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
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
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
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