Why heritage is so important to the coffee industry 

  • For the 12.5 million farming families worldwide, coffee represents more than just a globally traded commodity 
  • Coffee farming is often passed down through generations – and producers amass a wealth of local, rural expertise
  • Roasters have a critical role to play in communicating, representing, and preserving this

IN MANY regions around the world, coffee farming has been entangled with communities for centuries. It’s been passed down through generations; serving as a central pillar in people’s lives and livelihoods – becoming a part of their cultural identities. 

“For a lot of coffee producers, it’s pride, it’s family,” says Eduardo Choza, director of coffee at Mayorga Coffee. “When that is what you do, that’s what your family has done for a while, it’s inevitable to be part of who you are.” 

As such, the coffee they produce holds a significance beyond the product that gets traded and consumed. 

“In each cup of coffee, there is a lot of history, effort, and flavours that transmit all the culture that we have, all the things that we believe, and all our dreams,” says Omar Rodríguez, manager of Capucas Coffee Cooperative Limited in Las Capucas, Honduras.

In an ideal world, coffee roasters and producers would work together in a way that preserves this deeper connection. Unfortunately, a community’s relationship with coffee is more often leveraged as a talking point, rather than being something roasters make a genuine commitment to preserving and celebrating.

As a result, the value of heritage in coffee production can often be disregarded and neglected – along with rural, local expertise.

Local expertise 

Coffee-growing communities have been adapting to a changing climate for centuries, relying on farming practices passed down through generations. This is heritage in coffee production at work – preserving valuable knowledge needed to cultivate the land in harmony with nature. 

At Capucas, this manifests in everything they do – from ensuring soil health to waste management. “For many years, we’ve had a circular economy that is based on the culture of Capucas,” says Omar. “We reuse all the waste that is produced from coffee, and return it to the farm as an organic fertiliser.” 

This “ancestral knowledge” is a source of pride and reflects the resilience of farming communities in Latin America. For coffee roasters, recognising this knowledge as an asset is not only the “human” thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do.

For example, in collaboration with Mayorga Coffee agronomists, farmers in Las Capucas implemented intercropping methods. Planting coffee alongside complementary crops like vanilla or cacao establishes a symbiotic relationship that makes land usage more efficient and improves soil fertility.

This holistic, innovative agroforestry system reflects a deep understanding of ecosystems and serves as a prime example of harmony between people and nature. It also demonstrates the benefit of having farming techniques passed down through generations, and what can be achieved if coffee roasters recognise their value.

And leveraging generational wisdom has benefited other areas of the coffee sector in Latin America. For example, coffee cooperatives have existed in LATAM countries since the early 20th century – playing a vital role in the social and economic structures of growing communities.

Throughout their history, cooperatives in Latin America have played a significant part in shaping the coffee industry, advocating for smallholder farmers and contributing to socio-economic development in rural areas. Their presence reflects a deep-rooted culture of collaboration and community-oriented business practices across the region.

Heritage is important for the coffee industry

Bridging the gap 

Many farmers in Las Capucas are determined to continue their coffee-growing legacy and bring the fruits of generations of hard work to a broader market. However, this is difficult to achieve when the vast majority of coffee buyers don’t make purchasing decisions based on wider environmental and social factors. 

“Not all the people have access to a market that pays a fair price,” says Omar. “This can make it difficult to continue in coffee production while paying respect to the processes passed down to us through generations.”

Indeed, many farming communities are rich in culture and knowledge about how to care for their land, but they struggle to translate this wealth into modern economies

This is part of a broader picture where these communities are being asked to participate in markets and systems that they had no hand in creating. It therefore makes sense to provide culturally appropriate technical and financial assistance to bridge this gap. This support can help producers make the most of market opportunities; and equip them with the tools they need to address environmental and economic instability in their own way. 

A nurturing approach

In this respect, coffee roasters should have a critical role in developing relationships with producers in a way that provides this type of support, while preserving their sense of culture and heritage in coffee production. 

Many specialty coffee roasters claim to operate on a direct trade model. While many will have developed robust and financially supportive partnerships with producers, this is often where the relationship stops. 

In some cases, roasters leverage the term “direct trade” for marketability, knowing that consumers respond to coffee sourced directly from a producer, which comes with a “story”. 

“In specialty coffee, people are more interested in where your coffee comes from and the people behind it,” says Eduardo. “That’s the legacy that this segment is creating, but there’s a long way to go on the other side. 

“There seems to be companies publishing that they do responsible things – but no one ever really knows how that works.” 

Mayorga Coffee believes that roasters should certainly talk about where their coffee comes from, but not in a way that exploits a producer’s story. On the contrary, “direct trade” for Mayorga Coffee not only means celebrating and preserving a community’s heritage and sense of tradition around farming practices, but also contributing to it and celebrating it. 

This approach, coupled with Mayorga Coffee’s ground-level sustainability investments, nurtures farming communities’ knowledge and understanding of their local environment while proudly presenting that heritage and knowledge in the marketplace. 

Having committed to this work at origin, talking about a farming community’s cultural heritage further down the supply chain becomes arguably more authentic. In fact, it has become an important part of the process and integral to Mayorga Coffee’s brand. 

At the same time, conveying this message to consumers is essential to realise the true and entire value of the final product.

“It would be nice for more consumers to understand where their product comes from and the culture behind it,” says Eduardo. “A lot of people might not care – but in order to honour it, I think that’s the next step.”

Indeed, coffee is generally grown by people of colour: Latino, African, and Asian communities that are underrepresented in places where it is consumed. Part of the way forward is recognising the amount of heritage that gets poured into every cup because that means looking at the coffee industry through the eyes of the people who produce it – which is a step toward bringing greater equity across the supply chain.

Coffee Intelligence

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