The First Chapter
Semilla is just what the name suggests — it is a seed. There are big hopes for what Semilla can become, but for today, we start modestly. And from the beginning.
My name's Brendan Adams, and I’m pushing a decade in the specialty coffee industry. That doesn’t mean anything other than that I’ve been around long enough to observe and learn a variety of aspects of the coffee value chain from a niche, artisanal perspective within the massive global coffee industry. And throughout my time, I’ve watched and listened and heard, impotently, as the same endemic issues reoccur, take precedence in the conversation, and then fade away.
And so Semilla is an attempt to finally begin to answer these questions, for myself, and hopefully for others as well. I portend to no unique knowledge, I just know I have to begin to put my thoughts out there and see what comes back.
For those outside of specialty coffee who might find themselves here, I hope especially the work that appears here will speak to you. You're likely a consumer of coffee, as 2.25 million cups are consumed worldwide everyday, Maybe some of that comes from the specialty sector of the industry, and if it does, you're likely drinking this coffee for quality sake, but also because you're aware, vaguely, that something more thoughtful is behind that cup.
Within the industry, we feel the same way. We reassure ourselves with the knowledge that our prices paid for green coffee are better than the commodity market, that our transparency efforts are earnest and detailed, and that we’re committed to farmer sustainability.
Broadly, specialty is a sector that emerged with the stated ideal to underline how the commodity of coffee isn’t just an item to buy low and sell high, but something with intrinsic value that could and should carry a value that can make a real world impact.
Though specialty has exploded as an industry sector in recent years, there have been troubling trends that have led the industry to become further entangled with the broader commodity market. Rather than resulting in an increased livelihood and value added for coffee producers and their countries, we've seen many of our attempts to actuate positive change revealed as flawed or even completely misguided.
I believe specialty coffee has always been aimed at doing coffee better. However, in the approximately two decades since the advent of the “founding firms” of specialty coffee, we have seen little substantial change to the lives of the most vulnerable in the coffee value chain. In fact, from their perspective, we could say there’s been a regression.
Historically low prices for coffee on the commodity market are further compounded by worsening exchange rates. Climate change has led to the increase in crop-ravaging diseases, lowering or eliminating traditional yields. And despite a growing demand for coffee in consuming countries, and a corresponding explosion in specialty roasters and importers, the vast majority of coffee producers continue to sell their coffees at or below market prices due to a lack of access or resources.
There are a million threads to unravel around this issue, and Semilla isn’t going to untangle this mess. But each issue will be presented with a research-based focus that aims to bring historical, socio-political, and cultural context to the fore. Posted articles will be left open for conversation and comment for the purpose of creating a non-hierarchical environment where opinions will be taken seriously. Those willing to write and collaborate are encouraged but must be willing to create high-quality work, capable of fact-checking and vetting.
The focus here will always be on the coffee producer, or the toll this broken system takes on their livelihoods. However, I hope this can become a place where the questions we want to see answered can at least have a place to be asked. It's time for us to create discussions that create real accountability and thus lead to real solutions. I hope you'll want to be part of the journey.
In August, I’ll begin a series called Is The Future of Specialty Coffee Guaranteed? discussing various parts of the history of specialty coffee, the developments and changes in its short lifespan, and the challenges facing its continued existence.
If you made it this far, thank you. I hope this is a place where we'll meet often.