(ADVANCED) – Sustainable Growth in Specialty Coffee Industry

…what it is and what can we do.

Yesterday there was an important panel discussion on Stronghold, dedicated to the topic of sustainable growth in the specialty coffee industry. It impacted me deeply, and I decided to take my time today and write about what I learned and what it made me think about. I shared the link on top, so I hope they’ll have english subtitles soon, and I highly recommend to watch it to all of you who are deeply curious about coffee as an industry. 

What impacted me the most is the fact that if we do nothing in the following couple of years for promoting specialty coffee, we will encounter ourselves dealing with the problem of overproduction of specialty coffee lots that wouldn’t be able to be sold at the price the farmers hope to sell them. 

The fermentation craze started not so long ago, and boomed recently, and many farmers are now learning how to do it, seeing that green coffee importers or coffee roasters who do the direct trade, they are ready to be paying higher prices for the funky lots. We as an industry are learning a ton about coffee because of these experiments.

The problem is that first, the production of specialty is predicted to be growing faster than consumption. The production is growing roughly 10% per year, but the consumption is far from that. 

And what it can lead to is farmers, small farmers, failing to sell those lots, and or going broke in the worst case scenario, or coming back to producing simpler coffees that they know will always find the customer.

That was the first thing that made me think. 

That we should stop thinking that we are not connected, that there are producers, clients, customers, etc – and see the big picture. We are all connected, and the farmers are doing their part, risking their money investing in equipment, growing other more expensive, or new and tricky varieties

And what are we doing? How are we helping? 

I am actually asking myself. 

The second issue that made me take a fresh look at the situation was what Timur Dudkin said. About coffee hunters. 

Some years ago there was a whole profession. Coffee hunter, A person who travelled a lot, looking for the coffee gems, talking to people, finding those farms and those farmers. There was a certain idea behind it – good coffees are there, hidden, and have to be discovered and then hunted. For nobody else to have it, only you. A very romantic profession, at least it looked like it. Lots of adventures, meeting new people, speaking various languages.

It’s needless to say that this is over. 

We entered the time now, when we see the full picture, or at least we are really trying, and we understand that instead of hunting for great coffee, the best thing you can do is to help to cultivate that great coffee. Secure the crop, invest into the necessary equipment, help with the knowledge and training, and most importantly make sure that the producer can work calmly for the next couple of seasons, without a constant thought if his labour will get fairly paid. 

This is a completely different level of “we are paying the fair prices and maintaining close relationships with the farmer”, the slogan so many coffee companies use, when the only thing they actually do is buying coffee from the green coffee importer, and buying the one that is cheaperThis is no different than shopping at the supermarket – if one won’t have what you need, you’ll go to another one in a blink of an eye

It is not enough anymore, and, more importantly, it is not sustainable. 

We, who are on the other side of the chain, have to add more value to the specialty coffee. But how? Should we travel to the origin, visit the farms and post on instagram, showing how close we actually are with the farmer and how much we care? Should we buy extremely expensive lots? Should we charge more for coffee? 

Or should we stay where we are, and work our own territory? Our own coffee shops, roasteries, blogs and instagrams? To grow sustainably from this end?  

I am asking myself these questions too. How can I help? Here, now, and, most importantly, with integrity. 

Integrity is not the last thing here. You have to act from the heart, even when you are doing marketing and sales, otherwise it is simply not sustainable for you – you won’t last. 

If I had to start somewhere, I would try to make specialty coffee look more achievable for the normal people, and less “hipsterish” and elitistic.

More approachable. More fun, Easy to enjoy. Because it actually is. Specialty coffee in the majority is produced by people who love every single bean they grow and every single piece of the lands where they live – take the “pura vida” way of living in Costa Rica, for example. Grateful for life.

And why on the other side not to simply connect it with people who enjoy every single cup they drink? With all the differences between us, this is certainly one thing all us can relate to. That moment when the world slows down, and you are enjoying a damn good cup of coffee. 

Published by liza maksimova

Q Grader. Roast Master. SCAE certified.

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