Specialty’s obsession with novelty is compromising its commitment to coffee producers

worshipping golden espresso machine
  • Specialty coffee’s endless quest for novelty clashes with its commitment to sustainability
  • Coffee farmers struggle as roasters chase quality & innovation at the expense of commitment
  • Producing countries receive just 10% of revenue from the coffee retail market

MAVAM’S 24 carat gold custom activation espresso machine at this year’s Specialty Coffee Expo divided crowds. It unintentionally underscored the glaring disconnect between specialty coffee opulence and the ongoing struggle of the communities on which it is built.

The specialty coffee industry has always had this duality of purpose – a tension between the industry’s insatiable appetite for novelty and exclusivity, and its professed commitment to improving the socio-economic conditions of coffee producers. 

Specialty coffee, often synonymous with the third wave coffee movement, was built on the pillars of quality, innovation, and sustainability. This wave of coffee culture emphasised the pursuit of high-quality beans, unique flavour profiles, and novel brewing techniques that differentiated specialty coffee from mass-produced alternatives. 

At the same time, the industry championed ethical sourcing practices, fair compensation for producers, and a commitment to improving the livelihoods of coffee-growing communities.

“In staking out a quality artisanal stance, many specialty coffee professionals also see this as a rejection of bland, industrialised homogeneity and the economic and environmental inequities in the coffee trade,” says Ted Fischer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology and Director at the Institute for Coffee Studies.

“But – and here is the rub – these two values of quality in the cup and equity in the trade, or sustainability, are increasingly at odds.”  

Intensified competition in a maturing segment has exacerbated the obsession with novelty and exclusivity, as they have become a way to stand out in a crowded market. The specialty industry thrives on a culture of constant innovation, where rare and “exotic” coffee varietals, experimental processing methods, and limited-edition releases have become the norm. 

While this focus on novelty fuels consumer interest and drives sales, it also poses challenges to the industry’s core values of sustainability and producer empowerment.

Success in specialty means planning ahead – and chasing novelty can get in the way   

Coffee producers, particularly small-scale farmers in developing countries, rely on long-term relationships, financial stability, and buyer commitment to sustain their operations and improve their livelihoods. 

By establishing stable partnerships with buyers and securing consistent cash flow, producers can plan ahead, invest in their farms, and achieve a living income that supports their families and communities.

However, the specialty coffee industry’s emphasis on novelty and constant product turnover can disrupt these crucial relationships and financial commitments. Farmers’ incomes are ultimately being decided by the subjective matter of taste, yet coffee producing countries only receive about 10% of the US$200 to US$250 billion of revenues generated in the coffee retail market.

Producers find themselves caught in a cycle of meeting the demands for new and unique offerings, often at the expense of long-term sustainability and financial stability. This imbalance undermines the industry’s professed dedication to supporting coffee producers and fostering equitable trade relationships.

“The focus on quality has merged with an emphasis on novelty,” says Ted. “Medium and larger farms are better equipped to supply novelty to the market, and the smallholders are left struggling, without the financial and social capital needed to tap the high-end market.”

“We often think of wild and unusual flavours as something discovered by traders and roasters. While that was once the case, these days most novelty is engineered – a capital intensive and risky endeavour that is inaccessible to most. Chasing quality and jumping from producer to producer increases insecurity for those least able to bear that burden.”

How to reconcile novelty and sustainability in specialty coffee: “the million dollar question”

To address the tension between novelty and sustainability in the specialty coffee sector, a shift in mindset and practices is essential – one that can prioritise the long-term well-being of coffee producers while embracing innovation and creativity in their offerings. 

Authentic “relationship coffee” based on trust, transparency, and mutual benefit can provide producers with the stability and support they need to thrive. A relatively long term buying commitment to a partner’s coffees can make an enormous difference for coffee producers. 

But does this have to be a trade-off for roasters that means less “discovery” opportunities and less of an edge in a competitive market? Coffee companies feel a pressure to innovate to keep up with current trends and technologies now more than ever. The specialty coffee industry is eating itself – a phenomenon known as market cannibalisation.

Embracing novelty and experimentation while maintaining a core range of products that ensure reliable income for producers can help strike a balance between innovation and sustainability. But can these two pillars really be reconciled?

“That’s the million dollar question,” says Ted. “I think so, but it won’t be easy. Some have suggested going back to a pre-1989 ICA style quotas and global minimal prices, but getting rid of that is what allowed the specialty explosion.”

“It requires building up true relationships with farmers—not just telling them what you want. It could be that a roaster might have a stable of long-term relationships that are always on offer, while exploring new coffees and novelty on the side, the best of both worlds.”

The specialty coffee sector faces a critical challenge in harmonising its pursuit of novelty with its commitment to supporting coffee producers and promoting sustainability. 

This dichotomy raises critical questions about the very founding principles of specialty coffee. To uphold its core values of quality, innovation, and ethical sourcing, the industry will have to reevaluate its practices, foster stronger relationships, and prioritise the long-term well-being of producers.

Coffee Intelligence

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