November 1, 2021

Pioneers In the Specialty Coffee World

Who are the individuals and organizations that are an example of the specialty coffee sector?

In Bulgaria, on 1 November each year we celebrate the Day of the Bulgarian Revival Leaders. It is a day that celebrates Bulgarian revolutionaries and enlighteners during the time of our national Revival (18-19 century) who maintained Bulgarian spirit high and until today are shining example for all of us with their life and work. November 1 was declared an official holiday at the end of 1922, and from the following year it began to be celebrated throughout the country.

On the account of the Day of the Bulgarian Revival Leaders we thought about the pioneers in the specialty coffee world.

Pioneers who are our example. Those that drive progress. Pioneers that shake the status quo and instead of following the established rules, create new rules, in the name of a better and mutually beneficial model. Many cannot comprehend the actions of those people, especially at the beginning of their career. They can be ridiculed. But over time, as the results of their unconventional approach and hard work begin to become apparent, they gain both recognition and followers.

Pioneers in the specialty coffee world find each other easily, no matter how few of them there were at the beginning of this adventure, which began 20 years ago. They unite in organizations that are the backbone of the industry in all countries where it is developing.

Erna Knutsen Photo: Olam Specialty Coffee

Pioneer individual: Erna Knutsen

The godmother of specialty coffee is Erna Knutsen (1921-2018). We have already told you her story and her name is one to remember. She was the first to use the term “specialty coffee”.

Erna Knutsen entered the world of coffee in 1968 as a secretary at the coffee trading company B.C. Ireland in San Francisco. There she developed a strong passion for those very special coffees that were traded alongside ordinary, mass coffees. In 1981 she became vice-president of the company which was unheard for a woman at that time. She gradually gained her own clients. As a result, in 1985 she bought the company and renamed it Knutsen Coffees.

She started writing newsletters which gained huge popularity in the industry. They were filled with her rich knowledge of coffee. In them, she was writing about her idea of specialty coffee. She wrote also about the movement of producers and traders of specialty coffee. The receivers of the newsletters gained knowledge on topics such as coffee origins or the terms of flavor characteristics. Processing techniques and rules of the game in the world of specialty coffee in general were also covered.

Erna Knutsen work was fundamental for the industry and her newsletters reached enormous ammount of people. And all this before the Internet era – by fax and mail.

Pioneer competitions: Best of Panama and Cup of Excellence

Йордан Дъбов и Уилфорд Ламастус Best of Panama Dabov Specialty Coffee
Jordan Dabov with one of the Best of Panama founders, farmer Wilford Lamastus in Panama

Best of Panama – the first specialty coffee competition in the world

To get to the first Best of Panama competition, we have to say that in 1989 there was a global price crisis in the coffee sector. This literally led to the collapse of the coffee market in Panama.

In search of a solution, Panamanian farmers turned their attention to the still very few specialty coffee producers in the Central American country. Thus, in the early 90’s, The Specialty Coffee Association of Panama / SCAP was born following the model of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Panamanian specialty coffee producers founded it.

In the early 1990s, Panamanian coffee went mainly for local consumption. The main goal of the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama was to advertise its production outside the country. That’s how surged an idea to organize a competition for specialty coffee from Panama.

The first edition of Best of Panama was in 1996. Best of Panama is the first specialty coffee competition in the world ever. In addition, it was and still is organized entirely by the producers themselves, through the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama.

(left to right) George Howel from George Howel Coffee, Joe Hsu from Orsir Coffee, Jordan Dabov form DABOV Specialty Coffee and Andrew Barnett from Linea Caffe in the Cup of Excellence Brazil 2019 jury.

Cup of Excellence – the most renowned specialty coffee competition in the world

In mid-1999, the Gourmet project was coming to an end. The aim of the two-year project was to help 5 countries get better prices for the quality coffee they produced. The funding was provided by several organizations, including the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

One of the major world coffee exporters, Brazil, has not managed to sell its best varieties to the American roasters and coffee distributors. At the last moment, George Howell – a coffee quality consultant for Brazil, discovered several great Brazilian coffee varieties that were hitherto unknown to American roasters. He wanted to organize a competition at any cost. His idea was to invite a few respectable cuppers to select the best quality coffees among the participant and distribute awards to their producers.

The Specialty Coffee Assossiation of America entered the dsicussion and with the financial support of the International Coffee Organization the competition was organized. 310 Brazillian farmers enrolled. 14 cuppers – jurors arrived to evaluate the submitted coffee samples. The event found a home at the small federal university in Lavras, Minas Gerais.

The first online auction was also held, and to a great success, although the prices were much lower than today. 

In 2001, the American non-profit association Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) was founded. Its primary purpose was to organize the competition annually with every host country. Cup of Excellence has gradually expanded. Today, in addition to Brazil, it is also held in Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Burundi, Rwanda and Ethiopia.

So far, more than 140 auctions have been held that have raised over $60.3 million in revenue for the farmers. 

The result of the work of organizations which support women in the coffee industry – Eleane Mierisch is the farmer behind Honduras Santa Lucia Geisha COE #1 2019, together with Jordan Dabov after the final of the Cup of Excellence Honduras in 2019.

Pioneer institutes in the world

There are many institutes around the world – regional: in coffee-producing countries, as well as international: they unite producers and buyers. The objectives of the institutes are similar. They protect the interests of producers, develop trainings to improve production quality, and hence the price of coffee. Also they aim to protect the interests of eligible buyers, as well as producers, of open, just and fair trade.

One of the international institutes is the International Coffee Organization (ICO). It operates since 1963. Thanks to it the first Cup of Excellence competition in Brazil received financial funds, as we already mentioned.

There are also a number of organizations that support women in coffee industry. International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) – a non-profit organization founded in 2003 in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the United States. Today it has local organizations in 27 coffee producing countries. Its goal is to empower women in the international coffee community to change their lives for the better. At the same time, IWCA strives to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry.

We can also acknolwedge some financial funds such as Earth’s Choice. There are also non-profit organizations such as the CQI Partnership for Gender Equity (PGE), which collect statistics on the number of women in the industry, the problems they face and in response develop a methodology for the gradual resolution of those problems. We can also mention local organizations such as Café Feminino Foundation – coffee producers in Peru and in Colombia – AMUCC – Colombia.

Coffee Quality Institute, for example, runs courses for Q-graders or professional tasters who can unmistakably evaluate the quality of a particular coffee. The bigger number of Q-graders, the more specialty coffees from new and unknown farms will enter the world market. There are currently around 7,000 Q-graders in the world.

And the World Coffee Research focuses on improving specialty coffee farmers lives. This is achieved through projects that develop new (including genetic) or discover existing but unexplored and little used coffee varieties. In addition, they develop new technologies for strategic use in developing countries. The organization operates in 21 countries.

There is also the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture / IICA, which develops the Regional Program for Cooperation, Technological Development and Modernization of Coffee Production (PROMECAFE) in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. The main goal of the platform is to solve economic, trade and sanitary challenges resulting from global climate change, which has a negative impact on farmers. Various regional coffee institutes participate in the organization. Their representatives are aware of the need for coordinated efforts and common measures to protect the interests of farmers in the region. PROMECAFE was born in 1978 to seek a solution to the crisis with the coffee-damaging disease coffee leaf rust.

Jordan Dabov among the members of the jury of Oro de Santa Barbara in Honduras 2018.

Pioneer countries: What happens in Costa Rica and Honduras

For some countries, coffee is the largest export product. But they also have enough others to rely on. For small countries like Costa Rica and Honduras, however, coffee export is vital.

When Costa Rica was going to declare independence from Spain in 1821, the government distributed coffee beans to anyone who wished to cultivate them. The aim was to promote coffee production. At that time there were about 7,000 coffee bushes in the country. In 1831, the government announced that anyone who produced coffee in a particular area for 5 years could then claim ownership of the area.

For almost 50 years, from 1846 to 1890, coffee was the only export commodity in the Central American country. To this day, this is the country’s largest export.

Since the declaration of independence of Costa Rica, the government encouraged coffee production. In 1933, it established the Institute for the Protection of Coffee. Its purpose was to protect small coffee producers from being exploited by resellers. In 1948, the institute received a new name, Coffee Workshop (Oficina del cafe). It gradually became the Instituto del Café de Costa Rica / ICAFE. It still exists today and engages in experimental coffee plantations for research purposes and in the promotion of Costa Rican coffee around the world.

When Jordan Dabov was among the jurors in the Oro De Santa Barbara competition in 2018, Honduras Vice President Ricardo Alvarez was also present. The government of the country encourages the development of the coffee sector and in particular specialty coffee, because it is one of the two largest export goods of the country. The small Central American country ranks fifth in the world in coffee exports after giants such as Brazil and Colombia.

Coffee is a state policy. All participants in the jury received a special congratulatory address from the Vice President as an expression of his gratitude that by participating in the competition they have contributed to raising the reputation of Honduran coffee.

And this gesture is not accidental, but part of the state policy of the country because government realizes the importance of the coffee industry for the country’s economic and social development. 1970 is the birthdate of the Honduras Coffee Institute (IHCAFE). The organization nourishes the development of the coffee sector, oragiznes trainings for farmers and encourages the promotion of coffee abroad.

Cup fo Excellence competition is held in both Costa Rica and Honduras.

Article written by napravimisait

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