The recent Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), the manager and owner of the Cup of Excellence (CoE) program, and National Coffee Association (NCA) announced alliance caused such a ruckus in the blogosphere and on various forums that I thought it might be a good idea to speak publicly and officially about what this means and why it happened. I was going to just respond online in the forums and blogs, but then thought better of it and decided to write an article for CoffeeGeek to allow for good feedback and discussion in a more formal manner.
What follows will certainly not be a literary masterpiece or even in some cases grammatically correct, because I discuss CoE as a program and ACE as people. This is valid but perhaps not proper English. I hope these thoughts might help alleviate concerns about our future plans.
I say "our" future plans with a little hesitation because most of the people who have written about this alliance on forums and blogs are members of ACE who have been on a jury or have bought coffee. So it felt a bit weird to read all the concerns about ACE and what we were up to as if we are some sort of secret society operating outside of our support base.
Background information on ACE and CoE
ACE is comprised of a big (okay maybe a bit dysfunctional) family of coffee lovers and at any time a phone call or email can access me or, if I am not in town, Sara Pankratz or any of the ACE Board of Directors although calling the board might rack up a phone bill. The ACE board is representative of the program and is international in scope with directors from Brazil, Japan, Canada, the UK, Australia, Nicaragua, Russia and yes the good ole U.S. of A. ACE looks like a mini United Nations.
ACE was created to own and manage the Cup of Excellence program so that the program would be more stable and consistent with each producing country and each marketplace operating under the same program dynamics. It is a US non-profit corporation whose history is indeed tied closely to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA); but it was never formally a part of the SCAA and has become much more international in its reach and scope. In reality the program could have been headquartered anywhere in the world but is headquartered here in Montana because I managed its development and I love the Western Rockies.
The Cup of Excellence program was the impetus for the building of the SCAA auction platform and up until early 2003 the program purchased the right to auction its winners on this platform A philosophical disagreement over the direction of the CoE program within the first year of ACE incorporation resulted in CoE building and utilizing its own website and auction platform. I should note that Ted Lingle, the current Executive Director of the SCAA, was on the original ACE Board of Directors but resigned over this disagreement.
SCAA Board members have consistently been on the ACE Board or advisory panel so there has been joint communication since early on and while an alliance with either SCAA or Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) seemed most sensible to many involved with the CoE program the idea was never very well accepted even though it was certainly discussed and even proposed as early as 2001 as an official program through the IRC committee.
The ACE Board in 2004 offered a plan to the Executive Director of CQI, whereby all the CoE semi-finalists coffees (the ones that don't make it into the CoE auction) could be auctioned off in the CQI / SCAA managed Q auctions, thus benefiting the farmers greatly, and introducing even more quality coffees to roasters around the world. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected.
I can even trace conflicts and disagreements back to before 1999, though not with the SCAA officially - with some SCAA board and committee members. Cup of Excellence had been a result of the Gourmet Project funded by the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and some in the coffee community thought this project created unfair advantage to those folks who were participating in it.
It has been indicated by an SCAA board member on one particular forum that there were "no personality conflicts or egos involved" between the SCAA and ACE that he was aware of, and I am sorry to say he is very wrong about this - not to say this was all on the part of SCAA. While these personality conflicts definitely existed as they do in any cutting edge program, many who have taken sides years after these discussions (discussions they were probably never involved in) do not fully understand the nature of the original disagreement.
Most of us initially involved remain friends and shake our heads in disbelief as the conflict has taken on a much larger life of its own than is really warranted. It is really unfortunate- It is anyone’s guess how much further ahead we could all have been in our joint mission to develop appreciation for great coffees and the farmers that produce them
The ACE-NCA Alliance has actually been in the works for at least a year as we worked out the details of where we might best fit together. And while on the surface it might seem to some an odd partnership, both organizations are wholly devoted to coffee and the advancement of this industry. Let me just say that it has been personally frustrating to watch the coffee industry battle itself internally when there are many other competitive products that would be more effective targets of criticism. In my opinion, increasing the appreciation for all coffees would be a better use of some of the spent energy.
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| 1999 Brazil Cupping |
Pictured left to right, Alan Nietlisbach, Edi Baiker, Alf Kramer, Vinco Sandalj, and George Howell.
| Instructions |
Steve Colten (former SCAA President), Martin Diedrich and Robert Datalla listen in.
| George and Stephen |
Involved from the very start, George Howell and Stephen Hurst go over the Brasil samples
| Ken and Ted |
Ken Davids (background) and Ted Lingle during the 2000 Brazil CoE event.
What the ACE / NCA Alliance will mean for farmers
| Farmer watching auction |
Farmers and friends watching the auction results in the Guatemalan auction
The process of the CoE competition is so stringent that there are very few winners. In fact a few years ago, roasters asked that we tighten up the quality standards and we did, making it even harder to get into the final rounds. The unfortunate side effect of this is that it leaves out many farmers that have very good coffee - just not quite Cup of Excellence levels.
These farmers, often very poor with few resources, have worked hard to produce quality coffee, put their faith in the competition and after hearing the results of jury find themselves with specialty coffee in the warehouse with not much chance for a decent premium. The very visible disappointment when their names do not show up as winners is heartbreaking.
The ACE Board and advisors have been trying to provide a solution to this problem for years only to find ourselves so tied up with the Cup of Excellence program demands that the second tier coffees have gone unrewarded. This must change or the incentive for the farmers to improve quality and enter the competition will begin to wane.
There are numerous medium and large roasters who buy good coffee and would be very willing to pay a premium for coffees that have already been cupped 3 times by the naitonal jury in each country - often made up of some of the best palates in the business; these companies often need these coffees in larger quantities than the micro lots that the CoE process provides. Working with the NCA producer committee, ACE plans to develop a program to address the needs of these larger specialty coffee roasters while rewarding the semifinalist farmers and create more sustainable premium volume for the entire Cup of Excellence program.
There will also be coordination between the 2 organizations in terms of education and cupping training (surely no one can criticize this) and we will work together to promote quality. The NCA will help ACE access funding as it is well connected to the USAID offices through its work with the US Congress and ACE will help NCA develop a more specialty oriented image (although there are many well known specialty coffee roasters who are members and NCA is already doing much of this with its own education programs)
The NCA and the continuing CoE Auctions
| Checking for Defects |
A head judge and his team check coffee samples for defects in the Honduran selection last year.
There is no sinister plot to deviate from our quality standards, dramatically increase the volumes of Cup of Excellence winning coffees or sell the program out to the largest sponsor. In recognition of the competitive nature of the marketplace ACE does not even allow coffee roasters or retailers to become sponsors of the program. If this were possible ACE finances would look very different. So far the most visible donation any roaster in the industry can make directly is to become a lifetime member and this is open to all companies even the small ones with a payment plan.
If a large multinational roaster wanted to support the program by helping gain donor funding, other sponsorships, help the producing country or even volunteer time and energy to execute the program this would be a welcome addition. Yes, a large company could buy all of the coffees at auction; it is an open auction available to all. But given the nature of their businesses it would be very difficult to justify this as the number of bags auctioned with a CoE award is almost too small to warrant the marketing dollars and the increased logistics it would take to sell them properly.
However shipping these small lots and the nature of the mostly US roaster groups are causing such havoc that there is some risk to the future of the program itself. The amount of time it takes to select, mill, ship and coordinate the one to five bags of CoE coffee that a small roaster in a group will purchase is enormous. The infrastructure (exporter-mill-importer) that handles this aspect of CoE does not really receive any special reward for his extra time as the winning farmer receives the bulk of the auction proceeds.
Everything can and does go wrong with logistics. From the coffees not being exported on time, to homeland security slashing open the bags, to the unexpected expense of milling to zero defects by hand, to complete inexperience with airfreight, to even trying to track down lost payments-you name it and the program runs into it, including outright fraudulent use of the logo.
ACE and our generous cooperative importers try to deal with complaints and criticisms as a few very vocal small buyers have unrealistic expectations about just how much any single program can modify a logistics infrastructure that has been in place for decades. But this is what has historically kept great coffees out of the marketplace and so we just keep plugging away.
Even with these difficulties the program has made a huge difference in the lives of many farmers, impacted the premium potential of entire countries (El Salvador, just as an example). CoE has trained hundreds of national cuppers who have found new careers and hew hope and has given specialty roasters an easier path to create buying partnerships. The program has infused an old industry with new excitement about unique flavor profiles, excited fanatical consumers who want only the best, helped build companies based on quality, fine tuned the selection skills of hundreds of professional cuppers and supported the enormously gratifying development of international coffee friendships.
All this happened, and continues to happen because in 1999 a few people were willing to try an experiment and then do the hard volunteer work to make it a reality and then later on others were winning to come on board who believed in its potential.
In the future ACE will work with any coffee organization anywhere in the world that wants to support CoE whether formally or informally because we believe this program positively impacts the entire coffee industry and the millions who earn a livelihood from it.
Susie Spindler is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, and oversees every Cup of Excellence competition. She is currently looking for ways to expand the program to help more farmers and get more quality coffees into the hands of consumers, and the NCA alliance is one of these ways. Spindler can be reached through the Cup of Excellence website.
CoffeeGeek.com is a supporter and benefactor member of the Cup of Excellence program.