The Good Food Awards PerspectiveOrganizers of event’s coffee category respond to criticism
By Dan Leif
When San Francisco-based Seedling Projects hands out the first-ever Good Food Awards on Jan. 14, the event’s organizers will likely breathe a sigh of relief. GFA began as an effort to honor food and drink in seven categories—including coffee—produced with social responsibility and environmental sustainability top of mind. However, over the past several months, GFA has come under fire from critics within specialty coffee who have questioned the awards’ process as well as its sustainability requirements.
Fresh Cup recently talked with Seedling Projects director Sarah Weiner and Brent Fortune, owner of Portland, Ore.-based Crema Coffee and a member of the group of coffee pros Seedling Projects tapped to organize the GFA coffee category. The two say that while the awards have become far more complex and controversial than they anticipated, they actually deem the first year a success, pointing to the fact that GFA has helped rekindle the debate over best practices in coffee farming and caused some roasters to learn more about the specifics of their product.
Q: When roasters submitted to GFA, they were asked to check a box saying their coffee met the GFA requirements. But it turned out some finalists’ coffee actually didn’t fulfill the criteria. Do you think your process was faulty?
Sarah Weiner: We know that as a first-year initiative with everything being so complicated, not everyone interpreted the criteria as we did. We did not have the resources to verify all 780 products [across the seven food categories] before they were tasted. … People are entering different competitions and people interpret language differently. That’s totally legitimate.
Q: I talked to a roaster who said that when he was contacted about submitting to GFA, he was basically told, “Send great-tasting coffee.” Do you think the sustainability aspect was downplayed in the entry process?
Brent Fortune: Thinking back, we got a little caught up in the tasting criteria. We’re so into results and competition in the coffee world, and people really wanted to know, “Did I beat roaster X, Y and Z?” We had an incredible team of people in a room tasting and scoring, and everybody got caught up in that a little. We talked about creating another category for coffees that somewhere along the way got eliminated but maybe were working toward these [sustainability] goals. There were some beautiful coffees on the table that certainly were worth recognizing.
Sarah Weiner: We’re impressed by anyone who made it to the finalist level. Some people are further along the path than others. Some are further along in criteria we didn’t include in our original criteria. A lot of people who have been named finalists are already using the Good Food Awards logo on their Web sites. We want that to be the case.
Q: But isn’t it sort of false advertising if a company says it’s a GFA finalist but actually didn’t meet your sustainability requirements? This has happened.
Sarah Weiner: It’s a really good point. We added language to make it more of a front-line message on our Web site above the list of finalists. We explained our process. The process is 780 products self-certified.
Q: In light of the sustainability confusion, did you consider just canceling this year’s competition?
Brent Fortune: People keep using the word competition, but it’s not a competition. It’s an awards. These are two different things. The WBC [World Barista Championship] is a competition. In an awards, there’s a criteria and the owners of the awards reserve the right to decide who is eligible. In this case, it’s an award bestowed upon a roaster/producer, and I think there’s leeway in deciding, once you see all the entrants, who’s worthy of that award and who isn’t ready yet.
Q: Has it been hard seeing some of the negative comments being made about the event? Former SCAA president Mark Inman called the event a form of consumer fraud.
Brent Fortune: It’s difficult not to take some of it personally. But we just keep stepping back to say, “What are we trying to do here? What’s the good that can come out in the end?” Even people not directly involved in the Good Food Awards have had some incredible conversations because of all this. There’s been some great back and forth between Geoff [Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee] and Peter [Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee] about where we are in terms of agrochemicals and what’s realistic and where we want to be.
Sarah Weiner: If the Good Food Awards needs to take criticism to bring these issues to the table, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. It’s incredible that people are talking about this in such a public way. It’s incredible that some of the top roasters in the country are insisting with their farmers, “Wait, tell me more information. I care about how this coffee was grown.”
The Good Food Awards will be announced Jan. 14 at a ceremony in San Francisco.