F–k You, Pay Me: Why is Specialty Coffee Special? Pt. 1

Blog Date : September 24, 2018

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This is Part 1 in a series of educational posts, designed for the consumer and/or folx building a foundation in coffee. I wrote these for work, but you get the uncensored versions here lol. Hope you enjoy!

(Links to all posts in the series at the end)

You just paid $4 for a coffee at your local cafe.

But you can buy coffee for $1 at the gas station. Why? Well, the $4 coffee is somehow better and fancier. Maybe because the cafe looks like an empty art museum? The barista’s apron is bespoke? The espresso machine reminds you of a spaceship?

It’s true that $4 pays for more than just the coffee – it also pays for rent on the space, barista wages, and aesthetic choices. But the actual coffee cost is much higher for cafes. They buy different coffee, and it costs them 3-4 times as much as what the gas station pays. It’s the difference between specialty coffee and commodity coffee.

Specialty coffee is grown and processed differently, resulting in higher quality flavor and aroma.

This quality is quantified through a scoring system from 0-100. A coffee scoring 80 points or above is considered specialty (although coffee never really scores higher than 92ish, which could be its own blog post). Coffee buyers pay a higher price for this higher-scoring, better-tasting coffee. The higher the coffee’s quality, the higher it scores – and in theory its producer will make more money from its sale.

But on the commodity market, coffee is coffee, no matter how it tastes. It all sells for the same price. Coffee defect – mold, rot, insect damage, etc. – doesn’t matter. Farmers simply bring their harvest to collection points, where it’s thrown into a huge pile. Each farmer receives the same price, based on the New York commodities market. This is how gas station coffee is bought and sold.

From a certain standpoint, this system has its own fairness. Everyone does the same work and receives the same price. The problem is, that price – known as the C-market price – is extremely low.

For many coffee producers, the C price doesn’t cover the cost of production.

This results in financial hardship, forcing more and more farmers out of the industry. Coffee pickers are also leaving the industry for higher-paying work, causing serious labor shortages. In some areas, the pay on offer for a coffee picker is equivalent to around $3 USD per day.

If that feels uncomfortable to learn, well – that’s an appropriate response.

The global coffee economy is a holdover from colonialism, frozen in time.

Like really frozen. The C-market price has been stagnant at around $1.50/lb – not adjusted for inflation – for 40 years. Low wages, unsafe conditions, child labor, and slave labor contribute to the cheap price of commodity coffee. These experiences are largely unknown to American coffee consumers. As a result, we take it for granted that coffee should be cheap. That we deserve that cheapness, even.

The specialty coffee industry, by paying higher prices based on quality, offers an alternative.

It’s not a magic bullet, but it’s a start. The industry also places importance on supply chain transparency. This is the idea that a coffee company has access to information about farmer pricing, and can ensure that the producer received equitable payment.

Because the coffee supply chain is complex, true transparency is hard to come by. But standout leaders continually push the industry forward on this front. And we are light years ahead of other industries in this arena. Whereas most industries sweep these details under the rug – particularly when they’re paying unfair prices for raw materials – some specialty companies release reports detailing the prices they paid for their coffees.

Why go to all this trouble? Why go out of your way to pay more, and ask to be held accountable? Is it purely altruism?

No, and framing it as such is part of the saviour complex that has mired my industry in its own ass for decades.

Specialty companies want to sell a better product. They want to offer a better experience for the consumer as well as the producer. Although some people like the taste of gas station coffee, to many it tastes bitter and burnt. It’s functional – it’ll wake you up – but it’s not enjoyable.

On the other hand, specialty coffee is intended to taste good. By offering single-origin coffees from a variety of regions, specialty coffee companies provide customers with interesting flavor options. The coffees are much more clean, complex & sweet in flavor. And a focus on lighter roasting allows each coffee’s unique qualities to shine.

As far as the money part – specialty coffee focuses on transparency because it’s the only way to ensure equitable pay. And we focus on equitable pay because it’s a basic, entry-level decent thing to do, that just happens to stand in contrast to the way coffee has been bought and sold for centuries.

Thus far, the specialty industry has failed in communicating its mission.

Understandably, most people shy away from discussing money – it can come across as crass or impolite. So specialty has confused its message. We’ve focused instead on projecting coolness and fanciness, and oversharing about our producer partners’ personal lives. (When we buy strawberries at the store, do we see photos that the strawberry buyer took of the strawberry farmer’s baby? I mean that would be fine, but no we don’t see that.)

As a result, specialty coffee consumers know the coffee farmers’ dog’s name, but they have no idea why the coffee is more expensive. I hope this clears up some confusion. And I hope my industry will continue to move toward more inclusive, honest dialogues with our customers.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out the other posts in this series:

Part 2: Botanical Basics

Part 3: Ripeness & Picking


Questions? DM me! I’m on Instagram: @umeshiso_

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