INTRODUCTION
COFFEE QUALITY

In the introduction of the first edition of this book we wrote: “Over the years, we have found that there is a great deal of published information on how to produce more coffee, but relatively little on how to produce a fine high-quality coffee that creates an excellent cup. This has stimulated us to produce this book. The more we searched for information on coffee quality, the more we realized that a superb cup of coffee depends on a complex of processes along the supply chain that allows little margin for error at any stage.”

 

Since then, we have learnt a great deal about the way specialty coffees are produced, processed and traded. The processing of ripe cherries to produce green beans with distinctive flavors has been the subject of much experimentation, often based on trial and error. Coffee breeders now pay more attention to quality and have a better understanding of the factors that determine sensory characteristics of coffee. Breeders now have an exciting range of materials in advanced testing that will shortly become available for growers. At the same time, we feel, agronomy with all its facets is being left behind and traditional research approaches are unlikely to fill the gap. Nevertheless, there are major opportunities to improve crop management: sharing of information coupled with modern sensor technology, and a move to digital farming, provide novel means to capture the myriad experiences, successes and failures of individual growers, analyze them and use the knowledge generated to manage fields according to their local site-specific conditions to produce specialty coffees with distinctive characteristics for increasingly sophisticated coffee drinker.

 

In the first edition we tentatively established the framework and methodologies to improve the management of the crop. We believe that these are still valid, and they have been revised and are described in Part 1 of this book. Improved management, with its heavy dependence on digital agriculture and the experiences of many growers and producers, requires coordination of efforts and sharing of information from multiple sources. The establishment of the World Coffee Research (WCR, worldcoffeeresearch.org) organization has marked a milestone for the specialty industry and beyond, providing not only a mechanism for developing new technologies itself, but also as a means to coordinate the sharing of information and knowledge generated along the supply chain. Thus, WCR provides an institutional and structural mechanism that can potentially enhance the uptake and widespread use of concepts and principles described in this book.

 

Unfortunately, despite the progress since the first edition of this book, the specialty coffee industry continues to face major challenges. Climate change threatens both the livelihoods of millions of coffee farmers, and the supply of high-quality beans. The arguments of those who continue to deny climate change are wilting and are made starker by each additional, desperate farmer who abandons his farm and seeks an alternative way of life. This situation is aggravated by current prices that may not even cover their costs of production. In response, we have strengthened several Chapters in this edition to help the specialty coffee supply chain in the process of adaptation to climate change. Despite the gloomy prospects from climate change, these Chapters describe how the threats can be mitigated.

 

What remains as true today, as in 2012, is the fact that the process of producing magnificent coffees continues to be as much an art as a science. Consequently, as we developed this and the previous edition of the book, we have tried to combine hard science with art, and put it into a business context: the result is a book with a wide range of styles. We make no apologies for this as we believe that the combination of science and art as business proposition is the key to satisfying both the discerning coffee drinker, and also those involved in the production of quality coffees.

 

Coffee slowly evolved from a beverage consumed principally by small, often elite, groups to a brew that is consumed in many countries by the population at large. While the mass market is the driving force behind the established coffee industry, the ever growing interest in specialty coffees, promoted by a group of dedicated protagonists, has motivated the creation of a specialty coffee industry that runs parallel to the conventional industry, and in places is creating already more value than the conventional industry. We believe that the specialty coffee market will continue to offer opportunities to the smaller farmers to become prosperous, something that is not possible in the commoditized mainstream coffee markets with prices that continue to decline in real terms. The smaller producers who can tailor their products to specific niches and preferences in the market are in a potentially advantageous position.

 

What differentiates a high-quality, specialty coffee from an ordinary coffee? Product differentiation may be based on perceptual differences on how the coffee was produced or on intrinsic, real, tangible differences in product characteristics. In the case of coffee, perceptual differentiation is normally associated with the process by which the coffee is produced. Thus, while differentiation may be based on perceptual differences, for example coffee certified as produced in an ecologically sound and sustainable manner, it is not feasible to take a sample of this coffee and discern how it was produced. The fact that it is produced and certified as Organic or Bird Friendly, cannot be discerned by looking at the roasted beans or from the cupping quality of an individual sample, or lot. On the other hand, inherent or intrinsic (rather than perceptual) differentiation depends on characteristics of the coffee itself that can be directly evaluated: a taste panel can differentiate coffees according to their intrinsic qualities in cupping sessions. We maintain our focus on perceptual and intrinsic quality in the second edition of this book. While recognizing the importance of perceptual differentiation, we concentrate on inherent or intrinsic quality characteristics that provide both the opportunity to provide coffee drinker with an excellent experience, and the small coffee producer a better life.

 

There is no single standard for coffee quality. Coffee quality, as is the case with wines, cheeses and more recently, artisanal beers, depends on personal preference. Whilst the individual consumer may have a limited range of preferences, the consumers as groups are comprised of many individuals all with their own distinct personal preferences. Hence, there is an overall consumer demand for a variety of distinct products differentiated by factors such as flavor, aroma, and acidity. Such products will likely be produced in distinct environments with particular crop management and post-harvest practices that are associated with specific quality traits. This trend is observable with single origin coffees gaining acceptance in the industry. However, we are only beginning to understand how such single origins can be systematically developed, produced and marketed. This has not changed much since the first edition of this book. The WCR and its partners can play a game changing role in this endeavor. Nevertheless, growers today face many challenges as they strive to develop more effective supply chains for both the conventional and the specialty coffee markets. It is unlikely that government agencies or other forms of public support will develop the multiplicity of processes associated with the development of a large number of niche products in a constantly evolving physical, social and economic environment. Those involved in the production, processing and marketing of specialty coffees will have to create their own distinctive coffees, and the management and business practices required to consistently produce them. This second edition further consolidates the ideas on how this can be achieved.

 

We hope this new edition will continue to stimulate the creativity of those involved in the specialty coffee industry, by providing practical approaches that support and vitalize the capacity to innovate in a productive and sustainable manner. Innovation to unlock the complex treasures of exotic fragrance, aroma and taste is facilitated by transparent collaboration between all those involved in producing a great cup of coffee. This can be achieved by more direct interaction and dialogue between farmers, buyers, processors and consumers as they explore opportunities to improve the quality of this fascinating drink.

 

This book is neither a blueprint nor a recipe for specialty coffee production. Our intention is to provide information and ideas that stimulate and support creative thinking that can provide the basis for developing and adjusting the myriad processes and details of the specialty coffee supply chains that produce a multitude of coffees with distinctive traits from a diverse range of origins.

 

We acknowledge that there are aspects related to specialty coffee production that we have not touched upon: sustainable waste management, linkages between final product innovation and production management, biodiversity in coffee growing origins, environmental service provision by the specialty coffee supply chain, knowledge exchange among smallholder growers and between smallholder and estate growers, innovative financing models for growers and their partners, the emergence of new production origins and the revitalization of neglected production origins. Nevertheless, we hope that the topics we have covered will trigger a greater exchange of ideas and information to support the growth of this fascinating industry.

 

The revised Chapter 1.1 describes how the demand for coffee has evolved over the past few centuries. Coffee, after its introduction to Europe and North America, was first consumed as a luxury good from the late 17th through the 18th century. Later, as countries industrialized and people became aware that with coffee they could work longer and harder, it became not only the beverage of the privileged but also of the working class. Quality considerations took second place to quantity, price and ease of preparation to meet the demand of the mass market, principally in Europe and North America. Recently, with increasing wealth in the traditional coffee markets plus burgeoning new markets in Asia, Russia and producer countries such as Brazil, the market for distinctive specialty coffees has surged. The revised Chapter now also introduces the issue of low producer prices and the role of specialty coffees in raising them.

 

Traditionally, quality has largely been associated with geographical origin and especially associated with mountain grown coffee. Chapter 1.2 demonstrates how modern information technology can be used to determine how the climatic conditions of the site of origin may influence coffee quality and to provide methodologies to identify sites which are capable of producing a superior quality product. The concepts and the illustration of their use remain the same as in the earlier edition, however, new sources of information that can be used to determine the suitability of sites for specialty coffee production have been included.

 

The extensively revised and updated Chapter 1.3 provides insights on how these sites are likely to be transformed as climate change inexorably modifies the environment. Furthermore, it describes tools that can be used to determine which sites are likely to be suitable for the production of highquality coffee in the future. Many of these sites are likely to be areas of the world that have not been traditionally considered suitable for the production of high-quality specialty coffees. Possible sites include emerging East African origins such as Burundi, Rwanda, and Zambia; regions in Asia including China, Lao PDR, new Indonesian origins, northern Philippines, and northern Thailand and other non-traditional coffee growing areas of the Neo-tropics. Unlike the Chapter in the previous edition, which considered Mesoamerica, the scope of analyses has become global.

 

Chapter 1.4 introduces concepts of how farmers and their partners can learn from their shared experiences and use this knowledge to enhance their management practices in a systematic manner to improve yield, quality and overall performance. In this revised Chapter we also include suggestions about how to involve the final consumer in the improvement process.

 

Coffee quality depends not only on the site where it is produced, but also on the variety that is planted, how it is managed and the pests and diseases that attack it. Much of the highest quality coffee today is produced from traditional varieties; however, breeders are now paying close attention to new varieties with specific quality traits that are also adapted to changing climatic conditions (Chapter 2.3). The breeding Chapter has been fully revised and describes the most significant advances made over the last 7 years, and does so in the context of climate change. Development of crop management ix practices that ensure high quality beans requires an understanding of the plant processes involved. The updated Chapter 2.2 reviews the current status of knowledge on the physiology and development of coffee with emphasis on quality. This Chapter provides an improved understanding of the effects of climate change on both productivity and quality, with exciting possibilities for adapting the crop to climate change in areas where it is currently produced as an alternative to moving coffee to new sites with climate similar to that of the current major coffee production regions. The best management practices presently available are described in Chapter 2.1, with special emphasis on managing the environmental conditions to meet changing climatic conditions and to minimize environmental degradation. In addition to the content in the previous edition, the authors added practical guidelines on how to monitor management practices and to identify those priority areas where management needs to be changed. Particular emphasis is given to an integrated approach to both plant nutrition (Chapter 2.4) and disease and pest management (Chapter 2.5). Both Chapters have been extensively revised, and inform the reader about the new knowledge that became available during the last 5 to 6 years. New topics, including nutrient performance monitoring, and contribution of nutrients from shade trees have been added.

 

We recognize that growers and other supply chain actors are the primary innovators and they will continue to develop novel differentiated products, with their own special characters and profiles, by trial and error. This process can be accelerated and made more rigorous by setting up a framework for evaluating innovations using on-site observations and modern information systems that connect the grower to the rest of the supply chain (Chapters 1.4 and 3.5). Chapter 3.5 on information management opportunities has been completely restructured and rewritten. The Chapter now focuses on identifying the entry points for digital farming, and thereby complements Chapters 2.6 and 2.7 on post-harvest management, and goes hand in hand with Chapters 2.1, 2.4 and 2.5.

 

Even when the coffee grower raises superb quality cherries ready for harvest, the quality is likely to be lost and the farmer’s efforts wasted if the cherries are not harvested and processed appropriately. In Chapter 2.6, a whimsical anecdote that turns an apparent disaster into a major achievement highlights the importance of serendipity in improving post-harvest management. While general principles are described in detail, the way is left open for continual improvement through linking meticulous observation and recording of process modifications with the quality of the coffee as it moves along the supply chain (Chapters 2.6, 3.2, 3.2 and 3.5). We decided to add another, new Chapter on post harvest processing to this second edition of the book. This Chapter is written by a well-known coffee roaster / importer who engages directly with the farmers in producing regions. It provides a unique account, and thereby guidance, to anyone in the industry interested in engaging directly with producers of coffee.

 

The flow of information between the distinct actors along the supply chain is essential to ensure that excellent quality cherries are produced in the field and are adequately processed, stored, roasted and eventually delivered to the final consumer as a distinctive beverage that satisfies the client. Furthermore, a smooth, two-way flow of information is critical to ensuring that growers, processors, roasters, traders, wholesalers, retailers and baristas are aware of the importance of quality and receive just rewards and incentives for their efforts. Prerequisites of business models that ensure equitable benefits all along the supply chain, and that take advantage of knowledge accumulated at each and every stage of coffee production, processing and marketing are outlined in Chapter 3.1, and illustrated with case studies in Chapter 3.2. Chapter 3.2 in particular has been extended and complemented with guidance on how to develop climate sensitive business and trading models. The impact of different approaches, with emphasis on the welfare of the primary producers, is evaluated in Chapter 3.3. The business models and the approach adhered to in this book encourage an operational research approach to improvement of processes in which observations of commercial operations are carefully analyzed and used as the basis for improvements. Underlying all the business models is a concern for the wellbeing of the small scale coffee producer and equitable distribution of benefits along the supply chain. 

 

Throughout the whole book there is a constant theme of: “What you do not measure, you cannot manage.” Chapter 3.4 provides guidelines on how coffee quality can be reliably evaluated and measured at different stages along the supply chain, with emphasis on providing growers with a means of evaluating the quality of the green beans based on the premise that if the quality is poor at this stage, nothing can be done to improve it later. The Chapter has been updated to keep abreast of the most recent developments in the field. With the emphasis on measurement and sharing information, Chapter 3.5 identifies the entry points for information technology, so that modern digital monitoring, evaluation and control of processes can be applied to all stages of the specialty coffee industry, from production on the farm, to processing of the ripe cherries to beans, and on through packaging, storage, roasting and the experience of drinking a fine cup of coffee.

 

Conscious of the need for alternative sources of coffee bean supply, we have included a new Chapter 3.6 in this second edition of the book. The authors introduce in great detail the potential that India has to further expand the supply of highquality coffee. Importers and roasters keen on expanding their portfolio of green beans may find it worthwhile to explore this Chapter and engage with its authors whilst others who are thinking of expanding into new areas will surely learn from the Indian experience with specialty coffee.

 

We wish you a good time reading the book, and would like to hear back from you with criticism, suggestions and ideas. Surely, in a few years from now, there will be the time for a third edition.

 

Thomas Oberthür and James H. Cock
oberthur@gmail.com
jamescock@gmail.com

 

Join our newsletter

and learn more about solutions for

Here should be a form, apparently your browser blocks our forms.

Do you use an adblocker? If so, please try turning it off and reload this page.