May 9, 2014
Bourbon, Hoffmann, and the myths of the Specialty Premium

1st: James Hoffmann is a brilliant man and you should really listen to this talk ‘cause it’s fun and entertaining as well as super informative and he has such a cute accent, we can accept that, yeah? Okay, go ahead and watch the talk, come back and read this after.

2nd: I want to expand on kinda the final point of James’s talk. He touches on the brutal, ugly, colonial history of coffee. Now, there is a brutal ugly colonial history of many things we love (tea, coffee, bananas, sugar, rum, cotton, etc) and we can’t sit there and feel bad about it for the sake of feeling bad about it, but it’s important to remember and be aware of the fact that its effects still ripple.

It is the year 2014, and I am a coffee professional whose area of expertise is coffee quality, and I still care about fair trade a lot. This makes me a dinosaur. Like, I might as well be walking around in a t-shirt with a Monica Lewinsky joke on it I’m that dated.

To the uninitiated, Fair Trade looks like charity, while specialty coffee premiums look like the market doing its job. How do we get money into the hands of small farmers who desperately need it? Specialty premiums say “they grow tastier coffee, we pay more money. Hard work is rewarded, the farmer gets more money, the consumer gets tastier coffee, win win.” while Fair trade says “the farmers need more money to survive so we’re just going to give them more money than we strictly need to; quality is irrelevant”. The “fairer” solution seems to be the specialty premium, as it is actively rewarding extra labor with extra money.

To which I reply: “you’re looking at it without context, and assuming erroneously that the market actually makes sense”. Yes, a specialty premium will add a bit of money into your pocket, but what’s gonna really determine how much money you make this year is going to rely on how well your farm did against all the factory farms in Brazil putting out rotgut robusta destined for Nescafe packets. If there’s a drought in Guatemala and Columbia and there’s way less specialty coffee going into the market this year compared to previous ones, one would think that this would mean that the price of that Guatemalan and Columbian specialty coffee would go up, right? Supply and demand. Supply of specialty coffee goes down, price goes up. Basic Adam Smith. If Vietnam had a bumper crop that year though, it doesn’t matter. The (crap) coffee market is flooded, and that means that the (good) coffee is going to be sold for way way less. Sure, there are folks out there directly sourcing excellent coffee and negotiating prices semi-independently of the C market and more power to ‘em, but they are a drop in the bucket of specialty coffee (which is itself a drop in the bucket of coffee in general). If only there were some kind of safety net in place in case the market drops and Señor Direct-trade doesn’t swing by your farm with his sack o’ money this year!

Secondly (and this touches on the colonialism point a little more), the Fair Trade movement is all about active two-way communication with small farmers, the most voiceless people in the coffee chain. During the 18th, 19th, and most of the 20th centuries the coffee trade has been unidirectional. Consumers/importing nations more or less ordering farmers to do their bidding, often with disastrous results in the countries of origin. But then slowly over the last 30 years or so, people have been banding together into farmer’s cooperatives and announcing back “umm, actually, what WE need is this, and it’s gonna run counter to what you’re demanding of us. Maybe we should talk?” US Fair Trade used to work exclusively with farmer’s cooperatives, and that part of its mission was another way to directly run counter with the exploitative past of the coffee industry. Some of my people may remember me being the loudest little cricket on the internet decrying FTUSA when they made the decision to allow large farmers (I used to exclusively use the loaded word “plantation” to describe these farms). People complained back, saying to me “what about people like Aida Batlle? She does amazing things at her farms! She pays her people well and she even threatened to fire a farm manager if he didn’t send his kids to school! That’s the kind of social change that Fair Trade needs to get behind!” To which I respond “If you already know Aida’s name, why would she need the additional megaphone that a Fair Trade certification would provide? Why should an organization giving voice to the voiceless want to lend any of its energy to someone who already has a voice?”. Ultimately why would we want a coffee consumer who is specifically seeking to undo the old colonial system to support a large shareholder farmer who (no matter how nice they are) is benefiting from the vestiges and ripples of that very same old colonial system? 

So thank you James, as someone whose voice in coffee quality I and many others respect immensely, thank you for at least touching on the myth of how quality fixes everything.

  1. fartlebee reblogged this from jenihead and added:
    If you drink coffee on the daily like myself, this is worth your time
  2. jenihead reblogged this from sprobeforebros and added:
  3. sprobeforebros posted this