Specialty Coffee Gets Political

Posted October 27, 2004 at 4:21pm

Regular or decaf?

While this used to be the sole question when it came to coffee, these days it seems as if there is nothing simple about ordering a cup of joe. Sure, coffee drinkers still have the option of regular or decaf, but now they also can ask for a variety of espresso-based drinks made to order: Whip, no whip, dry, wet, with room, no foam, extra foam, non-fat, double … and the list goes on.

The coffee industry also goes on, as it is the second-most traded commodity in the world.

“The whole industry now is moving toward the specialty coffee model,” said Ted Lingle, executive director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

And there’s no shortage of competition among specialty coffee purveyors. But for Michael Wilson, founder and CEO of Political Grounds Coffee, that’s a good thing. “As far as competition, I dread the day there’s not competition.”

Wilson’s goal is to inject a little bit of humor in people’s day as they enjoy their cup of coffee with his politically incorrect coffee blends. Each label pokes fun at some political figure in a satirical way. Some labels currently being sold are “Roast the French,” “Say Howdy Saudi,” “Osama’s Mama,” “Yasser-R-A-Rat, “Grounds For Divorce,” “Jumpin’ Jihad Java” and “Kerry’s Camelot Café.”

“As news develops, we will change the labels,” Wilson said. “‘Grounds For Divorce’ we may substitute the current satire of the Clintons with someone else. May look at Hollywood, may look at Britney Spears. She’s about as political as I am an astronaut flying to Pluto.”

The satirical nature of the labels is something Wilson and others at the company have “a lot of fun with,” but he insists it’s clean. He also tries to keep things split down the middle between political parties.

“We don’t go after the president and not John Kerry,” Wilson said. “If I had it my way this election would be over tomorrow. We’re not trying to be an election game.”

Right now, the coffee is only sold retail via the Internet, but Wilson said in the long run, the idea is to “take it up on the Hill and really launch it.”

Politics of Coffee

With a coffee shop seemingly popping up on every corner, it’s almost hard to believe there are so many different companies with their own blends. But with just more than 3,000 members in the SCAA, Lingle said the specialty coffee “segment” now makes up about 10 percent of the coffee produced around the world.

“We have sort of a simple expression: ‘Great taste and no defects,’” Lingle said about specialty coffee.

A defect in how the International Coffee Organization was running itself caused the United States to withdraw its membership in 1993. The organization, formed in 1963 to bring coffee consuming and producing nations together, was seen as favoring other countries over the United States in pricing. Lingle said business markets in the trade became “distorted” and those in the industry told the government to either fix it or leave the organization. There was no longer the “political will” to fight the two-tier market, so the United States jumped ship, Lingle said.

However, 11 years later, the United States has stated its intent to rejoin the ICO.

“The new ICO is about supply chain management,” Lingle said, as he added the ICO is beneficial because it’s where people go to discuss whether trade rules are helping or hurting the industry. “You can’t build a market simply by lowering price — you have to improve quality. That message now has become part of the new ICO.”

Where coffee is concerned, the old adage “quality over quantity” comes into play. Lingle said consumers recognize and appreciate the “unique and distinctive flavor that comes from the coffee beans due to” their country of origin. Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, Honduras, New Guinea, Costa Rica, Brazil, Peru, Jamaica and Panama are just some of the more than 50 coffee-producing countries around the world. As for the United States, Hawaii is the only state that produces coffee.

In 2002, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) introduced H.R. 604, which asked the United States to create a strategy in response to the coffee crisis affecting 25 million people worldwide. The bill passed both the House and the Senate unanimously.

“Membership in the ICO will not automatically solve the problems of the millions of coffee farmers who are facing low prices and global competition of low quality coffee,” Farr said at a press conference in September.

But many others in the industry, both on the producing and consuming ends, agree the United States’ decision to rejoin the ICO is a good start.

“560,000 Colombian families depend on coffee for their sustenance,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombian ambassador to the U.S., at a recent press conference. “We need prices for growers that reflect the quality of their coffee. A cup of coffee [in the U.S.] for $1.50 — that’s not even 1 1/2 cents getting back to the producer.”

Brewing Business

When it comes to coffee consumers, no one guzzles more than the United States. As the world’s leading coffee consuming nation, the United States imported nearly 23 million bags of coffee in 2003.

“Given our interests in the coffee trade, it is reasonable that we should make our voice heard in international discussions on the issue,” said E. Anthony Wayne, assistant secretary for economic and business affairs of the U.S. Department of State, as he announced the United States’ decision about the ICO.

According to statistics from the U.S. National Coffee Association, 79 percent of the population age 18 and over drank coffee in the past year. Despite price hikes or problems in the industry, the popularity of coffee — especially specialty coffee — will continue to grow. And for those who would rather purchase their coffee instead of making it themselves, they are keeping baristas in business. A “barista” is someone who makes coffee drinks as a profession, and according to the SCAA, there are an estimated 150,000 baristas in the United States.

Regular or decaf has become a lot more complicated.

“It’s still a beverage of preparation,” Lingle said about coffee. “Preparing it properly is part of the success for the trade.”