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Column: Why I Dislike the Word ‘Origin’ in Coffee

coffee origin

Like “origin stories,” photos “of origin” shown in traditional consumer markets tend to romanticize coffee farming and production, rather than recognizing it as real work undertaken by real people.

There are plenty of words in specialty coffee that are so overused, or used so variably, that they ultimately seem to signify very little.

The word “specialty” itself comes to mind; “quality” is arguably still subjective; and then there’s “sustainability,” which can mean entirely different things to different people or organizations. Even the word “fresh” is contestable.

While there may still be some redeemable virtues for these cornerstone descriptors, I’d like to make a friendly case for retiring one of the other biggies on the list: “origin.”

I’d personally like to see us pivot from this particular beloved word — if not all the time, then at least some of the time — but let me explain my thinking.

The starting point, place or plant

One of the first reasons that comes to mind is the fact that “origin” implies an inception, a creation, a birth, the starting point of a journey that may have many stops, but only one true beginning.

Depending on which branch of coffee’s long history you trace, that true beginning may be identified in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen or Madagascar, but certainly not the other places we call “origin.” Since political borders are human-made, they change and are routinely disputed. So perhaps “origin” is not a place, but a plant.

coffee origin 2

Is this origin?

The latter way of thinking is one reason Peruvian exporting company Origin Coffee Lab stands by its name.

“It does help us understand that coffee is a fruit and where it comes from is different from your cup,” Origin Coffee Lab Partner Stanley Slater told me.

And it’s true: There is something in the word itself that encourages us to dig deeper, to seek some kind of understanding, maybe even to get existential.

Coffee, however, is not all existential: It’s also a very real crop grown by very real farmers around a very real world that is covered in different terrain, with access to different genetic material that is exposed to different weather patterns, and subject to different traditions and techniques that make it an incredibly nuanced and differentiated product — at least to us in the specialty market.

Why do we even care?

“Why do we even care?” asked Coffee Enterprises Vice President Spencer Turer. It’s a very good question, and one he answered the next breath: “You’re putting a piece of information in front of the consumer, and part of the story is telling them why this information is important.”

“’Origin’ is shorthand because the actual term is ‘country of origin,’ globally that’s how we identify the source of the product,” Turer said, referring to official documents like contracts and ICO marks.

However, if a coffee is labeled as Guatemalan, it may set a very broad set of expectations for the consumer about what experience they will have with the cup — or it may not set any expectations at all, if the information itself is meaningless to the person reading it.

“If you’re trying to communicate the product,” Turer continued, “you also need to communicate why the information is important, and why you should care about it.”

Encouraging a customer to seek out coffee from one country of origin or another is one thing, and it’s certainly one of the conversations we have most often when we’re talking across the proverbial bar counter.

However, for much of the current generation of specialty coffee, “country of origin” is the broadest possible distinction. More and more, we drill down to the nittiest, grittiest details about where a particular coffee was “born.”

“You can say, ‘I’m going down to origin,’ but that’s not going to help you understand the difference between Brazil, Rwanda, and Peru — they’re all vastly different,” Slater said. “All the contexts are so different, but we use this term ‘origin’ and it’s really not descriptive enough.”

If “origin” is indeed limited to mean “country of origin,” then there is the risk of suggesting that all coffees from a given country taste like X, Y or Z. An even more problematic generalization comes of “origin” extends to the experiences of farmers in those countries, of local market dynamics or the chain of custody.

Something more meaningful

Raul Pérez, co-owner of Finca La Soledad in Acatenango, Guatemala, says that the term “origin” should more meaningfully capture a whole story.

“If I had to put it in just one word, it’s maybe the identity of the coffee and the producer,” Pérez said. “‘Origin’ means the place that the coffee is coming [from], and it’s not just the location. It’s the culture, the environment, the practices that they change from country to country or even in Guatemala from region to region.”

That said, Pérez also recognized the limitations of expecting too much from “origin,” at least at the moment.

“I think with coffee we’re stuck at the same level. It only matters if it’s from Guatemala or Colombia or Kenya, because ‘Acatenango,’ most people don’t know — many Guatemalans don’t even know,” he said. “Even the name Finca La Soledad, even for Intelligentsia [customers] who have been buying our coffee for 15 years, some might relate to the name, but to others I don’t think it matters to them at the end of the day.”

Turer echoed that sentiment.

“I think we are challenged on our understanding of geography,” he said. “Many people can look at a map and can’t find the country, or once they get inside of a country, they don’t know where the regions are, [or] they don’t know the difference between a country, state region, or department.”

For me, this is a big part of the problem, too: “Origin” is a romantic word, an exoticizing word that calls to mind pictures of mist-covered mountains and bright red cherries gently cradled in what can only be described as loving hands.

The phrase “going to origin” sounds like a pilgrimage — or to be blunt, it sounds like a colonizer looking out over so-called “new” territory. It separates our passion for a beautiful cup of coffee from the lived realities of the people in coffee-producing countries who for generations have faced economic hardship, disease, colonial and other political violence, market volatility and erasure.

Of course, this is a very fine line: Consumers want coffee with a side of grass-fed milk, not a guilt trip. We can straddle this line, I think, by being thinking more critically about the language we use to describe what we are selling.

Do we need to call it “origin,” or can we find a term that more accurately captures truth in the description without being histrionic, reductive, or too general? Can we release our steely grip on “origin trips” and “origin stories?”

And can we acknowledge that saying “I’m going to origin” makes as much grammatical sense as saying, “I’m going to grocery store?”

I’ve taken to saying “coffee-producing country” in place of a generic “origin,” and have been more specific about the actual places about which I’m speaking, writing, or visiting. Instead of “origin stories” I prefer “harvest updates” or “sourcing news.” Of course, that’s just me: Maybe I’m making word mountains out of molehills.

Turer doesn’t think I need to throw “origin” completely out the window.

“I think there is a place for ‘country of origin’ in our industry,” he said. “It’s an important part of the coffee story, but it does not begin and end there. It should also include other relevant information about the coffee story to add value. The endgame of the whole conversation is that you have to communicate to your consumer what the words on your bag mean.”

Comment

6 Comments

Cynthia Lucatelli Thomas

As the Co-Owner and Co-Founder of a Brazilian green coffee export company, I find these terms are not as much about actually sourcing responsibly as they are about virtue signaling to consumers that their money is safe in your pocket. “Origin” is a nebulous noun which must be accompanied by lots of other nouns and adjectives to actually inform the reader where the coffee came from. I have bought coffee from one farmer in the Franca district of Alta Mogiana, and the fazenda next to his has an entirely different product, producing an entirely different cup experience, because it’s down to the soil, the methodology and the practices of each farmer over several years which determines the cup experience, not to mention everything that happens to the beans after they leave the farm.

Reggie Akpata

In most cases, the coffee is the cheapest thing in the cup, even cheaper than a disposable cup.
Thus the terms “origin”, “estate” and “USDA organic” etc., is an effort to educate and from that first rung in the ladder we can only go higher till we reach the “Provence” of consumers enjoying information/knowledge about individual farms, their topography, soil, altitude, the side of the mountain the coffee’s grown on, etc.
Unless we move swiftly and think also too of reducing waste in the process such as throwing away coffee brewed before it’s demanded, we’ll be still a long way away from changing the first point.
For those you come across who don’t care: If coffee knowledge increased economies in the growing countries, we wouldn’t have “trains” of migrants to stop at the border!

Tionico

I have bags of coffee where the entire bag, one of fiveor perhaps twetny. came from the same small patch of hillside, planted in the same clonal stock, harvested the same day, and kept separate until it was put into the bag I got.

I’ve also had coffees where all the coffee beans in tha bag came from Brasil, end of statement.

Yet in both cases, when someone asks me about “origin” in referring to either or both of those bags, I can tell them. And that answer satisfies their curiosituy.
It is no more complex than that. Did I pay more for the bag where I know the people who handled that one bag from the one hillside? I certainly did. Was it because that whole bag came from the spread of trees on that hillside? Nope. It was solely because the FLAVOUR in the cop of that coffee was astouindingly good.

Did Ipay less for the bag “fro brasil”? Again, yes I did. Was that because it was from all over? Nope. It was because the flavour profile, no matter HOW well I roasted and brewed it, was, wel, it WAS coffee……..
The ter “origin” as used in our industry has different meanings depending on what specific coffee is being described. In the context of that one coffee, the meaning has place and signficance. We can get all huffy about whether its the “right term”, but why? Use the word as appropriate, don’t put more signficance into it than is merited by the context, and the coffee in question. I’ve never had a customer get chuffed because, for one bag,”origin” means “Brasil”., and for the next it means “that hillisde owned by Miguel, picked on the same day, and kept separate, meticulously shepherded through the entire process from the ungloved hands that picked it through to the end of the “reposo” period when it is hand stacked into the searfreight can with forty other bags, from different “origins”, most of them in the same county and all owned by the same people.

Price Peterson

AS a coffee grower, I find this article pretty dumb. Yet, no problem. We will abandon ‘origins’ such as Guatemala or Panama, when you abandon brand names such as ‘Peets’ or ‘Starbucks’.

Steve

We I guess the jury has made a decision on this article in general. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word “origin”. I actually like it as a reference point to begin a story about how I research, buy and roast coffee. I can make the story as complex or as simple as my customers prefer. I’d much rather tell the story, as best I can, rather than focus on on sensitivity to descriptive words. Origin, a good place to begin. Nuff said.

Ever Meister

Hi, Price!

Thank you for reading and responding to this piece. I’m sorry you find it dumb, but I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for abandoning information about the place where the coffee is grown. Simply the word “origin” to describe those places. I think there is more value in speaking about the specific place and its realities for coffee producers than in exoticizing the idea of a coffee farm or a coffee-growing economy as an “origin.”

Wishing you well, in good coffee.
–Ever

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