Specialty Coffee: A Win-Win Situation?

If you are reading this, chances are you’ve had your daily dose of coffee already. Coffee is one of the most popular agricultural commodities in the entire world, and its consumption only seems to be increasing — as incomes rise around the world, people are more interested in drinking the liquid gold. While production mainly takes place in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, the biggest coffee consumers are in Europe and Northern America. Here in the Gorilla Highlands region, where some of the best coffee is grown, locals actually prefer a cup of tea in the morning.

In recent years, there has been much attention paid to ‘specialty coffee’. Hip coffee bars are popping up in western cities like daisies; people can’t seem to get enough of them. Customers who have never seen a coffee tree in their life are ordering a Single Origin Brasil Espresso. Yet, a lot of people don’t really seem to know what specialty coffee actually is and what it takes to bring that perfect cup of coffee to that designer table in New York or Berlin.

Let me explain. Specialty coffee basically refers to the modern demand for exceptional coffee quality. In my last blog, I explained the difference between Arabic and Robusta plants. But  there is much more to it. The quality of your day-starter drink is dependent on several factors, from selecting the best coffee variety for planting, to the weather conditions while the plants are growing, to the preparation of the coffee at home or in a bar.

We can broadly say that all the factors that affect coffee taste are in two main parts: pre-harvest and post-harvest. The latter is what usually happens for the most part in western countries and it contributes up to 60% to the taste of your cup of coffee.

Yet, pre-harvest, what happens in the southern countries, is just as important. If the product that arrives in a coffee roastery in Belgium, for example, is not of a good quality, there is nothing that can be done to save it. You can compare it to cooking. You can have the best chef in the world, but if you give him rotten tomatoes, he won’t be able to make a nice dish out of them.

Since much of coffee’s quality and character depend on location specifics — such as elevation, micro-climate, and soil — coffee connoisseurs seek out single origin coffees. Geography also plays a large role in quality and flavour. Coffees are identified first by their country of origin, and Western Uganda and Rwanda provide this.

Great coffee starts with a producer whose family spends a lot of time perfecting their approach to growing the highest quality coffee possible. Grown in select altitudes and climates and nursed for years before the first harvest, the producer who creates specialty coffee devotes his or her life to refining and perfecting the highest quality coffee on the planet.

For example, in Kisoro, farmers cultivate coffee at a very high altitude, utilise only organic inputs and use selective harvest methods in order to produce the best quality coffee. For them, it is quality, not quantity, that is the most important consideration. Only coffees free of defects and picked at the peak of ripeness will continue on to the next hands that will shape them. Dried at moderated temperatures to regulate the chemical changes, the farmer is able to get the best results. For the farmer, being able to connect with quality-minded buyers ensures a higher profit option which supports the individuals, families, and communities in their world.

This was possible in Kisoro when farmers had a buyer from Urth Caffé, an American coffee company that sells only specialty coffees and tea (click here to read about the beginning of their Ugandan activities). The founders Jill and Shallom Berkman would specifically take Grade A and B beans (the best coffee grades), so the farmers worked hard towards that. In order to achieve these super good grades, they would give well performing farmers water tanks, drying points, and solar panels, plus books for knowledge expansion about coffee. Most importantly, they paid decent advances.

However, after the 10-year contract expired, the American buyer never renewed it. I think this was due to corrupt government officials at the Uganda Coffee Development Authority. All the beans went through them — they were in charge of quality control — and I heard they kept sending the USA less coffee than what was actually paid for.

This greatly affected farmers’ income and they resorted to normal coffee production which impacted the general quality of local coffee. In the following years, many individuals tried to revive the specialty coffee market, but without success.

As I prepare to blog about right cupping of coffee and the tasting process, keep in mind that currently the tasty Kisoro coffee has no official buyer at all …

featured photo by Miha Logar; founders’ photo courtesy of Urth Caffe

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