NEW YORK CITY — “In the long run, only quality is sustainable,” said Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Coffee Quality Institute. “Everything else is not.”
Addressing the National Coffee Association of USA’s Fall Education Conference, Lingle explained that the free market is working to differentiate coffees, as it long has differentiated wines. Quality is in demand, and quality simply cannot be had cheaply.
A third-generation member of a coffee roasting family, Lingle grew up in the business, spending two decades as vice-president of sales and marketing for Lingle Bros. Coffee (Bell, CA). He played a major role in setting the educational agenda for the National Coffee Service Association in its earliest days. Lingle was closely involved with the very successful Coffee Development Group, proposed by NCSA and approved and underwritten by the Promotion Fund of the International Coffee Organization (London). He was a founding co-chairman of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and a cofounder of the Coffee Quality Institute.
Those who sell coffee will succeed or fail according to their ability to meet demand for a product whose continued availability depends on the producers’ willingness to grow it, instead of doing something else more remunerative, Lingle said. “Sustainability means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the future,” he emphasized. “It’s not easy to do.”
For most of its modern history, the coffee industry conformed to a “colonial” model: The goal was to extract the most commodity at the lowest cost. As long as producers saw few alternatives, and there were few enough producers to limit the supply, this might work fairly well, though always better for some people than for others, the speaker pointed out.
That mindset underlays the old view that Americans had an inherent right to a 5¢ cup of coffee: “When the price went up, Congress investigated,” the industry veteran recalled. But those days are gone.
Cheap coffee is quite easy to produce in volume, but demand is trending in a dramatically different direction. Quality is what sells, and the coffee industry everywhere has a vital interest in meeting that demand over the long haul.
Lingle observed that, once one recognizes this, new relationships appear. For example, “sustainable” coffees are so because they are grown with minimal use of agricultural chemicals and in ways that do not destroy habitat. Growing methods based on traditional practices are more effective at conserving water, soil and other essential resources than more technology-intensive approaches. “I used to wonder what difference ‘organic’ coffee farming made,” the speaker recalled. “After all, we heat the bean to 400°F. in roasting, so it shouldn’t matter what’s on the outside. But that overlooks the chemistry of the soil that provide nutrients for the plants. ‘Organic’ coffees increasingly win cupping competitions.”
Similarly, creating and maintaining conditions that allow coffee farmers a reasonable standard of living is no longer a Utopian fancy, but an imperative for industry survival. Coffee producers, who have grappled with extraordinarily low prices for more than a decade, have found that they need not grow coffee. “There are a lot of displaced coffee workers in the U.S. right now – and they’re not doing the work that needs to be done in the producing countries,” he noted.Ultimately, “Adding value requires high quality, and high quality requires verifiable standards. Those standards thus result in favorable prices,” Lingle summed up. “If we solve this, we’ll have a thriving industry.”