The latest development in the specialty coffee world is the marketing of coffee by estate, rather than by regional name, market name or grade. A coffee estate is properly speaking simply a coffee farm, and an estate coffee is a coffee that has been kept separate from other coffees on its way from that farm to the consumer. "Estates" may range from tiny three-acre plots lovingly tilled by part-time farmers in the Kona district of Hawaii, to vast, technologically sophisticated farms in Brazil that stretch for tens of miles. Sometimes "estate coffees" may come from a cooperative of farms, or from several farms in a district, and may merit the estate designation only because they were collected and processed at the same mill.
The term estate has a long history in the coffee business, but its latest use in the specialty coffee trade is based on analogy with the wine industry’s "estate-bottled" idea, and was pioneered by William McAlpin of La Minita farm of the Tarrazu district of Costa Rica. Starting in the 1980s, McAlpin successfully established La Minita in the consciousness of the specialty coffee trade through careful and consistent preparation of the farm’s coffee together with promotional efforts like a color brochure and a documentary video tape. La Minita’s success has led to an avalanche of other coffee farms attempting to imitate its successful strategies.
The marketing of a coffee by estate is clearly of advantage to the grower, because an estate coffee commands higher and more consistent prices than coffees not similarly recognized, and puts the grower less at the mercy of fluctuations in supply and other exigencies. Estate coffees also offer an advantage to roasters and importers, because presumably these coffees will be more consistent in their character and quality than similar coffees of more vaguely identified origin.
Nevertheless, the opportunity for abuse remains, perhaps intensifies, with estate coffees. If a grower does succeed in creating a separate identity for a coffee, and if demand for that coffee eventually exceeds the possibility of supply, why not simply buy some cheaper coffee from somewhere over the hill, and ship it as your own?
Furthermore, the estate concept lends itself to substituting hype for substance, and myth for reality. For every farmer who, like William McAlpin, works just as hard on making his coffee taste good as he does on publicizing it, there may be others who decide to skip the taste part and just go for the publicity.
Still, buyers who handle specialty coffee always have their noses in the air sniffing for rats, and estates that do abuse their reputations risk losing them just as rapidly as they managed to establish them in the first place. Or let us hope so.
Estate coffees tend to share the cup characteristics of the growths in the region where the estate is located. The estate coffee, if it is a good one, typically is a better, more consistent exemplar of those characteristics.