Monday, July 20, 2020

Micro Quality

I was pleased to be part of an online discussion of coffee quality recently -- specifically about the connections between cupping quality and the quality of life for the people who grow the coffee. The short version: better quality is good for producers.  Feel free to watch the long version of our discussion, entitled Our Version of the Perfect Cup, and to read about the context of that conversation.

This discussion was part of an ongoing series of educational events organized by the Equal Exchange Action Forum, the citizen-consumer arm of the fair-trade company. Equal is known for its leadership in coffee, but now sells cocoa, tea, cashews, and other products on behalf of small farmers throughout the world. The Action Forum allows its customers to think deeply about the entire food system and to collaborate on making it healthier and fairer for people and the planet.
A central premise of our discussion is that higher quality in the coffee itself is associated with the development of producer communities. It also reflects one of the principle benefits of the entire fair-trade movement in my view: greater transparency and better connections between those who produce food (if we count coffee as a food) and those who consume it. As we explain, prior to the fair-trade movement, farmers has little if any information about the quality (and therefore the real value) of their products.

So please listen to the conversation in which we explore these connections; for those who have not given much to how high quality is achieved in coffee or why it matters, I think we provide a worthwhile introduction. As we explain in our discussion, an important aspect of improving coffee quality is the selection of better-quality coffee at various stages. From picking the coffee through roasting it, the best beans can be separated to get increasingly high-scoring results in the cup (coffee is scored much like wine).
Mild spoiler alert: I went looking for an image like this on
Instagram while watching one of the videos below. I should
not have been surprised that the first good example I found
was posted by the same person! It is part of a series of slides that
presents his case about microlots in a different way.
But please note that my co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain the problems that can arise from a focus on microlots, which are at the far end of the quality distribution. Microlots are very small batches of coffee -- perhaps just a couple of 100-pound bags -- that have been cultivated, selected, and processed with great care. They have the potential to earn premiums far above the price of ordinary coffee, and even more than most specialty coffee.

My co-presenter Mike Mowry begins to explain this during our conversation, and afterwards he shared two videos from Colombia that explain why high quality being good does not mean that extremely high quality is better. In two segments that are part of a series of videos about coffee economics on the Cedro Alto Coffee channel, Karl Weinhold explains the math of microlots and how that math tends to work against farmers, and especially farmer cooperatives. Hint: it is not simply a matter of only a few farmers getting the premium prices; even those getting the premiums might not fare well overall.




To be honest,  I had not thought seriously about the potential downside of microlots until we began to prepare for our presentation.  I remember the thrill of visited a mill specializing in microlots during my January 2018 visit to Estelí, Nicaragua. For a coffee nerd who cares about the farmers, the land, and the cup, it was exhilarating. So learning about the potential downside of ultrahigh quality was sobering.
Africa-bed drying of microlots in Estelí, Nicaragua. These beans are being
dried with extraordinary care, in lots as small as 5 pounds (nanolots).
Lagniappe

Long before I knew anything about quality in coffee, I read and re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (Phaedrus, #1). Much of the book concerns Robert Pirsig's maddening (literally) pursuit of the meaning of the word "quality." The rest of the book concerns a long ride on a motorcycle.

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