What If Everyone’s Special?

The beginning of something special?
The beginning of something special?

Growing coffee always requires a strategy, often one informed by understanding what’s happening the coffee world over.

In Costa Rica people told me, “we’ll never be able to compete with Brazil and Colombia on volume, so we focus on quality.” The sentiment is echoed on the legislative level with the Costa Rican law prohibiting the planting of “low quality” Robusta.

In Panama people tell me, “we can’t compete on volume with Costa Rica, so we really have to be focused on quality.”

With specialty coffee consumer sales continuing to grow, this seems like a good direction to go in. More and more people are falling in love with direct trade mini chains like Intelligentsia, Stumptown and Blue Bottle, and lots of little local roasters are putting themselves out, often in quite dramatic ways, (see Todd Carmichael of La Colombe’s Dangerous Grounds), to get good coffee.

And good coffee is good for everyone. When roasters pay more for quality coffee, everyone who worked to make that coffee possible makes more money. The thing with direct trade is that it cuts out traders and brokers and the money really does go into the hands of the people who did the physical labor. The smaller the vendor operation, the more directly it goes into those hands. Mill owners can pay off debts, farm owners can pay their pickers more, and families can more than cover the costs of their production. Everybody wins.

Because the model works so well- the model of families, communities and companies producing specialty coffee and selling it at a premium- it begs the question, can more people follow this model so that they can be winning too?

It seems like it. Anywhere that you can grow coffee you can grow better coffee. Not all coffee can be Boquete geisha, that’s true (coffee is still kind of magical in the way varietals act in particular microclimates), but you can always treat the plant with TLC, you can always pick only the ripest of cherries, and you can always process with even more TLC. You can always do better, even if you’re growing Robusta at sea level or Typica at 700 meters.

But are there only so many people who can follow this model before specialty coffee stops being special? If more and more people continue to grow and process and sell specialty coffee, will there be enough people to buy it? Maybe. Major grocery conglomerates who still roast the majority of the world’s coffee might say no. They might say that the thing that makes specialty coffee special is that it’s better than grocery store coffee, that people want something affordable and are therefore willing to accept a lower quality in favor of that lower price.

But maybe that’s not the only way people could shop; maybe there would be people to buy all the special coffee that could ever be produced. When Starbucks first rocked the coffee world they, in the art of contrast, pointed out that the coffee in most grocery brands at that point was basically crap, and consequently everyone got better. So what would it look like if we got to the point where everyone was special? What if all the massive sprawling estates that produce more or less decent coffee were broken down into smaller units that follow the model of really careful growing and processing and higher prices to reflect the cost of all that care?

If more and more growers stopped selling to wet mills or dry mills that mix qualities of coffee together and instead started really making their coffee the best it can be then selling it themselves,  would that devalue the specialty coffee that’s already being sold?

Probably not. Specialty coffee is special partly by comparison, but also because it’s good. Even if you remove the quality one notch below it, it doesn’t cease to be special. If more people grow and sell good coffee, good coffee might not be as rare, but it would still be good. Coffee is not diamonds; people pay the prices they do for good coffee not because it’s hard to get, but because it’s good. Just as one would do for a good glass of wine.

As a country, Costa Rica has the geography, most of the infrastructure, and the land distribution such that it just might be possible for everyone growing coffee to be special.  All the growing regions are at high enough altitudes that another level of quality control is naturally layered over that imposed by the “Arabica only” law. If every farmer were able to painstakingly cultivate the best possible coffee from their land, then process it with aforementioned TLC and export it in small lots, Costa Rica just might be able to be an exclusively specialty producer.

Panama too. The available land for growing coffee is so minimal that it all could probably feasibly be worked under a microscope and yield good coffee that fetches good prices.

What if we were able to break ourselves of our historically human habit of lumping things together and instead break things apart, treating each hectare of coffee as inherently special, then selling it as such? Could all cheap grocery store coffee be replaced with pricier but better grocery store coffee?

Could everyone be special- and get paid like it? Specialty coffee comes from very closely and painstakingly watching and working a little bit of land in lieu of more or less working a lot of land. Do we have the technological and organizational wherewithal to farm and process all coffee on this smaller scale? And then do we as consumers have the education to remember why our coffee would cost more? To understand that right now, cheap coffee is cheap not because it doesn’t cost a lot to make, but because most of the people making it are not getting paid much?

For all coffee to get specialer, we would have to remember to remember how special all coffee is any time we drink any of it.

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2 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to see how the coffee industry has changed over the years in Costa Rica. As a producer of organic coffee I found it fascinating to focus more in quality and small lots to achieve the best results. Great article!

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