Going to Extremes: Examining the Future of Specialty Coffee


“There is no specialty coffee, just specialty coffee farmers.” This is a favorite adage of Alejandro Cadena, a Colombia-based coffee exporter. For the last 18 years, Cadena has served as an essential liaison between small farmers at the point of origin and concurrently emergent third-wave roasters like Stumptown Coffee. The specialty coffee market is loosely defined by geographic microclimates, which produce representative styles and distinctive flavors associated with a particular region. The specialty coffee market was in its nascent stages back when Cadena first started, and his company, Caravela, quickly emerged as a leading importer in the United States. “At that time,” Cadena says, “it was just a handful of coffee geeks trying to move the industry forward.” By any “forward” metric, they were successful.

The National Coffee Association (NCA) has been tracking U.S. coffee consumption since 1954. Over the last 18 years—precisely the amount of time Caravela has been in business—the number of daily drinkers has seen the strongest growth. Only 9 percent of adults in the U.S. were drinking specialty coffee on a daily basis in 1999; by 2017, that number was up to 41 percent. But among the top 20 coffee-producing nations, only one, Brazil, is also among the top 20 in consumption. This disconnect means that unlike Alejandro Cadena, it’s hard for the average coffee drinker to imagine the life of the average coffee farmer. But their economic survival, and in some ways the future of specialty coffee, hinges on these consumers getting a better understanding of where coffee comes from and what the future of their daily cup may look like.

Feeling the Heat

Arguably the most significant issue facing coffee’s future is climate change. Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association, says the increased frequency of extreme weather events is taking its toll on the industry. “There’s too much or too little rain, and subtropical regions are seeing unseasonable rain and drought conditions. This has a big impact on coffee,” he says.

The consequences of extreme weather on coffee are myriad. “Heavy rains late in the year can damage coffee cherries,” Rhinehart says. “Rain in what is normally the dry season can create conditions for rust to thrive, and dry periods during normal rainy periods can retard flowering or stunt fruit development and growth.”

In September 2014, The Guardian reported that rising temperatures were fueling the growth of a fungal disease called roya, or rust, in the Jinotega hills of Nicaragua’s central highlands and other parts of Central America. This epidemic was first documented in 2012, and losses of up to 80 percent of the harvest were anticipated for the 2013-14 harvest. Roya begins on the leaves and eventually eclipses the bright red coffee cherries, leaving in its wake a hollow, lifeless tree. For the coffee industry, the spreading problem was an inflection point. Entire growing regions failed to bear a usable harvest, and millions of workers lost their jobs.

In response, the coffee industry sprung into action, and alliances spanning the trade were formed. Even the biggest players in the industry, like Keurig Green Mountain, Farmer Brothers, S&D Coffee and others, worked with a collective aim to develop solutions to offset such dramatic future losses.

A leader in this transformation was Dr. Timothy Schilling. Schilling, a career agronomist and researcher, was also a central figure in the restoration of Rwanda’s coffee sector following the genocide in 1994. Schilling was the director of two USAID investment projects that were credited with successfully establishing a premium coffee industry there. Today, Rwanda is a prized origin supplying specialty roasters in the United States and Europe. Schilling’s work there was multifaceted, ranging from technical assistance and training to targeted financial support. According to the SCA, these investments doubled incomes for more than 100,000 coffee producers.

With the leaf rust crisis, Schilling once again found himself tasked to shore up a tenuous country of origin. Like Alejandro Cadena, Schilling determined the best way to support the industry at large was to support the farmers. In 2012, Schilling established World Coffee Research (WCR) to “grow, protect and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.”

Hanna Neuschwander, communications director at World Coffee Research and author of Left Coast Roast, describes the inception. “A few companies agreed to make a go of it. We raised $500,000 straightaway,” she says. “Five years later, we’re now a staff of 15 with a $3 million budget, with our sights set on $10 million over the next five years.” WCR intends to spend this money on research; a lack of coordinated research is in fact the most significant obstacle (and opportunity) in the climate adaptation fight. The coffee sector—all $174 billion of it—has, until the formation of WCR, conducted coffee agricultural research mostly on a nation-by-nation basis, with little to no overall systematic organization. “Coffee research has largely been national, so there are great research programs in Colombia and Kenya, but none of it was shared outside of the country,” says the SCA’s Rhinehart.

It’ll take decades for the lessons of the trials to completely be absorbed and adopted, but Rhinehart is encouraged by the progress so far. “This is the first time world coffee research is multilocational,” he says. “These trials to test high value varieties in multiple countries and locations haven’t existed.”

For example, WCR has a growing program of multilocational variety trials that consist of a core collection of arabica plants representing a substantial range of genetic diversity, along with a number of commercially proven varieties, for on-site development of new hybrids that will bring better positive characteristics to light. For WCR, the overarching ideology echoes Cadena’s mantra, based on the conviction that investment in research is the best way to achieve stability for farm workers. “In coffee, there’s been a spotty tradition of supporting that work compared to other crops, especially if you take into account the global value of coffee,” Neuschwander of the WCR says.

As a practical example, if research shows consistently high return on investment of a particular variety or farming technique, a farmer or importer can take that data to a bank for a loan that will enable them to make further improvements on their farm. Though progress may be slow, this is just one way the research is paying off in a tangible way.

On the Farm

Farm workers worldwide are aging. This is troubling not just for coffee, but for global food security at large. As it becomes increasingly more difficult to economically survive as a farmer, multigenerational farming families are letting go of the family business.

Increasingly, the role of coffee importers and roasters is to help farms be more profitable by paying good money for good coffee.

Shauna Alexander is vice president of coffee and sustainability at Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Oregon. Alexander has worked at the intersection of coffee and sustainability for 20 years, previously as sustainability director for Volcafe, a global coffee-trading firm. She reiterates the WCR perspective of empowering farmers through maximizing their earning opportunities. “Farms that are profitable are best able to respond and adapt to changes of all kinds,” she says. “Plenty of people in coffee are counting on this industry to be around for decades to come. But not without the effort.”

That effort is multifaceted, but the desired outcome is simple: to maintain economic viability in an uncertain climatic and geopolitical environment. Roasters and buyers of green coffee should take their cues from the producers. “No one knows more about what farmers need than the farmers,” says Alexander.

Cadena says his company became known as quality-minded exporters by simply paying farmers a good price for quality coffee. “It was easy to find good farmers. We paid them twice the market price,” he says. “When farmers heard that we were paying twice as much, we were swarmed.” Last year alone, Cadena bought coffee from more than 4,500 farmers from around the world.

While importers like Caravela work to improve wages and roasters like Stumptown pay good prices for good quality, some coffee-growing regions are simultaneously challenged by pressures of climate change and urbanization. Farming is an inherently difficult way of life, not only for the farm owners, but for the millions of seasonal workers who account for the overwhelming majority of farm labor. Many workers are paid by the pound, so when farm profitability declines, so does their earning potential.

Discouraged harvesters move on to other industries, but it’s important not to look at this displacement in isolation. The same industrialized economies that are consuming the most coffee are also those driving climate change. The ways we consume coffee directly affect the environment as well as the way of life for millions of people from the poorest nations on earth. “As companies operating in industrialized economies, we have to look at the root causes of climate change and not just wring our hands over the effects,” says Alexander. “It’s a testament to our entrenched behavior that complex mitigation strategies feel easier than changing our habits.”

According to the NCA, specialty coffee accounts for more than half of the daily consumption of coffee in the United States, and while the industry explores ways to mitigate the impact of climate change, and to reduce the impact of everyone from roasters to retailers, the U.S. federal government’s current stance largely dismisses any threat. “It’s politicized [in the United States] but not always in other parts of the world,” Alexander says. “Taking action isn’t a feel-good, fuzzy CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy. It just makes sense. On-farm responses to climate-related events aren’t politically motivated; they’re simply about viability. In coffee, retail operations drive a big chunk of our carbon footprint. We need to look at taking a stand and going carbon-free.”

Ground Level

Scout Rose, director of retail at Joe Coffee, a specialty roaster and retailer with stores in New York and Philadelphia, says consumers’ coffee choices are already being altered by the industry’s challenges. “In our cafés, we’re seeing a lot more disease-resistant hybrid cultivars,” he says. “That’s a direct result of climate change.”

Over the past few years, extreme weather and the spread of coffee leaf rust has meant that Joe Coffee is now being offered (and is subsequently offering) cultivars like catimor as opposed to the more common bourbon or typica. “Three years ago, the catimor you saw were the biggest, fluffiest plants on the farm, and when other varieties were showing rust, catimor wasn’t,” he says. “But this year, you’re seeing rust spots.”

This isn’t all bad, Rose qualifies. “Hybrids are tasting better and better,” he says. “If bourbon and typica are wiped out, we can still produce [coffee] at lower elevation with higher yields.”

Rose says that as demand for specialty coffee continues to rise, so will efforts to raise commercial-grade coffee into specialty-grade, and to create new hybrids that perform well. The current staple varieties of bourbon and typica may never disappear completely, but as it becomes harder to source cultivars that are so prized for their taste, the price for these coffees will be influenced by their rarity.

But this is why research and development in coffee at the farm level is critical. The industry is largely in agreement in its backing of WCR’s research agenda. From Keurig to Caravela (who last year committed to donating $65,000 per year for the next three years WCR to support a project aimed at finding the coffee varieties of the future), there are many examples of collaboration among scientists, governments, exporters, roasters and nonprofits, all working to keep the world’s coffee supply productive and resilient.

Neuschwander says that, in order to achieve this, the industry is in need of a technological overhaul, starting with the basic biology of the coffee plant. “The most important technology in coffee is the plant itself,” she says. “Remarkably, most of the coffee varieties used today are essentially the same as those that were around at the onset of the sector, 250 years ago. These varieties are not going to work for farmers in the 21st century—they’re not going to withstand hotter, drier climates, or increasing threats of disease and pests.”

Seeking a remedy, researchers have created new varieties—60 are currently in development—using genetic material collected from the wild. This material has never before been used, and researchers are selecting genetic material best tailored to the needs of the future, from resistance to coffee leaf rust, to producing higher yields under shade (useful in a hotter, drier world), to providing greater profits to farmers or being more tolerant of higher temperatures. “We work together with coffee-producing countries to help them create and select the varieties that are best suited for their local needs,” Neuschwander says.

What’s a mindful coffee drinker to do? It’s not a simple answer, but there are paths forward, Neuschwander says. For example, take the question of climate change as it relates to coffee: the impact of climate change falls hardest on coffee producers and is created mostly by consumers, with cafés producing up to 50 percent of coffee’s carbon footprint. “Consumers have a huge amount of power in demanding that coffee companies invest in meaningful sustainability, which includes investing in research that enables farmers to adapt,” she says. “What’s thrilling about research is that it’s very effective at preventing or mitigating problems, but it can also create opportunities we can’t yet conceive of. Someone had to invent espresso machines—they didn’t exist 200 years ago. Think of what could happen if we apply that same spirit of innovation to coffee agriculture, and all the ways it could transform reality for coffee producers.”


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