The Danger of Hype Over Quality

Do you remember when “Gourmet” meant something good? How about the term, “The Best”? If you see either of these things you are for sure being sold something that isn’t either one.

So now look at the phrase, “Specialty Coffee”. This is even more difficult because no one could define it in the first place so now everybody’s coffee is ‘special’. To some it means a Pumpkin Spiced Latte with a beautifully designed rosette on top. Frankly, it means whatever the marketing department wants you to believe it means.

The demise of these words and expressions is due to hype taking the place of quality when discussing a product; in this case, coffee. This happens because there is no way to prove a claim false. If the coffee shop owner thinks his coffee is the best, then he markets “The Best” coffee. At least it is to him so you can’t really prove he is wrong. But if the shop across the street also sells the best coffee, isn’t somebody wrong?

All the hype causes confusion for the customer. The consumer is less likely to part with larger dollars for something if she feels she is being duped by advertising. When this happens, it has the potential of decreasing the value of actual great coffee and can run down the supply chain. Imagine a progressive coffee farmer getting damaged for doing the extra work needed to export a 90+ coffee but the marketing departments degraded the trust of the consumer.

In 2015 this problem must be addressed more completely. The solution has started, but many don’t know it. As with most questions of ambiguity, a standard to which you define something must be created so legitimate comparisons can be made. This standard exists for half of the supply chain; from farmer to roaster.

The standard for Arabica coffee is the Q-System of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) and the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). It is a standard that allows participants in the transaction of green beans to judge, reward, punish and discuss the qualities of any given lot of coffee. If you are in the green trade, you are either a Certified Q-Grader already, or at least you should familiar with the system. It allows a far more objective look at the attributes of a lot of coffee and is a key in the efforts of price discovery. It helps define quantitatively the value of the coffee.

Is this a perfect system? Of course not! But it is the most perfect one we have for the job; defining the standards to which all coffees can be judged.

Starting in 2015 there will be over 4000 Q-Graders in the world spanning most producing and consuming countries. This now has the “critical mass” of participants to make this the standard methodology for grading green coffee lots. But there is an important part of this industry solution missing.

This will be the challenge for 2015: Creating a final product scoring system, developing consumer awareness that a subjective scoring
system exists, and finding a way for consumers to access the new system.

If a “critical mass” of people from the roaster to the consumer could agree on how to define quality in coffee in a simple and trustworthy way, the industry would be able to easily demand higher prices for higher quality roasted coffee in the same way it is working for the green coffee.

Many look to the wine industry for a comparison. If you walk into any given wine store you will see industry scores posted next to the bottles that give you a number rating the overall quality and some word descriptors to help you understand taste attributes. The same can happen for coffee. Remember, this scoring system judges the vintners ability as well as the grapes that were used.

What does the solution look like?
1)    It must be done by an objective third party with no interest in the coffee. Otherwise we will be right back to “My coffee is the best because we scored it a 100!”
2)    It will be designed to grade the final roasted bean product, but not the skill of the barista and the resulting drink as there are several factors that can’t be objectively judged. (Unless the barista will go to the home of the person buying the coffee and produce the drink every time.)
3)    The system has to be versatile enough to adapt to the many ways coffee beans are produced for the consumer: Light to dark roasts, single varietals and blends, as well as packaging decisions such as whole bean or K-Cup.
4)    The score must be for a specific lot, or blend which must be consistently tested to maintain its score.

Sounds simple enough…. But alas, it is not!

Until CQI, SCAA, or some other 3rd party steps up to the challenge, other systems will emerge and prove the concept in ‘micro-markets’. Cup Of Excellence (COE) is a great example of this.

COE as a ‘brand’ helps roasters sell the coffees that win in their competition. It is easily shown to be an objective system and the scores reflect a nice high score for the best of the best coffees from the winning entries. Unfortunately the competitions are few and far between and really it is just another way to judge the green beans and not the final roasted product.

So, the State Of The Industry for coffee is one that can be left to languish in the ambiguity of hype, or perhaps someone will finally step up in 2015 and create a consumer facing scoring system and allow a true reward for quality to start happening. Whoever does it will change the lives of everyone that cares enough to strive for true quality in their work.

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