Date: July 2003

Column/Title: Coffee Growers and the Farm-to-Consumer Shortcut

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Doubtless many coffee growers and exporters watch with dismay and perhaps a sense of betrayal as green coffee prices fall to historical lows while retail coffee prices stay about the same. To be explicit, consumers are now paying only a little less now than they did a couple of years ago for roasted coffee, while most growers are paid much, much less than they were back then. For most observers, the issue is not that roasted coffee is overpriced, but that the green coffee is under priced. At current wholesale price levels, most artisan coffee producers literally losing money by producing coffee.

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in economics to come up with one grower response to this discrepancy: Many farmers are roasting their own coffee and attempting to sell it directly to consumers, cutting out as many of the middle people as they can and claiming the value added by exporters, importers and roasters for themselves.

For some smaller growers this scheme has worked quite well. Many small producers in the Kona region of Hawaii manage to sell their entire year's production either directly to tourists or via the Internet. Café Britt of Costa Rica appears to be successful at selling its excellent coffees directly into the North American market. But for many other growers, particularly those who produce larger volumes of coffee from regions less familiar to North Americans than Kona or Costa Rica, the going has been rough. These farmers are forced to market not only their own coffee, but their entire country or growing region, a country or region whose coffees consumers may be encountering for the first time.

What's Not to Like? Perhaps the Roast and the Packaging

For aficionado consumers, the idea of buying roasted coffee directly from the farm probably sounds wonderful. Better coffee for less, with an exciting direct connection to source.

However, based on my recent cuppings, many of those who are selling roasted coffee direct from origin are not presenting their coffees at their best. In particular, I have run into problems both with the style of the roasting and the freshness of the roasted coffee.

Kona farmers get enough per pound for their celebrated coffee to pay them to custom roast their coffee to order. And since they do not have to deal with any export-import rigmarole, shipping directly to consumers is relatively easy. Most Kona coffees bought directly from the farm arrive fresh and usually very skillfully and sensitively roasted.

By contrast, many of the grower-direct coffees I cupped for the accompanying article (The El Salvador and Honduras Adventure) were not sensitively roasted, and often tasted just a tad old out of the roaster. There were exceptions, of course. One of the most striking was a coffee recommended by a reader, Cafe de Lya, which is grown, roasted, and packaged in San Salvador.

The Market-the-Farm, Sell-the-Roast Contradiction

In many cases, however, farm- or origin-direct roasters have fallen into the same contradiction as some newer boutique American specialty roasters: They market themselves based on the identity of the green coffees they sell, yet roast these coffees so dark or so aggressively that they are virtually indistinguishable from coffees from any other origin. In other words, a website or a package may feature the farm and its coffee, but clumsy dark roasting turns the farm's coffee into something that tastes virtually identical to every other farm's (or every other origin's) coffee.

Many of the El Salvadors I cupped for The El Salvador and Honduras Adventure that were brought to a medium to medium-dark roast were extraordinary coffees, but they were coffees whose virtues - round, juicy mouthfeel, low-key complexity, subtle, sweet acidity - are easily lost in an overly dark or aggressive roast. I have no idea whether some of the other coffees I received that were roasted in El Salvador or Honduras were similarly fine coffees, simply because they were roasted too dark to taste anything except the impact of the roast.

It doubtless would be too much to expect growers who retail their coffee roasted at five or six dollars per pound (as opposed to the eighteen or twenty dollars per pound demanded by Konas) to custom roast their coffees, but perhaps aficionados who buy over the Internet legitimately can ask that these coffees be roasted to best develop their unique distinction and character and delivered well-packaged and fresh.

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