As the coffee price crisis looms over general discussions around coffee, there has been a push to study causes and solutions in the academic world. The Re:Co Symposium hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association this last year in Boston was centered around the coffee price crisis, and one of the featured speakers was Dr. Janina Grabs, a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich’s Dept. of Humanities who focuses on sustainability and food policy. Although Dr. Grabs' talk hasn't been posted online to view yet (you can view other talks here), there is a very distinct metaphor that she borrowed to start her talk with:
In a crowded theater, if there's a fire, everyone will be trying to escape through the same fire exits. Presumedly, this mad dash for the same exit would create a heavy backup, with many people then trapped and unable to get free. In many ways, the idea of paying higher premiums for higher quality coffee is a fire exit: this strategy can work for some coffee farmers, but is unlikely to provide a solution to the coffee price crisis that is sustainable for everyone. If every farmer demands a higher premium for higher quality coffee, the market will be saturated and prices will go down due to competition.
Sourcing coffee at Ruby has limited impact for the coffee growing world as a whole, but we feel that Ruby can make a big impact for the individual farms that we partner with and with the import and export groups we work with. Previously we've examined in this series ideas that address the fire exit theory through initiatives that purchase a wider swath of coffee from single estates and small groups, but with Ruby's two latest releases, we want to examine how other initiatives can help address the core coffee price crisis.
Costa Rica Cerro La Cruz.
From Ruby co-founder, Jared Linzmeier:
"In 2017 we decided to bring some additional dimension to our lineup so we connected with Francisco and our friends at CoopeDota to coordinate some visits and develop some ideas for coffees that would be a good fit for our menu. Cerro La Cruz emerged as a great candidate for a variety of reasons: I absolutely love the sweetness-laden profile of the Caturra and Red Catuai grown in Tarrazu. When we began tasting through some of the projects, Cerro La Cruz’s coffees emerged over and over again as round, sweet, lightly fruited, and very balanced. We decided to make the trip to their new mill and get to know them some more firsthand.
Rolando Esquivel Bararantes and his family are tucked along the Tarrazu mountains in an area that is absolutely beautiful to visit. The climate is warm, yet crisp and the layers of fog ebb and flow as the nighttime temps dip down and the daytime temps creep back up. One of my favorite drives in Central America is getting outside of San Jose and getting into the heart of Tarrazu, in the Santa Maria de Dota valley, and along the ridges.
We toured the family’s newly installed wet mill (pulping station) and raised drying beds, walked through the coffee trees nearby, and then sat down at their dining room table to have a coffee and learn more about why they chose to invest in their own mill. We learned that for many years they’d been working with a nearby cooperative to mill their coffee and, while the co-op was very quality-oriented, the scale of the operation didn’t allow much variance for rewarding individuals that truly wish to build their own unique coffees and have them sold separately. They had seen neighbors finding direct markets for their coffees and decided to take the risk, make the investment, and hope that they could see the direct financial impact of marketing their coffee as a single farm, single lot directly to roasters. Of course we were thrilled to hear this, because the coffee was outstanding, and we were the first USA buyers to visit them and buy their coffee."
In the instance of Cerro La Cruz, finding success for their farm model couldn't fall back on simply improving quality and asking for a higher price. By taking a risk, investing in their own processing, and looking to establish direct contact to buyers through contacts at the dry mill, they were able to create opportunities for selling coffee in a way that creates better sustainability.
The success of Cerro La Cruz, however, relies on a smaller farm operation being able to partner with a smaller roaster. This is Ruby's third year offering coffees from Cerro La Cruz and helps create a system where both operations are able to grow together. While the specifics of this arrangement help combat the impact of the coffee price crisis on an individual scale, the story of Cerro La Cruz is still a specific instance of success that isn't necessarily replicable for every coffee farmer: especially if the access to capital for building an internal processing mill isn't available. That's where groups like SNAP in Ethiopia come in.
Ethiopia Benti Nenka.
This coffee comes from the Hambela Wamena district of Guji that borders Gedeb in Yirgacheffe. The region is most well known for high elevation, a traditional history of quality farming and ripe cherry selection, and modern development of traditional processing methods. Coffees from this region historically were sold as coffee from Sidama — the larger area that this coffee comes from — marking decades of quality recognition for this coffee growing region.
SNAP is a processing and export company that operates out of Addis Abada, where they have recently invested heavily in warehouse updates and construction and a modern cupping lab. One of the key focus points for SNAP is operating wet mills that establish better pay rates and partnerships with regional farmers, but SNAP also operates a transparent export operation. By tracking and detailing how wet mills were collecting coffees and relaying consistent information to import partners, SNAP has been able to develop stronger relationships between wet mills and potential buyers. The impact of the network that SNAP has worked on building spreads wide — thousands of farmers involved with the wet mills that SNAP works with have access to high quality processing and higher prices for their coffees without the need to invest in processing operations themselves.
The impact of this operation also addresses the funnel of premiums paid for higher quality coffees: traditionally that would filter out only the best coffees available from a specific farmer or cooperative and then leave the bulk of the harvest to be sold at commercial pricing. With SNAP's network of buyers, they're able to work with specialty importers like Atlantic to place delicious coffees at a variety of quality points that meet consumers' preferences.
We're very proud to partner both with Cerro La Cruz and Atlantic importers on bringing these coffees to our menu, and are proud to support efforts to combat the coffee price crisis at a variety of levels.