Wednesday, May 10, 2006

On Whole Quality

I was having a discussion with an Environmental Studies Master's student the other day about how the FT and OG coffee movements have impacted the overall coffee industry. The shocking (for her)truth is that FT/OG and even Specialty Coffee is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to making significant impact on the day to day function of the commercial coffee world. One pont I attempted to make was that quality is hardly on the map for the largest coffee roasters (and consumers). The coffee industry is still very intrenched in the coffee=caffeine mentality. Viewing coffee as some sort of energy input means that the resources put into developing the industry are focused on increased production (plant density, disease resistence, limiting waste, etc.) not increasing quality. When the idea of quality was raised it brought up some interesting issues.
I have seen some discussion in the forums about what quality means in coffee. The obvious first answer is cup quality. There are plenty of roasters and shop owners who will stomp their feet and declare that cup quality should be the only consideration when looking at coffee. Some people don't give a damn what process resulted in the excellent coffee they recieve; they just care about excellent, cup-quality coffee.
I see this 'cup only' mentality as reactionary. These folks are riding the pendulum swing all the way to the other side. 'Cup quality by any means necessary' is as short-sighted as 'production volume by any means necessary'. Neither of these views is sustainable. Are you willing to have a great cup at
any cost? I am not.
To me, quality in coffee must consider all of the elements that come together to create a harmony of quality: whole quality. For a coffee to have 'whole quality', the processes themselves must be of the highest quality- agronomic, milling, storage, economic, social, environmental, shipping, roasting, grinding, brewing. It's easy to just focus on the tangible processes, but what about the processes that are more difficult to quantify (or market)? A coffee is more than a material good isn't it?
I hear all the time, people talking about the 'mystical' qualities of a great cup. The certain ineffible, esoteric cup or the godshot. Some folks can attach poetic descriptors that make you think they've had some kind of spiritual transformation (they may have) while cupping. I fully agree that coffee has the ability to exist in this 'spiritual' realm. But if it does, and a coffee is 'beautiful'-'delicate' does the way in which it got to you not matter?
A cup of coffee does not exist in a vacuum. Every cup has a history, a context;
the quality of that history IS the quality of that cup, NOT the other way around.
Quality in each of the aspects of the coffee chain carry their own momentum. The drive for quality across the board: whole quality, increases the quality in each of the coffees individual aspects-growing,milling,roasting, etc.
Too much focus on the quality of any single aspect (volume or cup or environmental or social) creates an imbalance that must be compensated for in another area, thereby diminishing that aspect's quality and therefore the whole quality.
Now, none of this discussion is meant, in any way, to downplay the importance of cup quality. Without quality, the highest quality, in the cup we are just spinning our wheels. I see the goal of 'sustainable coffee' as: striving for ultimate quality in the cup...sustainably. All aspects of coffee are interdependent, they all affect each other. This idea is at the center of some of the best coffee around right now. Stumptown, Intelly, COE, CCC, et al. have embraced this idea to one extent or another and the proof is in the cup.
Can you taste whole quality at the cupping table? I can. I can't help it.


Anonymous BirdBarista said...

Caring only about cup quality, at the expense of what you call whole quality, is really just stupid. It's not like you have to choose -- you can get great cup quality in a sustainable coffee. You can't tell me that some coffee is so utterly fantastic that you can't find equal quality in a sustainable counterpart.

I understand why big corporations focus on production and profit; that's their function however much I disagree. The only way to make them change and take sustainability (and quality) into account is to educate consumers so they demand "whole quality" coffee. Keep doing your part, and so will I!

6:09 AM  
Blogger Goatherd said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Goatherd said...

You are right that there is a lot of great cup-quality sustainable coffees out there (some of the very best) but there is a long way to go as well. I have seen a number of 'mission-based' companies that parade their FT logo but source and roast crappy coffee. This dependence on social pratices as a marketing thing to cover bad coffee, hurts the folks that are obsessed with cup-quality AND sustainability. It also hurts the farmers who see the overall market value of their product (specialty grade coffee) drop because people say stuff like "I hate fair trade coffee, it all tastes like crap". Cup quality must be a top priority if farmers are to have something they can really depend on. We need WHOLE quality.

6:19 PM

6:34 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

cool blog.

11:18 AM  

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