Are we all just 1%-ers too?

Of the many things about coffee that Trish has opened my eyes to, the most valuable is embracing the full spectrum of coffee quality as the true human condition of the coffee world. During my college years, I spent a year abroad in Dhaka, Bangladesh, teaching music at a Christian missionary school. Despite the life-changing lessons I learned back then about what the world is really like, I was lulled into a very sheltered perspective on specialty coffee. Great coffee = good. Poor-quality coffee = bad.

The problem is that when you delve deeper, past the over-simplified memes, you’re forced to make a choice: Do you care more about coffee quality, or about people? Let’s set aside the barista/retail/consumer end of the chain for a moment, and focus on the producer-side. We claim to be supporting coffee producers, but it appears that what we really mean is that we support producers of the coffees that we really like the taste of. We go to events in the US to meet coffee producers and feel good about the experience, but what really happened is that we just met some of the most rich and prosperous coffee producers in the world.

The most celebrated coffee “farmers” and farms in specialty coffee are also among the most successful, with many if not most of those people being the sons (and in a very few cases daughters) of prosperous families. Upward-mobility is but a flying unicorn in these countries. A wonderful idea, but not reality.

I don’t mean to disparage or insult any of those successful coffee producers. Their coffees are indeed worthy of acclaim, and the heredity of those people shouldn’t take away from that. But if our affinity for those producers and those coffees defines our scope to only the tip-top best-of-the-best of what coffee has to offer, we are building a temple for worshipping the rich in a self-perpetuating cycle of aggrandizement and affluence.

What’s more deserving of celebration: Producers of 88-point coffees improving to 92’s, or those with 81’s improving to 85 scores? In real-world terms, that’s like comparing those making $500,000 per year bumping up to $750,000, versus someone making $20,000 now getting $30,000. Improvements are improvements, but in the US, the $500-750K bump helps 0.5% of the population, whereas the latter group represents about 20-40% of the population (depending on the data source and the way you look at it). There are no good figures in the case of coffee quality as a percentage of total production, but suffice it to say, it’s a much more severe disparity.

And what of the below-80 scoring coffees, those deemed below-specialty grade? As we glorify the top-tier quality producers and commemorate them by putting their photos on our company websites and Instagram feeds, do we believe that those who produce lesser coffees are somehow lesser human beings? When we cup these coffees and laugh and mockingly push them away and shut them out of our minds because to us, they’re not worth even thinking about, can we really claim to be working to help coffee producers?

The specialty coffee industry has, at least within our boutique segment, done a shitty job of actually helping coffee producers. If we used specialty-coffee logic to help women in Nepal better their lives, many of us would choose to gather together the most beautiful of them and hold a bikini contest for cash prizes. Then we’d walk away, patting each other on the back, feeling warm and fuzzy inside for “helping” those poor, impoverished people. Harsh? Maybe, but you get the point.

But it’s too easy to criticize. What of solutions? What should we be doing then? I don’t have all of the answers, but here’s what I have to offer right now:

As with most things like this, it starts with awareness. Consider the majority of coffee farmers and their families that we dismiss as below our standards, and remember that they are real people deserving of our consideration… perhaps even more deserving than their more well-to-do countrymen. This would hopefully inform the way we talk about our industry and our coffees, and maybe we’ll be a little less dismissive when describing how we differentiate ourselves out there.

“Awareness” also includes the current and future efforts of those within our industry family who are working with a focus on the poor farmers, like Fair Trade USA. Throwing Fair Trade under the bus as “not doing enough” ignores the great work that the program does accomplish, albeit more often with coffees that you might not choose to serve at your shop or sell from your roastery. They are doing great, great work. Just because their work isn’t perfect enough for you doesn’t mean dissing them makes you look cool.

The Coffee Quality Institute, in the midst of some significant changes due to new leadership, has always been focused on improving coffee quality and the people who produce it. The recent development of CQI’s R-Grader program has had a lot of coffee people scratching their heads, unsure of how robusta coffees fit in to our understanding of what’s good in and about coffee. But why must all of our industry’s efforts be about making great coffee even better? What about expanding markets and exploring desirable coffees from lower altitudes and geographies that simply can’t produce high-quality arabicas? Supporting CQI’s work is not only helping those who we don’t directly affect through our own purchasing and work, it’s working to develop a sustainable specialty coffee industry by helping to improve the quality of below-specialty grade coffees up to a level that we’d actually be proud to roast, brew, and serve.

We talk a lot about the unfortunate fact that baristas are generally the lowest paid people in the consuming-world side of the coffee chain. This is true, and something that the entire industry should work to change. But how is it that the lowest-paid individuals on this side of that chain are spending so much time celebrating only the highest-paid folks on the other end? Is that irony, or tragedy?

Just some thoughts on this overcast Sunday afternoon.