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244 Ferndale Road
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Coffee by Assembly. Coffee roastery collectively creating forward thinking approaches to coffee and cafe culture. London.

The Road Not (Yet) Taken

The Road Not (Yet) Taken

Why It's Time To Turn Aid To Trade

Nick Mabey

On Thursday 9 March, we held an event alongside Nordic Approach CEO Morten Wennersgaard to promote the work he does in the far reaches of the coffee supply chain. The event also included our hosting a panel discussion comprised of these industry leaders from diverse areas of the speciality coffee industry:

Morten Wennersgaard- Founder CEO NA

Emma Loisel - Co-founder Volcano Coffee Works and Angel Investor

Mat North - SCAE events co-ordinator, owner Full Court Press

Scott Bentley - Founder Caffeine magazine

Chris Coleman - owner Embassy East

Matthew Robley - Prufrock GM, UK roasting champion x 2

Andrew Tolley - Founder Taylor St Baristas

Matt Slater - Global Director of Re:co - World Coffee Events…

What follows are some of my key observations from the evening’s rich and engaging discussion:

Bursting Bubbles, or Bigger Bubbles?

Morten began the evening by speaking passionately about the motivation for and foundation of Nordic Approach. He also shared details on some of the initiatives that Nordic have been able to support which evidenced the potential for positive outcomes at origin when price is linked to quality. Morten finally touched upon the increasing pressures (whether environmental, economical, political or otherwise) that farmers are now facing, thus aptly framing the context for the panel discussion which would follow. 

The topic directed at the panel was to explore the ‘disparity between what is possible and what is profitable in coffee’. Panellists discussed the challenges we collectively face in communicating the value of specialty coffee as well as sharing perspectives on how best to grow engagement in the broader consumer market. We used language like ‘us,’ ‘them’ and ‘we’, and reached a unified perspective on our common responsibility for growing the independent market share relative to chains, therefore supporting the entire supply chain we value so much. 

Two Roads Diverged

..superficially our industry seems incredibly cohesive, there is very little, if any, collective responding to common causes

At this point in the evening, perspectives seemed to diverge and opinions divided on which road to travel if we are to achieve these objectives we share.

We’re all familiar with the sentiments perpetuated everyday throughout our industry. Quality equates to traceability, traceability equates to ethical sustainability, sustainability equates to humanity and relationships and so on and so forth - but if it’s not making it’s way back to the farmer, what then? The evening surfaced that a shared perspective on the solution here is flimsy at best, perhaps highlighting the need to be more forthcoming with the questions we are asking of ourselves and the trades we engage in. 

The economic truths of our industry seem either very misunderstood or perpetuated falsely within our community where a disconnection exists with how we as purveyors/voices of the ‘Speciality Industry’ are actually providing value to the producers. Is it that we are not - by default - a part of the solution just because we work in independent coffee, and the time has come to take a greater responsibility for the impact of our business? 

Naturally needs come first and we shouldn’t be ashamed of focusing on finding our own position within the ‘bubble of speciality first.’  It is my opinion however that we do share a responsibility beyond this in collectively expanding this ‘bubble’ and proliferating consumer awareness in the value of specialty coffee. But why hasn’t this happened?

James Hoffman made the astute observation that while superficially our industry seems incredibly cohesive, there is very little, if any, collective responding to common causes. 


You know what farmers are passionate about? Making more money’ -Katie Carguilo

If It Doesn’t Make Dollars It Doesn’t Make Sense

There seems to be an underlying hesitation to admit that we exist within an economy, as well as a resistance to accept that profit is what feeds the ’18 pairs of hands’ in a supply chain.

This hesitation seems to stem from an idea that the closer we get to identifying ourselves as profit seeking entities, the further away from the social goals intrinsic to the idea of independence we become. Within this lies a big problem: If we are promising producers access to growing markets and not providing them because we are inept at finding context for our own businesses, then we are harbingers of a doomed supply chain.

If we agree that as an industry we are willing to share the responsibility for ensuring positive outcomes for producers, and we agree that expanding the consumer segment we currently hold is the best way to do this, then perhaps it’s time also to collectively challenge the notion that adopting a consumer focus to be successful as a business somehow compromises the integrity of our independence.

The greatest thing recently passing the Q Exam has taught me is that every coffee has a home and everything has a value. While the chains don’t necessarily serve a product revered by our contemporaries they do own the comparatively larger bubble of consumers our supply chain requires we grow into. If the value, quite possibly, isn't about taste then which external expectations make up a value proposition which is universal?

 Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the road more travelled, to perpetuate greater insight and to expedite the scaling of our industry.