The diverging understandings of quality by coffee chain actors. Insights from Colombian producers and Austrian roasters

Xiomara Fernanda Quiñones-Ruiz (2020)

Sustainability 12(15), pp. 1-19. Open access.

Abstract. This paper addresses the understandings of quality recognized by diverse actors along the coffee chain with focus on specialty coffee producers. In the specialty coffee niche, the assessment of (physical) quality acts as a coordination device among chain actors that enables the identification of divergences on how quality is practiced. This paper aims to uncover how quality attributes (e.g., physical, symbolic) are understood (perceived) by value chain actors and are interwoven with quality conventions (e.g., market, green). Explorative interviews were carried out with Colombian producers located in selected coffee regions. A cupping exercise (tasting of coffee) was organized with producers. Afterwards, another informal cupping was done with roasters in Vienna, Austria. By coupling the concepts of quality attributes and conventions, the paper proposes a theoretical framework that connects quality attributes, conventions and the links to value addition (i.e., from parchment coffee to roasted coffee). Results show that the understandings of quality produce risky battles and ruptures among producers to follow certain conventions. The divergences, risky battles and ruptures in the understandings of quality acknowledged by producers are not only based on “roaster-driven” quality definitions penetrating the producers’ community, or the (individual) knowledge gained by producers, but also on the regulatory framework pursued by producers in a country with a strong coffee federation aiming to legitimize and safeguard the product’s reputation. To what extent is sound experimentation allowed, and direct exchange and interaction between producers, buyers and roasters desirable? Specialty coffee represents a differentiation alternative for small producers located in remote rural areas. Therefore, a transparent and inclusive dialogue between chain actors is required to reduce the divergences in the understandings of quality to balance the value appropriation along the chain.

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