Price, Quality and Value: Questioning "Competition Coffees"
[In the following piece Kevin Knox, at various times coffee buyer for Starbucks and Allegro Coffee and well-known coffee writer, takes a controversial view of the new specialty coffee phenomenon of green coffee competitions and Internet auctions. His comments are aimed at roasting companies and green coffee buyers, but Coffee Review readers and consumer buyers of fine roasted coffees will find his views interesting and provocative.]
I use the phrase "competition coffees" here to refer to parcels of green (unroasted) beans sold to roasters via internet auction that were chosen and rated by international juries of coffee cuppers. These competitions currently include Cup of Excellence, Best of Panama and Costa Rica, and the EAFCA auction in Africa, among others. In recent years high-priced winning coffees from these auctions have received a great deal of attention in the specialty coffee marketplace ? so much so, that it's easy to forget that they are a very recent phenomenon. So while the heart of this article is a discussion of the positive and negative implications of these competitions, I feel it is important to first discuss the context in which the competitions exist.
Background: Role of the Buyer, Borrowing from the Wine Trade
Traditionally, specialty coffee business decisions like the selection of green coffees, the determination of their optimum degree of roast, and whether or not individual coffees should be blended with other coffees, are the domain of one expert taster/buyer/roastmaster in each company. Like an excellent chef or wine maker, such people typically apprentice for many years with more experienced tasters, gradually developing a taste memory and sense of the range of qualities that can be expected by tasting hundreds of samples from each major origin country over many crop cycles, at many degrees of roast, singly and in combination with other coffees. Continuing with the chef/wine maker analogy, the role of the roastmaster is to offer coffees that express his or her informed, passionate, unique interpretation of the raw ingredients at hand. Some obvious examples: the Drs. Illy and the style of Illy caffé Alfred Peet and his successors at Peet's; George Howell's consistent taste and style through the years at The Coffee Connection and now Terroir Coffee. Expertise, personal involvement and style, and accountability distinguish the great from the good and the personal from the corporate in the food world, and it is no different with coffee. Dine at Babbo or The French Laundry and you commune with a personal vision of excellence; eat at The Olive Garden (or drink coffee at Starbucks) and you participate in standardized mediocrity determined by committee. It is a decisive difference. It has been nearly ten years since Coffee Review pioneered rating coffees on a 100-point scale, but the 100-point scale itself, as well as much of the language to describe coffee flavors in positive terms, have been borrowed from the wine trade. Consequently, we also should be looking at the credibility (with both wine insiders and educated consumers) of the key players in the wine industry who use these tools. Individual wine critics ? most famously Robert Parker, followed by Steven Tanzer and specialists such as Allen Meadows at Burghound ? have far more credibility than do the leading publications that accept advertising (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, etc.). While this discrepancy partly may be owing to conflict-of-interest issues, the more important point is that these individual critics have consistent preferences and personal styles against which readers can easily calibrate their own palates, while the other publications feature tasting panels and/or many individual tasters, and so provide no such yardstick.
The Auction Model
While there have been very real issues of delayed payment to farmers and other problems, the Kenya coffee auction system remains the model for quality-based coffee commerce. During the season, all of the different qualities of coffees produced, from broken beans to the rarest AA lots, are sampled out to buyers who have the opportunity to taste and evaluate every coffee prior to bidding. Because the process is open to all buyers, and because until recently virtually all of the country's coffee was sold through the auction, the Kenyan system is both a price and a quality discovery mechanism. This is not the case in, for example, neighboring Ethiopia, which has an auction system that is missing the crucial step of allowing buyers to taste before they buy.
Competition Auctions as Marketing Programs
By contrast, the various internet-based coffee auctions (Cup of Excellence, Best of Panama, etc.) are neither price nor quality discovery tools. Rather, they are marketing programs. The value of such programs is considerable, and multifaceted. First and foremost, they get people talking about the flavor subtleties of coffee as though they really mattered ? which is as wonderful as it is surreal in a retail universe where specialty coffee mostly consists of incinerated coffee buried in steamed milk and syrups. Admittedly the people doing the talking are mostly boutique roasters and advanced aficionados talking to other boutique roasters and aficionados, but it is still a great start. Secondly, green coffee competitions certainly have led and continue to lead to recognition of smaller farms whose offerings might not otherwise find their way to market. They also provide wonderful cupping training for participants. Tasting a large number of samples from one country, often with only the subtlest differences between samples, in the company of other skilled tasters, hones skills wonderfully.
The Downside of the Competition Model
However, there are also some negative effects from these programs ? none of them intentional, but some quite serious. Because only a tiny handful of coffees available from a given country are submitted to these auctions, and because these coffees are evaluated by large committees of tasters with widely varying skill levels and sometimes diametrically opposed taste preferences, it cannot be said that the coffees that place well at these auctions are the best coffees produced in their respective countries. Because the lots submitted to these auctions are tiny, roasters can afford to ? and do ? pay essentially any price for the coffees, since the quantities involved are commercially insignificant. This has one obvious positive short-term effect and two negative long term ones. On the positive side, winning farmers often receive a fabulous per pound price. If their entire annual output is 10 or 20 bags their problems are solved, but for the more typical small farmer who needs to sell a few containers a year, the danger is that they will think the auction is in fact a price discovery mechanism, not realizing that the same roaster who pays them $12 a pound for a 4,000-pound competition lot may have to stretch to pay them $2.25 a pound for a 38,000 pound container of coffee of the same quality for use in their actual business, and that, furthermore, perhaps only 4,000 of those 38,000 pounds will be sold as a single-origin Guatemala grown by farmer X, while the rest will make its way into house espresso and drip blends, which must be sold at wholesale and retail to fiercely price-sensitive customers. Most negatively, these competition coffees, even at very low profit margins, will hit the retail shelves at prices that are double, triple or more those of other coffees of equal quality. It is the Jamaican Blue Mountain and Kona boondoggle all over again, only with better tasting coffees. Even knowledgeable consumers tend to think that a far higher price denotes not just rarity and supply-and-demand (which is the case here) but also vast or at least incremental superiority of flavor.
The Price Issue
Having worked as a taster and buyer for some of the larger specialty roasters, I feel confident in saying that the leading exporters in those countries holding competitions have access to and expertise about the coffees produced there that dwarfs anything that could ever be provided by a once-a-year auction, and that most roasters would do well to allocate more of their resources to thoroughly accessing those resources than they do to participating in competitions. The simple fact of the matter is that for every small parcel of coffee submitted to the various auctions there are dozens of full containers of coffees of equal or better quality being sold at realistic, sustainable (for farmer and consumer) prices to serious roasters worldwide. As roasters and retailers we ought to be held accountable for delivering value and trading fairly at every level. Great coffee is a specialty product like wine grapes, not a commodity, and this is something we must never forget. But, if on one hand we agree that we should allow no great coffee to net its grower a measly dollar or two per pound, we also should not pretend that there are coffees worth fifteen or twenty dollars or more per pound green, especially when equally fine examples of these coffees have been bought in quantity at realistic prices by leading roasters for far longer than the U.S. specialty market has been in existence. It seems to me that the middle way between these two extremes is to pursue a transparent, truly sustainable approach to coffee buying, in which the balanced needs of farmer, roaster and consumer are met. On the sourcing side, clearly there is a lot of passion and thirst for expertise among today's younger generation of artisan roasters. Without denying the value and fun to be had in participating in large group cuppings, it seems to me that the lion's share of the knowledge of, and access to, great coffees are to be found among those who export and import them for a living, and that a larger share of most roasters' precious time and travel budget ought to be spent in better accessing these resources. And most importantly for the long-term viability of their brands, I would hope to see more buyer/roastmasters with the confidence to determine for themselves and their customers what is, in the cup and in terms of value, a "cup of excellence," given that this determination can never be made by committee.