jdavidwaldman wrote:i wonder if a motivated PhD candidate in library science would take on some of this heavy lifting ...
Yes - along the lines of what I am thinking. This information needs to be compiled, it's basic to knowing where we stand now, and therefore knowing where we can go.
Day One has raised many questions, and I have to admit I am more attuned to the skeptical voices in this group than the "true believers". I think ultimately I already know that this collaborative research is long overdue, but for every person who has made the effort and absorbed the costs to come here (Hoffman paid his way from UK just for this, believing it was so worthwhile) I think there are so many skeptics not in the room, including some that could fund this Initiative easily based on their huge volumes. Would we want them as part of it? Actually, I say yes. On some fundamental issues of coffee quality (to turn 75 point coffees that are badly processed and dried into 84 point coffees, or 80 point coffees into 86's) we share much in common. The side benefits, that a coffee producer receives better payment for their higher quality of coffee, that they use their land better, that coffee does not compete with their needed food crops ... those are all ways to make "quality pay" as well. For people who preach "quality first" in the coffee world, this is a way to back up your words with deeds.
The greatest gaps appear in how to fund this thing. Relying on the charity of companies is not very sustainable. You are always going to be distracted by chasing down donors. The alternative is a politically unpopular "check-off fund" where we as coffee buyers essentially tax ourselves something like 1/2 cent per Lb of coffee when we contract it. Check off funds exist in many industries, many agricultural industries in particular. They are often used for public relations (Milk, It does a body good; Pork, the other white meat). But this would be solely for research into coffee quality. It makes sense, and we would do it at Sweet Maria's; but it is much less painful for a small guy to volunteer to self-taxation for a communal good, rather than a Green Mountain or Caribou, who would be writing some very large checks. I think they would receive more benefit too, since they face a more immediate problem of escalating prices and a scarcity of coffee in the quality level they want.
For me the most attractive reasons to fund quality research are this; most coffee research now is done in an uncoordinated way in producing countries to address their immediate problems --- disease and pests, and low volumes. Quality of coffee is not a primary goal. If we don't do anything, arabica varietals that have robusta inputs are going to take over. A fear I have is that if you technify standards for good coffee production (and everyone listens and changes methods) we might result in a great homogenization of coffee flavors, even if the average cup is better. Do we want that? Do we want methods in Honduras to be the same as Costa Rica so they taste so similar there is no reason to offer a CR and a Honduras. No, of course. (and it is an extreme example). But on the flip side, forming a better understanding of why the methods in Honduras, why the cultivar expression in that climate, why other unique factors result in a particular flavor, might actually hep PRESERVE a unique Honduran appellation, prevent it from becoming generic, is another possible and (I think) more likely outcome.
The problem in coffee research is the lack of correlation between sensory analysis and all these techniques to quantify and measure coffee in the lab (Near infra red, Mass spectrometry, genetics ... things I know little about). You need sensory analysis to know what you are looking for though, and a really good empirical method to define quality (perhaps a perennial problem) needs to be established. Or at least some solid standards. Past research has either had poor definitions of coffee quality, or just skirted the issue all together. If the coffee buying community doesn't join together to define quality though, it will continue to be ignored and poor cupping cultivars will take over by default as Broca pest and Roya fungus decimate crops. Some paint a dire picture of the global supply and the market prices, I think the more dramatic threat is to maintain quality in the face of these other threats. Again, a big buyer of 78 point container lots and a small buyer of 15 bag Micro lots can share this concern quite easily.
Those are a couple thoughts on this first day. Tomorrow we try to hammer out some of these primary research objectives, so I think things will get more interesting then. Ultimately, this Initiative will be measured by the effectiveness of the first few projects that get out the door. Other communal efforts in coffee have not worked out well. Roasters are very suspicious. Everyone has their own little small-scale quality initiatives. But can coffee companies, each on their own, really address the scale of the quality issues we face? Can we answer all these really basic unknowns about the product we sell every day? Aren't we just all using anecdotal observations, without any real basis in science? Is that good enough, just to keep doing our own thing? Maybe it is --- but I am hoping this Initiative can do more than keep with the status quo of this every-company-for-themselves operational mode we are now in, because some of the issues I see on my trips just aren't going to be solved this way. My business can survive fine if an Initiative fails, there will be small lots of high quality coffee. But looking at rust damage in Colombia a couple weeks ago, I can say for sure that others will not do so well.