Coffee seems like a straightforward topic, at least it did when you bought coffee in a can, dissolved it in hot water, (clenched your jaw) and slogged it down. When I started in coffee, many people still did not know what a roasted coffee bean looked like, let alone the green seed! These days Joe Consumer may have an inkling that there's more to coffee than it seems. But when a local TV station in the Bay Area (aren't we supposed to be sophisticated?) had a "coffee expert" guest, the discussion was limited to Latte vs. Mocha. Information about the coffee origin, where it was grown, by whom, how it was processed, etc. is pretty hard to find at a Starbucks … the names of proprietary beverages and blender drinks dominate the menu.
The discussion in Specialty Coffee has been how to get people to take coffee seriously… how do we get them to ponder the notion that there is a lot to know about this very complex beverage? The answer has been to make coffee the "new wine"; talk about it like wine, write about it like wine, sell it like wine. I guess the argument was convincing; one company started to sell their roasted and green coffee in clear, corked wine bottles! Another deep freezes green coffee to save "vintages" as one would cellar Burgundy.
In a general sense, it is easy to compare coffee to wine. Neither are nutritional necessities, but are integral to our food habits. They are both consumed for pleasure. And the aroma and flavors of both have the potential to connect those who imbibe with the lives and fates of people throughout the world, to their culture, their nation, their soil. What we enjoy is a direct result of their care of the plant, precision in processing, careful transportation and handling, and diligence in preparation. The more we enjoy single-farm coffees from distinct origins, the stronger and clearer that connection might become.
Why make standards? Coffee certainly needs standards to enhance the bond between those who love the drink, and all those whose work makes it possible, standards that are adaptive and suited to our unique trade. No, you can't certify a good cup of coffee since it could be stale, or even worse, French-roasted! And the process of instituting a neutral "coffee board," one not related to any trade association or business entity, is a daunting task. But someone has to guarantee the meaning of first-tier coffees when the market refuses to pay a fair price, and corporations are happy to fudge the names of offerings to make them sound single-origin, or Estate-grown.
"Why not let the market determine coffee denominations?". In our trade, the highest end of specialty coffee, there is a problem with "phony specialty coffee" being offered by brokers and exporters. To an inexperienced cupper they seem passable, but the coffee has not been processed to high standards, the cup masks flaws which eventually emerge, the green coffee will not hold up over time. It's easy to attach "brand names" to coffee lots at a mill that sound like farm names, when in fact the coffee is mixed. Such coffees do not deserve their low market prices.
On the other hand, true single-farm coffees often deserve double their current price! A market based on global competition over undifferenitated commodity lots makes no sense in the specialty community. Visit a coffee farm that has its own mill; you cannot believe the amount of specialized, skilled labor that goes into each pound of green coffee.
In parts of the greater coffee trade that lie a universe apart from our business, there is another need for standards. Ever have an "espresso" from an automated machine at a service station or convenience store? Ever wondered why Kona Blend tastes like crud, or if a Mocha-Java has Yemen or Java in it? Or that everyone seems to have Antigua and Tarrazu now, but neither region produces that much . How about "Jamaica High Mountain?"
What you get without standards is a lot of coffee businesses with a lot of standards, competing on an uneven surface. You have roasters with the highest principles of quality and freshness in a marketplace with crudy old coffee from an unscrupulous business, and both have the exact same name on the bag: two coffees can be called Sumatra Mandheling and be of completely different cup character and quality.
When a consumer goes to a supermarket as he can be sure you're buying a special quality gourmet coffee and not a specialty coffee with quality well below a gourmet or espresso, but the packaging is in the seal of quality gourmet?
Without standardization sector does not have as a consumer have knowledge of what is actually taking home!