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353. Coffee rust testing the specialty storyline

The story of specialty coffee has been tightly woven around the ideas of sustainability and origin.  The coffee rust epidemic in Central America will put those ideas to the test.


Sustainability is a central conceit in the narrative of specialty coffee.  And the sustainability of specialty coffee is rooted unambiguously in its relationships — relationships based on direct communications, transparency, dialogue, mutual respect, mutual commitment to quality, and pursuit of mutual benefit.  Specialty coffee has emphasized the quality of its relationships as a source of both differentiation from the commercial trade and innovation in the name of sustainability.  As it turns out, the footprint of the current coffee rust epidemic overlaps with the map of some of the most important innovations in sustainable coffee.

Mesoamerica was the origin of Fair Trade in coffee.  It is where pioneering roasters began training farmers in coffee cupping — an initiative that simultaneously accelerated gains in coffee quality and farmer empowerment.  And it is currently home to countless collaborations between growers and roasters to improve the quality of coffee and the quality of life for coffee communities.  But today, the very relationships that have given rise to some of the leading innovations in sustainability are being strained by coffee rust.

In his closing remarks at last week’s Coffee Rust Summit in Guatemala, the SCAA’s Ric Rhinehart said that Central America’s farmers have been “relentlessly buffeted” by production threats and market volatility.  He suggested that in the face of coffee rust, many are asking themselves whether they will stay in coffee.  He also argued that industry can affect the decisions they make.


By recommitting to the relationships that have made Central America such an important part of coffee’s sustainability story and committing commercially to make the coffee trade economically viable for farmers.


Over the past quarter-century, specialty coffee has elevated both the quality of our coffee and our appreciation of origin.  Thanks to continuous improvements in the way our coffee is sourced, roasted and prepared, there has never been a better time to be a coffee drinker.  Thanks to the way that specialty leaders have communicated around these innovations, there has never been a deeper appreciation of the fact the fine coffees we enjoy are unique.  Irreplaceable.

We understand not just the general differences in cup profile between Ethiopia, Indonesia and Guatemala, but that the way our coffee expresses itself in the cup is the result of an endless range of variation in the regional, community and farm levels.

We understand in a way we didn’t just a generation ago that each harvest, every farmer produces a coffee that is distinctive.  Different from the coffees of her neighbors. Different from the coffee she produced last harvest and the coffee she will produce next harvest.

And we understand that the relationships that have driven continuous improvement in sustainability are also responsible for continuously expanding our knowledge of the origins of our coffee.


The coffee rust crisis in Central America will test the strength of the relationships on which the specialty coffee enterprise is built and the validity of the concept of origin. Will coffee buyers cut and run in Central America, seeking similar cup profiles from growers in other, lower-cost origins?  Or will they double-down in Central America, reconfirm their commitment to relationships and fight to save irreplaceable coffees that are endangered by coffee rust?  The way industry answers these questions will show us whether the concepts sustainability and origin are empty pieties or guiding principles.

Based on the conversations last week in Guatemala, I am optimistic.




  • Matt Earley says:

    Thanks for this Michael. I think it is critical for roasters and importers to realize how quickly Roya is spreading and how quickly plants are being devastated and farming communities are being stressed. We will, as an industry, have to respond quickly and forcefully to help farmers recover.

    This is not only the right thing to do from a “sustainable relationship” standpoint, but it also helps to ensure that there will be a specialty coffee industry in 10 years.

    Thankis again for all of your work informing folks of this quiet disaster.

    Matt Earley
    Just Coffee Cooperative.

    • Michael Sheridan says:

      Col. Earley:

      Thanks for your note and your call for recommitting to relationships with farmers. From everything I have seen, Just Coffee has invested more than most in building strong and direct relationships with its trading partners, not just spending a disproportionate amount of time in coffee communities with cooperative leaders and developing strong personal relationships, but adopting sourcing policies — pricing, transparency, funding for development projects — that make tangible contributions to improving farmer livelihoods. While many of the farmers who belong to the cooperatives you source from are smallholders who are vulnerable, the relationship you have built together can be a hedge against risk on both sides — farmers can look to you for the assurances they need to assume debt and reinvest in their farms with the confidence that you will be there for them as a trusted partner, and you can count on continued access to good coffee. The challenge is for the coffee growers who don’t enjoy the kinds of direct relationships with roasters that members of coops in your trading network do — the vast majority of coffee farmers. What signals can the market send to them to give them the assurances they need to make similar commitments to coffee?


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