I have always wanted to write about coffee and yet never done it. Why, you say? - because the coffee crowd is sometimes cray. You put an idea out there, and it gets immediate acclaim or well, the opposite is a very quick exile of doom. Love it or hate it, it is what it is. Coffee drinkers are a passionate crowd, and speciality coffee an even more serious subset of this. I have learned and loved speciality coffee for a long time now. So it was only natural to choose coffee as the topic of a recent paper. We had been talking about political economy and supply chains in food commodities, and coffee has been long traded as a agricultural commodity. I will be sharing a few things I have understood through my reading and expert ‘coffee-drinking’, while working in speciality coffee.
thanks for your time. and thanks for being nice. to the ladies of coffee ;)
[On the topic of Quality]
What is quality to you? is it a tasty coffee, a well roasted and extracted coffee, a replicable and consistent coffee that is always getting better; and if it is all those things, how do you measure quality? I mean there is the basic scientific sense of it, like how in manufacturing of food and other things we instil quality control/assurance programs to ensure we can identify defects that deviate from the defined ‘quality’ attribute is and aim to eliminate situations of lesser quality.
In the Coffee Paradox book by Daviron & Ponte, they suggest that there are three classes or distinctions of quality; being material, symbolic, and in-person service. Anyone who works in speciality coffee will agree with the evidence of all three in a successful quality coffee brand.
Material quality, independent of the buyer or seller, speaks for the physical product. We can measure this with technical and scientific equipment, sensory evaluations, etc.
Symbolic quality is more what I know as a 'perceived quality’ associated with the product brand. This is derived from reputation, for example, what the brand or trademark stands for. In retail sale, all the sustainability & fairtradingtrade or geographic claims. How many people at supermarkets will give priority to a ‘fair-trade’ label or say "oh that’s blue mountainy coffee or Kona coffee, must be good." ;) It has been observed that UK consumers are willing to pay more for a fair-trade product. But, that can be a very deceptive. One must consider what these trademarks or brands hold as a meaning, for more insight on this I suggest you see Hasbean owner Steve's blurb on direct trade & fair-trade (here, and here).
In-person service quality is by far the most personal and involved; and is the basis of what speciality coffee seeks to highlight over others. This involves buyers, sellers, producers; and because it is an interaction between the consumer and the seller, it cannot happen independent of that relationship. This relationship is based on a service; it's the preparation of the drink at the cafe, or talking through the types of retail coffees. What I think speciality coffee alone depends on. Ultimately highlighting what everyone up the supply chain has done thus far. (farmers/processors, green buyers, roasters, etc.)
Producing countries are most concerned with material quality according to Daviron & Ponte because coffee is just a product grown to be exported; with the exception of from Brazil and Ethiopia, where there exists a coffee consuming culture. I found this breakdown to be quite helpful in showing what we know as ‘quality’
 genetic type of coffee (arabica, robusta)  cultivar (bourbon, typica, caturra)  agro-climatic conditions (terroir, soil, altitude, rainfall)  harvesting procedures(sun or shade growing, mulching, irrigation?!)  primary processing (wet or dry)  export preparation  handling during transport (because we all like non-manky coffee)
There is a significant difference in processes and labour applied to speciality, whole bean retail, or instant coffee. Some argue that an informed customer with a better understanding of quality attributes will drive the roasters on all levels to provide a better product. It's my hope that consumers would have the discernment from among the homogenous mass-marketed coffee, to recognise more than just brand-associated/symbolic quality.