In asking ourselves where we are as an industry today, we necessarily have to question where we were before and what is different now. The things that have not changed, in the fifty years or so that I have been drinking coffee, are some basic questions: Who needs good coffee? Who could really use a good cup of coffee? Who would really, regularly, appreciate a great cup of coffee? What could stop a dedicated coffee farmer from catering to those requirements?
What has changed, however, are the things that might get in the way. After fifty years of slowly raising the expectations of coffee drinkers, the specialty coffee industry faces several grave risks that emanate from forces and conditions that dwarf the plight of any one coffee peddler.
The chief long-term threat to the specialty coffee industry is climate change due to human activity. Coffee farmers, even those who were not even aware that such terms as “Global Warming” and “Climate Change” existed, have been dealing with the effects of climate change and anticipating more for years. These coffee growers, many of whom have not even been to the equivalent of high school, have been working on these projects for well over ten, and in some cases twenty, years.
Coffee has been identified as a potential economic lifeline for millions of people around the world. Hundreds of economic aid programs now extant are built around assisting coffee farmers. Such organizations, mostly NGOs, depend upon the work of supporting research and training organizations including the Coffee Quality Institute [http://www.coffeeinstitute.org], the World Coffee Research project [http://worldcoffeeresearch.org], and others. This is in addition to the increasingly sophisticated work of the national laboratories that exist in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica, among others.
Concomitantly, direct aid is being provided to farmers at the most practical levels. This is being done in Antioquia by providing intensive training for the region’s most promising young coffee farmers and “New Generation Coffee” camps for young people, while mobile coffee labs and training facilities have been allocated to serve more remote farmers. Additionally, a vibrant effort has been established to promote domestic consumption of high quality coffees, which allows farmers to domestically market their coffees independently. The results of these programs are important because the specialty industry faces a supply risk that overlays the perils of climate change: As food prices escalate, many farmers will find alternative crops that yield significant return for far less effort and risk, especially within the context of climate change. If the supply of fine specialty coffees is to be found down the line, it’s likely to be much more expensive than industry members or coffee drinkers expect. So while higher prices can ensure the likelihood of continued production, they obviously do not ensure that coffee drinkers will want to pay those high prices. As an industry, those of us who are in the business of selling specialty coffee need to start preparing our customers for much higher prices that could present themselves as early as the end of 2015.
The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation has provided assistance to coffee farmers throughout the country for years, although the programs have been general in approach and the resources offered are designed to apply to a wide audience of coffee farmers. Other government or quasi-governmental agencies have consistently supported and represented the efforts and needs of coffee farmers over the years.
In other origins, a continued lack of transparency, and commitment to corrupt practices at the highest levels of some producing countries’ ruling classes constitute another threat to the vibrant production of higher quality coffees. Unless farmers know that they themselves will be benefit directly from a commitment to quality, the overall quality of a given country’s coffee will obviously decline.
The risk of alternative production is one thing, but the risk of no production at all due to farmers deciding to cash out of their properties is another concern of government officials. As an industry, we need to ensure that coffee farmers continue to be motivated and have the tools to stay the course and remain focused on producing better coffee for coffee drinkers. We can do this by supporting the many programs mentioned herein or ones like them, or by simply developing direct relationships with farmers.
The Pernicious Best Coffee
Speaking of the “best” coffee, one last threat to the vibrant and dynamic health of the coffee industry needs to be mentioned: that is the expectation on the part of consumers that there is a single “best” coffee out there waiting for them. Coffee drinkers, and the specialty coffee industry, will be much better off when they come to understand that there is no one “best coffee,” but an increasingly better variety of exciting coffees from all over the world. Roasted by a wide variety of dedicated specialty coffee roasters, they can bring an incredible array of specialty coffees from an increasingly deep selection of roasts and origins.
It’s true that many specialty coffee drinkers will find a favorite coffee they will always return to, but by educating coffee drinkers to the variety of coffee and roasting styles available to them, they not only drink more coffee, but they might even come to appreciate their favorite one even more.