Thoughts on the last Esmeralda auction

May 24th, 2008

According to the owner of the stoneworks auction website, I was one of up to 3000 users watching or participating in the latest auction. It went on for 9 hours and you had to feel very, very sorry for the Japanese who would have started bidding at 10pm and finished around 7am. (though you suspect they probably had access to sufficient caffeine)

I am not going to go through who won what (it is there on the website still) but there are a couple of things about this auction process, about the success of this farm, that I want to write a little about and get some feedback on from the community.

First of all I was quite surprised that the Petersons decided to auction off so many small individual lots. The high prices achieved in the past were a function (in my mind) of both quality and scarcity. I don’t debate the mesmerising cup this coffee is capable of producing, but I don’t think that it would have reached $130/lb last year if there had been 10 times the volume available. Granted, the small individually processed batches have drive the price up on the top lots to similar heights but this then leaves the issue of how to communicate the difference between Stumptown and Sweet Maria’s $105.25 lot and a $6 lot. What key areas would the consumer respond to and be willing to massively increase their spend for?

The variation in price also implies a variation in quality. This is not a criticism of the farm – no farmer in the world is going to claim they produce nothing but exceptional coffee. I do worry, however, that there is potential to damage the brand. (and I have no doubt that it is a brand now) I have seen more extreme examples of this in other super-farms such as Daterra. Daterra is a cutting edge farm, capable of producing stellar coffee, and the research they are involved in is invaluable. I know they did a great deal of work on tracing aroma in the cup back to the crop with Illy and I hope eventually some of that research will see the light of day. What surprises me is that they have not distinguished very strongly between their best lots (like the reserve) and then other lots which don’t taste as good. I have seen several roasters proudly claiming the Daterra component of their blend without specifying which one it was and the coffee not tasting great. I thought the idea of the Esmeralda Especial worked well, but was still being muddied by some people so if anything I would have thought they would have distinguished lots even more aggressively.

I feel very strongly that for us to really move forward in speciality coffee we must consistently deliver on our promises to the consumer. Asking them to pay a high price for a cup promises that it will be worth it, and making proud boasts about the coffees we use promises that they will taste something that will be starkly different, discoverable and satisfying. Will every single roast of the Esmeralda be great this year from all the different companies? Does a new, but interested consumer, tasting an average cup of Esmeralda leave them very confused about the prices of the higher lots? Do we risk looking exclusive rather than inclusive to those teetering on the edge of becoming interested and excited about great coffee?

My other thought on the success of the farm has been the double edged sword of the visibility of the Geisha varietal used. I travelled a little bit in Costa Rica last year and every farm I visited had at least a little Geisha planted. Some were more cautious than others in the space they were giving over to the gamble. In three or four years will we see a sudden flood of Geisha on the market (which will immediately drop its desirability) and will it be any good. A while ago I dug through my coffee text books to see if I could find any references to the varietal. I found very little except for a small study carried out abotu 40 years ago in Costa Rica comparing the success of various varietals of which Geisha was won. It lost out primarily because of its lack of yield – less of a problem if you have quality and scarcity on your side, but with lots of people suddenly producing lower yields from their farms scarcity becomes void. No notes are made in the study about increased cup quality, but that study could still easily be dismissed as techniques have moved on and you could also argue that Costa Rica’s quest for yield held it back as an origin producing distinct and amazing coffees until the more recent micro-mill revolution that we are seeing signs of. (if people want me to dig up the study I can do)

On this subject I am very happy to concede I might be wrong. I haven’t spent enough time at origin to feel completely confidant in the above statements, and if Peter or Geoff or anyone else who has spent a lot of time at origin are reading and want to correct me I would be very grateful. I really just want to learn more, and hope that we aren’t all debated-out on this issue which covers just about all of the coffee industry.

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