Coffee-nomics 101: Traceability and Specialty Coffee
Coffee-nomics 101: Traceability and Specialty Coffee
As much a part of the day for most adults as brushing teeth, coffee is consumed at a rate of over 17 million gallons per day in the US and more than tea, soda and juice combined. Because of its main ingredient, caffeine, coffee has been named as one of the most popular drugs in the world.
And that little cup of coffee you enjoy every morning is actually a major player in international trade. At one point, coffee was the second most traded commodity in the world - beating out natural gas, wheat, sugar, cotton, copper, corn and gold. Entire countries still depend on it. Take it away and the world might slip into a recession!
Better keep drinking.
What’s remarkable about coffee is that unlike other major commodities, coffee isn’t actually essential. What keeps it going is that people just really, really like it. And as it turns out, that’s becoming more and more true every day.
Trading convenience for character
Most of the coffee enjoyed is “convenience coffee” - single-serve and pre-ground coffee requiring little preparation and stuff that doesn’t cost a whole lot.
But an increasing number of Americans are turning to high-quality, specialty coffee that focuses on unique profiles and flavor notes. One study by the Specialty Coffee Association found that over just the last ten years, specialty coffee consumption has increased to over 40% of all the coffee drank in the United States. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.
Similar to what’s been happening in the beer industry, we’re in the middle of a trend where people are moving away from low-grade coffee and opting for the good stuff. We’re pretty excited about that part.
But the things that make specialty coffee special are also the things that limit its supply, make it harder to produce and harder to keep track of.
The best coffee comes from the mountains
When it comes to coffee, tracking between continents is easier than tracking within a single small region. That makes sense, because there are only 70 countries that produce coffee. Nothing a few tracking numbers can’t fix.
The hard part is that in those 70 countries, there are 25 million farms putting hundreds of millions of people to work to grow and transport coffee. And most of that work is done in the mountains of developing countries.
With the exception of a few low-grown strains, most specialty coffee is produced somewhere between 2,000-6,000 feet. Any lower than that and it loses quality.
The reason this matters is because aside from meaning high-quality, high altitude also means another thing:
And it's the handmade part that leads to coffee -and people- getting lost.
Making sense of the slurry
The point where the supply chain is broken depends what country the coffee comes from.
The infrastructure for tracking in some coffee-producing countries is better than others. While some coffees are traced all the way to the farm, others may only be traced to the region. Certain big-brand coffee companies may not be able to tell you where some of their beans come from beyond the continent.
Larger estates who can process their coffee on site and take care of the export themselves are easily tracked. Which is a good start, because that makes it easy to find high-volume farms who grow ethically and are able to take care of their workers.
But what about smaller farms?
Where traceability really comes in
The majority of the world’s coffee comes from small, family-held farms from around the world. Out of necessity and because of the high elevation we talked about earlier, these farms are also the ones leading the way towards bringing us the specialty coffee that we enjoy.
But because of their size, most smaller farms can’t process their coffee on site. Instead, they use a processing station to do the work for them.
Especially common in Africa and in parts of South America, processing stations centralize the preparation of coffee beans for coffee-producing regions. While some stations may keep track of the farm, many of them don’t trace beyond the region the coffee came from.
For instance, an Ethiopian Guji is a blend of beans from various farms within the Guji region. Beyond that, we’re not exactly sure where they came from. The diamond industry faces a similar challenge in Africa.
There are many reasons why this is a problem but the main one is that without knowing exactly where coffee comes from, we don’t know if farmers or the people in between are getting a good deal on their coffee. We also don’t know how workers are being treated or what the conditions of the farms are like.
All of which are things that constitute the goal of traceability: Sustainability.
Keeping coffee going
For anything to be sustainable, it’s got to be tracked. Because without knowing the numbers, we’re really just wingin’ it, even if we think there’s plenty to go around. Simply put, in order to guarantee a continuous supply of coffee, we’ve got to know where it comes from.
By knowing where coffee comes from, we can make sure it’s being produced in a way that means it’ll be around or, sustain, for generations. So what does it take for coffee to be sustainable?
Here's what we're getting at
In order for everything to keep working, it means farmers have to get paid a fair amount for their coffee. What that amount is is beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll cover it later. Promise. All you need to know for now, is that because coffee is a commodity, many farmers are often working day and night to sell beans for pennies.
Because traceability means paying good farmers for good coffee, it also means that bad farms are weeded out. Farms running their operations on child labor or in some extreme cases, slave labor, get exposed under a traceable system. Even though we’re doing our best to keep tabs on it all, the majority of the coffee grown is done in the shadows, instead of just the shade.
There are also the methods by which the farms actually handle their coffee. While coffee does get washed along its journey, anything could have happened to it before then. Not that we have reason to believe coffee isn’t always handled with love, but for peace of mind we think it’s just better to know for sure.
Traceability gives farmers a chance at a fair shake and is the number one way to guarantee they can keep bringing us the high-quality coffee we enjoy every day.
All told, your coffee took years to grow and went through the hands of dozens of people over hundreds of hours just to be ready to ship. And we haven’t even roasted it yet.
All traceability does is give us a way to look out for the people who grow our coffee. And we think most people can get on board with that.