On the Shoulders of Giants

For Susie Spindler, coffee is more than a drink. As founder of the Cup of Excellence program, the most prestigious award given to a fine quality coffee, and creator of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence—the nonprofit organization that owns and manages the Cup of Excellence—Spindler believes that coffee brings the world closer together.

Growing up just north Salt Lake City, Utah, Spindler went to school in Utah followed by graduate school in Arizona. Spindler’s first job out of graduate school was in marketing research, but her first job in the coffee industry was working for the International Coffee Organization (ICO) helping to increase coffee consumption in the United States.

“I was fortunate to receive great training in my first position with the ICO,” Spindler says. “I worked with high-level coffee people who were willing to share their valuable coffee and life expertise and I was able to create and manage very unique projects that helped upgrade the image and quality of coffee to younger people.”

After having been away from the coffee industry for a few years, the ICO position helped Spindler transition back into the project that eventually became Cup of Excellence.

“Having the creative freedom with the ICO, learning so much about coffee, and building long-lasting relationships in the industry allowed me the space to feel comfortable working on a program that had never been tried before,” Spindler says.

Founding and managing Cup of Excellence is by far the most gratifying job Spindler has had within the industry as it has allowed her to witness firsthand the joy of farmers who have won the competition.

“I have watched as their lives have completely changed for the better. I have also had the pleasure of experiencing coffees that no one knew existed and shared the excitement of cuppers also finding these gems for the first time,” Spindler says. “By meeting so many cuppers and spending time with them at the competitions, I have also made priceless friendships across the globe and watched as small quality coffee companies have grown into successful businesses.”

As part of her role with the Cup of Excellence, Spindler travels extensively around the world, offering eye-opening experiences throughout her adventures. “The poverty is always very sad, especially when one considers that such great wealth exists among the few. But the beauty of the land, the wildlife, and often the irresistible and huge smiles of the children are unforgettable.”

As the Executive Director of The Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Spindler also manages the Cup of Excellence program.

Through her many years of experience, Spindler says the biggest challenges she faces are often an entrenched infrastructure that does not empower individual farmers.

“The barriers can be NGO, governmental, social, or economic,” Spindler says. “Cup of Excellence is a good example of trickle up economics—rewarding the individual farmer is paramount.”

As Spindler explains, historically so much international development funding went to large NGOs, to government or large companies that little of it reached or empowered the farmer to build a better life for themselves.

“The historical infrastructure in producing coffee countries has not been one that would empower a farmer to fully understand the value of the product he/she was selling,” Spindler says. “Even today, much of the development funding partners with corporations.  So essentially, too much development money is benefiting the multi-national corporations that do not need it.”

Spindler also points out that the coffee industry has been historically male dominated. Too often if a woman won a Cup of Excellence it was her father or husband that would pick up the award and, even now there are still very few female cuppers.

“This is finally beginning to change, albeit very slowly,” Spindler says. Women farmers are so very proud to win and they are beginning to feel comfortable building long-term relationships, but there is still much to be done.”

susie copyAnother challenge that Spindler sees facing the industry surrounds the effort of getting consumers to recognize and pay for high-quality coffees so that roasters can pay more to farmers.

“Consumers tend to buy the certifications and often these coffees are not the highest quality nor do the farmers get rewarded, Spindler says. “ Setting premium prices based on absolute quality and not on the nuances of an ever-changing futures market has been a challenge as well as has been the economic bust and boom of the marketplaces.”

Throughout her long-term career in the coffee industry, Spindler has learned an important thing: As individuals, most of us are very similar, no matter where we live.

“We all want to do what is best for our families and to contribute something positive,” Spindler says. “We all have global friends regardless of our politics, a sense of humor about the pleasures and pains of life, and most of us are disappointed in our governments.  We all want to leave a better world even though we do not always know how to do this.  Coffee is the most global product there is. We either drink it or we grow it and some do both. It could be such a catalyst for bridging the gap between countries, peoples and politics.”

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