Specialty Coffee | Less and Less a Bull’s-eye to Hit, More and More the Bull to Catch

By Michael Kaiser 

I was not born a coffee farmer, but providence would introduce me to one.

In July of 2011, one month after moving to El Salvador, I found myself across the table from Emilio Lopez Diaz, listening to the story of Cuatro M, the collection of coffee farms, processing facilities and their exporting operation for single origin coffees, based in Santa Ana. Since our first encounter, I have been working alongside Emilio and his team. In those two years, he has given me the opportunity to see every aspect of the coffee supply chain.

Now, on the eve of another coffee harvest, I look back and realize that everything I know about specialty coffee, and all I have experienced, is thanks to this coffee farmer. The specialty industry has opened a window through which can be seen a future where coffee producers are not only players, but also game-changers and industry-shapers.

Achieving the mark of specialty is a goal to be pursued. In this article, I will highlight our experiences and work in El Salvador, as well as a common trend within the developing world and a changing industry, to illustrate our belief that this goal is not simply a stationary target. No longer a bull’s-eye we consistently aim toward, but rather a moving target that we chase after, and toward which we can only seek to aim better than our previous efforts.

Less and Less a Bull’s-eye to Hit

To be special is to be distinct; more than the average or better than the standard. The nature of the term “specialty” thus implies that something is more of a rarity rather than a commonplace.

Perhaps the strongest definer of specialty in coffee is the attribute of taste. Few would deny that the one-hundred-point tasting scale is a fair determinant of specialty, even if it is considered independently of the other attributes that make up how coffee is produced, traded, and consumed. In truth, few, if any, other rubrics beyond taste exist to measure the specialty status of coffee, and rarely could one ever give that label without considering the attribute of taste.

To many coffee suppliers, however, specialty must go beyond taste to incorporate economics, as the costs of production are not determined by the final cup score of the crop; nor can one always even hit that target. More often than not, the specialty characteristic of coffee to the supplier, in the sale of his or her crop, is not in its cup score, but rather, in its ability—by whatever means—to earn a better-than-average price. This is how they survive and prosper.

That is not to say that taste is less important, but rather to imply that it cannot always be argued to be the most important factor for all levels of the industry. If it is right to say that a coffee scoring above average in terms of taste, yet paid for at an average price, can be considered specialty, is it not fair to say that an average-tasting coffee, that brings an above-average price, is also just as special?

If the industry wants to define specialty by one attribute that is considered more important than the others, it must be open to the possibility of debate of its being defined by others more important than the one. Here, we are suggesting that neither of those scenarios are correct, but rather implying that all attributes of coffee production and trade ought to be considered equally important.

Specialty, therefore, becomes about achieving more and better in all aspects of production and trading; and in a developing world, about constantly adding value where there is potential to add value. In essence, specialty coffee is about moving closer to the center of a moving and changing target, as opposed to striving for the bull’s-eye of a stationary one.

In theory, specialty has the potential to expand beyond its present limitations, and thereby become the competing term between commodities, as opposed to the marginalizing factor within a commodity.

Urbanization and the Changing Rural Environment

As producers of specialty coffee, our goals are centered on the principles of achieving better quality in our product, solid relationships with our clients and a positive work environment for our employees. Each of these are a means of adding value within our operations, as well as meeting the many demands of a rapidly developing industry. One global trend that has made adding value a critical factor for us and many other coffee suppliers is urbanization.

Within the specialty coffee industry (at least in El Salvador) urbanization is often viewed with caution, due to the fact that as people migrate toward cities, rural areas, where most specialty coffee is grown, can be depleted of their educated and skilled workforce. Urbanization, however, has positive attributes in the sense that it usually equates to better paying jobs and an overall higher standard of living. These should not be ignored, as urbanization can be viewed as an indicator of economic development within a country or region.

El Salvador has a 64% urban population (2010),1 and a rate of urbanization of 1.4% annually (2010-2015 estimate).2 The nature of the workplace and the pool of laborers is changing. Therefore the future and sustainability of any rural coffee company—as well as that of the industry—depends on its ability to embrace urbanization as a likely trend in any developing society and gradually promote better paying jobs and a higher standard of living for its employees.

More and More the Bull to Catch

In response to urbanization, there are strategies that have the potential to add value to one’s production, despite a rural environment that is changing more quickly than ever.

One troubling aspect within the coffee industry at the production level has always been that work is primarily seasonal, meaning that those who work directly with the coffee are only able to maintain their employment for a few months out of the year. This can oftentimes lead to poverty during the months of the year when coffee is out of season, and thereby encourages employees to seek other work opportunities. Within our organization, we hope to develop full-time positions that allow for 12-month employment, and thereby provide a yearly salary, as opposed to an hourly wage for only a few months of the year. This strategy ensures that employees have a sufficient salary year round, with which they can begin investing in the development of their families and communities.

Likewise, a second strategy is in the creation of skilled positions. Investing in technology and machinery, and hiring or training employees in how to use this equipment, strengthens the know-how of the workers within a company and makes them more valuable; and this ultimately leads to better performance and higher salaries. Promoting and developing education within a company is a means of creating a highly innovative work environment, which can help a company to promote development and innovation within itself.

Additionally, the specialty coffee industry, as an international community, has the potential to connect each of us to a world beyond our own. Our hope is to promote an understanding of the coffee supply chain among our employees. Introducing them to the specialty industry’s roasters and baristas outside of our producing country is becoming more and more possible, and is a way of not only promoting relationships and knowledge, but also encouraging them to realize the magnitude and reach of their work around the world. Working with the raw product has the potential to cloud the beauty of coffee as a craft, with heavy machinery and the repetition of manual labor. In order to communicate the importance of quality to our employees, we must seek to connect them with and educate them about the end product, the roasting process and preparation methods, in order to inspire the attributes of craft into our everyday job responsibilities. Connecting our work, as often as possible, to the final cup, will in the end help secure a level of quality that enables us to earn a better-than-average price for what we produce.


“Specialty” is an active word that implies movement, change and growth in the pursuit of something better. For me, that change started with a coffee farmer, and together we  have moved toward the development of better-quality coffee, and the lives of those that work to make it happen. Tomorrow, the bar will be raised and the bull moves onward. We hope to be amongst the ones on the chase.


Michael is from South Florida, where he studied social science at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He completed his Masters Degree in coffee economics and science this fall at the University of Udine, in collaboration with the illy coffee company, and now oversees the quality control department of Cuatro M, Single Origin Coffees in San Salvador, El Salvador.