The Risk Not Taken

Coffee growing is risky—it's imperative that we distribute risk

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I’ve been dubious of quality before. In the past, I’ve written about the danger of the singular pursuit of quality in coffee, which can ignore the intricacies and specific needs of farmers, producers, and the wider coffee community.

I turned to Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, for many of my ideas. In her book, Odell recounts a story about trees, and how the most useless trees—the ones that, instead of growing straight up, weave and knot their way into the landscape of the surrounding area—avoid being chopped down because of their deemed lack of value. The unconventional trees end up persevering, surviving precisely because of their idiosyncrasies.

This week, I interviewed Michelle Stoler of Shared Source, a green coffee importer, purchaser of parchment coffee, and exporter. Shared Source aims to give market access to smallholder coffee producers that have yet to penetrate the specialty market, and then pair them with roasters with whom they can build longstanding relationships. In our conversation, Michelle said something that I couldn’t stop thinking about:

For me and for the company, I think it’s been really helpful to have a set of values to turn to, to say there’s a million good reasons to buy coffee: to buy a coffee from someone because they’re from a region that has historically faced a lot of violence or they’re actively resisting an extractive mine in their area and you want to support them by purchasing coffee—there are a million good reasons to purchase coffee.

There’s always going to be more coffee that’s available and it’s really helpful to have a clear set of values to say, “How are we going to decide who we purchase coffee from and in what way? Let’s turn to our set of values that we’ve established so that we can try to meet them.”

I would certainly encourage any roasters to identify their values. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer. It’s just a really helpful framework when making coffee-purchasing decisions to be able to turn to, to say, “Does this coffee meet my values, and are my values going beyond just quality?” Or maybe quality is the only value that you have, in which case go forth and seek out delicious coffees from many, many sources.

I’d argue that most roasters—and this analogy can extend to any purveyor of specialty goods, so feel free to replace “coffee” with almost anything—buy coffee based on quality. It’s an understandable benchmark, and it’s a benchmark that’s embedded into the entire coffee supply stream. We cup coffees and assign them scores between 0-100. We host coffee competitions like the United States Barista Championship or the Cup of Excellence. We rate and review coffee shops based on the quality of the product they serve.

But quality is just one reason to buy coffee. As Michelle said, there are a million more.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert on coffee importing and exporting, but when I’ve worked with roasters and coffee shops in the past, I’ve always been taught that quality is the target. While that definition can be nuanced, it often translates to what a coffee tastes like in the cup.

What’s another reason to buy a coffee? As Michelle pointed out, it depends on what your values are. I’m reminded of the mission statements of two coffee companies: On The Go Jo Coffee in Chicago and Bean & Bean Coffee in New York (both will be future guests on the show). Both companies are explicit in their support for women coffee producers, and use that as a guiding principle for their purchasing decisions. From the On The Go Jo Coffee website:

Our mission is to inspire and empower women both locally and globally, from bean to cup. That’s why we proudly deliver coffee that is produced, roasted, and owned by women. 

Quality is a worthwhile value, but it can obscure the cost of achieving that high standard, especially when it is your sole pursuit. If you only care about quality, you might ignore the perils underlying a coffee’s production.

In coffee, that can mean ignoring risk. As Michelle pointed out, because coffee is an agricultural product that’s only harvested once a year (twice in Colombia), a small change in temperature or growing conditions can have a profoundly negative effect on the final product. We have to spread some of that risk throughout the supply stream.

If you’re sharing in the risk, then you can have ideally great-quality coffee and if you’re taking on risk, it’s because you are sharing the values of the person that you’re purchasing from.

And so to me, that’s how you get quality and success at the same time. It’s certainly not a way to only pursue quality, but if you’re only pursuing quality, that means that you’re not sharing in the risk. You have to make it really clear to yourself what is important to you and what the future of coffee looks like based on that.

Risk is especially important to talk about in any industry that professes to care about relationships with purveyors. In coffee, where much of the marketing relies on promoting the individual “social good” a particular roaster engages in when they buy coffee, not engaging in risk is especially nefarious.

What does it mean to be a roaster that touts relationships with producers when that relationship does not mutually share risk? It’s challenging for everyone, risk is tough!

No one wants to take on the risk. I understand that many businesses, and small businesses especially, really don’t have great ways to manage that risk and to deal with what do you do with expensive coffee that doesn’t taste as great. I understand that that’s a legitimate problem, but it’s no less of a legitimate problem for producers who say, “What do I do with this coffee that doesn’t taste as great for reasons that are largely outside of my control?” or “What do I do when roya comes in—or coffee rust comes in—and decimates the large part of my production? And I’ve been managing my farm organically because of a certification that a larger importer requested of me?”

Those are risks that producers take on all the time. They’re also small businesses, also with few financial tools at their disposal. So I would just hope that we can all recognize that and try our damnedest to share in it.

I’m still learning about risk, and I hope more roasters begin having transparent conversations about how they assume some of the risk associated with coffee growing. Ultimately, I think we’re at a place where quality and risk aversion go hand-in-hand, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The pursuit of quality is often myopic, but that doesn’t mean it has to be mutually exclusive to any of the other million reasons underlying our purchasing decisions.

No one coffee roaster can fix everything, and that’s why having a set of values is important. Be like On The Go Jo or Bean & Bean, who have clearly stated values and act with intention. Their commitment to women addresses one of the biggest inequities in coffee—gender disparity—while building relationships that mitigate risk. And oftentimes, quality comes naturally out of these commitments. Quality in and of itself shouldn’t be a pursuit, but rather an outcome of commitment.

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