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  • Consequences of standardization

    Interestingly, this standardization of quality not only means that below par coffees are not acceptable, but also that coffees of better quality or better bean size are not wanted, and no premiums will be paid. The primary requirements are that the coffee must do for the blend what the roaster expects, and that every shipment is the same. There can be no question of accepting differences in quality, nor of settling such differences through payment of allowances or through arbitration. If the coffee is not right then it will be rejected. Not only must the quality of each delivery be comparable to the previous one, it must also be uniform throughout the entire parcel, from bag to bag and from container to container. Consistency is the key.

    All that has been said concerning respect for quality applies equally to mainstream or standard grades as well. But, clearly, the quality of such coffees is not as exciting; it would be fair to say that as a rule standard type coffees are not particularly inspiring and offer easily matched cup quality. For standard quality, price is a much more important business factor than it is for exemplary or specialty coffee where quality holds the key. Prices for standard quality are generally also well known so the only way for an exporter to beat the competition is to be more efficient, more reliable, more consistent and more flexible.

    There are those who accuse the large-scale roasting sector of gradually lowering the quality of retail coffee through technical innovation and product changes (high-speed, high-yield roasting, steaming of robustas, the introduction of liquid coffee, etc.).

    Germany is sometimes quoted as an example of shifting quality preferences: in 1990 Colombian mild arabicas and other mild arabicas accounted for 73% of green bean imports, with Colombia as top supplier, but by 2005 Colombian mild arabicas and other mild arabicas were only 38%. The share of Brazilian naturals ( 33%) and robustas ( 29%) had risen to 62% and Viet Nam was providing a million bags more than the former top supplier, Colombia.

    On the other hand, others would argue that there simply is not enough quality coffee in the world to permit today's mega-roasters to raise the quality of standard blends without creating serious price distortions, although other agro-industrial products such as wine appear to cope easily enough with a widely segmented price structure.

    Also, the demand pattern in some countries is shifting in any case, as in Germany where acidic coffees are said to be in less demand.

    Wherever the truth may lie, smaller origins and exporters cannot easily compete for what has become pure bulk commodity business. They have no competitive advantages, and lack the economies of scale of larger players. It is impossible for them to add value because only large quantities of standard products are wanted. Mega-roasters have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with small quantities of exemplary coffees. Some do participate indirectly in the specialty business, but do it through separate business units. Despite the excitement of the specialty market, never overlook the fact that the mainstream business represents 85% or more of world coffee imports and therefore should not be ignored.