Today, a well-respected member of the specialty coffee industry stated that “there is no way to add value to the coffee once it leaves origin; all we can do is preserve it.” This is a popular viewpoint among many in the industry, but is not held by all. The coffee bean is a product of its environment: altitude, rainfall, sunshine, soil quality, harvesting methods, processing methods, storage methods. It has no control over what it is…it merely is. And a green coffee bean is virtually useless.
Useless, that is, unless you roast it. A roasted bean, not much more useful than the green, unless you grind it, then brew it, then consume the brewed results, and then compost the grounds. Now the coffee bean has fulfilled its potential, which hopefully equated its value.
But what exactly is “value”, as relating to the coffee bean? What the coffee bean IS would be its intrinsic value, value defined by what is contained within itself. But how much of that “intrinsic” value is determined by extrinsic influences? What determines the value of a coffee bean is the sum total of the intrinsic qualities of the bean, the extrinsic influences by nature and human cultivation practices, and the perceived worth of that bean.
In other words, the value of a coffee bean, or an auction lot, cannot be determined without taking into account origin, all the middle men, and the end consumer. Let’s consider a 12oz. bag of whole beans. I have a bag of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere sitting on my kitchen counter. This coffee is being sold for $9.00 per 12oz. bag. However, other places are selling THEIR Kochere for considerably higher amounts, up to $15.00 for a 12oz. bag.
Now if value were only determined by what the bean “is”, then that cost differential is difficult to understand. However, if one factors in equipment, roaster training, skill level, retail market percentage, marketing, and customer perception…then we can begin to understand why the same coffee from different roasters may very well have widely varied values.
Customer expectations influence the perceived value of a product, associating value with any number of things. Marketing helps producers and retailer generate concepts and ideas for consumers to associate with said product, hoping to generate higher sales. In the case of coffee, one roaster may be considered cool, trendy, or cutting-edge while another may be deemed small, large, un-cool, or staid, yet both may be roasting coffee from the same auction lots. The roast profile for a given coffee may be virtually identical between roasters, possibly having very similar taste profiles, but one of them will be considered more desirable, due to extrinsic value points placed on the coffee by the consumer.
Has any value been added? Is the bean still valued based on its intrinsic values alone? Or has the value of this bean changed? Is it more than what it once was? Or is it less?
Perception = value. My perception of a coffee determines what I deem that coffee to be worth. My perception of said coffee may be different from your perception, thus that value is relative. In reality, coffee’s market value is determined by professionals possessing a discerning palate, who’ve cupped this coffee as a sample at origin, established its qualities in comparison to similar coffees whether of greater or lesser desirability, and then bid what they’ve decided the coffee is worth during the auction process.
This whole subject of value, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, or both, can be seen when we consider that famous Panama Geisha Esmeralda coffee that set the coffee world on its ear. Was it worth what was paid for it? Was its intrinsic value truly that much more than other coffees before or since? Or did perception of value take a jump for other reasons?
During the time that it has taken me to ramble to this point, the original quote as shown at the beginning of this post has been restated by the same individual. “The original point was that you can’t take a sub-par coffee and magically make it awesome through roasting and brewing. And that everything we do (processing, roasting, brewing, storing, etc) is highlighting and bringing out what is already there.”
I still say perception = value, and that value will ultimately be determined by the end-user. Take an amazing coffee, price it out of the customer’s buying range, and you’ve just defeated yourself. Take a horrible coffee, Kopi Luwak for example, spin it for the public, market the crap out of it (or not, as the literal case may be :gag: ), watch the prices soar, and sheeple will buy it anyway.
Which brings me to this conclusion…it’s all semantics.