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Estate coffees: hype or value?

One of the most promising trends in specialty coffee today is the proliferation of estate coffees. These "Designer Label" coffees area carefully nurtured along by the farmer, but are even more closely monitored by marketing and public relations people. Just how much of these coffees is simply a product of media hype, and how much is great coffee is a question asked throughout the coffee industry. Also, with the increased involvement of the farmer and the broker into consumer positioning of the coffee, there is increased tension over the question, "whose coffee is it anyway," and who benefits from the added value.

What is an estate coffee?

The most precise definition of an estate coffee is: a coffee in which every single bean was grown on one plantation; an estate coffee is highly defined, and processed separately. For ease of explaining this difference, keep in mind the various trademarks from the most general to the most precise: 1. Country, ie. Costa Rican, 2. Origin, ie. Strickly Hard Bean, 3. Zone, ie. Tres Rios, 4. Mill, ie. La Magnolia, and 5. Estate, ie. La Minita. There are coffees which are marketed as estate coffees, but instead area rather a conglomeration of coffees from a zone, or a mill.

Defining the high-end segment

What has caused the growth of this extremely high-end segment of the specialty coffee market? Many in the industry view estate coffees as a natural progression in the growth of the industry. In a market taht is continually experiencing growth, a need has arisen to differentiate the products being offered. Whole bean coffee utilizing the term "specialty" is available not only on supermarket shelves, but at convenience stores and barber shops. With so-called specialty coffee everywhere, there's less and less "special" about specialty coffee.

In the last three years estate coffees have evolved as an arena where the roaster/retailer can distinguish him or herself. This blossoming movement involves mainly the smaller specialty coffee establishments which pride themselves on offering products which from are unique, and from their genesis have benefited from more personal attention. This is the market wooed by the more costly estate coffees.

As Bill McAlpine of La Minita explained it, "We chose to work with the small roaster because we felt that they were better able to impart the value of the coffee to the consumer. The educational process is more direct, and the control over the product is better, for example the coffee is more likely to be freshly roasted."

One of the first, and certainly one of the most successful premium coffees, La Minita, is in fact, a prime example of what an estate coffee can accomplish. Bill McAlpine of La Minita credits the integrity of the product for its accomplishments in the marketplace.

"La Minita is successful because first came the coffee, and then came any marketing." La Minita's brochure, which was produced after the coffee was selling successfuly, is an educational brochure which explains the who, what, where, when, and how of the farming of this particular coffee.

As McAlpine explains, "the brochure was created specifically so that the consumer could understand what they wre buying when they purchased La Minita and paid a premium of it." Although the stock of La Minita has sold out every year since its introduction, the farm has not spent a penny in advertising.

Emergence of the entrepreneur farmer

Yet another reason cited for the increasing visibility of estate coffees is the demise of the International Coffee Agreement. The break-up of the ICA has enabled farmers to pursue a more entreprenuerial role, and the estate coffees we're seeing now are the result of this new involvement. While a detriment to the overall quality of coffees on the market, the removal of artificial price restraints has allowed top-quality farmers to make a living. Furthermore, the lifting of quotas has eased the acquisition of more unique coffees, and also increased the variety of origins available. (For example, Chinese Yunnan coffee can now be obtained, which was previously unavailable due to China's lack of ICO membership.)

One example of this new entrepreneur farmer is Eduardo Andrade, owner of Fazenda Vista Alegre. Andrade's estate coffee, FVA Natural Dry, is the result of much experimentation and a commitment to utilizing state-of-the-art technology. His coffees also benefits from one of the most sophisticated marketing and public relations programs lauched in the specialty coffee business. Roasters and retailers who purchase FVA coffees are supported with amazing four-color brochures, posters, point-of-purchase easels, and labels. On request, they are even sent video tapes of the farm complete with lush scenery, and impressive displays of coffee farming technology.

Hype or Quality

Unlike most coffee farms, the Fazenda Vista Alegre estate has computerized drip and pivot irrigation systems, the soil chemistry is monitored daily, and all the trees receive additional nutritive supplements throughout the growing cycle. All of these adding consistency and value to the final product. Likewise, La Minita expends tremendous time and energy on the processing of their coffees and is certainly considered one of the most carefully prepared coffees in the world. It cannot be overlooked, however, that in the case of many estate coffees, their success is equally if not more dependent on skillful marketing.

Mark Mountanos, of M.P. Mountanos is supportive of the marketing of estate coffees, but advises that "there are many coffees, not marketed as estates, which in terms of cup quality are good and even better than the highly touted estate coffees." He reasons that the publicity surrounding coffees like FVA and La Minita are positive influences on the industry as a whole. While it has been argued that with estate coffees it all boils down to who has the best story, or the most romance. Mountanos argues that, "these (estate) coffees get consumers excited about specialty coffee as a whole, they help to differentiate our market from the commercialized whole been segment which is so prevalent, and further, they help educate the consumer about the industry."

Although not in the category of estate coffees, his San Francisco Prep, or S.F. Prep for short, is aimed at the same market. In 1986, M.P. Mountanos invested in re-grading facility in an effort to supply consistent high-quality coffees.

"Our purpose was to be able to take any coffee and upgrade it from what you could buy at the source," explained Mountanos. Coffees are purchased at source and then put through a three step process at the regrading facility: first they are sorted with a screen sorter; then they are placed on a gravity table to obtain beans of even density; and finally they are put through an electric color sorter which removes discolored beans. This additional processing allowed them to offer their customers Sumatras or Colombians which would consistently have less shrinkage and roast more uniformly. It also commands a higher price.

The precarious equity balancing act

While there has always been high-quality coffee, before this phenomena of estate coffees, it was the roaster/retailer who bore the responsiblility for marketing these coffees, and therefore reaped the financial rewards of the premium price they demanded. Today, with the increased involvement of farmers, and brokers, it has become a bone of contention who sees the profits from the added value.

In most of the cases, it is still the retailer who gains the greatest profit. It is also the retailer who will ultimately, by implementing any existing marketing or creating it for themselves, who will decide the fate of the coffee in the consumer's hands. Although more and more, even in a market which has green coffee prices below $1/lb, farmers are beginning to demand greater revenues for these high-end coffees.

It seems strange in light of the fact that roasters pay approximately $10/lb for Jamaican Blue Mountain, and approximately $5/lb. for Kona, that they would balk at Central and South American coffees asking for $3/lb, when in the mind of many these coffees offer a substantially better cup of brew.. But, in the final analysis it doestn't matter if the quality is there or not. What is important is that the consumer buys again and again.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:value of coffee grown and sold from one specific location
Author:Moore, Wendy
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Foodservice & gourmet coffee: a theory and a success story.
Next Article:"Green coffee for a cleaner planet." (organically grown coffees have their niche in the market)

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