Uncharted Territory: Exploring the Possibility of Specialty Coffee Appellations

Published in the July 2001 issue of Fresh Cup Magazine

In the not-too-distant future, the most extraordinary thing to happen on your drive from Guatemala City to Antigua, Guatemala, will no longer be surviving sudden lane changes made by local buses. If the Association of Genuine Antigua Coffee Producers (APCA) has its way, you will cross a line, invisible to most, but well defined in the minds of that region’s coffee farmers. Any of the growers who joined together to form APCA can run his finger along the proposed boundaries on a map of the valley. “This is where ‘Genuine’ Antigua is grown,” he’ll tell you. Beyond the invisible line, the soil changes, the climate is different and the plants produce a distinct bean. Over there is over there. Over here, it is Antigua.

Last August I stood in the dining room of a farmhouse in the heart of Antigua, staring at a large, 50-year-old photograph of the valley. I placed my finger not more than half an inch beyond the boundary that had just been traced for me by Pedro Echeverria Falla, a founder and current president of APCA. “What about here?” I asked.

“No,” he said, explaining that the good name of Antigua was under attack and that they had to be aggressive in their mission “to maintain the recognition of our coffee at a worldwide level by guaranteeing the origin and quality.” Each year, over 50 million pounds of coffee labeled as Antigua is sold throughout the world. But Antigua doesn’t produce more than six million pounds annually. APCA members point to this glut of “false” Antigua in the marketplace as one reason they receive prices that do not reflect the true value of Genuine Antigua.

At the heart of specialty coffee–whether we’re talking about the skill of buying it green, the craft of preparing it for eventual consumption or the business of selling it–is the story of the coffee itself. Who grew this coffee? What variety of plant did it come from? When was it picked? Where was it grown? How was it processed? Answering these questions (or simply posing them) is largely what differentiates the specialty coffee business from the “just coffee” business. In the wine industry, these questions and their answers are the foundation of various appellation systems around the world. Many in the industry think that the future of specialty coffee depends on developing the same type of formal systems for coffee.

“Appellation of origin” refers to a designated geographical region known to produce a product whose characteristics and quality are essentially due to the environment within that region. The region may be defined by preexisting boundaries, such as a town or district, or it may be created specifically for a new appellation designation. While an appellation of origin can, technically, be applied to a manufactured product, formal designations are most commonly associated with natural products, such as cheese or wine. The Champagne and Bordeaux regions of France are two famous and long-established wine appellations. Napa, California has also gained worldwide recognition as a wine appellation, or AVA (American Viticulture Area), since it received a legal AVA designation in 1983.

Regional designations of all kinds have been a part of the coffee trade since the beginning. “Mocha” coffee from Yemen was for generations considered the best coffee in the world. But like Antigua today, there was vastly more coffee sold throughout the world as Mocha than was ever shipped from that famed port. True Mocha coffees were, indeed, relatively better-tasting than other regions widely available at the time, and, therefore, received a higher price. Mislabeling was inevitable. The same held true for “Java” from the islands of Indonesia, until 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act slowed the pace of widespread labeling fraud.

For specialty coffees, appellation of origin and truth in labeling go beyond issues of price. Single-origin specialty coffees are stories in a cup (blends are stories, too, but they share their narrative with the art of the roaster/blender). Exceptional single-origin coffees create a connection to far-away locations–places unknown to most people in any tangible sense except through the cup. Specialty coffee is about coffee that could not have come from just anywhere. We carefully prepare and serve single-origin coffees: “This is what the foothills around Mt. Kenya taste like.”

In the Bordeaux region of France, grapevine roots struggle in the gravelly soil. They must run deep in search of moisture and nutrients, which makes for low yields but produces prized grapes that are absolutely unique to that area. Specialty coffee professionals have long recognized that coffee is a highly differentiated agricultural product. Yet only in recent years has the move toward widespread appellation of origin for coffee gained momentum.

Most coffee-producing countries have the foundations of an appellations system in place if they have attempted to define growing regions that are distinct from each other based on environmental factors and cup characteristics. Recently, Colombia formally defined 86 distinct “Designated Coffee-Growing Regions” (DCRs). Far from being arbitrary or based on political delineations, Colombia’s DCRs are based on “agro-ecological and agro-climatic conditions,” according to the Colombian Coffee Federation. Several Central American countries are working toward formalizing designations already in existence. Beyond dealing with governments that may be unprepared to create and enforce legal appellations, producers have to make difficult decisions about the proposed designations. Must coffees meet certain minimum quality standards, even if the farm falls within the boundaries, in order to use the “mark” or name of that region? Will only certain plant varietals be allowed to use the name? Will the appellation designation apply only to certain processing methods? And finally, how will the rules be enforced?

Enforcement is one of the more difficult questions and must be addressed on several fronts. A formal appellations system requires oversight and enforcement in both producing and consuming countries. There is no lasting benefit to the growers in Antigua if they ensure that only Genuine Antigua is shipped as “Genuine,” but roasters can still mislabel any coffee as Antigua. All the value associated with effective branding applies to appellation of origin. Lack of enforcement mechanisms in consuming countries allows for continued obfuscation of the origin. The 100% Colombian program is an example of great diligence in origin branding developed out of necessity and experience. It should serve as a measure of the commitment required by producers who plan to take the official appellation road.

This means that in addition to navigating new legal territory within their own governments, producers must take steps to legally protect their “mark” in consuming countries. First of all, there is no guarantee that a government within any given producing country is prepared to administer this type of effort, impart a legal mark, or enforce consequences for its misuse. On the consuming side, the United States has a process in place, but it is complicated.

According to Stuart Adelson, corporate counsel for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), application for a trade or certification mark for coffee cannot be made by just anyone. A governmental agency or some other official organization within a producing country must make the application for a mark. They must decide whether to apply for a trademark, certification mark or both. One of the most recent examples of an origin seeking such distinction is the Department of Agriculture of the State of Hawaii, which has obtained a certification mark for “100% Kona Coffee.”

Kona represents a painful example of why coffee origins must begin to adopt at least some components of appellation systems. In 1996, one company was caught labeling bags containing 87 percent Central America green coffee as “Pure Kona.” In a letter to the judge of this case, Ted Lingle, executive director of the SCAA, stated, “The criminal activities of this one individual put in jeopardy all of the Kona coffee growers in Hawaii, the hundreds of coffee roasting firms who were buying and selling coffees from this region, and the thousands of small retail businesses who offered them to the public.”

In addition to registering for trade and certification marks, producers must address the details of proposed appellation systems. In the wine industry, systems vary. The French system, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), attempts to regulate quality by dictating agronomic and production specifics, such as which grapes can be planted within an AOC, yields per acre, viticulture methods, alcohol content, taste, and even color of the wine. The U.S. AVA system, on the other hand, only defines and legally recognizes areas. The AVA system does not make quality distinctions. This may explain why, in my limited experience, I have tasted insanely wonderful Bordeaux and good Bordeaux, but never bad Bordeaux. Unfortunately, I’ve tasted many less-than-mediocre wines from Napa Valley. This said, it is also true that smaller sub-appellations within the Napa region are in a sense self-regulating due to distinct differences in micro-climates. As a result, there are parts of the Napa Valley from which it is virtually impossible to find a bad Cabernet.

It has been suggested that most coffees could follow the U.S. AVA model, while the true specialty grades should adopt the highly regulated French AOC model so that paying a higher price is not simply an act of faith. Anyone familiar with the specialty coffee industry, however, must anticipate appellations systems that will differ, perhaps greatly, from country to country. One of the first regions that comes to mind when speaking of coffee appellations is Jamaican Blue Mountain. These coffees not only come from a legally defined area, but only four mills can legally produce coffee with the Blue Mountain mark. The words “Jamaican Blue Mountain” have been registered as a certification mark in the U.S. since 1986.

Currently, the members of APCA in Guatemala are leaning toward a French-style system that would dictate the altitude and plant types that qualify for the Genuine Antigua mark. They have already decided to conduct regular cuppings as a way of determining if coffees qualify in terms of taste, even if they are grown within the designated region. The variables that could be added to an appellation system seem endless. In addition to area, altitude, soil, and plant variety, an appellation system might address average rainfall, cloud cover, tree density, shade density, use of fertilizer and pesticides, milling, sorting, drying, and storage. And this is just as the system relates to the coffee. There are many more decisions to make regarding oversight, audit trails and enforcement.

From those of us on the consuming side of the specialty coffee industry, the greater the details, the greater the story. And like the sub-appellations in Napa Valley, where the consistently great wines are found, the future of specialty coffee will belong to increasing specificity. In my imagination, the future of specialty coffee at retail involves more than someone walking up to the counter to buy a bag of whole-bean Genuine Antigua. What I hear is, “I’d like a pound of your Genuine Antigua. Make it the Bourbon, and I’m not really interested in anything below 1400 meters.”

In the old economy, which is now the “still here” economy, there exists in many companies a fabled philosophical rift between the manufacturing division and the marketing division. The coffee industry is not immune to these scrimmage games. In one corner is the cupping table, spinning quietly under attentive spoons. The silence is interrupted only by the intermittent slurping of coffee and the scratch of pens making notes. Eyebrows rise and fall. There is an occasional murmur of approval or displeasure. In the other corner is a drafting table surrounded by sales and marketing people, my brethren. They’re loud, and they’re goal is to try to come up with a 16-word pitch line for a new coffee. When someone manages to use the words exclusive, unique and select in the same sentence, there are high-fives all around. Then someone asks the question that grabs the attention of both tables because its answer is of fundamental importance to everyone in the room: “Where is this coffee from?” Our ability as an industry to answer that question with increasing specificity and certainty will play a critical role in distinguishing us from those who have adopted our words to talk about “regular coffee,” or worse, coffee from “over there.”