The Coffee Quality Myth

By Stuart Grant

Here are some thoughts that seem to have crystallised during this trip to Thailand. (Warning: long post, no pretty pictures.) Our company identifies itself as being part of the "specialty coffee" movement.

What is Specialty Coffee?

Specialty coffee buyers focus on coffees that are of a measurably better-than-usual standard; from a consumer point of view it is a little murky, but it generally means a focus on things such as:

  • where the coffee came from & how it was grown;
  • what unique flavours & characteristics you might find in it;
  • how the coffee was prepared & how that influenced the flavour.

A key tenet of the specialty coffee scene (as I see it) has always been "promote quality, reject mediocrity". In a café, this would mean re-making a coffee that wasn't quite right the first time; in a roastery it means taking the time to discover the best way to roast a certain bean to elicit exactly the flavour/characteristics you want from it. In both cases you're likely to waste coffee based on that standard. This waste, of course, is justified, because you want (need?) to show the consumer exactly what's possible in terms of quality.

The Reality of Coffee Farming:

When you apply this principle to coffee farming, you get the same result: waste. The reality is that no coffee farm is going to produce 100% of their coffee at whatever standard the specialty coffee industry requires of it. To give a few examples of this:

  • coffee from the beginning and end of the harvest is always lower in quality than peak harvest, regardless of how diligent farmers are.
  • a percentage of coffee picked will be less-than-ideally ripe, regardless of how diligent the pickers are.
  • each coffee farm or estate or program will have inferior sections, in terms of the altitude, or coffee varieties, or microclimate.
  • the best coffees pass through numerous stages of "grading" - as cherries, parchment, and beans, there is a natural level of attrition leading to the best lots - the remainder is sold off as a lower grade coffee.

Put these (and other) factors together, and you can see that even the best operation will only ever produce 70-80% of its coffee at the elusive "specialty" level. The rest is "waste".

What Happens to the Waste?

Other people drink it. Not discerning people such as yourselves, of course. But someone drinks it.

Case Study: Thailand:

Let's pretend you're a specialty coffee buyer visiting ITDP in Thailand, and that your singular requirement is quality

. There are over 30 villages growing coffee for ITDP. Your first decision might be to rule out many of them based on geography (eg. those below 1000m asl). Likewise, you might choose to rule out any of them growing only the Catimor variety - common here in Thailand because it is resistant to coffee leaf rust, but known to be potentially mediocre in the cup. That would leave you with only a handful of villages to choose between. Next you would want to witness cherry selection during coffee harvest. If it wasn't up to your standard, you would either demand improvement, or leave and find a better village. If you found somewhere harvesting good cherry, you would need to see how it is processed. What method are they using? Is their infrastructure clean and in good repair? Do they have enough capacity to maintain standards during the busy peak harvest? Assuming you found a village you wanted to buy coffee from - let's say 2 tonnes - you would have waded through over 90 tonnes of coffee to get there. That's 90 tonnes of coffee that you have (directly or indirectly) rejected. But you get a warm fuzzy feeling for your pioneering "direct trade" work, so that's nice, isn't it. Meanwhile several hundred farmers - who have no access to knowledge about what you were looking for in the first place - are left scratching their heads, and need to find another prospective buyer.


Here's what I'm NOT saying: "you should buy bad coffee to help poor people". What I am saying is that sometimes the relentless pursuit of quality becomes wildly unrealistic. There needs to be more acknowledgement that specialty coffee is part of a wider market, and that perhaps it is incumbent upon us to help develop quality, rather than just reap the benefit of it. A great example of this would be Tim Wendelboe's work with Finca Tamana in Colombia. Read up if you haven't checked this awesome project out. I am definitely NOT saying that a focus on quality is a bad thing. I have blogged repeatedly about how promoting quality is the very best way of helping coffee farmers create a sustainable income. But, to return to our case study of Thailand, we are working with ITDP here because of the potential for great coffee AND great outcomes for hill-tribe coffee farmers - not because we drank a mind-blowing coffee from here one time. I hope I haven't created a "straw man"

here - hopefully other people can relate to this? As always, I'm very happy for this post to start a discussion rather than remain a soapbox (which I am hurriedly stepping down from now).


1. For example, the Cup of Excellence program draws a line in the sand at 85 points on their scale (as judged by skilled cuppers).

2. Emilio Lopéz Díaz, of Beneficio El Manzano in El Salvador, states as much in this video, to give one example. Another is Crop to Cup's Whole Crop project in Burundi.

3. A "straw man" is a type of argument where someone creates a point of view simply so they can contradict it when, in reality, no one actually has that point of view.

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Honey Processing in Thailand

By Stuart Grant

Just finished a huge, very tiring day of coffee processing. We were up at 4am to drive the two hours to LB village to collect cherry. It turns out you can fit 2500kg on the back of a ute! Albeit with some complaints from the suspension. We arrived at 6am, so of course the cherry had been picked the day before (we think/hope). Ideally, ITDP likes to see processing of cherry within 8 hours of picking (ie. on the same day), but LB village doesn't have their own processing equipment. Again, ideally, you want all the cherries to be ripe but not overripe. Unfortunately the cherry was not all ripe, and a lot of what had been ripe was starting to ferment in the fruit. This was a complication! With honey processing, if you don't have perfectly ripe cherry, the beans can ferment on the drying beds and taint the flavour. So I became the hard task-master and insisted that we manually sorted the coffee back at the processing station in Mae Suai. It took 6 people (including me) over 4 hours to do enough for our honey processing experiment. Back-breaking, soul-destroying work, I can assure you! Hopefully, the team will implement some quality controls with the pickers so they don't have to repeat this ordeal!


We then pulped the good cherry without any water through the machine. This was to keep as much of the natural sugar on the outside of the beans as we could - the theory being that once it gets some sun, the sugar concentration will be too high to allow fermentation, and the coffee can dry safely. [EDIT: honey and sugar cane are two examples of this principle in nature - neither 0f them ferment, even though sugar is a perfect food source for almost any bacteria, because they are too concentrated.] We laid them thinly (1-2 beans in a layer) on the drying bed at 2:30pm - the hottest part of the day (32°C in the shade, 36°C in the sun). An hour later I measured the coffee as being at 27°C, which seemed good to me! At 5:30pm when the sun went down behind the banana plantation, the beans were still wet and sticky - we had hoped to get them surface-dry by sunset, but at least they had a few hours of good sun. Hopefully the weather stays hot and dry! Over the next two days we will be turning the beans every hour or two to make sure that they dry evenly and quickly. Ideally, they'll take 8-10 days to get down to 11% moisture. Then it'll be another month before they're ready to taste! Despite the set-back with poor quality cherry, I was happy with how today went. There are some higher-altitude villages coming into harvest now so it would be great if the team and repeat the experiment with some prime cherries.

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Chiang Mai Coffee Update 1

By Stuart Grant

Howdy from Chiang Mai. Despite the attempts of some silly-season travellers along the way, I made it to Chiang Mai last night (4am Australian time - it was a long day of travel).
I was met at the airport by Mike Mann, who is the director of ITDP (Integrated Tribal Development Program) which manages the coffee projects that we're a part of. Mike has plans for me! I'm happy about that, because I had made no plans other than "be useful"... ITDP runs a café & roastery in Chiang Mai which compliments their coffee projects amongst the hill tribe villages in the region. They call it Lanna Café. They have a large roaster (I'm guessing 25-30kg capacity) where they roast and blend coffees from different villages for use in Lanna and some other cafés around Chiang Mai. One of my first tasks will be to offer some roasting advice to the team here. This will be interesting because, as well as the language barrier, most Thais prefer their coffee a lot darker than we roast. I've spent the morning setting up some new lab equipment here at Lanna. They have a laboratory standard moisture analyser, and a couple of field moisture meters too. That means we can calibrate the field units at the lab, then take them to the villages to make sure the coffee is being dried adequately. If you under- or over-dry green coffee, the results are not good - they'll either taste mouldy or woody. This equipment will be a real benefit to the project. The coffee harvest has started, and apparently a lot of coffee has been coming in very quickly. This can be a problem if there aren't enough drying beds to hold all the coffee. What ITDP have done for now is set up lots more drying beds here in Chiang Mai, where the weather is more conducive to drying coffee. It means that the coffee is surface-dried at the processing stations, before being trucked to Chiang Mai (2-4 hours away) to finish the drying process. Tomorrow I will be visiting one of these processing stations - Mike said it's one of the best villages they work with, so it could potentially be the coffee that we end up buying (we won't get to taste samples for another couple of months). Later in the week I will be visiting the region where ITDP are doing some honey processing - rather than the usual fully washed processing. This will be exciting, but also challenging. We know exactly what needs to happen for the process to be successful:
  • perfect picking by the farmers
  • early delivery of cherry (so that it can be laid out to dry the same day)
  • good weather for drying
  • frequent raking of the coffee (so that it dries evenly)
  • enough room to dry all the coffee adequately.
But not all of these are controllable, and some of them are a massive logistical challenge - particularly because ITDP (to their credit) insist on keeping each village's coffee separate, so that growing/processing differences can be linked to quality/flavour. Hopefully we can work out the best way to handle all of these requirements. Looking forward to the next week or so!

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Returning to Thailand

By Stuart Grant

We're very excited to say that Stu will be returning to Thailand to visit our partners in the La Mai project next week.
This trip will coincide with the peak of the 2013 harvest in the region, which means we will be able to see a whole lot of coffee being processed.
Coffee processing is fascinating and complicated! The aim is to dry the coffee bean (evenly) before it "goes off" (eg. by fermenting inside the fruit, or going mouldy etc.). The predominant method is the washed method or wet-processing, where the fruit is removed, then the beans are soaked until the sticky mucilage comes off, then they are laid out to dry.
This year our partners will also be trying honey-processing, which is where the beans are laid out to dry immediately after fruit removal. They are still covered in sticky mucilage which means they need almost constant raking & turning on the drying racks. By leaving the mucilage on, the drying happens differently, typically giving resulting coffee a fruitier sweetness and more viscosity. There are hundreds of factors involved in getting the above process right: Where/how are the cherries grown? When picked, were they perfectly ripe? Is the pulper clean, and is it removing the fruit adequately? Is the temperature and humidity optimal for drying the coffee? Is it being raked/turned often enough? And many more. Stu is not an expert in this field by any means, but by participating in these experiments he hopes to learn more and to be a part of the continual improvement of this and other coffees that we source. No doubt there will be many blog posts to follow!

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Is your coffee Fair Trade?

By Stuart Grant

No. We are not Fair Trade (FT) certified.

Why not? Good question, especially given that we promote our coffee as "ethical". Firstly I want to state that we don't want to denigrate the work of FT; nor its proponents. We simply feel that FT isn't enough. I know little of the efficacy of the movement outside coffee, and we stand alongside FT advocates in desiring a better deal for coffee producers. I'll give two main reasons why we as a roasting company think we can do better than FT.



1. Fair Trade doesn't promote quality.

Coffee is bought and sold in such massive volumes that it is traded on the commodities market - alongside oil, wheat and gold etc. This establishes a standard price for coffee, which is known as the "C" price. The C market rises and falls with global supply and demand for coffee. When supply is high, or demand low, the C market falls. For example, it fell heavily in 2000, resulting in incredible hardship for millions of coffee producers around the world, forcing many out of the industry altogether.

The way that FT operates is to set a minimum price - for when the C price is low - as well as adding a premium to the C price for when it is above the FT minimum. Producers and cooperatives must purchase certification as FT (and/or organic) as a way of increasing or protecting their income. Our problem with the FT system is that it does nothing to encourage good quality coffee; it increases the value of a coffee (very slightly) without reference to how it tastes. We firmly believe that by improving coffee quality producers create a more sustainable income for themselves. Quality sells; if their usual buyer doesn't come through for them that year, at least there will be demand for their coffee from elsewhere. FT encourages reliance on certification, effectively putting a ceiling on income as well as a floor.


2. The structure of Fair Trade can undermine its aims.

There is a disconnect between the C market and the daily lives of most coffee producers. It is almost cruel that the choices (or whims) of commodity traders in New York can jeopardise the livelihoods of so many of the poorest people on earth. Nevertheless, the majority of coffee is bought and sold in reference to this C price. Fair Trade tries to deliver a higher price within an inherently unfair system. This leaves it open to many of the flaws of that system. A few examples follow:
  • FT coffee generates its own supply and demand. When demand for FT coffee is low, FT-certified cooperatives might sell as little as 20% of their coffee at the increased price, and have no choice but to accept the regular price for the majority of their coffee, despite having paid for certification (Berndt 2007:16, Valkila 2009:2).
  • The premium paid for FT coffee is collected by cooperatives to be paid back to farmers. However, the administrative costs of FT certification are deducted from this total and in some cases the farmers receive none of it (Berndt 2007:27).
  • Only cooperatives can register as FT-sellers. Individual farmers must be part of such a cooperative to be able to sell their coffee as FT. This excludes a vulnerable section of producers from FT.
  • A 10-year study by Beuchelt & Zeller (University of Hohenheim) concluded that amongst a group of Nicaraguan small-holders, those with FT and/or organic certification had on average become poorer than their neighbours who lacked certification, primarily due to the cost of certification and decreased yields in the case of organic (Solomon 2011).

So what do we do?

Hopefully the above has illustrated why we choose not to support FT. Hopefully it has also shown how complex this issue is! Unfortunately, the problem of systemic poverty amongst coffee producers will be a long-term challenge. We are committed to working with suppliers who share our concern for the welfare of the people we buy coffee from. This means making the supply chain shorter, so that we can be closer to the producer - metaphorically, at least. As I described above, emphasising quality is the key for us. Our suppliers (and in some cases we ourselves) can work with producers to help improve quality. This of course means that we will pay more for the coffee in subsequent years. I used to use the term "direct trade" (quite liberally) for our style of coffee sourcing, but out of respect for a bunch of other coffee companies who use that term far more impressively, I now prefer not to. You might call some of ours "relationship coffee"; you could call it being transparent; you could call it "ethical" (like our coffee bags do). At this point I prefer not to name it because it's something that will keep changing as we learn more about how to engage more closely with producers and as the specialty coffee industry finds better ways of addressing the problem of poverty.


Feel free to look through some of the following references to learn more about this complex issue. I want to note here that some of these articles are well-written and academically sound, while others are opinions pieces - some poorly argued - which are of more benefit as a discussion starter than an informative text.

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How To: Clever Coffee Dripper

By Stuart Grant

This is a Clever Coffee Dripper: They differ from most pour-over or filter coffee makers in that the coffee will remain infusing in the top section until you put it on your cup. This opens the "clever" valve and allows the coffee to drip through.

How to use the Clever Dripper:

You will need:
  • Clever Dripper (we sell them here);
  • Filter papers;
  • 30-35g coffee, ground coarsely;
  • 500mL boiled water;
  • A small jug.
What to do (for 2-3 cups): Step 1: insert a filter paper and fill Clever Dripper with boiled water. This rinses the paper and pre-heats the Dripper.Step 2: drain water and discard, then add ground coffee and 500mL water. Water temperature determines flavour - we measure with this IR device and aim for 85-90C. Step 3: after 30 seconds, stir again to break up the floating coffee. Step 4: about 2½ minutes* (after adding water), place the Dripper onto your jug. Step 5: it should take another minute* for all the coffee to drip through - then pour into your cups and enjoy! [* = these times depend on how coarsely you grind - if you grind finely, you'll need to start the draw down earlier; if you grind very coarsely, you can afford to start the draw down later. The total brew time should be around 3½-4 minutes, but you can experiment with longer; if your brew turns out bitter/tannic, you might have brewed too long.] Cleaning up is super simple: just shake out the spent coffee and filter paper and give the Dripper a rinse. The Clever Dripper gives you complete control over brewing: you can grind very coarsely and infuse for 4-5 minutes, if you like, for a really smooth and interesting brew. Long infusions can help you get good extraction from lighter roasts (ie. when the beans are still fairly hard), for example. We're now selling the Clever Dripper on our website if you're interested in having a go!

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Thailand Travels, part 2

By Stuart Grant

[Note: unfortunately I can't refer by name to the villages we visited, because ITDP has had trouble with competitors buying coffee that had been promised to them. The farmers get much less money this way, but they get it immediately, which can be tempting.] ITDP has assisted around 30 villages in planting coffee so far. Some of these projects are well established (10 years plus), while some are quite new, and more a being planted every year. We visited two coffee growing areas. The first was a group of seven villages with a communal processing station where all the cherries are collected and processed. It was west of Chiang Mai, at about 1000-1100m asl, and most of the coffee was grown under thick native forest on steep hills with nice red soil. The plants pictured are 7-8 years old; the project began 9 years ago. The second was a group of four villages (south-west of Chiang Mai, near the Burmese border), with a single plot of 500 coffee trees. This plot was at around 1100m asl but the surrounding villages have suitable land up to 1300m or more. This had been established by ITDP to demonstrate to the villagers how to grow coffee. The demonstration plot had it's first (small) harvest this year, three years after planting, and having heard how much the coffee was sold for, the surrounding villagers are very keen to start planting more! This plot was planted on cleared land, so it was necessary to plant shade trees to protect the coffee. It lies on moderate hills with lovely red clay soil (see right). The second village had a plant nursery, where thousands of new seedlings were being prepared. The seeds take 3 months to sprout, and can be planted out after 12 months. From that point, it takes another 2-3 years before they first significant harvest. ITDP encourage using organic farming practices, but generally the farmers can't afford chemical fertilisers and sprays anyway. Coffee plants can be fussy and disease-prone unless they are grown in their natural environment (under shade, in rich soil with lots of mulch and organic matter). The main variety grown by ITDP is Catimor, which is disease-resistant but has a mixed reputation in terms of cup quality. Mike said they have some other varieties including Typica and, believe it or not, the famous Geisha (coffee nerds will get it)! Like a lot of fruit trees, coffee needs a good prune after fruiting to be really productive. On this young plot of coffee (second village), they had pruned the plants to create two or three main stems. This means shorter, bushier plants which should be more productive.

Ideally, coffee plants flower in the wet season and are ready to harvest in the dry season (which means the beans can be dried fairly quickly). That is the case in Thailand, although like many other origins the drying can be interrupted by sudden rain storms.

The harvest in Thailand happens between November and February, with the majority ripening December and January - earlier in the warmer microclimates; later in the cooler and higher altitude regions. In well established areas like the first village, ITDP has helped the villagers build a processing station where all the surrounding farmers can bring their cherry. The processing happens in several stages:

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Thailand Travels, part 1

By Stuart Grant

I’ve just returned from a pretty amazing week in Thailand.

Whatever my expectations for the trip (I can’t really remember now…), I can guarantee that they were blown out of the water! It was a confluence of passionate people and eye-opening experiences.

The trip was planned by Bright Hope World – a wonderful bunch of people (volunteers, mind you) from Australia and New Zealand whose work in Thailand centres around the La Mai coffee project. There were 11 of us – 4 from Bright Hope, 5 other Aussies with various interests in helping aid projects in Thailand, and two coffee people (myself and Lindsay from Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee in the US) specifically looking at the villages involved in growing and processing the La Mai coffee. The group was great – with at least three Australian states represented – as well as New Zealand – there was plenty of rivalry and banter to be had! What was unexpected (for me) was how well the varied interests and passions of the group – and of the projects we visited – combined into an all-round goodwill for the people of Thailand. We met people who teach others, people who rescue girls out of prostitution, people who provide water and farming skills to isolated and very poor villages… a truly diverse range of ways of helping people. But somehow it all fit together – water projects giving villages better health and more free time, meaning the kids can go to school, and parents have time to grow crops that might provide them with a better income, which means they won’t sell their children into prostitution or servanthood, and the kids’ education provides for the families’ future, and the increasing prosperity of the village attracts skilled people like teachers and nurses… It all fits together! Most of these projects were instigated by Mike Mann who runs the Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP), based in Chiang Mai. Mike is a pretty amazing guy. He's from the US, but grew up in Thailand and has spent nearly 50 years there working to help the impoverished hill tribes of Northern Thailand. Not only does he want to help the hill tribes grow coffee, but he has a real vision for producing coffee of a very high quality! For us, quality comes first, which is why direct trade is the best model. If we wanted "ethical" coffee of middling quality, we would buy Fair Trade coffee. But fostering direct trade relationships means we can find people who are willing to go the extra mile to produce great coffee for us, for which we are more than willing to pay a decent price! Helping people to grow quality coffee creates demand for their product, protecting them from market fluctuations. I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw in terms of coffee quality. Everything from the climate and the soil, to the standards for picking and processing, to the infrastructure - everything was far more suitable for producing quality coffee than I had anticipated! As such, we are really excited about this year's crop of La Mai, which we are expecting some time during March. In the next post I'll give you a guided tour of how La Mai coffee is produced...

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