Book Shelf

The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee

Planting times

Elite Clubs of India
Origins of Desire, Marks of Trust

By Aparna Datta

It’s every tea or coffee planter’s dream. To have one’s estate brand on the shelves of the world’s most prestigious supermarkets and retail chains, to be able to command premium prices for one’s produce, the fruit of labour and toil.

And so: to market, to market. Over the past decade, with the growth of specialty coffees and teas, the marketing of ‘origins’ and single estates has become an imperative. The process involves presence at international conferences and exhibitions, besides visits by buyers to producing countries, development of promotional material and other marketing activities.

Can it all become too much of a good thing? Can the hype become so overpowering that the process of marketing itself comes into question? For every grower aspiring to make it big, this is not just a conundrum – it’s a nightmare.

In a hard-hitting expose titled “The Jamaican Myth” that appeared in the November 2003 issue of Coffee & Cocoa International, Tony Wild examines how misleading labeling used for a well known Blue Mountain type actually trades on a single estate reputation the coffee itself does not really deserve (blurb). To quote further: “If speciality coffee has aspirations to become as sophisticated and well-regulated as fine wine – aspirations which any lover of excellent coffee would share, and many in the industry are trying to implement – then the marketing of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee stands as an object lesson in the difficulties of balancing an almost unassailable premium positioning with commercial imperatives.”

Without going into the specifics of the Jamaican Wallenford Estate case, the purpose of this article is to explore this difficult terrain, to look at ways that could bring transparency and trust into the particular buyer-seller equations in the world of tea and coffee.

The core of the issue is the origin, more specifically, the claim of ‘single estate’ origin that enables a coffee or tea to command super-premium prices.

In the case of tea, on-site processing is a given, and any established tea plantation is expected to have a tea factory on the estate, so authenticity is more, rather than less assured. As in the wine business, where wines are bottled at the chateau or vineyard, plantation tea is invariably made in one continuous process and packed at the garden. Indeed, the tea industry has always been more conscious about estate brands, and historically tea has been sold under estate names such as ‘Margaret Hope’ and ‘Ambootia’ that feature in the book on Tea authored by Jane Pettigrew. And more so under ‘origins’: Darjeeling, Assam, Dooars, Nilgiris have intrinsic qualities on the basis of which buyers exercise their preferences. A classic example is ‘Dilmah’ from Ceylon, now a marketing icon in the world of branded teas.

In the case of coffee, things are rather more complex. Central curing works are the norm, often run as independent businesses, and only a few large companies or plantations can afford to have such processing units at the estate level. Still, the concept of estate brands is not new: even during the 19th century, much of the coffee from India got sold under estate ‘marks’, with some estates such as Bartchinhulla, and Coovercolly (now in the Tata Coffee fold) known to have achieved prices higher than the average on the London market. The era of pooling with the Coffee Board (1942 – 1992) saw coffees being bulked, and estate marks fell into disuse. To reclaim that heritage may be tough, but not impossible. So far as green coffee is concerned, at least.

“The basic problem is that coffee is sold, unroasted in large sacks to Western firms, whereas wine is put into small bottles on the estate of origin: in purely physical terms, the possibilities for corruption are thus significantly lower,” writes Tony Wild. “The lesson should be that top quality coffee should be roasted and packed where it originates in order to lessen the possibility of fraud…It would seem a natural progression for growers of the very finest coffees whether by estate or region, to capitalize on the brand franchise that the very provenance of their coffee lends by roasting and packing it themselves.”

This implies a paradigm shift in the way coffees, particularly specialty coffees from origin, are marketed and sold. Again, not impossible but something that requires a major change in attitude, both for producers and buyers. And suggests joint-ventures, collaborations and investment in R&G at origin, with consequent sales of roasting, grinding and packing equipment, that may usher in a whole new era in coffee marketing – and a more equitable, more transparent association between buyers and sellers.

Yet another process to ensure authenticity is that of certification. It’s gained momentum in the organic tea and coffee sector, and whatever the painful paperwork involved, there’s no denying that third-party, on-site verification adds value to the produce. What you see is what you get! Till recently organic certification was a grower’s headache; now the NOP prescribed by US Department of Agriculture has put in motion processes that require that the integrity of organic is maintained throughout the chain from farm to table.

While cupping reports have been the traditional methods of quality evaluation, establishing an instant connect between buyers and sellers, it’s possible to use information and communication technology to great advantage in trying to ensure the genuine article. Digital cameras and handycams allow for instant capture of post-harvest processes, visuals that could be streamed live over the Internet or e-mailed or sent to the buyer on a CD along with a cupping report. Evidence of the estate facilities, and practices for any doubting Thomas, if any is needed.

The upshot is that to reassure buyers, the call is for more branding, more protection of intellectual property and geographic appellations, and inevitably more marketing. Rather than trying to sell a ‘myth’ the estate / origin must project the reality. After all, the consumer deserves no less.

PENSCAPE: January 2004



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