Who's Quality Is It Anyway?

I'm still organizing my thoughts and making sense of all of the experiences I had working with the farmers in Bali.  This post is about one of those experiences.

hopper full of mixed cherries
Poorly picked, unsorted cherries. There should be at least 95% red cherries harvested from the trees.

You know how you have an internal discussion or debate between yourself and someone else to work through your own theories and arguments?  One such internal discussions I have regards my recent project in Bali, in-which I thought I was there to improve quality and they thought I was there to promote their coffee through the appearance of quality.  The lack of a shared goal lead to a very uncomfortable situation where I was trying to obtain something they weren't willing to obtain and they were hoping I would perform a function I was unwilling to perform.

My internal debate goes along these lines:

I took samples from a neighboring mill that is focused 100% on quality and gave the samples to a few other roasters interested in specialty grade coffee. In two of those cases, the individuals were interested enough to pursue further contact with the owners of the mill and in one case the roaster was expressly interested in buying in volume.  In my opinion (or based on my world view of coffee quality), that is what quality achieves for a product early in its development as a brand; it generates interest in the product/brand before it generates premiums*.  Every time I have this internal debate, I want to reach out to my former business partner in Bali and tell him the story to illustrate to him that quality works; that if their coffee had been as good, it would have been the one generating interest among buyers.

The disconnect lies in the fact that the "default" quality at the mill I supported is not a match for the roasters with which I shared the quality sample. Therefore it was a foregone conclusion that those roasters wouldn't be interested in the lower-quality coffee.

This beg's the question:

If a producer or processor is able to sell their product at a price acceptable to them and one that supports their desired lifestyle, is it in anyone's best interest to fight with them to change their orientation, even if they are currently leaving potential quality on the table?

The answer in this case is 'no.' It is not in either party's best interest to fight over who's quality is better.  Both parties, in the end, came to an understanding of each other's goals and also the disconnect between those goals and we parted ways amicably and on good terms.  Both sides won;

  • The family started a successful small business that has a very good chance at success and has increased the flow of money in the area
  • I had a great experience working in another part of the world with a culture that is radically different from my own and in a sector of the supply chain I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to

What's now clear to me is that quality is not only a nuanced and complicated concept, it's also highly susceptible to one's unique orientation*

Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Singapore where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also exploring coffee production and how to improve the lives of those who produce the noble bean.