Knowing where your coffee comes from

When you buy coffee from speciality roasters you know where it comes from. This is so important because it creates a link between the consumers and producers, which helps in the battle towards fairer wages and working conditions for those at the start of the supply chain. But currently less than 1% of farmers sell into this market, so what can be done to improve the coffee industry in general?

Traceability (creating physical links along the supply chain so that you know where a product has come from) has always been a positive factor associated with the speciality coffee industry. Speciality coffee roasters pay a premium for coffee deemed speciality grade scored by the SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America), and whether this is sourced “direct” or through speciality green coffee merchants, they will often note the specific attributes of the coffee, including location and farming practices. It’s this level of detail, along with others such as quality, which really differentiates speciality coffee from commercially traded coffee. But wouldn’t it be great if this approach was industry wide and not just in the speciality market! So how should we widen the net so that transparency is improved on a larger scale?

Well firstly, obtaining accurate, reliable data is key. And having a place where this data can be shared, reviewed, analysed and passed onto the end consumer, either directly or via the roaster. Data may include (but is certainly not limited to):

  • Accurate farm size and production data so that yield can be calculated. This can then be used as a baseline to assess the impacts of certification programs, e.g. how has a farmer training programme objective improved farmer yields by year 2, 3, 4 etc.

  • Identifying and recording processes and practices that affect bean quality. This may include the type of ‘inputs’ being used (e.g. insecticides, pesticides, organic, fertilizers etc.), the quality of water used for irrigation or the agricultural practices, such as pruning, soil condition etc.

  • Recording and evidence of premiums paid, which can be trickier. Origin visits can help but this isn’t sustainable on a larger scale. The improvement of technology can help increase transparency in this area but it’s the partnership of those involved (producers, exporters, roasters, retailers, consumers) that will ensure this data is credible.

In some cases, the roaster is in the unique position of bridging the gap between consumer and producer. They can also act as the messenger for much of this data and information. A somewhat simplistic view is that the key difference between a speciality and commercial roaster is the desire to understand, validate and pass on that information to the end consumer.

Keeping a close eye on friends at Geotraceability, I still very much have the belief that it is their type of tools and technology that can increase levels of transparency in both speciality and commercial markets. As the speciality market grows with an increasing number of speciality green bean merchants, roasters, cafes and drinkers, and as technology becomes more affordable, reliable and accessible, there is an opportunity to develop more credible data and more credible partnerships between the people who help to create the brew we all love.

But what will bring about this change and what can we do? Well maybe the simplest place to start is for us as consumers to start asking where our coffee has come from when we buy it. This will send the message that we are interested and would like the large commercial roasters to be able to tell us. 

coffee picker

Authors: Dan Webber, Hannah Hobden

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