Tag Archive for 'coffee trade'

Symposium, Imposium, Opposium

I have always had mixed feelings about the SCAA Symposium. And in my inimitable style, I have had them in absence of any actual experience: I never went to Symposium. It is the 2 day event before the SCAA Exposition that is billed as a meeting of Industry Leaders, and features a stacked bill of various personalities, consultants, a couple scientists, market researchers, financial experts, and interpretive dance. Okay, strike the last one.

In any case, it is an orchestrated series of presentations and panel discussions that comes with a high price tag (over $1k to come), but also high value. I had always thought it drew away from the general show,; it represented a retreat from investing in the quality of the educational discussions at the low-cost weekend event. I might still feel this way, but having just sat through my first day of Symposium, it undoubtedly has great value. And I am not just saying that because I got in free, in exchange for blogging it. There, full disclosure.

The core members of SCAA that plunge their hands into green coffee every day, the roasters, don’t get to poke their heads out of the backroom often enough. Along with the Roaster’s Guild Retreat, Symposium definitely offers a rube like myself who is always absorbed intensely in the issues of my own business to consider the broader picture … how the same issues are affecting everyone else. Even if the discussion isn’t speaking directly to me and my struggles in coffee, the benefit of Symposium can be experience tangentially. Just allowing myself to absorb the information, let it wash over me, and consider how I address whatever the speaker’s topic may be, has a certain distinct value.

We have had a lot of alternative names for Symposium, and I think some of them are pretty expressive. To a yokel like me, much of the lingo sounds like somebody went and got themselves one too many MBAs. And the results can be a bit comical too. “Where are the hotspots in your supply chain?” Or “How can we blow apart our assumptions, and make money in a whole new way?” Sounds like revolution-talk to me.

But when do you get to hear multiple perspectives on what is driving instability in the commodity market from people who focus entirely on that? How about some solid criticism of romantic notions about coffee varietals and cultivation from people with 40 years experience in a producing country? How can that not be enriching? When I consider my paltry experience with market watching, hedging coffee contracts, or on the other hand, a week or two in a producing country trying to understand all the complexities of quality and production, can that meager experience not benefit from listening to the folks on stage? Hell yeah.

So that’s part of Symposium, seeing the value in listening to other perspectives, whether you agree or not, whether you think they are relevant to your daily experience in coffee or not. We all know coffee is incredibly complicated. We all know we can’t “do it all” nor can we “know it all”. Coming together is a good humble admission of this fact. Plus, people say some hilarious things. -Tom

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Funny or Not, Here I Come…

So I made a send-up coffee travel video that was supposed to parody the potential silliness of a coffee travel video, and the responses to it range a wide gamut. I am sure many people get a small chuckle from something in it and move on. A few think it is hilarious, others don’t realize it’s an attempt at humor, and a handful are a bit offended. Because some comments were a little “out there”, a couple downright mean, I actually turned on “moderate comments” for the first time ever, and I culled a few. I kinda regret that now, because the responses are far more interesting than the video. So let me earnestly respond to this, because I think the points it raises are interesting.

The fact that coffee buyers travel at all has recently been examined in posts by Kevin Knox and Ken Davids. Aleco Chigounis wrote a great little piece a while back on the same topic. Wish I could find the link to it.  Kevin in particular has raised some points I feel are sentient, that traveling to origin and doing a direct trade deal is not any guarantee of getting the best coffee. It’s dead on true, but its also mildly annoying to me personally because here I am spending a wad of money, precious time (away from Maria and Ben and my important tasks in the cupping lab, not to mention missing possibly good surfing days at OB!) to make sure each trip is relevant, and absolutely does result in better coffee than I can get by trolling the brokers list. And the last thing I want is to ruin my good carbon-neutral standing. LOL.

But there is something potentially ridiculous about this kind of trip; if you take some of what I do and nudge it a few degrees further, becomes laughable. I thought I would just have a little fun with that, because when viewed form a certain angle, the way I (and other buyers/companies) represent what we do is silly. We go to a place for 3 or 5 or 10 days and pretend we know it? We take pictures of coffee cherry in 1:1 Macro, and that means we know more about coffee? We know the name of the farmer, his wife and kids and his dog, so we understand them? Really? An intern spending a summer in the area might find some humor observing this. A doctoral Anthro candidate living in the area for 16 months would chuckle, and probably an NGO worker who has been worked in the zone for 12 years would guffaw. So what does the farmer who has spent a lifetime there think to witnesses our hit-and-run wisdom?

After all, I come to a place to buy coffee, and if I make videos and photographs to use on our site, isn’t there the possibility that I am just hawking something with these materials, that it is all part of a shtick? Pushed to the levels I attempt to make humorous (I say attempt) in the video, whats the difference between this and Cal Worthington and his Dog Spot?

So the earnest criticisms and parodies of coffee buyers do land some deserved punches, and I think there is good reason to assume the position of the skeptic, and have a dialogue about the logic of coffee buyer travel. Is it to create Direct Trade marketing? To seem more authentic on a web site? To sell a product with more flair? Or is it to understand the source of a product you sell, to get access to a good reliable coffee source. Are these things all intertwined in a way, the noble aims and the not-so-noble benefits of the coffee trip?

In fact, my experience is that the way different buyers travel, what they achieve, the visual materials and stories they come back with, the way the represent themselves and what they do … there is really quite a range of players out there in both style and substance. (And style and substance seem not unrelated). I have traveled with people that are incredibly focused and skilled, who understand the hard job at hand, and who know how to have the difficult conversations with coffee producers that ultimately form the basis for a mutually beneficial business relationship. I travel with others who are “coffee tourists” (we all are a little bit, I would say), who just want pictures of red cherry,  video of themselves with the locals, or just to drink a lotta beer and whoop it up. Fine, but that get’s old really fast. And it’s a big waste of money, time and a very finite amount of energy I possess. Frankly, it’s the reason I usually travel with one or two people I know well, or alone.

Let me say that I absolutely DO try to amuse myself and others when I travel, usually as a way to bear with my jetlag, and the anxiety of being in a new place and missing home. And I do find humor in what I do. But when it comes down to it, I am there to use any observational and intellectual ability I have to make those 3 days, 5 days or 10 days the most meaningful, most informative, and most valuable in terms of sourcing better coffee. I am amazed at the courage some other travelers have, the stories they spin, but I don’t feel like some hero out there, some Indiana Jones pushing through the jungle, all alone (or pretending to be), on a quest, and in the typical Hollywood denouement, “winning” by slinging a sack of fine coffee over my back and coming home.

No, it’s frustrating to deal with language barriers, I am anxiety-ridden to take on the huge risks of a more direct purchase, it’s exhausting to have so little time and try to do so much, and it’s a big bummer to lose so much sleep. Oh, and and I hate missing good surf in OB.

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Coffee Research – What is next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative. This is a project funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research into improving coffee quality, and improving the volume of quality coffee produced in the world. It’s not as if there is a lack of great coffee out there, but we are definitely on the threshold of seeing production of really good arabica drop, given greater consumption and agricultural issues with pernicious pest and disease. And, despite the nay-sayers of global warming, everywhere I go farmers are commenting on changes in their local climate and how it impacts their crop.

I am lucky; I am sitting on the preliminary Research Planning Committee for the GCQRI and the nascent projects I am hearing about are intriguing. Quite a few projects involve scientific collaboration to bring new technology to the old methods of the coffee industry. NIRS (Near Infrared Spectrophotometry) is a newer tool for analyzing chemical markers and has already yielded breakthroughs in coffee research. Under GCQRI, one possible project is to form an open NIRS Database of Quality Coffee samples from all growing areas. New samples could be submitted by roasters for cost-effective and complete analysis of all the complex factors that contribute to flavor and quality, and then the sample would be indexed among all other known samples from that region, providing a global context for understanding differences in coffee flavor. It ties right into another project, described as such “Identify Main green coffee candidate molecules strongly impacting quality.” Yes, it is true. We don’t know what it is in coffee that makes it taste good. Using older techniques, we have some pretty good ideas, but many things have been left. Coffee is just so darn complex. The project design would involve rapid screening techniques on the thousands of metabolites in coffee and then set out to correlate and identify those related specifically to cup quality. When we know that, we know how to test for quality components in future studies.

Another project along the same lines involves sensory evaluation, cupping as we call it. The project is called NextGen Coffee Sensory Evaluation. Traditional descriptive cupping has it’s place; it’s how we find coffee we like, and describe it to our customers. And some biochemical screening techniques have come along lately. (Everyone recalls the press for the “electronic nose” a couple years back). But what about relating the two in order to form a broader understanding of coffee quality. In the current methods, humans do not reliably attain repeatable results in sensory analysis (I am talking about the kind of cupping that can be a basis for scientific study of coffee quality, not the kind of cupping for someone to find and describe flavors). On the other hand, current chemical evaluations might tell us if a compound is present, but doesn’t tell us what that means … and there being a lack of understanding of which core compounds relate to quality, how do we know what we are looking for? So this new technique would involve a panel of tasters that would calibrate and agree on levels of quality and flavor attributes, then run the sample through a battery of these new, rapid techniques to validate the finding.

Repeat this, and you find out exactly what chemical components are behind flavor attributes that coffee roasters find valuable. When these findings are informed by the other two project approaches I already mentioned, you form a much greater understanding of exactly what it is we find desirable in a good cup of coffee, which can then be used to discover ways to grow higher quality coffee in the producing countries.

You might ask yourself, why doesn’t all this exist already? It might, but it would be locked in a vault at Nestle in Switzerland. And nobody else has had the means to define and fund research that centers entirely on coffee quality. Producing countries focus on fighting disease and pests, and on higher yields. Both of these are important, but in the absence of a buyer’s regard for taste quality, we end up with hybrids that have robusta genes; Catimor, Sarchimor, CR-95, Ruiru 11, Castillo, Etc. It’s only this type of collaboratively funded research that can pool resources to address the concerns of quality-oriented coffee business, and by extension, all those who drink coffee because it tastes good.

Those who lift a cup of coffee to their lips and think “Boy this tastes like an economically-produced large-scale agricultural product” or “Boy, this Insant coffee is awful but I saved myself 11 minutes I would have wasted grinding and brewing a good-tasting coffee” … well, we just can’t help you. That’s the coffee experience of the ’60s and early ’70s before the rebirth of the small roaster, and we don’t want to go back to that! You can find the GCQRI site here.

-Tom posted at Sweet Maria’s Weblog

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Small Quality-Obsessed Coffee Roasters On the Rise!

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.What coffee would the Mysterons drink?

Yawn. Double Yawn. I feel like it’s groundhog day, except this never-ending story is about exciting and fresh-faced coffee roasters who are obsessed with quality and decide to open up shop in NYC, or SF, or some other glamorous place. Never Kokomo, Indiana or Dayton, Ohio. Search “coffee” on the New York Times web site and read the same story, rewritten, over and over. It’s the basic premise of “God in a Cup” the gawd-awful book about personality-driven business. Without any substantial information about coffee itself, these stories are just a new type of consumer fetishism, but instead of being on the scale of the grand corporation they are the “humble neighborhood small-batch roaster” makes good and grows, but darn if  they don’t do  it in their own anachronistic quality-driven way. No matter how you wrap it, it’s a story about conspicuous consumption, about “where do you get yours?” as if it is a triumph of personal character to know which is the best shop to walk into and ask for coffee. If we substitute “coffee” for “perfume” or “Rolex” or typical, highly fetishized luxury goods, does it take on a new aire? And yet it is the same conversation, but with coffee brands. I am only peeved because each time I see a coffee headline, I hope that it contains some small bit of good information, planting some seed in consumer consciousness to change the way they think about coffee a bit. But I fear what we get, repeatedly in the cast of the NYT, is a basic shopping guide for those who want to be “in the know”. Unfortunately, they miss that coffee itself is more interesting than the business about business, even if you dress it up in trendy fashion. That’s too bad, I think. The odd thing is that these are some really good roasters too, offering good coffee. The roasters they reference and others are worth writing real coffee stories about. Not fluff. -Tom

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