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Keeping Up With The Little Green Bean

Featured in the current issue of Cafe Culture Magazine, 'Keeping Up With The Little Green Bean' reflects on the recent shift towards superior quality and traceability within the coffee industry and the popular movements that have ensued.

The green bean industry is in a constant state of progression. As the industry evolves, with new varietals being cultivated and education and training becoming increasingly more accessible to producers, trends in demand come and go. A significant shift over the last decade has been the drive towards improved quality and traceability.

Technological advancements continue to dwarf our perception of the world. The average consumer becomes more informed and aware and the green bean market is undergoing change. In Australia we are witnessing a new movement amongst roasters; the emergence of a group who are moving beyond passive purchasing and are no longer content with sourcing commercial grade coffee. They are actively searching for higher quality coffee. If it has been ethically or sustainably sourced or comes with a certification that is an added bonus. Previously, the appeal of this niche market has been somewhat limited due to the price tag attached to premium quality. However this shift in the market has generated increased interest from a group who are committed to the cause and understand that coffee of this quality comes at a price. We are now seeing a market that is willing to pay high premiums for superior quality.

This progression has facilitated a number of popular movements within the industry; which importers and traders must keep up with to satisfy demand.

Roasters are searching for superior quality coffee with a tactile connection to the grower who has produced it. We are witnessing a shift beyond certified coffee where roasters are no longer content with selling coffee that is purely labelled sustainable or fair. They are looking for coffee that is fully traceable from crop to cup. While traceability is not a new phenomenon to the coffee industry the difference now is that it is not the only criteria that must be satisfied. For this group, if the quality is not in the cup, the certification label and provenance certificate are irrelevant.

We have seen an increased interest in single origin offerings with cafes showcasing a specific type or grade by serving it on its own - unblended and unique. A coffee bound for single origin status must be distinctive and high quality. The increased inclusion of single origin offerings in cafes has fostered an expectation from consumers who presume to be given a choice when ordering their daily caffeine hit; single origin or house blend?

The average consumer is more informed and aware of the process from crop to cup. Now more than ever cup quality is on their radar. Competing in a saturated market, where consumers have access to unlimited information, it is important for roasters to ensure they are consistently providing superior quality and exclusive coffees. Quality seals and marks of traceability have transcended from merely signs of corporate social responsibility to symbols of brand differentiation and a justification for purchase. 

In addition to serving more informed consumers, specific to the Australian market, we are also catering to a more defined palate. Our widespread exposure to multicultural cuisine has resulted in a more demanding consumer with a heightened sense of taste. This has prompted roasters to not only source new and exclusive specialty coffee but also to experiment with roasting techniques and brew methodology to showcase the ‘best of the bean’. We are seeing an increase in brewed beverages, as opposed to espresso based, with filter coffee bars opening up and pour over becoming a permanent feature on offering boards.

Approaching this shift from the other side of the supply chain; cup quality has also become more feasible and appealing to our counterparts at origin. Just as our consumers become more informed farmers and producers at origin are increasingly gaining access to information, educational resources and training programs. Producers are now able to attain feedback about their coffee, with the goal to improve quality, and demand higher prices. Traders and exporters are supportive of farmers striving to improve quality as they are, in turn, able to access niche markets and increase market share. With technological improvements comes unprecedented possibility for farmers in regards to cultivation, processing and marketing. This shift towards better quality is opening doors at both ends of the spectrum.

We often forget that, fundamentally, coffee is an agricultural product. It is susceptible to disease, weather conditions and environmental concerns. This increased demand for quality coffee has not paralleled a reduction in disease or the increase of stable weather patterns; on the contrary we are seeing the opposite. Central America was recently hit with the one of the worst outbreaks of leaf rust in history, decimating crops and severely reducing cup quality. Whilst technological advancements and increased access to infrastructure and education have aided producers to combat these, and similar, cultivation issues, fostering a livelihood from coffee is now harder than ever.

The average maturation time from seed to fruit for a coffee tree is three years. This is three seasons where a farmer will gain no profit from his trees, not including the first harvest which will produce minimal yield. During this time a farmer must rely on an alternate source of income, all the while caring for his crops to ensure superior quality. In a time where food security is of increasing concern and the effects of climate change are causing unprecedented problems for farmers, these elements do not contribute to a sustainable livelihood.

Increased access to education, infrastructure and funding is improving production and yield for coffee farmers, and many of these resources are stemming from the industry shift towards improved quality. However, smallholder farmers still require motivation to stay with coffee. It is integral to the progression and prosperity of the specialty coffee industry that we incentivise farmers to invest the increased effort required to produce coffee bound for the specialty coffee market.

As major players within the green bean industry, it is imperative that importers provide support and assistance to smallholder farmers and encourage the cultivation of superior quality coffee with full traceability. This can be done in many different ways.

Providing feedback to origin is a small yet significant part of the quality improvement process. Many producers cease to have any association with their coffee after delivery to a mill or exporter. Sending cupping and quality feedback back to origin is a small measure importers can undertake to both motivate and reward producers to improve quality and gain a sense of achievement for their efforts.

Purchasing certified or cooperative coffee ensures a premium is returned to farmers to assist with community development or infrastructure improvements. Settling prices outside of the ‘C Market’ often results in higher profits for producers, and many importers undertake funding initiatives on the ground to improve social development, sustainable production or promote education.

Promoting traceability within the supply chain ensures transparency, and affords producers the opportunity to follow their coffee directly to the consumer. A well-managed trace­abil­ity sys­tem also allows for more effec­tive and sustainable program management. However, to ensure accurate and reliable provenance, a cohesive and integrated supply chain is required. Traceability promotes accountability and provides an overview of where funding has been allocated. Furthermore, trace­abil­ity can act as a powerful tool for the inclu­sion and empow­er­ment of smallholder pro­duc­ers if the sys­tem pro­vides them with rel­e­vant mar­ket infor­ma­tion and oppor­tu­ni­ties.

In this constantly shifting market, it is integral that we play our part in the supply chain in regards to quality and traceability, and assist each link to fulfil their role. Not only because of increasing demand, and our customers perpetual quest for quality, but because it is necessary to ensure the preservation of our industry.

First published in Cafe Culture Magazine, Issue 37 October 2014.

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