés, restaurants, supermarkets, etc. — that may be a fairly straightforward proposition.  For roasters only interested in pushing the outer bounds of quality, it may prove more difficult.

Nick’s final plea is one for awareness.

He refers to his own time in Bangladesh as a vivid touchstone to another human reality, but one that has faded with the passage of time.  Importers and roasters that source their coffee directly spend plenty of time at origin, but their forays are mostly commercial in their focus and always temporary.  Over the past two decades, hundreds of U.S. roasters and importers have logged countless thousands of muddy-road miles through the coffeelands and innovated continuously to make the coffee trade more just and more sustainable.  For all this effort, Nick is right — there is a stubborn awareness gap in terms of how the industry understands the way the majority of smallholder farmers live.  In fact, I started this blog three years ago because of it in the hope of “pulling back the curtain on the secret lives of coffee farmers” and contributing, however modestly, to greater awareness and appreciation for the lived realities of smallholder farmers.  Or as Nick might say, “the true human condition of the coffee world.”