Should The Coffee Industry Keep The Riffraff Out?

Should The Coffee Industry Keep The Riffraff Out?

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When I was at a Specialty Coffee of America (SCAA) Leadership Summit a couple of years ago a discussion was breathed out…and quickly inhaled back in (“Whew, we didn’t want to go there, did we?…”): Should ‘the specialty kids’ allow ‘the riffraff’ into the club? In other words, at what point do the rich kids, I mean the specialty coffee industry, lose their “specialness” and become just another club that lets anyone in the door? The discussion was based on who the SCAA should admit, or maybe better stated “encourage to join” as members? Should we allow the large chains? What about office coffee supply companies? What about national brands and “grocery store” coffee?

This is an age-old argument. As old as the world itself. Different situation, different circumstances, same discussion. Who do we let into our club? At the SCAA event the discussion, or rather lack of discussion, was about membership. Let’s take a look at this.

I tend to be balanced – see both sides of a story. Some call that wisdom, others weakness. I understand that being special is important, but what about the “riffraff” who really want to be special? Or at least they want to join the special kid’s club. Should they have to change to join the club? Should we lend them a helping hand? Do we even want “their kind” in our club? If we accept them, won’t we be less special? If we don’t accept them, we’re just keeping our standards high, our principles strong and remaining…special. Right?

-Recently the “Robusta riffraff” have made a statement: They should be able to join our club.

Its all a bad rap!” says the Robusta crowd. “If we had the advantages of the rich kids, we could be successful too!

-Club members aren’t convinced.

What? You’re not special. Look at how poorly you dress“, say the “special kids”. “We’ve told everyone for years you aren’t special and now you want us to just accept you?”

I will be the FIRST to say, I am not nearly as educated as those I am about to quote. And to be honest, my intent is less about making a statement one way or the other, and more about the discussion.

So here goes – a couple of “nents”. One “propo”, one “oppo”, and one in-between. (There is more written about the subject you can research, but these are good summaries from sources I know personally and respect).

Riffraff’s argument: “Thankfully most of the problems associated with Robusta are not the fault of the species at all, but rather are the result of a market-imposed low threshold for quality and its ripple effect at origin that has hindered Robusta from improving…” (see full post here)

Special kid’s argument: “(Robusta) continues to demonstrate the same profiles as Ted Lingle, Dr. Illy, Ken Davids, Dan Cox, and so many oth­ers have written – rubbery, woody, harsh, unbalanced bitter, and astringent…” (see full post here)

Innocent bystander’s discourse: “I have long been a proponent that each individual consumer is their own arbiter of quality. Far be it for any expert to claim what is universally good or bad for everybody on the planet. In this context, there are certainly Robusta coffees that will be acceptable and desirable to some consumers.” (see full post here)

So what say you? Should the rich kids remain safe from the riffraff? Or should the riffraff be allowed to join the club?


  1. Chris Mang:

    It’s all a matter of perspective.

    It appears that the mission of the SCAA is to establish quality standards all along the supply chain. While the attributes of a robusta may not match those of arabica, there is a segment of the population that enjoys coffee with a robusta component.

    If the robusta supply chain can operate under the quality standards established by the SCAA, the robusta-loving consumer would benefit. Instead of a way of excluding “riffraff”, we should look at this as a way to establish another revenue stream. Convincing a “gas station coffee drinker” to come into a coffee house might be the first step in the conversion to a “specialty coffee drinker”. If not, at least that consumer benefits from a higher quality robusta-containing coffee. Everyone in both arabica and robusta supply chains will benefit.

  2. The conversation can take a couple of different directions:

    1. Should the SCAA make room for robusta? This would mean acknowledging and accepting by accreditation, training, standards, etc. all geared toward quality robusta. Robusta would be given a place to flourish next to arabica. Not that it replaces arabica, but it is acknowledged as a coffee with the potential for specialty.

    2. Should the retailer make room for robusta? I agree that if we added 3 or 4 jars of “high-grade robusta” to our offerings we would have a big job on our hands. Explaining to customers what, why and more. Constant tasting and evaluation. And then the end result better WOW the customer, because as I’ve preached for years, what I think doesn’t matter unless the customer agrees. I may LOVE coffee with dirt, but unless customers love it I go out of business.

    3. Blends including robusta have, and always will exist. They don’t exist in many specialty shops, unless it is an espresso blend or an area with an Italian population that the taste profile needs to reflect a historical robusta blend taste.

    4. Percentages. I think an important part of the discussion is what percent of the robusta crop has a reasonable chance of being high quality? If we are looking at 2% of the overall crop, investing millions into a system to benefit the robusta species may be a poor ROI. But, if that number is 10 or 20 or 50%, it could be a completely different story.

    5. Give it a chance. Guaranteed there will be those who say, “Give it a chance” and those who say “No”. The discussion must take place to determine the most desirable, most accepted position.
    Jack recently posted..Should The Coffee Industry Keep The Riffraff Out?My Profile

  3. Scrubby:

    It’s all about the $$$$s. If you pay, your in.
    A lot of the ‘rich kids’ are idiots.

    I hope the SCAA doesn’t go the same way as the SCAE. Where the decent board members all left and now the SCAE board are just the ‘rich kids’ and the ‘rich kids mates’.

    You don’t get onto the SCAE board unless your a pre-approved mate. My member expires in 3 months, and I’m not renewing :(

  4. I am currently planning on not renewing my SCAA membership, looking for someone to convince me otherwise. I posted my views recently on a blog by Kevin Knox (

    I too, hope for change in the SCAA’s attitudes. I have come to the point where I believe the only way for me to show my disapproval is to stop my membership. My comments, concerns and experiences have not had the desired affect while I pay my dues, so maybe not paying is the way to go.

    Below is a cut and paste of my comment:

    “I have had a love/hate relationship with the SCAA since I started in the coffee biz (1993). The first event I ever went to, my key employee and I were completely ignored at a mixer designed to connect the “powers that be” with those of us new in the industry – and we were the only people there. The group of 10 or so individuals, whom if I mentioned their names, anyone even remotely related to coffee would know, completely ignored us while they chatted amongst themselves like a high school reunion. That experience was soured my view and was indicative of many experiences I’ve had since then.

    About 10 years ago I again started getting involved, donating my time to the SCAA in various ways. I felt no appreciation (only by those I directly worked/volunteered with, who were some of the hardest working, nicest people around) by the SCAA overall and never from the top. I stay involved for a few years, till I couldn’t justify the expense of time and money, nor did I enjoy it any more. I stopped volunteering for a few years, and then one day told myself to shut up and help again. I did it again, and once more felt the same way, and now don’t volunteer anymore and doubt I ever will again.

    I have been a dues paying member of the SCAA for 20 years (am rethinking that too). I pay because I believe they need to exist. That does not mean I approve of everything, or even much, of what they do or how they do it, but exist they must. I also do not mean to say that there are not some excellent people in the SCAA, people who work hard and who care.

    But, I only last year had the same type of situation with one of the “top dogs” as I had 20 years ago. I sent an email looking for information to help me for a panel I was invited to be on at the World Tea Expo – representing coffee at a tea event. I am not the owner of a large chain or one of the real visible companies, but I have paid dues for 20 years, have volunteered my time as a regional and national barista judge, volunteered my time as a product specialist, attending a number of SCAA Events, and had a booth at the Event a couple years ago. And the person I emailed knows me personally. And yet my emails went unanswered. I attended the World Tea Expo without getting any of the information I asked for from the SCAA and when I saw this person at the SCAA Event a month or two after that was met with an, “Oh yeah, sorry about that”.

    I was also asked a few years ago to be a part of the retailer’s committee. I declined. I had no trust that I wasn’t gonna be simply asked to give, not listened to, and then patronized.

    It’s too bad that the attitude is to a great degree still the same. Maybe someday the Specialty Coffee Association of America will start thinking of themselves as Servants to the Coffee Businesses of America rather than, well, just special.

    PS, when you get the new organization together, call me!!”
    Jack recently posted..Espresso Machine Maintenance and UpkeepMy Profile

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