Is Green Coffee > Coffee?

Why the obsession with green coffee?

Let me rephrase that. Why such relatively-little attention paid on the other stuff in coffee?

Off the top of my head, let’s make a list of ten major distinct areas directly involving coffee. Note: I’m intentionally leaving out important social, environmental, or ethical issues here. Let’s just look at the coffee for a moment:

Coffee growing & cultivation
Coffee processing
Export/import of coffee
Cupping & Quality Control
Retailing & Service

If you’re tempted to, don’t pick my list apart. That’s not the point.

The point is, how much innovation or “progress” in each of these ten areas have we seen in the past, let’s say ten again… ten years? Again, let me do this off the top of my head: on a scale of one to ten, for each one, let me assign a number rating the amount of advancement I’ve observed on a significant scale. 10 is high, 1 is low. I’m also going to re-order them in order of highest to lowest:

Export/import of coffee : 8
Coffee growing & cultivation : 8
Coffee processing : 8
Espresso : 6
Retailing & Service : 4
Brewing : 4
Cupping & Quality Control : 4
Grinding : 3
Roasting : 2
Packaging : 2

Looking back over my ratings there, I already want to re-think some of those, but I won’t. The specifics aren’t important.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why this is the case. Why the dominant focus on coffee-origin issues? There’s the obvious: coffee is grown, cultivated, processed, and exported from some of the poorest countries in the world. A major (if not majority) part of the limitations in coffee is due to just how much improvement potential there is in origin-work. It’s super-important work. This post is not in any way calling that into question.

But what about the low-rated stuff?

SCAA has a Symposium, now in its fourth year. There’s a tiny bit of consumer-marketing stuff at times, but it’s dominated by origin-specific content. The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI), now renamed World Coffee Research, is also origin-focused. In Europe, you see ASIC, but the consuming-world content included is not the sort of stuff that pushes forward on the low-rated stuff up there in my list. It’s more mass-market company oriented information.

Perhaps those low-rated elements simply need less improvement, either because they’re already high-quality, or because they’re less important. Maybe. But I have some other thoughts. Three thoughts to be exact:

1) The “Helping The Farmer” Trap

The coffee farmers need our help. This is true. It’s also something people say far too often without any meaningful understanding about the actual farmers, what help they need, and how that relates to what you’re doing.

I might expound on this topic some more in the future, but for now: I think “helping the farmer” is definitely related to good intentions. I also think there’s some economic imperialism, subtle and inadvertent racism, and American/European exceptionalism involved. Okay, that’s some heavy shit I just threw down there, and I’ll do my best to get more into this topic in a future blog post.

How this relates to this particular post is that “helping the farmer,” in its myriad manifestations in our industry, gets the bulk of our focus because in many ways it’s the quick and easy answer to everything. “Quick and easy” is a relative term. I guess it begs: What’s not quick and easy?

2) What’s Not Quick and Easy

Of all of the consuming-world stuff in the list, the highest-rated is espresso. There have been undeniable advances in espresso over the past decade. I believe that the reason is two-fold: it’s because of the World Barista Championship (and its repercussions throughout the specialty coffee world), and because enough people were able to admit that their espresso could be better.

How does roasting improve? Perhaps first, you have to identify poor-quality roasting. Identifying poor-quality roasting, in our too-small fishbowl of a specialty coffee sector, is pretty much the same thing as identifying poor-quality roasting in specific companies.

You know what I’m talking about. Anyone reading this blog post who has been in the industry for more than a couple years has talked shit to someone about a peer-group coffee company’s roasting, baristas, roast or espresso or filter coffee quality, etc. But this criticism, no matter how confident you might feel about its merits, occurs in private.

“I think Wrecking Ball’s Yirgacheffe single-origin espresso that I tasted last week had clear indications of scorching and tipping. You should check it out, taste the coffee, and find out what Trish is doing to make that roasting defect happen.” If this were true (which it’s obviously not), and we lived in a world where such a statement was not insulting, risky, and bridge-burning, there’d be a ton of learning to be had by all. How often do I have a hand-brewed cup of coffee at a renown coffee shop, and having observed the barista at work, could give 5 easy tips to make that coffee taste better? Sure, I COULD, but I never would. To do so would be a slap in the face of friends and colleagues and a major violation of the unwritten social contract we live under.

Criticizing origin-related stuff is easy. They’re poor farmers. They don’t know any better. Criticizing each other, that’s really difficult, if not impossible. But thankfully, public disparagement isn’t the only way people learn. Too bad we don’t have the other way either.

3) No Coffee Education

There is no tradition in our industry of institutionalized coffee professional education. There is no culinary-school degree equivalent in coffee. Save a few isolated botany-related programs, there is no university education to be had in coffee. World-champion baristas can have worked for 10 years in coffee, and they likely don’t know something as fundamental as the chemical process of de-esterification of chlorogenic acid or specifically why coffee particle “fines” happen during grinding.

One might object, “But many successful chefs didn’t go to culinary school!” That’s true. But they live in a world where culinary school exists, and decades of traditions have established fundamental concepts and principles, and a culture and history that is the foundation of an industry. Some chef may have skipped culinary school, yes, but there was something there that they essentially tested-out of. They paid their dues and learned all if not most of that stuff a different way.

Our industry is full of creative, passionate people. That’s for sure. It’s also full of college drop-outs (like me). It’s full of people who work at a coffeeshop for two weeks and read a little of James Hoffmann’s blog and then they’re out droppin’ knowledge on everyone who can’t run as fast as them. It’s full of people who bought a 3-pound coffee roasting machine but have little to no training on how to roast coffee and get interviewed by the local newspaper and are now deemed the town’s coffee expert.

Someday, hopefully not too far in the future, we’ll have some real coffee education. Yes, there are multiple places in the U.S. that teach “coffee business,” mixing basic skills and information with business and management training, but even those are at the most 5-day programs. I’m talking about  something like a 2-year accredited degree or certification program. What would our industry look like if there were programs like that offered in a few places around the country and around the world? I would love to find out.

There needs to be a lot more researched, learned, taught, and improved in coffee varieties and agronomy and processing and such. Absolutely. But as I continue to meet baristas all over, I see passionate and intelligent people who are absolutely starved for some real learning that would support their careers. SCAA education is the best stuff out there right now, and it’s improved by leaps and bounds over the past 2-3 years, but it too still has a long, long way to go; and even then, I don’t know that this is a problem that SCAA is best equipped to solve. I think the market for formal coffee education needs to be developed. The conditions are more ideal for this sort of development in Asia than in North America or Europe, but that too is for another post someday.

So yeah. More focus on that stuff that needs more focus. More teaching. More learning. More skills development. More sharing. But over it all, more professionalism. But it’ll take one little baby step at a time. Etc. Etc. Blah-blah-blah. How are you supposed to end these blog-post things, eh?

6 Responses to Is Green Coffee > Coffee?

  1. Nick… much as consumers like the fuzzy charm of helping the farmers, don’t you think “imperialism” and “racism” are going a bit overboard?

    All this shit needed to be among the best costs something, whether you’re a farmer, a washing station, a roaster or a coffeehouse. And the farther up the chain you get, the more expensive it is to reach that next percentile. Education is a big part of that expense.

    You get around within the industry more than I and maybe you do know a bunch of naive imperialists. However, my take on this is what’s happened in the past decade or so is the willingness (due to development of a profitable specialty coffee market) to invest in farms through microloans and other tangibles to up the quality. Somehow I’m not picturing Geoff Watts as Bwana out there in the weeds telling farmers they’re doing it all wrong, y’know?

    I dunno, but I think if more farmers had access to cash and technology (not to mention infrastructure) to up their game and grow better coffee, that provides more benefit for the entire supply chain (and consumers) than a development of a new burr set, ya think?

    I’m not arguing the need for continuing education or even a degree program, just the assumption that we’ve somehow got priorities wrong.

    Or are you just setting the stage to flee the country and open up a school in Seoul?

  2. Jeff verellen says:

    Farmers who specialise will become powerfull, there are already great examples of “rock star” farmers with good merit. They do a lot of the work, its to the transporters, roasters, brewers to bring it home or screw it up.

  3. Brandon Paul Weaver says:

    I would love more education. Its all guerrilla tactics getting coffee knowledge these days.

  4. Thanks Nic for that excellent discourse on the state of coffee knowledge. I agree with you. In large part, that is exactly why we started World Coffee Research, as you know. The reason why WCR is focused on constraints at origin is two fold. On one hand, we have some urgent problems facing the industry on supplies of quality coffee and the quality of that supply. To make matters worse, climate change and genetic constriction/vulnerability are looming land mines to what is already a huge threat. Its like why worry too much about the effect of grind size on fruity acidity when we might not have anything worth grinding in the first place. On the other hand, WCR purposely left the domain of roasted coffee research and development alone because this is where many companies conduct their own research to differentiate themselves from others thus gaining a competitive advantage. Despite that, there are areas within the realm of ‘roasted coffee’ research that do merit attention and the SCAA has recently hired a scientific officer and I think that Emma will be working to fill many of those gaps through experimentation and research literature review and then share everything with industry. So, for me, it looks like things are going to start looking better soon on all fronts and as such I am wishing you a very enlightened 2012 year!!

  5. Chris says:

    Since you’ve decided to make one of my few a-political guilty pleasures political, I find it necessary to chime in. What you are dealing with here is both the positive and negative of capitalism. What starts out as a great humanitarian effort to help free trade and impoverished farmers in third world countries, quickly becomes the next chic, “I feel better about myself” marketing opportunities; thereby destroying the original intent. With successful capitalism comes competition and so long as you play within the blurred boundaries that are the rules of the game, then no harm, no foul is decreed – it’s pseudo charity on marketing steroids driven by shallow selfish people who want to put a check in the box to pretend to be helping other less fortunate cultures. The reality is that in order to prevent domination by the few who can manipulate the market you must educate the masses as to what is really important when they choose to support a cause. Unfortunately, first you have to get the participants to really care and not just go through the motions. Call me jaded, but I think it’s too late in today’s microwave, anything goes society.

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