Coffee Ain't Coffee
A Global Commodity
Coffee is a global commodity with a market dominated by some very large players with the purchasing power to influence global prices. What is paid to producers for their crop often bears little relation to the prices paid for roasted coffee by the final consumers.
Like many crops, coffee is subject to wide fluctuations in price which can mean disaster to those communities reliant on coffee as their main source of income, particularly if a long-term investment in coffee growing as a cash crop has replaced the capacity to grow food. Such communities are often in so-called 3rd world countries with few other viable industries and a limited choice of alternative markets for their crop.
Questions For Consumers
Artisan roasters and many coffee drinkers are rightly interested in the ethics of coffee production. Leaving our own buying policies until another time, it is worth looking at the choices presented to coffee consumers – regarding both ethics and quality – because these are not well understood. The three questions of most interest to the ordinary coffee consumer, if we exclude factors such as actual purchase price, are likely to be:
- Are coffee producers given a fair price for their product?
- Is the coffee produced sustainably?
- Is it good quality?
Unfortunately the answers are not always simple. A fair price to producers does not guarantee the coffee to be of good quality while sustainability in any agricultural practice is a vexed question, especially when concerned with a global commodity product.
Quality is also problematic. At the point of production the grading of coffee often has more to do with uniformity of bean size or else will use a proxy for quality, such as the altitude in which it is grown. For consumers the labelling of packaged coffee may also be misleading, perhaps to encourage higher prices for dubious gains in quality. Many factors go into producing good coffee and just because it is labelled as coming from a region noted for coffee growing does not mean this particular example is a good one. It is entirely possible to buy unexciting beans from good growing regions.
Coffee of various types, both arabica and robusta, is bought and sold on the open market and often at low prices. The trade is strongly influenced by a few major players and the beans themselves may go to the manufacture of ‘instant coffee’ or a myriad of branded products with vaguely descriptive names, like ‘Italian Roast’. Some well-known brands select very carefully and roast skilfully to produce pleasing and consistent blends, others are frankly horrible.
While welcoming the concept of Fair Trade, which guarantees a minimum price to producers in a volatile market, it is no indicator of sustainability or quality. Producers who meet Fair Trade’s requirements get a fixed price for their coffee which depends on the state of the market, being higher when the market prices are higher than Fair Trade’s baseline. This is undoubtedly a very valuable scheme for many, but the best coffee producers have more profitable routes to market.
This organisation is a step-up from Fair Trade, not only improving prices but also actively seeking to grow coffee sustainably while preserving biodiversity. Although more concerned with improving yield than quality, their training of producers, provision of better equipment, and making the most of opportunities to improve return, mean that quality often benefits too. If you must buy your coffee from the supermarket I recommend you choose coffees with Rainforest Alliance certification.
I can think of no good term for these coffees where labelling is more to do with marketing than anything else. Examples include Columbian Supremo, where ‘Supremo’ relates to bean size and not directly to quality. Another is Brazilian Santos, which is coffee from any Brazilian region shipped through the port of Santos. These designations are meaningless from a quality perspective but they are often sold as premium products and you will doubtless pay more to purchase them. Of course good roasting and well-selected beans can still result in very good coffee but the designation itself is little guide.
Some coffee producing regions, such as the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, have trademarked their coffee and received world-wide recognition. Single origin coffees are usually sold at a premium, hopefully with some added benefit to the producers. Some Sidamo coffees are superb and others are indifferent but they can be lumped together under the same origin. A region may encompass a wide variety of different coffee cultivars and production and processing methods. You will certainly pay more for your single origin coffee but the best will not be sold this way.
This is where it all comes together, at least for artisan roasters. The very best coffee can usually be traced to individual estates and growers and particular cultivars. Some estates in Brazil and Columbia might be huge enterprises. Other producers in places like Rwanda or Papua New Guinea are not truly estates but are co-operatives of small plantations, or even gardens, sharing processing facilities.
The specialist coffee industry has developed to the point where even small producers of excellent coffees will get above-market prices from specialist coffee brokers. Some producers have taken this to heart and are continually striving to improve their return by enhancing the quality of their product. While I have over-simplified this story, this is where the true riches of coffee can be found, where producers can make decent returns, and where the art of a good coffee roaster can transform an unprepossessing green bean into something very special indeed.