Welcome to the Issues Issue

By Peter Giuliano

The coffee plant is barely domesticated. Its cultivated form is almost identical to the wild coffee plants that still grow in the forests of Western Ethiopia. As such, it thrives in environments that mimic the primeval forest; and these forest-like farms—we call them shade-grown coffee plantations—are among the most environmentally positive forms of agriculture in the world.

Coffee can be an incredibly valuable form of commerce in developing countries. Its trade can be an opportunity for transparency and fair dealing between counterparts in the global north and south. As an orchard crop well suited for organic agriculture, coffee can thrive with no chemical inputs and a maximum opportunity for real sustainability. Coffee can be a food that is clean and fair, and can offer incredible benefits in flavor and healthfulness.

Coffee can be all of these things, but isn’t always. The specialty coffee industry emerged as a reaction to a commercial coffee industry that had allowed coffee to become flavorless, cheap and commoditized. The revolution was obvious: let’s make coffee delicious. It wasn’t long before the idea that coffee can be delicious fueled a series of aspirations: coffee can be sustainable! Coffee can be fair! Yes, coffee can! This sense of optimism was fueled by real examples of coffee as high-quality, sustainable food production in action: the shaded, organic coffee farm as an ecological buffer; the quality-focused co-op as a prosperous community builder; the artisan microroaster as one of the keys to transforming the food scene in a small city.

This is the wonderful opportunity of specialty coffee. But it’s also a great temptation. Because these possibilities about coffee exist, it’s tempting to represent coffee as having achieved it all already. It’s tempting to use the best-case scenario as the most representative, and to view the specialty coffee industry through slightly rose-colored glasses. We see examples of this all the time: we talk about “sustainability” even though we may not completely understand it; we use words like “fair” or “transparent” without being completely willing to demonstrate them; we may unwittingly exaggerate the beautiful story of a coffee we find exceptionally delicious or exciting.

The truth is, although we have a great opportunity for quality and sustainability in specialty coffee, we will only achieve it by being truly honest about what we are actually achieving in coffee, and what work is still to be done. At the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it’s time to take a hard look at the aspirations we have about specialty coffee, and compare them to what we’ve actually delivered.

I talk to lots and lots of people in Specialty Coffee every week, and it’s funny: this very thought is on the mind of many of our colleagues at this very moment. It seems that everyone is taking stock, making a real assessment of what we’ve managed to achieve over the past decade, and being willing to address our shortcomings even as we face the challenges that the new decade will bring. This fearlessness is something that inspires me about specialty coffee, and it reminds me of the courage it took to establish the specialty coffee industry itself a generation ago.

It is this sense of honest, courageous self-assessment that will drive this year’s Symposium, and will certainly predict the trajectory of the coming decade. Historically, it is this sort of stocktaking that immediately precedes times of great innovation, excitement and prosperity. As a colleague of mine says, “You need to break down to break through.” This issue of the Chronicle sets the stage for some of these discussions, which will weave their way through the Symposium and through the next decade. I’m excited to take part in this honest, exciting dialogue and welcome you to do the same.

Peter Giuliano is director of coffee and co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee, a specialty coffee roasting company based in Durham, NC. He has worked with fine coffees since 1988. He is the president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.