Stepping Up the Conversation

Feature

The specialty-coffee industry has a tough time talking about coffee, Oliver Strand told the throng of attendees gathered at the 11th annual Let’s Talk Coffee conference, which took place this October in Salinitas, El Salvador. Strand ran through the series of challenges coffee roasters and retailers face when describing coffee to customers, and asked what information is needed to convey the experience of a coffee to a reasonably well-educated consumer. Is it the growing region, the name of the farmer, the roast date, the elevation, or certifications like fair trade or organic? In wine, a reasonably well-informed consumer who is provided only the grape variety, winemaker and year of production has adequate information to predict, at least generally, the taste of a given bottle of wine. But how does a roaster accurately convey a sensorial expectation on a package of coffee?

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(Photo: Mike Russeell.) (Photo at top: Bryan Clifton.)

Strand argued that information that doesn’t directly lead to an expectation of a specific coffee’s taste isn’t relevant. Certifications, elevation and roast date all convey information that is important to certain consumers, but they do very little to specifically describe a coffee’s flavor, body and taste.

Let’s Talk Coffee is Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers’ annual conference bringing together partners in the organization’s global supply chain. Attendees at Let’s Talk Coffee come from throughout the world of coffee production and include farmers and mill operators, academics, NGOs, roasters and baristas. The aim is building relationships, celebrating successes, honestly assessing strengths and weaknesses, and strengthening transparency. Conversations happen through informal networking opportunities, structured one-on-one meetings and during a lecture series involving some of the brightest minds in coffee.

While Let’s Talk Coffee typically focuses on the coffee supply chain rather than the end consumer, Strand’s lecture—titled “Killing the Conversation”—was an appropriate introduction to this year’s conference, as he essentially asked: How does specialty coffee connect an incredibly complex chain of players to the consumer? It was a fitting theme to launch more than 400 attendees into a series of courses centered around how to strengthen relationships in coffee—between agronomists and cooperatives, farmers and the commodities markets, or specialty coffee and a larger community committed to sustainability.

Coffee is a complex industry; how do we build a narrative and tell a story that resonates with our customers without bogging them down with this complexity? As Strand drew the parallel with wine and discussed its labeling history, he pointed out that we have hundreds of years of wine production to call upon, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that wine makers hit upon the formula of describing a wine by variety, vintner and production year. It was a long process that evolved over time—one in which consumers became educated about wine and the sensorial implications of these three details. Strand proclaimed that specialty coffee needs to educate customers in a way that allows for similar methods of description to become effective. Some might say this is a slippery slope, as coffee consumers are often looking for something that tastes good and resonates with their personal coffee rituals and memories, and not necessarily looking to be educated.

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(Photo: Bryan Clifton.)

Both sides of that argument were heard at the panel “Farm to Table: Connecting Consumers to Origin.” There is already a strong farm-to-table movement afoot in restaurants, farmers markets and specialty grocery stores across the United States. Similarly, we have seen specialty-coffee roasters advance a connection to producers through marketing that is rich with photography and storytelling, promotion of direct-trade, ever-increasing cup quality, and diverse flavors, tastes and experiences within the actual cup of coffee. As part of that panel, Ted Satchura discussed how his company, Equator Coffee, provides consumers with a rich sensorial experience bolstered by effective marketing and storytelling. In this way, coffee roasters and retailers have an opportunity to engage and educate consumers at their own pace, rather than forcing a curriculum and agenda.

Price Peterson, owner of Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, contributed a producer’s perspective to the discussion of farm-to-table coffee. In addition to its now-famous connection to the gesha variety, Hacienda La Esmeralda was an early adopter of the “open auction” format. In this model, the producer sells specific coffee lots through an online auction. The format flattens the supply chain, connecting roasters to producers immediately while simplifying the story of that coffee. In the case of Hacienda La Esmeralda, the auction format has helped the farm create a strong brand—one that almost every specialty coffee roaster knows and with which many sophisticated coffee consumers are familiar.

Price Peterson of Hacienda La Esmeralda (right) was an early adopter of the "open auction" model in which the producer sells specific lots via online auction.
Price Peterson of Hacienda La Esmeralda (right) was an early adopter of the “open auction” model in which the producer sells specific lots via online auction. (Photo: Mike Russell.)

This model separates the value of specific high-quality coffees from the volatile C market and allows roasters to assign a true market value to specific coffees. It also creates an immediate financial connection between roaster and producer, mimicking the established farm-to-table connection of localized supply chains (e.g., restaurant chef to local farm).

Peterson’s perspective on disentangling specialty coffee from the C market tied into the larger conversation driving Let’s Talk Coffee. David Griswold, Sustainable Harvest’s president, opened the conference proclaiming that the coffee industry is broken, pointing to the C market’s connection to mutual funds and macroeconomics rather than tangible issues of supply and demand. Griswold went on to list other challenges facing the industry, from the unsustainable prices coffee farmers receive for their crop to the reasons the younger generation isn’t going into farming.

Other discussions at this year’s Let’s Talk Coffee revolved around topics such as food security for coffee producers, the impact of climate change, access to finance and credit, and ways coffee professionals in emerging markets can gain access to SCAA’s accredited trainings. But the larger question, implied by Strand’s keynote presentation, is: How do coffee professionals in consuming countries impact these issues? An even more immediate question is: Why should those consuming countries care?

Sustainable Harvest’s pioneering direct-trade “relationship coffee” model works best when these relationships function both ways. If coffee roasters are truly engaged with the farmers and cooperatives that produce their coffee—and with others in coffee’s supply chain—they are better equipped to share these stories with their customers. When consumers understand these issues and have a connection to coffee producers, it becomes easier to expand prices and consumer expectations. Stephen Vick of Blue Bottle Coffee summed it up when he stated that Blue Bottle’s customers trust them and are open to unique coffee flavors and experiences. He offered the example that Blue Bottle customers would be willing to try an exceptionally high-quality robusta on the company’s recommendations, despite robusta’s less-than-stellar quality reputation.

Roasters in the enviable position of having a trusting customer base can engage this group by offering special high-price/high-quality lots. Peterson’s Hacienda La Esmeralda is a prime example: Consumers who frequent the cafés of coffee roasters who purchase La Esmeralda routinely pay nearly $10 for a single cup, and they buy whole-bean coffee at prices that exceed $100 per pound. These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the opportunity that exists when the transparency and relationships that develop at Let’s Talk Coffee function at their best. Roasters who engage with producers, understand the unique issues faced by their suppliers and communicate these challenges to their customers are often able to ask more than market price for a cup of coffee.

In addition to presentations and panels, Sustainable Harvest’s Let’s Talk Coffee hosts facilitated one-on-one meetings between roasters and producers. These meetings offer a format for producers to tell their stories and express their concerns to roasters, who in turn can relay those stories to their customers, and tell producers about their business model and their expectations. In this venue, the two parties work together at building a relationship that is more engaging that that of mere buyer and seller.

The stories, narratives and meaningful relationships cultivated at Let’s Talk Coffee translate into a rich experience for roasters’ customers. Now more than ever, these relationships are key to coffee’s success. The C market is a fundamentally flawed way for us to value coffee. Let’s Talk Coffee provides the venue for discussions between all players in coffee’s supply chain, and through this discussion, the true value of each participant in the supply chain is defined. The conference also offers a venue for this pool of leaders to actively pursue solutions to the pressures facing our industry.

Strand correctly pointed to the importance of conveying the sensorial expectation of coffee through our packaging. Throughout Let’s Talk Coffee, discussions formed around quality and taste. And while many other presentations and discussions focused on supplier issues, innovative technology and agronomic realities, Strand directed us to engage the consumer. We build loyal customers through delicious coffee. With that loyalty, roasters have the opportunity to convey the full range of challenges facing coffee’s supply chain, in turn creating the ultimate vehicle for change.

—Marcus Young is relationship manager at Sustainable Harvest in Portland.