The Specialty Coffee Industry Shows Initiative Worldwide

By Bruce Mullins

The specialty coffee industry’s Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI) has officially been launched, and has begun its historic multi-year journey towards a more complete understanding of the science behind coffee quality and coffee quantity.

The Initiative—developed over the past 18 months by a consortium of leading specialty coffee roasters, thought-leaders and coffee agricultural researchers—officially began its operations in October as the outcome of an industry-led summit meeting convened in College Station, Texas, held under the auspices of Texas A&M University and the world-renowned Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.

This unprecedented coffee congress attracted approximately 75 of the world’s leading specialty coffee growers, importers, roasters, researchers, and economists, during which participants spent two and a half days talking, listening, sharing, and taking a hard look at emerging problems within the global supply chain of quality coffees.

“There has never before been an attempt to look globally into the primary motivating factors for coffee quality,” says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the SCAA.

Adds Dr. Tim Schilling, one of the Initiative’s founders, “It is unprecedented that a multi-billion dollar global industry like specialty coffee has no front-end research and development to grow and protect the supply of their raw product. There’s actually been more global research into making better kiwifruit than into making better coffee!”

A Coffee Congress Convenes

GCQRI members in attendance focused on learning more about the expected supply-side impacts to specialty green coffees threatened by global warming (Arabica trees are genetically programmed to produce their best quality coffee in high altitude tropical environs, because of the relatively cool and moist conditions found there—conditions that are projected to change over the next few decades as the world’s tropics are forecasted to heat up and dry out faster than temperate regions), compounded by demand-side impacts from global consumption expanding exponentially. Ironically, much of this is due to the success of specialty coffee roasters and retailers worldwide (according to the NCA, specialty coffee now represents 40 percent of the total U.S. market), coupled with population growth and the dramatic increase in consumption starting to be seen within the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil (the world’s greatest producer of coffee, Brazil is expected to become the world’s largest consumer of coffee as well within the next few years, displacing the United States).

As the coffee congress attendees learned, however, all is not gloom and doom. As an example, leaders within the U.S. wine industry decided several decades ago to pool their research resources into scientific work similar to what is envisioned by the GCQRI. As congress attendees heard, the results have been spectacular, with both anticipated and unexpected scientific discoveries related to wine grapes and vineyard strategies, many of which have dramatically improved yields and quality, resulting in today’s unprecedented access to wines of stellar and consistent quality at affordable retail prices.

These are exactly the dual outcomes—improving quality while simultaneously improving quantity—that the GCQRI is seeking for specialty coffee.

Strong Leadership

As an important result of October’s meeting, an interim board of directors—consisting of Brett Smith of Counter Culture Coffee, Ben Pitts of Royal Cup Coffee, Ric Rhinehart of the SCAA, and chaired by Patrick Criteser of Coffee Bean International—was appointed by the group’s steering committee, and is now working diligently on the development and execution of important near-term objectives such as the GCQRI’s governance, incorporation, by-laws, intermediate-term funding, and review of the research ideas surfaced during the meeting.

One of the most important challenges facing any new non-profit like the GCQRI is finding an effective full-time leader to run the day-to-day aspects of the business. This has been met by the interim board with the announcement of the appointment of Dr. Timothy Schilling as the group’s new Executive Director. Dr. Schilling is well-known to many within the specialty coffee industry as the person most responsible for the re-emergence of Rwanda as a coveted specialty coffee origin. Dr. Schilling lived and worked in Africa for over a decade on behalf of the PEARL and SPREAD programs run in association with Texas A&M University, Michigan State, and The Borlaug Institute, helping rebuild Rwanda’s coffee industry—literally—from the ground up. As an example of the work that Borlaug and Schilling accomplished in Rwanda, prior to 2002 there were no coffee washing stations in the entire country. By 2010, more than 180 washing stations had been designed and built. Nationwide, Rwanda’s coffee quality radically improved during the decade, giving the world much-needed additional supplies of high quality, fully-washed coffees while simultaneously giving Rwandan farmers three to four times more income from their coffee than they were previously making.

The GCQRI board is delighted to have hired someone of Dr. Schilling’s qualifications as the group’s executive director. According to CBI’s Patrick Criteser, “[Dr. Schilling] has exactly the right combination of agricultural scientific research training, non-profit executive experience, in-depth and first-hand specialty coffee knowledge, and enough enthusiasm and energy to power a small city. The board is excited to begin this industry-transforming venture with Dr. Schilling at the helm.”

Dr. Schilling and the permanent board of directors that will be appointed in the spring will be focusing the long-term efforts of the GCQRI project (affectionately known to its participants as “The Geekery,” which about says it all) toward searching for scientifically validated strategies that are both economically and environmentally sustainable. The ultimate goal? Improving the potential cup quality of coffees on the tree, while simultaneously discovering ways to increase overall supplies of specialty-grade green coffees. It is believed that this long-term research agenda may begin to show some initial results within three to five years, which will eventually begin helping specialty coffee roasters world-wide cope with an increasingly challenged supply chain for high-quality, washed Arabica coffee. As important dividends, the Initiative’s work is eventually expected to significantly improve origin countries’ coffee research capacities, while also raising coffee farmers’ yields and incomes, strengthening vulnerable coffee-based communities around the world.

Looking Towards the Future

The Initiative will be administered by the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, part of the Texas A&M System. One of the world’s leading international agricultural institutions, the Borlaug Institute has decades of experience developing and administering agricultural research programs throughout the world. The GCQRI program will build upon an existing global network of coffee research institutions and scientists working with the specialty coffee industry to identify, fund and implement coordinated research on key factors limiting quality and production. Research results will be widely disseminated in all producing and consuming countries and made available to all interested parties.

As an example of the incredible impact on coffee quality through the previously seldom seen model of collaborative research, Dr. Schilling recently announced that the researchers associated with the GCQRI—as an outcome of the meeting in College Station—have just identified the pyrazine compound responsible for the “potato defect” often found in green, unroasted coffee beans grown in the “Great Lakes” region of Africa (primarily from Rwanda and Burundi). As most roasters of specialty coffees familiar with these origins will attest, the potato defect is especially annoying because so far it has been impossible to detect in green coffee. This defect manifests itself only upon roasting, and therefore can show up even in award-winning coffees—adding the nasty flavor and aroma of a freshly peeled russet potato into the finished cup. This research breakthrough was made possible through a collaborative effort between Texas A&M University, the McKnight Foundation, Iowa State University, and the coffee research organizations CIRAD in France and NUR and ISAR in Rwanda. Now, due to this GCQRI discovery, strategies to significantly reduce the potato defect’s frequency in coffees from Rwanda and Burundi can be developed, to the relief of coffee roasters (and coffee connoisseurs) around the world.

In reflecting on the pyrazine discovery, Dr. Schilling concludes, “This type of collaborative research outcome has been common through the years in other key agricultural commodities, but not in coffee. Because of the geographic, cultural, and economic divide between farmers and consumers that is unique to this industry, there hasn’t been any sort of wide-spread, successful attempt at research that could benefit all the players in the game. With the launching of the new GCQRI, however, that situation has the potential to be changed forever. I’m tremendously excited about the work that we’ve begun. I can’t wait to find out the things that we’re going to discover about making every cup of specialty coffee even more special—and how to make a lot more of them!”

If you’d like to learn more about the Initiative, significant amounts of information—including copies of the presentations made at the congress in College Station—may be found on the GCQRI website at Additionally, up-to-the-minute news and information is being posted for those who “like” the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative on Facebook, or are following it on Twitter at #GCQRI. 

Bruce Mullins is vice president of Coffee Culture at Coffee Bean International in Portland, Oregon. He serves on the Coffee Quality Institute’s Board of Trustees and Fair Trade USA’s Roaster Advisory Council, as a Cup of Excellence judge in Central America, South America and Africa, and a Coffee Corps volunteer in Africa and South America.