The Coffee Complex
The complexity and difficulty involved in turning a small red cherry into a liquid beverage has always surprised me. It seems simple enough: when ripe, the cherries are harvested, weighed, depulped, washed, dried, sorted, stored, exported, roasted, ground, and finally served as espresso or drip coffee. Yet each of these steps involves hundreds of smaller steps, the purpose and methodology of which can incite sharp disagreement among coffee practitioners, and nearly all of which has the potential to lower the quality of the coffee.
“Quality” is an objectively subjective determination that can drastically impact the price of coffee as it moves along the supply chain. And because there are so many different actors in that chain, small differences in price multiply quickly. Except in a few cases, the coffee moves, at a minimum, from farmer to mill to exporter to roaster to distributor to the consumer. During research in Guatemala, I once counted fourteen different people or companies connecting the endpoints; the small nature of many farms, limited access to export licenses, and the complexities of redistribution and resale meant that many aggregators – middlemen – were each taking their cut of the final price.
All of this means that it is in the best interests of the farmer and the mill to produce the best quality possible coffee, so as to obtain the highest possible percentage of that final sale price (in addition to receiving a higher price, higher quality coffees often have more direct links to the final consumer). But what is it that makes something “quality?” Can quality really be quantified? What about the variation in roasting and preparation and the right to prefer objectively bad coffee? And how much can farmers and mill operators be expected to do to obtain incremental gains?
The specialty coffee industry is built on the premise that quality can, indeed, be measured and quantified by taste experts, known as cuppers. With only a sip, cuppers can pinpoint the coffee’s origin sometimes down to the very slope on which it was grown. Like with wine, coffee connoisseurs can develop a palate and a vocabulary to discuss coffee “notes” such as chocolate and fruit. The results are consistent – cuppers really are tasting the difference.
But this difference comes at a cost. High-volume importers, such as Starbucks, can make demands that impact every actor in the coffee chain. They check for low-energy lightbulbs in the mill, measure tiny leaks in a water pump, even sometimes visit home gardens of farmers to look for pesticides. The amount of measurement and paperwork involved in ensuring that every single bean meets these exacting standards is overwhelming, and it requires the combined efforts of many individuals trained in a specific aspect of the coffee production process – each of whom draws a salary usually higher than that of the farmers providing the beans that make this whole complex chain possible.
While it’s true that elite cuppers may be able to tell if a bean fermented for ten minutes too long, is that distinction a) worth the amount of effort required to avoid such a fate and b) even noticeable to the average consumer? Over the next series of posts I will be considering these issues of quality and coffee production from the point of view of the Costa Rican coffee farmers and mill operators with whom I have been living for the past year.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.