Denomination of Origin

Creating Geographical Indications for Coffee

By Laura Everage

In this Symposium session, Paul Songer of Songer & Associates, Inc. and Luis Fernando Samper of Colombian Coffee Growers Federation presented two separate approaches to creating geographical indications. In Rwanda, the analysis was made purely on a cup basis, while in Colombia extensive lab testing and verification has been employed. Along the lines of the wine model, these types of projects help identify and protect specific regional flavors, provide interesting research for developing supply lines, and create marketing opportunities on both sides of the value chain.

The session’s moderator, Daniele Giovannucci set the stage for the discussion and the implications for the specialty coffee industry. Having recently participated in a Geographical Indications (GI) Project in partnership with the United Nations International Trade Centre, Giovannucci served as part of a multinational team which reviewed more than 200 studies and publications on the topic in order to evaluate what different developing country origins have done, and to document best practices and lessons learned. The goal was to provide an objective guide to understanding, forming and using GIs effectively. The finished publication, Guide to Geographical Indications: Linking Products to Their Origins, International Trade Centre: Geneva is available for free at

Giovannucci defines geographical indications as “a good or product that originates in a very specific territory where a noted quality or reputation for particular characteristic of that product.” He continued, “It can be attributable to a place, a specific geographical origin, but also refers to the human aspect or the natural factors that occur there, including the cultivation and process, all which are important to the final product.”
Not a new concept, geographical indications have been explored in various ways by governments and individuals. In 1992 the European Union implemented legislation that would protect the reputation of regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products that may be of inferior quality or of different flavor. These laws protect the names of wines, cheeses, hams, sausages, olives, beers, Balsamic vinegar and even regional breads, fruits, and vegetables. This system is similar to Appellation systems throughout the world, which includes the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) in France, or the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) used in Italy, among others.

The use of geographical indications is part of a $50 billion global market that continues to grow due to the increased knowledge that a legal demarcation of specific areas can help improve the development in countries by providing producers with a way to focus on quality by meeting standards that are designated by the GI.
To illustrate current efforts in coffee to create GIs, the Symposium session highlighted two projects aimed at helping identify and protect specific regional flavors.

Paul Songer, of Songer & Associates, Inc., on SPREAD in Rwanda

Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD) is a developmental alliance among U.S. and Rwandan universities, U.S. and European industries, Rwandan enterprises and institutions, and U.S. and Rwandan NGOs. Funded by USAID, SPREAD is led by the prestigious Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. Dr. Tim Schilling, serves as Director for Enterprise Development and Partnerships.

Following a discussion between Schilling and Songer in Rwanda touching on the observation that different regions of Rwanda had considerably different flavor attributes as well as different growing conditions, the idea of creating potential appellation distinctions emerged. Songer then joined with SPREAD to help initiate the development of appellation designations based upon flavor profiles for Rwanda regional coffees. With the full support of the Rwandan Government, the purpose of the Rwandan Appellation Project was to develop flavor profiles based upon regional coffee samples and to investigate which flavor attributes are unique to Rwanda and would aid in distinguishing the coffees from others currently on the market.

By developing flavor profiles based upon regional coffee samples, the hope was that the results could lead to the determination of a GI, and, in turn, lead to a legally designated appellation. Further, there was a desire to determine a flavor profile that could be recognized as unique within the world market. By doing so, coffee farmers could be provided with a framework in which to maintain the ideal flavor profile according to the needs of the market.

“In our research, we found that what is required for consumers to respond favorably to an appellation is a verifiable signal,” explained Songer. “And in this case, that signal is a flavor profile—a recognizable and different flavor profile. But in addition to that, the claim of origin must be credible. For example, if you say it is a Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, the consumer must truly believe that it comes from that place.”
In order to aid in the discovery of these specific flavor profiles, the SPREAD project focused on descriptively analyzing coffee samples. The purpose of this method was to determine which flavor profiles had the greatest possibility of an appellation designation based upon its uniqueness of flavor profile and the consistency with which the flavor profile was found in the designated appellation region.

As Songer explained, what is different about this method, than others traditionally used to describe, or score, coffee, is that it relies on descriptively analyzing coffees according to their geographical region in order to ascertain the probability—or possibility—of a GI. This qualitative process is different than those based upon a numerical, or a quantitative system, as is common with the Q grading system or the Cup of Excellence scoring system.

“By focusing in qualitative details of coffee, asking questions such as ‘What does it taste like,’ we could attempt to describe in greater detail what kind of acids, what kind of aromas—orange or peach, and the relative intensity of the almond found in the sample,” Songer explained. “In this manner, panelists develop and use their own descriptions, which makes it an open-ended and creative process. And, once this is accomplished, we would seek to determine the geographical borders of that profile.”

He continued, “We started with flavor, then determined the borders, and then determined if specific geography, processing, soil or other features were likely to be causing the flavors. It is a grounds-up approach, starting with coffee and building from that.”

But as Songer pointed out, when using this qualitative process, there is the potential for inconsistencies in information obtained due to the varying sensitivities and personal preferences which can affect how one describes coffee from day to day. “Further, variables such as grind, the water quality and the roast can affect what is being described,” said Songer. “So, we found we had to create a stage-by-stage description analysis.”
Four international panelists from the US and seven panelists from Rwanda participated in the study. All were professional cuppers chosen for their sensitivity to flavor and ability to describe the coffee’s individual flavor attributes. To ensure proper analysis, the panel was trained in the use of sensory terms using solutions and aromatics known to produce specific sensory responses.

Coffee samples were retained from the Golden Cup competition, which were most likely to represent high standards of flavor profiles and were representative of the proposed appellations of North Region, Central Kivu and North Huye.

The samples were sensorially analyzed using descriptive methods, and one of the three was selected as being representative of the flavor attributes most likely to be found in that region. Results were then compared to the two other samples from the region to examine consistency.

As Songer noted in his report, Development of Appellation: Designations based upon Flavor Profiles for Rwanda Regional Coffees, “The data was analyzed using various statistical methods. First, a flavor profile for each individual sample was developed based on the individual flavor attributes described by the panel. The samples were then compared to one another and models of flavor interrelationships drawn to see which samples stood out as being unique. The first model was based upon the primary flavor characteristics found, the second included other flavor attributes including mouth feel, and the third was a model based upon individual panelist responses. This analysis revealed that there were considerable differences in flavor attributes. The flavor profiles and models were then compared to the remaining samples. The final analysis was drawn determining the number of times the flavor attributes was found in samples from the same regions.”

The findings from this study revealed that there is a definite possibility of drawing appellations based upon unique flavor profiles. Samples from at least three of the areas (North Region, Central Kivu, and North Huye) met the criteria of producing unique distinctive flavor profiles, and that they can consistently come from the same region.

Going forward, “We have a desire to find the geographic and processing aspects that cause those flavors, and then conduct chemical analysis in order to correlate sensory results with this,” explained Songer. “Most importantly, we want to establish standards that will create most valuable coffees. Therefore we must investigate the origin in terms of its physical features such a soil, humidity, and so on to determine what it is that produces a specific flavor in the coffee.”

He added, “To further complement these efforts, one of the ways in which the program built value was by training cuppers and increasing the quality of the coffee. To that end, they have been bringing in cuppers for training, such as Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia, Lindsey Bolger of Green Mountain, Peter Giuliano of Counterculture, and Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia of Union Coffee in London.”
Beyond this,” he adds, “it will be important to take the coffee to the consumer to determine if they can recognize these different flavor attributes and whether they are willing to pay the price premium for these attributes.”

Luis Fernando Samper, director of intellectual property, Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, on Colombia

The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation is on the forefront of research dedicated to analyzing the benefits of geographical indications for the farmers, but for the consumers as well. As the first non-European country to obtain protected geographic indication, the two types which apply to Colombian Coffee are The Protected Geographic Indication (PGI), and the Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO). Modeled after the Bordeaux wine model, Colombian regions have their own GI within Café de Colombia. More recently, they began GI work in five regions, with Nariño and Cauca applying for recognition before Colombian authorities last year. They expect formal recognition sometime this year.

Samper spoke of the work focused on objectively defining a region based upon the collection of data and further analysis. “It is one thing to have a profile of a coffee,” explained Samper, “it is another to demonstrate a link between the environment, and the quality and type of product from that area.”
The Colombian approach was to use an exhaustive scientific approach to gather data and analyze it for the purpose of creating specific areas of demarcation.

“First you have to objectively define the region,” he explained. And to do so, complex soil sampling was collected in the northern region of Nariño as well as the southern area of Cauca, just north of Nariño. Additionally, processing information and climate records were gathered, all of which were input into a statistical model then evaluated. “The project resulted in 1,234 variables per sample, ranging from geographical climate, production systems, varieties, soil analysis, all the biochemical components, and everything in between.”

Once analyzed from a sensorial and biochemical standpoint, the data revealed certain geographical clusters sharing common information. This allowed them to think about what a potential region of origin could be. “As a result of the variables collected, we came up with a geographical region and a product description. Mapping specifically in Nariño and the northern state of Cauca, we came up with geographical cultures, or environmental offerings that allowed us to think about the region of origin of linking it to coffee,” he added.
“We were able to correlate the variables with a specific with growing environment and find clusters that could be used to find a potential GI. But,” as Samper said, “it is one thing to find a correlation, and another thing to find out what causes that correlation.”

Instead of taking the collected data at face value, the Federation used resources from Cenicafe, a program of the Federation focused on generating sustainable, competitive, and appropriate technologies for the welfare of the Colombian coffee growers. Specifically, “we talked to those who know coffee tree and we have these correlations and ask them if these correlations made sense from the coffee tree functioning perspective.” From this, they were able to use statistical analysis as well as information from those who know the tree inside and out, and create specific areas of demarcation.

“In the case of Nariño and Cauca, we found agro-ecological and environmental conditions in three southern Cauca municipalities that were similar to Northern Nariño,” explained Samper. “Additionally, through biochemical composition and infrared analysis, we found the samples to be similar coffees that could be differentiated through objective means.”

Samper added, “We described the coffee of the area as having high acidity, medium body, sweet notes, clean cup, and a pronounced aroma. With that definition, we went to the local authority to request for recognition of the Café de Nariño Denomination of Origin. However, because the area to be defined encompassed the northern area of Nariño along with the southern portion of Cauca, the results had to be discussed with both Nariño and Cauca coffee growers. It was a long discussion, but in the end, the coffee growers agreed that it was for their own benefit to accept the coffee produced in these southern Cauca regions belonged to the Nariño GI, so cup profiles could be consistent, and even more importantly, the GI could defend against potential infringers.”

Further Implications for the Specialty Coffee Industry

Geographical Indications, or appellations, are a potentially unique form of competitive advantage available even for small farmers and enterprises. In more than a hundred nations, they are a unique expression of local agro-ecological and even cultural characteristics that have come to be valued as high quality traditions and are sometimes protected.

As is the case with other intellectual property rights, using geographical indications has its benefits. Its use can improve the income of farmers because there is an effort to improve quality, and for the consumers, they are provided clear and succinct information regarding the product’s origin.

However beneficial it may seem, Songer points to the reality that the economics of appellations require a greater effort on the part of the producers, simply because it is not as efficient as traditional bulk processing, for example. While there is the potential for higher profitability, “one must take into account the higher cost of managing it, of increasing the quality, of sorting the coffee as well as other variables that will ensure the proper profile of that GI is created and then maintained.”

As Songer pointed out, “Unlike a brand, the geographical indication is not owned by any one company, instead it is a designated area with clear borders known to produce a product with certain characteristics.”
And it is the creation of those clear borders, which can give producers the advantage in the marketplace. Samper noted how the technical work gives them a digital footprint of each region, so that they can objectively demonstrate whether a coffee comes from that specific region. “Due to our work, we are able to control the GI of Colombian coffees and to detect infringers.”

Geographical indications and the Consumer

In order to use GIs to their full potential within the industry, part of the knowledge and understanding must make its way into the hands and minds of the consumers. “Our mutual challenge within the industry is to focus on barista and consumer education,” said Samper.

By allowing the consumer to take a virtual trip to the origin, the Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation has created a tool in which consumers can learn more about the coffees that come from a specific place. Their proprietary idea of creating virtual trips to origin is a great way to educate consumers in an entertaining way about what these coffees are different. “Much like the consumers visit different vineyards or wine producing regions, they are educated about the difference in wines,” Samper added.

To this end, Colombia created a communication interface with the consumer to educate them about the coffee, including where it comes from and its flavor attributes. Specifically as it relates to the Cafes de Nariño, consumers can input a code found on the package of the coffee into a computer to access the coffee tours will discuss where it comes from as well as a discussion on the attributes of the coffee, such as acidity and sweetness.

“This ‘edutainment’ concept creates value for those brands which commercialize Colombian coffee in general, or regional Colombian coffees in particular,” Samper explained. “We intend to generate demand, create consumer awareness and an elevated value perception of the work involved at origin by hard working coffee producers, partnering with those brands interested to pursue this avenue.”

Yet, for any of this dialogue to begin, Samper impresses that “It is important to remember that the GIs can’t be imposed upon producers. They have to be part of the development and be invested in it. Only then can you find success with a project such as this.”

Laura Everage has been covering the specialty coffee industry for more than 15 years. Her work has appeared in various magazines and books, and on the web. In 2000, she was presented with the Award for Distinguished Author by the SCAA. When not writing about coffee, she is busy updating her website,