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Coffee12 December 2023

What should tomorrow's specialty coffee look like?

Fermentations, varieties likely to produce the most exquisite cups, 88, 89, 90+... Specialty coffee may well be facing its first crisis: that of stagnation.

Redefining specialty coffee, our responsibility

What should tomorrow's specialty coffee look like? Answering this question is, I believe, our responsibility as coffee professionals. At Belco, we've been working for a long time to answer this question through a global quality concept we believe in: integral quality.

The concept of specialty coffee was founded on the principles of cup quality, traceability and producer remuneration. This is good and laudable, but today it may no longer be enough.

The future of specialty coffee also needs to look at the coffee before it's harvested, the plant and what we do with it, its impact and its relationship with the environment in which it's grown.

Sustainable for whom, sustainable for what?

In the coffee industry, sustainability is seen as the producer's profitability, summed up in terms of productivity (quantity of coffee produced).

Sustainability must be able to ensure the future of coffee growing and the communities that develop it, which is possible if the economic level is positive for producers. But the sustainability of these communities will only be achieved if the environmental level allows it.

When Belco started sourcing coffee, we were doing half the volume we do today, and only 2% of our coffees were certified organic.

None of them scored 80 points, and they were produced exclusively by small producers in fairly isolated communities. These producers were able to specialize little by little to achieve the qualities we know today.

Some growers who own larger farms with more modern processing units, and growers who were once strangers to organic, have surfed the green wave.

Today, almost 25% of the coffees we import are certified organic (some even biodynamic), and all achieve a cup rating of 80+.

Supporting a smooth transition at origin

The path is full of pitfalls, and its complexity also depends on where the coffees are produced. The challenges faced by each producer are not the same, although they are probably equally important.

In Ethiopia, for example, the challenge is not to limit the use of chemicals, as these are simply not used, but to achieve high productivity according to the principles of organic farming.

In El Salvador, as in other Central American countries, the challenge will be to maintain productivity while renouncing the use of these chemicals, which are still very much in evidence.

For this reason, the ecological transition must be accompanied rather than abrupt, in order to alleviate the stress that farms may experience before embarking on organic certification processes (if producers so wish).

Game-changing purchasing and consumption habits

Adaptability of consumption is also very important. For decades, washed coffee has been considered synonymous with quality, and continues to be so. If the region's water supply is adequate, this is not a problem. But in some parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where water reserves are not the most abundant, the demand for washed coffee means that they are overstretched.

And while water is an important resource, we mustn't forget the pollution that the washed process can generate. In some places, water from honey coffee production, full of the mucilage generated during processing, is not treated properly and ends up in nearby rivers.

The combination of these two factors led us to launch a project to develop consistent volumes of natural coffees in Colombia and Peru. In Peru, some producers have begun to question the production of washed coffees because of the effort involved in manual pulping compared with the preparation of plain coffee.

Our partner exporter has noticed that in a region of the country where plain coffee is traditionally produced, there seem to be fewer arthritis problems among coffee growers. The virtuous triptych of sensory, environmental and societal quality can easily be crowned by the economic incentive that can accompany such efforts.

The carbon issue is very much in fashion, and yet in coffee, organizations such as "Envol Vert" are also alerting us to biodiversity: while at the start of its worldwide expansion, one third of the coffee produced was exposed to the sun and two thirds to the shade, the trend seems to have reversed and almost two thirds (with a much larger cultivated area) grows without the slightest tree around capable of sheltering a bird's nest.

The question of price

The FOB price has long served as the basis for transparency. Today, it's outdated. While this is a factor, we need to understand and be able to work more on the overall context of the pricing issue.

A few years ago, we began to analyze in detail the production costs of the producers we work with. These are mainly small and medium-sized producers, without excluding the large ones, of course.

The results we've obtained are extremely interesting, and raise even more questions. The smaller the farm, the higher the cost of production.

This explains why many small-scale producers have turned to other products rather than coffee. This raises a number of questions: what will be the limit of productivity? If this limit is exceeded, who will be prepared to pay subsidies, and for what reasons?

Full Farm Profitability

Being able to buy up to 90% of a grower's coffee was another answer to our questions about grower profitability. Thanks to our partner FAF's Full Farm Profitability project, we have been able to obtain up to 5 or 6 qualities of coffee from our Brazilian growers, all with a cup higher than 80 points and therefore easily exportable.

The yield and the way in which it is increased have a positive economic impact on the grower, as we are able to bring coffees into European roasts, with a positive differential, that were previously only sold locally. Each FOB price only makes sense if averaged and compared with previous averages, where the blend included more coffee sold locally, and now exported.

Towards a new definition of specialty coffee?

In summary, we at Belco do not believe that specialty coffee should be evaluated solely on the basis of the criteria categorizing it as "specialty". It should be imperative to seek to satisfy the qualitative, economic, environmental and societal levels in order to qualify this coffee as specialty coffee.

A coffee that, in short, offers something special. These are the indicators that should ensure that our actions have a positive impact, if that is the ultimate goal of our development and our next purchase.

Every day, we need to move forward, and seek to further analyze our sector in order to ensure its future. Coffee is such a complex product that it certainly doesn't make sense to simplify it. There may be a crisis in specialty coffee today, but it's from this crisis that we may be able to pave the way for the specialty coffee of the future, a coffee that is sustainable in every way (or taste).

Angel Barrera, Sourcing Director