Pt II: Coffee Competitions and the narratives surrounding modern processing techniques

Pt II: Coffee Competitions and the narratives surrounding modern processing techniques

Following on from my post detailing thoughts on competitions, I’m sharing the script I wrote - and the theme I was thinking about. I’ve had many discussions in the weeks that follows with many actors in the entire value chain - from producers, to exporters, importers, and cafe owners and consumers, which has provided some valuable insights. I’m including this as a lengthy post script, rather than editing the original content. 

I have merely removed the content that is strictly relevant to the mechanics of competition and left the “filler” as it were. This may be slightly clunky writing, but I felt it would be better to first start with the original proposed thesis and then follow up with further thoughts.

UKBC Theme: Segmentation, Categorisation, and Value

It’s no secret that many of the 14 plus coffees you will try today will be processed with high technical intervention processing. Modern experimental processes are a form of significant value addition at the producing end of the supply chain - afterall, anything a producer can do to secure a better price for their coffee is emphatically a good thing.

In the last few years, we've started to see the coffee industry segment - on the top, most exclusive end we see a breakaway crowd of well resourced high technical knowledge producers start to create coffee that's unlike anything people had tried before. We hype these coffees up because they are different, and we pay more for them. I’m not a purist, I don’t want to tell producers what to do nor what is good or acceptable. But I am interested in the narratives and trends of the consuming side - that, I think is inside this acceptable purview.  

To tie this line of thought into the format of the day to think further on the idea of value creation and capture, let’s consider our espresso to be the analogy of the raw “green” coffee and provenance , the expression of variety, agronomy and environment without additional value-add steps.

The hidden downside to this breakaway crowd, as shown by the speciality price transaction guide, is that while premium lot pricing is going up - everything below that is moving down. Our focus and presentations at events like this contributes to this divide. Now, I chose Wilton's coffee because it achieves flavour profiles nearly impossible for traditionally processed lots to achieve – perfect for this scoresheet, but are these methods to be expected to be the norm?

I love a good ‘spro - but let’s face it, the majority of what our consumers are drinking are milk based beverages. The addition of milk is a value-add for a coffee shop that makes up the bulk income of the business - much like traditional processing for a producer.

So most coffee shops will add value by making milk drinks - but now we get into the niche end. The signature beverage - how many of these innovations that are developed in competition make it on bar?  They elevate the coffee drinking experience - but they remain niche - the resources (especially time) required place it outside the remit of most shops to execute, just like advanced processing exists outside the remit of most producers 

Commercial coffee: hard and mild arabica. Speciality coffee - 80+, clean and sweet. Why is everything under speciality lumped into one category?

Wine had a category split with natural wine, craft beer is constantly budding off  - I want to ponder the thought that perhaps coffee should too? I want to find a way we can celebrate a producer like Wilton just as much as we can continue to celebrate producers who might not yet have access to advanced processing methods, and find ways to create value and hype for both styles of lots.


I think that the above presentation needs some refining, and there is a giant, gaping risk in what I am proposing that needs further nuance and structure. To quote the esteemed Christopher Feran (whose blog I highly recommend) in his piece “What’s the problem with infused coffees?”

If industry chooses to regulate processes, definitions or purities, this regulation should originate from coffee producing countries—the same way that wine regulations, whether Protected designations of origin or appellation d’origine contrôlée or EU regulations, originate from those countries that have an economic interest in protecting the production and identity of those wines.


Ultimately, wrestling control from a coffee producer through regulatory mechanisms instituted by buyers and judges in consuming countries is problematic, imperialistic and will stratify coffees as either merely “commodity specialty grade” or gilded for competition by virtue of the purity test imposed by those buyers and judges—regardless of the welfare of producers, regardless of the benefits or economic viability of the processes in question.”

In this, Christopher wrestles with the point of industry regulation - a neo-colonial application of control upstream from those who consume to those who produce. The risk in my proposal - a “category split” in how we communicate about modern preps and classics has much the same palpable risk baked in, less implicit, but it’s still there. A case of changing the rules of the game, mid-way through it, because we don’t like how it’s being played.

Call me a naive optimist, but I believe what is inside our remit as ambassadors for this industry - and you, dear reader, if you have got to this point, I count you in our midst - is that we communicate values and narratives. We can self-regulate if we so choose, and we have the power to collectively halt the squeeze on the “middle band” of quality, those lots ever slowly depreciated by the latest and greatest in “experimental” processing, not quite exciting enough to command the same high prices, but still high cost of production relative to the bulk lots we talk about in the “race to the bottom” 

In proposing a category split, I want to eliminate the casual use of the term “experimental” - as these methods become established and scaled. I’m certain I’ve picked the wrong terminology in talking about “high/low technical intervention” - it’s clunky and a mouthful, but in my heart I want to be able to shout to the rooftops that “Yes! this lot wasn’t processed in a bioreactor, it’s a spontaneous fermentation, and the reason it’s really good is genetics, the environment and land, the local microbes, and most importantly damn hard work and IT IS BRILLIANT” and not have it shine any less dim when placed next to the crazy profiles that a high technical intervention modern prep produced because while both display a level of quality, their qualities exist for comparison inside their own category. 

And then I want to move over, and talk about the nuances and qualities of those who have the wherewithal to produce these modern preps - because to say that these methods are magic bullets that produce perfect quality 100% of the time is a nonsense of its own, and we can celebrate the advances in flavour expression and wider appeal as well as the high return of value these lots represent.

Each exist inside their own set (the level of technical intervention during processing) inside the wider set (coffee as a product), and in doing so we cease this wierd scenario where an 84pt wet processed co-op lot and a 92pt thermal shock papayo with 15 different process steps can be compared in quality levels with a straight face, when to my mind we are clearly living in a new paradigm. The post-pandemic, at-home premium brewing experience has injected a flow of money and attention to the most cutting edge parts of coffee production, but we have to ask ourselves as industry participants if we are passive enablers of this state of affairs, profiting off it, or are we active shapers of the narrative with our sourcing, marketing and communication choices?

To clarify my thinking on what exactly I mean by technical intervention in coffee processing, I think of it as a combination of both inputs (additional microbial inoculants, fermentation aids, things that take it beyond the realm of spontaneous) AND the additional technical resources to carry this processing out. Stainless steel fermentation vessels, bioreactors, vacuum maceration units - all of these have a high resource cost associated with them, where perhaps a hand cranked depulper and a patio on the roof do not - to look at extreme contrasts.

Where my argument and terminology falls down, and where the neo-colonialism sneaks right back in - is who gets to decide what is in each category? Is a massive technologically advanced wet-mill doing traditional processing and churning out containers still “low intervention”? It has a high resource cost but low input. If a producer experiments with a commercially available yeast strain did that move their lot into high intervention just because it’s inoculated? We’re right back at the precipice of regulation from the end of the value chain, just with softer wording and I hope a nicer intent.

A famous quote from the American legal system, on the topic of pornography no less, said the following:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it

We could well say “I know it when I see it”, declare ourselves the experts, and be done with it, which if you have been following along you'll see I think this is a horrendous idea. But I still think there is value in adding nuance to our discussions and how we present and talk about coffees in this age of modern preps and advanced processing. We have to find a way to continue to prize coffees produced via classical methods in a way that allows them to retain value - at the point of sale, at the retail shelf, in the discourse - else the juice won’t be worth the squeeze with the prices we do pay, and one day we’ll look around and those coffees just do not exist anymore - we priced them out. 

Levels of technical intervention in coffee processing - as a terminological framework [1] will be dotted through our future release copy as we seek to grapple with the implications these modern processes (and the hype our community have for them) has on the future of coffee as we know it. 

That leaves us with how we tackle this new wave with our sourcing. We have one primary statement when it comes to the coffees we buy, roast and serve - "coffees that we love". Scenery is merely an exercise in our preferences - both of the extrinsic (the who, what, why, when, how?) value alongside the hedonic (how does it taste?) of a coffee before it comes onto our offer. With that in mind, we're not ideological puritans nor are we gatekeepers.

As such there is no curmudgeonly refusal to purchase modern, high technical intervention coffee when we feel it aligns with our vibes. And equally, no slavish desire to purchase nothing but these coffees because they are the hype trend du jour. Neither route would be aligned with our intentions and how we set out to operate. We'll continue to take each coffee as it comes and to carefully consider the impact - of what we promote, of how we talk about it, and how we feel our influence, small though it may be, contributes to the wider market demand and community discourse.


[1] A case of “You’re it, until you’re dead or I find something better”, as so aptly stated by the 1997 film Starship troopers

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