How did you get involved in coffee?
My grandma introduced me to coffee when I was a kid and so I have always had her to thank for my enthusiasm for it. It was a treat to spend time with her over a cup in the mornings as I was growing up. Later, I worked my summers in coffee shop jobs as I was finishing college—and that’s when I began to understand that I was really, really into it. I was managing a coffee shop by the time I finished college and I worked my way up to coffee buyer, which was the role I have held longest during my time in the industry. Even as a buyer, it took me almost 10 of my 20 years in that role to finally acknowledge the fact that each year I traveled to origin, it cost me more—and my salary was increasing—but I was always trying to pay the same price or less than the year prior, and I was rewarded for that behavior. I’m guessing this is the mandate and incentive structure many buyers have—and one we should all reevaluate because it continues to weaken farmers and their ability to produce high quality coffee.
What is your role in the coffee industry now?
I am a consultant working with a variety of different industry participants on the challenges we face in our value chain, which threaten our ongoing supply to green coffee as a raw material. Mostly, I try to coax people along in their understanding of the economic value—coffee needs to ensure dignified livelihoods to those who produce it, so that farmers stick with it and thus supply our industry.
From your perspective, in what ways has the global coffee culture evolved most significantly during your time in coffee?
I think we have elevated consumer expectations of quality and experience with coffee—heck, I can remember when I ordered my first specialty espresso drink from a coffee shop in Washington in the 80’s (an almond latte!) and I felt so fancy. Now, high-quality coffee shops are ubiquitous and specialty coffee represents a thriving industry (at least on the roaster/retailer side of the value chain).
What do you see as the greatest challenges facing the specialty coffee industry in the coming years?
While we have elevated the quality and the profit-earning opportunity coffee represents on the roaster/retailer side of our value chain, we have not significantly evolved the value green coffee production represents to those who grow it. Basically, green coffee values for farmers have been flat when averaged out over my entire lifetime. Imagine if all of our earning and livelihood supporting opportunities were stagnant like they are for farmers—what would we do as we watched the cost of living continue to increase around us? With this year’s harvest, many countries are on their fifth or sixth consecutive year of having to commercialize their coffees at values lower than their cost to produce. It is no wonder that farmers seek alternatives to coffee production in so many places.
How is the industry responding to these threats?
Through its newly formed Sustainability Center, SCA is supporting efforts that aim to learn what we can do about the fundamental economics of coffee production and help us better understand, as an industry, how to value it when we are buying our raw material. It is so complicated because the economics are different in every place where coffee is grown, and we must understand this in order to preserve access to our supply of high-quality green coffee. What’s more, as we expand our understanding of the economics of coffee production, we anticipate income diversification tactics will have to be prioritized—it is unlikely that coffee production alone can represent enough earning opportunity to support a smallholder farmer.
What can coffee companies and businesses on the consuming side of the supply chain do to help ensure a future supply of high quality coffee?
All coffee companies need to understand the vulnerabilities faced by the communities upon which they must rely for their green coffee. For instance, if we understood better what the next best livelihood supporting activity (i.e. job) was in these communities, and the earning potential of those activities, we would better understand the kind of values that we need to work toward so that farmers want to stay at it. To put it into perspective, working in a mine is often cited as a more profitable way to make a living than growing coffee in certain countries. I believe that if brands talked more about the heart- wrenching challenges of poverty and the poor living conditions—which every single buyer is confronted with in producing communities— than about their harrowing (and, yes, often beautiful) sourcing adventures, perhaps we could have a more honest dialogue with consumers and bring them along with us as we learn how to be a stronger value chain.
How do issues of sustainability play into this evolution?
We need to evolve how we think about sustainability in coffee and make certain to acknowledge that we really do run the risk of running short on supply of the fancy stuff. In order to bolster the supply chain, we have to test the upper limits of what coffee can be worth—to our companies, and certainly to consumers. Even if a roaster thinks that they are paying high prices, that is not enough. They need to ensure transparency to farm gate pricing to ensure that farmers are properly remunerated. What’s more: if we don’t look beyond just specialty and divert some attention to ensuring more commercial (read: lower quality) coffee is also viable, we risk losing the infrastructure more mainstream coffee supports—and without that, we can’t really move specialty coffee around either.
What is your favorite way to enjoy coffee?
Plain old drip from a Technivorm!