The Illusion of Diversification

Just part of the instant coffee aisle in Chinchiná, Colombia
Just part of the instant coffee aisle in Chinchiná, Colombia

For all the rows of products lining grocery store shelves and the mile long menus we gaze up at when enter a coffee shop or down at when we enter a restaurant, it might seem like we’re faced with a lot of choice. If we want a sandwich we might have fifteen options to choose from; if we want a cup of coffee we can treat ourselves to any number of lattes, cappuccinos, frozen blended drinks, iced drinks and more. While it is true that we have plenty of options to wade through and therefore many choices to make, the notion that these options and choices stem from diversified offerings is often nothing more than an illusion.

If you look at one of those mile long coffee shop menus, it is true that a macchiato is not the same as a latte, and a latte is not the same as a cup of drip coffee. But if you look more closely, you’ll notice that much of what differentiates one menu choice from another is ratios and flavoring additives. A pumpkin spice latte only differentiates itself from a standard latte with the addition of pumpkin spice syrup. A caramel macchiato only differentiates itself from a standard macchiato by the presence of another flavored syrup. A standard macchiato only differentiates itself from a standard cappuccino by the ratios of milk to espresso to foam. These are all coffee drinks and they are different and they all taste different, but it is quite likely that every single one of them is made from the same exact coffee beans. It might even be that the drip coffee is also made from the same beans, just that they are ground differently and then prepared differently using a different ratio of coffee grounds to water and a different amount of water pressure.

The fact that uniform ingredients are used to generate products that appear differentiated from each other and seem to offer diversified choices to customers is not particular to coffee. You can walk down the snack food aisle of a grocery store and see maybe as many as thirty kinds of tortilla chips and another thirty kinds of potato chips. The offerings set themselves apart from one another with things like added flavorings, but the majority of these snack foods are made with the exact same kinds of corn and potatoes. Even those fifteen sandwiches from the mile long menus diners are often confronted with come served on bread that is not as diversified as it may seem. White bread is not wheat bread, and wheat bread is not multigrain, but the varieties of oats, wheat, and rye used to produce these breads are very few, and in no way represent the diversified varieties of wheat and grains that exist (existed?) in the world.

Diversification is a tried and true marketing solution and an effective way to grow a business. But at the root of diversification is the idea of selling more types of differentiated products with the ingredients you already have. Just have one type of coffee? Figure out a way to turn it into five menu options—so that you can even have a menu—instead of just putting up one big sign that says “coffee sold here.”

The reason that so many food products are differentiated in their icing but made from the identical cake is not because there aren’t lots of cakes—different varieties of corn, potato, grains, and coffee—available to work with, it’s because only the most genetically superior of those base ingredients has historically made the cut to be propagated in the arena of commercial/industrial agriculture. Strains of plants that were genetically more productive or resistant to disease have been selected over centuries. The desire to take the best attributes of genetically different strains of the same crop lead to the process of hybridization, and today we find ourselves with a very small number of plant varietals used to produce the majority of the food we consume.

The number of varieties of Arabica and Robusta coffee cultivated commercially hovers safely under twenty—and most of these varieties are hybrids. The number of coffee varietals that exist (existed?) in coffee’s homeland in the mountain forests of Ethiopia numbers well over 300. All on its own, coffee can be plenty diversified and extremely differentiated before you add any flavored syrups or steam any milk.

Modern agriculture is the product of many millennia of human intervention. We didn’t get to such a short list of super crops accidentally, easily, or quickly. Thomas Mann, in his book 1491, describes the diversity of corn that once existed in Mesoamerica and visits a few corners of southern Mexico and Guatemala where the diverse types of corn themselves are what creates the diversity of dishes. Human beings have been successfully cultivating grain for so long that even something termed “heirloom” is very far from any “original” plant and already has a long of history of human tinkering.

But commercial coffee is just a teenager. Only in the last few centuries has it been cultivated around the world. The reason some of the first varieties made it out of Africa, through the Middle East, across Europe and eventually settled in Asia and the Americas was purely by chance. (There are great stories of guys who taped seeds to their chests to avoid detection and fed their water rations to seedlings  on transatlantic journies). The first varieties that showed up in these “away from home” growing regions were not necessarily the best tasting, the strongest, or necessarily superior. They were just the ones that made it.

Coffee’s evolution has been rapid and ruthlessly commercial from the start. The result is hectare after hectare of coffeelands planted with the exact same types of coffee. If those coffees perform well (produce a good yield and don’t get sick), things go well. But if those coffees all fall to the same pest or plague and all demand the same high levels of agrochemical inputs that are eroding and degrading layer after layer of soil, things don’t go so well.

While there are around twenty varietals of coffee cultivated commercially around the world, most countries that grow coffee only have four or five of those- if that. Coffeepeople feel kind of stuck with only a handful of varietals that may not be their best bets. Because coffee is a younger crop, its wild ancestors are more accessible and there’s more of a chance to tap into its existing diversification on one end while continuing to cross and select more hybrids on the other end. This is far more doable than reverting to planting Mayan strains of corn in milpas. It’s doable and coffeepeople are starting to do it. As coffeepeople start to do it, customers start to see new types of diversification on the menus and the shelves. Would you like your latte with Brazilian or Ethiopian beans? A cup of pour over coffee with Colombian or Tanzanian peaberry?

Coffee is no longer just a homogenous dust of three or four varieties grown in fifteen countries mixed to produce a generic tub of grounds. You can have Maragogype from Nicaragua and Mondo Novo from Brazil. And this in-the-ground, on-the-farm diversification is important, because it’s part of what allows ecosystems to be self sustaining, and a truly sustainable ecosystem is one that allows all its residents—even big bad humans—to keep themselves thriving off what they have.

Coffee varietal tree by Cafe Imports.
Coffee varietal tree by Cafe Imports.

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