The Alliance of Coffee Excellence’s cup half full

When Susie Spindler joined a team that was looking to create an auction for unknown but competition winning coffees back in 1999, she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. “There was no grand plan, this was an experimental program,” Spindler, the Founder of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, tells GCR Magazine about the Cup of Excellence (COE) auctions. In 1999, Spindler was working as a Marketing Consultant for the Gourmet Coffee Project, funded by the Common Fund for Commodities, the World Trade Centre in Switzerland and the International Coffee Organization. It was the first donor-funded coffee project that also had a fully funded marketplace component, Spindler explains. “The Gourmet Project was a complimentary program that was designed to help increase the prices for farmers who worked hard and increased their quality,” she says. “It was this focus on creating a beneficial financial partnership between the high quality farmers and the high quality roasters that was at the heart of the beginning of the COE program.” It was this focus on market outcomes for the people at the grass roots of the industry that Spindler says has been the key to COE’s success. “COE proves that programs designed for the individual farmer can have a much greater impact than many of the projects designed to work for the entire industry and from the top down,” says Spindler. “Large scale projects have not had anywhere near the residual success of pushing through infrastructure changes like transparency and direct trade. Huge quality increases have been the result of individual farmers being rewarded for their efforts, but the reduction of blending all coffees together has probably brought about the most massive change to the specialty industry.” Following on from these lessons learned, Spindler now hopes that the structure of COE could be looked at for other aid programs in coffee and other commodities. In December 2014, COE held its 100th auction back in the country where the format all began – Brazil. Now a globally recognised event – at least in the specialty coffee world – the 100th auction drew the highest bid for a lot from the Fazend Ouro Verde farm at a price of US$50.20 per pound, a far cry from the US$2.60 highest bid that went to beans from the Alterosa farm at the first auction. Even though Cup of Excellence is running in 10 countries, Spindler says it is not an easy program to execute. New countries coming onboard the program face the challenges that always come about with change in both infrastructure and control. “It’s still a struggle,” she says. “It’s not an easy program – nobody ever wants to do an auction initially. Every time we set up in a new country, it’s a challenge.” The stumbling blocks are the same in every country, she says. “The only limitations [to expansion] are the ones that we always run into, which are politics, quality and transparency. There are countries that we would have loved to have gone into, but we just weren’t able to get the organisation developed within that country to run COE – whether that be due to infrastructure or political issues.” The format is very stringent and demanding on both the organisers and the farmers, Spindler explains, who not only take on the risk of having their coffees submitted to unprecedented scrutiny, but often have to wait for payment from the auction for months. “Even though they win and winning almost always guarantees more premiums and more direct trade, there can be a short term hardship,” says Spindler. “It would be nice to find micro-financing for these farmers.” Spindler says the growth of Third Wave coffee has been hugely complementary to the rise of Cup of Excellence. “No roaster can afford the time it takes to find the farmers that COE finds,” she says. “Third wave roasters have a passion for COE coffees and have a consumer base that is willing to pay more for farmer identified, high quality coffees and this is so very critical to the success of not just COE but for the future of the industry.” After 15 years as the head of the ACE, Spindler has recently left the organisation for other pursuits. Taking over as the Executive Director of ACE is Debbie Hill, a lawyer who comes to the organisation after many years of working in the development field. Hill has just been on a whirlwind trip of producer and consumer nations that included Taiwan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, and the five Central America countries in which COE operates. Now she is ready to take stock of where the organisation is at, she says. “The first thing is that we’re really going to be taking a look at our current standards, just to make sure that COE coffees are consistently the top specialty coffees in the market.” Hill says that while COE has done a lot to advance the cause of farmers in its 15 year history, the advances in technology over that time mean the organisation could benefit from new ways of doing things. “We are also going to look at how technology can help move COE forward in new and exciting directions. There have been a lot of technology advances since the first COE competition was held in 1999,” she says. “We want to consider programs that would help us collect, maintain and analyse additional information, running the gamut from farm information to water moisture and water activity readings, to jury cupping results and analysis. I think the possibilities are very exciting and we are exploring these options, with the idea of implementing these ideas in 2016.” Another area that Hill believes ACE should explore is to see how it can make the most out of those coffees that do not make it to the top of the COE tables. “We want to investigate whether there is a way to sell the national coffees that are submitted to the international jury, but do not score above 85 in the final week of competition,” she says.  “These are still very good coffees, even though they do not meet COE’s scoring criteria.” GCR

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