Coffee farmers’ income shouldn’t be decided by something as subjective as taste

  • Farmers receive about 10% of the retail price of coffee
  • A coffee’s price is determined by sensory assessment, which is inherently subjective
  • In addition, consumers’ taste preferences are constantly shifting – how do farmers deal with this?

IT’S WIDELY accepted across the industry that cupping exposes the process of evaluating coffee quality to individual biases. Despite all efforts to achieve fairness, a reliance on human-led sensory assessment means that objectivity is impossible to attain.

For example, when two Q graders taste the same coffee, it is very possible that they award different final scores – with factors such as palate fatigue further complicating the process.

This puts farmers in a precarious position – particularly in the specialty coffee sector, where price premiums are awarded depending on quality. So, when the system determining quality is inherently subjective, it’s easy to argue that it’s not entirely fair that coffee farmers’ income derives from it. 

Market trends

Pricing coffee in this way also makes farmers vulnerable to fluctuations in consumer demand. For instance, as specialty coffee consumers shift their taste preferences from washed coffees to experimentally processed, and back to washed, farmers are left chasing their tails trying to cater to market trends.

“In recent years, the demand for coffees with exotic processes and less traditional flavours has shown us that subjectivity can be a problem,” says Vicente Mejía, a coffee trader at Clearpath Coffee.

Specialty coffee consumers constantly seek new flavours and taste profiles – it’s part of what defines the sector. But it’s also important to acknowledge what this means for farmers.

For instance, the market signals that encourage them to grow and process one harvest or lot in a particular way can shift in a matter of weeks. Given how long a crop cycle takes, and how much time and money goes into producing it, it’s generally infeasible to replant or adjust. This can result in a less valuable crop than anticipated when taste preferences suddenly change – directly influencing how much a farmer gets paid.

Taste = quality

Having said that, the existence of quality assessment is the very thing that allows some farmers to charge a premium for their coffee. Without that, it’s easy to argue that we would live in a world where coffee’s price would be dictated exclusively by the C price.

However, quality assessment may not necessarily have to rely on taste in the future. A shift towards using technology and artificial intelligence to predict coffee cup scores is emerging, aiming to standardise quality evaluation and reduce human error.

While not yet the predominant method and not entirely flawless, these approaches offer a potential path forward and could provide more objectivity. Using technology to assess quality doesn’t shield a farmer’s coffee from the influence of fluctuating market demand – but it’s certainly a step in the right direction towards a more equitable system for establishing farmers’ income.

Coffee farmers' income hinges on taste

Buyers and sellers

It’s also important to recognise that quality assessment involves a number of different parties. For example, importers and exporters often play a significant role in evaluating a farmer’s coffee – both of whom have profit margins to consider. It of course varies from case to case, but in many cases, the subjective nature of quality assessment can leave farmers exposed to price negotiations.

Cultural and linguistic differences between the two parties can further complicate quality assessment. This can be seen in how flavour, mouthfeel, and aroma are described in relation to a specific coffee – with the majority of quality evaluations occurring in consuming countries, using European/Western language and taste descriptors.

The logistical challenges of maintaining quality throughout the supply chain can also cause issues. For instance, a coffee can be cupped and scored in a producing country, but when it is shipped and a defect is identified in a consuming country, these discrepancies can be difficult to resolve.

In addition, it’s also important to recognise that as a result of historic power dynamics between coffee producers and buyers, farmers are often “price takers” who have very little say on the final purchase price itself. 

A knowledge and skills gap

Even if the playing field was more level, most of the world’s farmers lack the knowledge or skills to assess their own coffees – which effectively excludes them from the process that determines how much they get paid. 

‘The majority of producers still do not have the capacity to roast and cup their own coffee properly, so an honest quality assessment is the next best thing,” says Adam Kline, CEO and trader at Coffee Unified.

“Technology has certainly helped to bridge language gaps and it’s incredible to see how this has changed the market dynamic for those that can utilise it.”

Tools and strategies do exist to give farmers a louder voice in the assessment of their own coffee – but they are far from being accessible and accepted across the industry. And while these approaches are an improvement, they only are addressing a symptom – rather than the root cause of this issue.

Beyond quality assessment

Alongside this, it’s also important to acknowledge that there are other things that come before taste and quality assessment that affect a farmer’s income.

“Sensory perceptions of quality aren’t the only thing impacting the livelihoods of the majority of the world’s coffee growers,” says Adam. “The biggest impact to a producer’s income is market access and point of entry first; then you add technical assistance and cost of production to this.”

However, it’s also worth scrutinising the system that assigns price when their coffee does reach the market – as it directly and indiscriminately impacts the income of any farmer selling their coffee for a differential above the market price.

And while technological advancements in assessing green coffee quality are evolving, they aren’t widely accessible solutions just yet. Currently, human-led sensory evaluation remains the best available method. Therefore, embracing strategies that give farmers more power in that process is critical.

Coffee Intelligence

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