Judging by the enormous market shares of the Big Four corporate coffee multinationals, a lot of people don’t mind drinking lousy tasting coffee. However, plenty of people won’t do it. But more imporantly, if it doesn’t taste better, a lot of folks are not going to pay extra for certified coffee, and these coffees nearly always carry a premium. I’m not even willing to fork over more cash just for an eco-friendly label if the coffee is mediocre. If I can’t drink tasty, sustainable coffee, I just don’t drink it — although I’m as addicted as the next person. Unfortunately, I’m an exception.
Here’s the nasty truth: Even people who profess to caring about the environment tend to default to habitat-destroying, cheap coffee produced with tons of chemicals if there isn’t sufficient motivation to switch. If they try a certified coffee and it doesn’t taste any better than the stuff they’ve been drinking, they don’t bother to buy it again.
That’s why it’s good news that the fastest growing and most familiar eco-labeller, Rainforest Alliance (RA), has inked an agreement with the non-profit Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). Among other things, this partnership will integrate CQI’s standardized coffee quality standards into RA’s tracking and traceability software and promote those standards within RA’s sustainable agriculture program. On a practical level, it means coffee buyers (importers, roasters, and consumers) will have some objective benchmark (the Q coffee score) indicating the quality of the coffee, as well as the flavor profile.
For the last five years, RA has had annual Cupping for Quality events and cupping competitions organized by CQI. These events and awards really help highlight the fact that sustainably-grown coffees can have amazing flavor, worthy of purchasing just for their taste alone. This partnership should really help buyer awareness and enhance interest in the quality of sustainable coffee.
I’m not sure how RA will reconcile this commitment to quality — with an emphasis in this case on taste — with their partnerships with big corporate roasters like Kraft. Kraft’s Yuban coffee is 30% RA certified, and has been described by Ken Davids, one of the most respected coffee evaluators in the world, as “Cloyingly sweet, earthy/mildewed character with very distinct grassy notes.” This same review says that those who should drink Yuban are “on a budget with a commitment to organic growing principles that transcends the desire to drink decent coffee.” One could argue that the high-quality RA certified beans are being overwhelmed by the remaining 70%, mildewy, grassy, earthy, who-knows-where-they-come-from beans. But that certainly defeats the purpose. This odd dichotomy — fine work in environmentally and socially sustainable, high quality coffee, alongside helping corporate giants buff their green image by permitting their seal on products containing as little as 30% certified beans — produces not a small amount of cognitive dissonance among coffee lovers, myself included. This will eventually be the subject of its own post.