February 23, 2016

Communication From Origin: Is This What’s Missing in Specialty Coffee?


Communication with origin is one of the hallmarks of specialty coffee, yet two vital parts of it are still underrepresented: communication from origin and communication among origin.

Too often, communication with origin is a one-way thing. We hear about roasters educating producers on specialty farming and processing methods. We hear about roasters asking producers about the qualities of the coffee, the altitude of the farm, and the flavor profile. We hear about roasters (and consumers) travelling to origin.

Spanish Version: Comunicación desde Origen: ¿Es esto lo que nos falta?

Yet we are far less likely to hear a producer’s opinion on the barista’s work, a producer educating roasters about specialty coffee methods, or even just a producer’s trip to a specialty roastery or café.

And while it does happen in some places, we are also less likely to hear about specialty producers communicating with each other – sharing that coffee knowledge and insight that is invaluable, that will allow us to improve our methods and work together.

Specialty coffee is poorer because of this. As an industry that welcomes coffee education, encourages innovation, and strives towards transparency, hearing more from producers can only benefit us.

Why We Need Communication Among Origin

We know that coffee producers experiment with their methods to produce better coffee – with wonderful results. The consumer gets better coffee, the producer gets financial security, and everyone gets to learn more about our favourite beans.

Yet experimenting isn’t without risk. One bad harvest can have a serious impact on a producing family or community – and this is why communication among origin is so important.

Take Juan Rafael Montero of San Isidro, Tarrazu in Costa Rica. Three years ago, he began a project that, to other producers, seemed crazy: he wanted his farm to go organic.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go so smoothly for him. After he began to nourish the soil differently and to work with organic products, his yield significantly decreased and he incurred great production and economical losses. He said to us, “I remember how tough those years were. I lost almost all of my production and I knew this was the money I needed for my wife and my three children.”

Montero realised that the key was coffee education. “After these downhill times, I decided to study more about organic and sustainable ways to produce agricultural products with knowledgeable, professional help. I always like to work sustainably, so I took some lessons to learn how to work organically – or at least be more sustainable.”

organic compost

Juan Rafael Montero creates compost made from a variety of materials and worms. Credit: Cafeticanela

His instincts were correct: “I began to prepare a natural compost made out of manure, natural fungi, microorganisms, and other organic materials with my professor’s help and, as a result, I better understood the soil and the nutrients the plants need from the soil.”

It is a dedication to coffee experimentation and qualification that is impressive. And it’s this dedication that defines specialty and contributes to the continuous improvement of the coffee in the cup.


Juan Rafael Montero explains to other producers how to prepare organic compost. Credit: Cafeticanela

Yet how much better would it have been for Montero if someone had told him how to do it in the beginning?

We producers are educating ourselves on topics like the sustainable treatment of the farm’s soil – but we neglect to communicate our findings with other cities, countries, and people outside of our towns. We rarely write articles about them or create vlogs. And we should.

Why We Need Communication From Origin

Yet it’s not just other producers who can benefit from hearing our perspectives. Every year, buyers, roasters, and baristas travel to see first-hand these kinds of projects. Then when they return home, they communicate about them. We’ve all read their reflections on origin and the production chain. We know that most of them have experienced new things that they previously had no idea about. We’ve learned that their impressions of the farms change their appreciation of coffee and the culture of its producers.

coffee farm

Producer Carlos Montero explains to Danish students how his micro-mill operates. Credit: Cafeticanela.

Yet we hardly ever learn about the opinions of the producers they’ve visited. This is because we producers rarely communicate with the other side of the industry about our thoughts on specialty coffee companies and organizations. We rarely share our opinion on their attempts to inform their customers about specialty coffee. We rarely reflect on running a roasting company or a coffee shop, or even on what is behind the cup of coffee that people enjoy every day.

As the channels of communication widen, thanks to social media and blogging, we producers could easily share our feelings about buyers’, roasters’ and baristas’ jobs. It would be good for coffee, and it would be good for us.

The thing is that a thorough understanding of the coffee supply chain benefits everyone. It’s so important for producers to be aware of the coffee market trends if they want to position their coffee’s name and make customers more interested in their projects. It also keeps everyone motivated to learn more about the story behind their coffee. Customers will be more informed about farmers and their family work on the farms.

SEE ALSO: Coffee Tourism: The Ultimate Origin Experience?

The Professionals Speak on Communication From Origin

We spoke to Kim Ionescu, SCAA’s Sustainability Director, about the scarcity of communication from origin. She said, “I have been thinking of how comparatively common it is for us to hear reflections from coffee buyers and consumers who travel to farms, reflect on the cultural differences they see, and try to learn lessons from those differences, but how uncommon it is to hear producers and producer representatives reflect on our culture.”

She also spoke on how shallow the existing depictions of coffee producers are: “We may occasionally hear from a coffee farmer who says that it’s so amazing to see people appreciating his coffee, or from a producer who can’t believe anyone would spend $3.00 on a cup of coffee when that’s more than he receives for selling a whole pound of coffee at home, but the story never has much nuance – it’s either a grateful farmer or a disgruntled farmer, not someone who both appreciates the work required to brew and sell coffee like a good barista does, and also sees that there’s a need to keep that barista mindful of all the work done on the farm by the farmer and farm workers to begin that process.”  

It’s clear that there’s a lot more that producers can share with the world.

Kim Ionescu, SCAA Sustainability Director

Kim Ionescu, SCAA Sustainability Director. Credit: Mark Shimahara

Why is Communication From Origin so Rare?

I’ve been asking myself why communication from origin, and among origin, is so unusual – and I suspect it’s due to a lack of confidence. Many producing countries are developing countries; when we compare ourselves with the predominant consuming countries, we can feel intimidated.

This effect can be particularly powerful when you consider that it’s our livelihood. I realized that there are some producers who are afraid to speak too much or reveal too much because they feel that if they say something wrong, their coffee won’t be bought. It is this concern over selling and marketing coffee that causes some producers to stay silent.

Yet we shouldn’t be afraid of this. Our communication is of value, both to us and others. And, in fact, our generation of producers need to be communicative in order to be successful.

How Producers Can Communicate From Origin

There are many ways to communicate about our product, and I recommend doing it creatively. Try offering videos, great pictures, or funny stories of what happens on the farm.

Remember, as well, the power of education. I began my own blog because I wanted to share know my perspective on the work of traders, roasters, cafés, and baristas. Nine months ago, I began with just five followers. Yet, since I began to talk more about educational topics related to coffee – issues on the farms, roaster’s tendencies, baristas’ jobs, and so on – I have seen the number of my followers grow.

tim wendelboe

Tim Wendelboes’ barista Karoline and producer Marianela Montero exchange knowledge about their own daily work. Credit: Cafeticanela

There is a large variety of mediums in which we can share our opinions and expertise. We can communicate through social media, magazine articles, websites, blogs, and even coffee TV shows and films. We can communicate at events, in coffee shops, and in roasteries.

I encourage the new generation of producers to share their opinions. They have a good education and more channels of communication than previous generations; it is a great opportunity.

Cafe Miel in San Jose

Producer Carlos Montero talks with one of the owners of Cafe Miel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Credit: Cafeticanela.

For us producers, it has never been more exciting in this industry. To be part of barista competitions representing our coffee, our life, our shared passion; to see our names on the coffee bags and labels and on café menus; to see our family legacy represented by a roaster’s pride in their work – it has never been more exciting to put all this together, bringing coffee to the end consumer.

And for those consumers, they have the satisfaction of not just drinking a great cup of coffee, but of contributing towards a transparent industry. They are part of a strong and positive relationship with producers and roasters.

So why stop here? Let’s make this relationship even stronger by opening up communication.

Written with the assistance of R. Northrop and J. Thomi. Edited by T. Newton.

Perfect Daily Grind.

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