[S4:E8] Articles Read: The Central Dogma of Coffee

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I wrote the article in 2022, but first started developing the idea in 2018. The central dogma describes the fundamental process of converting the seeds of a coffee tree into a cup of coffee.


The original article is titled “The Central Dogma of Coffee

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The central dogma of coffee is an idea I have been tuning and shaping over several years. I’ve written about it in multiple different articles that I’ve posted on my blog. And it’s an idea that I use to make sense of the coffee value chain.

I think part of the confusion that is possibly deranging our conversation about the value chain and who’s getting a fair share of what is that, there’s a misunderstanding about what coffee is at what point in the value chain. And this is something that the central dogma of coffee is supposed to illustrate or make more clear.

And that central point is that what farmers produce in the field, what coffee farmers produce, is a very raw product. It has no shelf life. It has a shelf life measured in hours. And it’s the milling process that . Creates an unroasted coffee that has a considerably longer shelf life measured in years, almost.

And because of the significant difference between the coffee cherry and the coffee bean, I wanted to clarify; that they’re not even the same product. That what the producer. Produces is a raw product. What the consumer consumes is a consumable product. And we have to go through the central dogma in order to transform that raw product to an intermediate product, which is the green coffee to a consumable product, which is the roasted coffee.

And without doing all of these steps, we don’t truly have coffee yet. And so comparisons of, let’s say a $3 and 50 cent latte sold in New York versus the dollar 50 per pound that a farmer might get for his coffee cherries in say, Indonesia is counterproductive. We don’t really get closer to a viable solution when we make comparisons like that.

So it’s my hope that the central dogma of coffee helps to illustrate that comparing the two ends of the value chain in such a way in such a direct way does not help us get closer to a solution, in my opinion.

Now on to the article.

The article is titled the central dogma of coffee, and it was first published in February 5th, 2022.

One of the core ideas or grand narratives I use to help make sense of the coffee world, is what I now call the central dogma of coffee. The shorthand way I describe it as this: you begin with a raw material, you produce an intermediate product, and then you produce a consumable product or from farm to mill to roastery.

The central dog, my helps to center my view of the coffee world by illustrating that coffee is produced by a complex supply chain. The supply chain performs the individual tasks or roles of the central dogma, which is the irreversible process of making our cup of coffee. Without the central dogma, we would not have coffee in any form.

That doesn’t mean the supply chain can’t be incredibly short. Such as a single entity. However, when the supply chain is a single entity, it’s still must follow the central dogma. Coffee begins as a raw material, which is a cherry from the coffee tree, is processed into an intermediate product an unroasted green bean, and then further processed into a consumable product, which is roasted coffee.

It’s all about the skills. Each stage of the central dogma represents a domain of unique skills. For example to effectively produce a usable raw material requires skills in maintaining a healthy coffee tree. To effectively produce unroasted coffee — green coffee — requires skills in processing coffee cherries; milling.

Each stage of the central dogma represents a domain of unique skills. For example, to effectively produce a usable raw material requires skills in maintaining a healthy coffee tree. To effectively produce unroasted coffee, which is green coffee, requires skills in processing coffee cherries, which is the milling process.

Producing the consumable product requires skills in roasting coffee. And one could argue roasting is part of an "it’s right in front of you" skill, but I would not recommend it from a business perspective. And as an aside, to explain what is, an "it’s right in front of you" skill think about scrambling eggs. You can see what’s happening in the pot as you’re scrambling the eggs. And you know what the end product should look like. Therefore you can get from A to B relatively easily. However that doesn’t produce a consistent product.

The central dogma is a cascade of skills required to produce a cup of coffee. Each step of the central dogma as required and cannot be skipped. Therefore a single entity that encompasses the entire supply chain must at least be proficient in all skill domains within the central dogma.

Gaining proficiency in each domain of skill. It takes time and practice. And as with any skill gaining expertise takes a lot of time and practice. Participation in the supply chain does not require expertise. Proficiency is sufficient. However to thrive in the supply chain requires expertise.

Each skill domain also requires a specific technology that requires unique skills to use. For example, farming, coffee, trees require skills in fertilizer technology, pest control technology, et cetera. Milling coffee cherries requires washing technology, drying technology, sorting technology, et cetera.

In each domain, the technology can be very primitive. For example, a farmer could simply fertilize with manure and a mill could dry coffee on a tarp in the sun. But in both cases, the end result produced by primitive technology will be inconsistent over long periods of time. In the example of a farmer using maneuver to fertilize; without soil analysis or plant tissue analysis, they are blindly applying nutrients to the soil and may not be applying nutrients in the right ratio, the right form, at the right time.

Similarly with a roaster who uses a primitive method of pan roasting the coffee. It will produce a consumable product, but there’s very little control over the roasting environment. Airflow and heat application may not be precisely controlled and the roast environment may not be precisely monitored. In each of these examples of product is sufficiently produced. Each process could even produce a high quality product. But without a structured process and a fair amount of skill and experience that quality is more luck than something that is repeatable.

It’s also about different markets. Each

physical form of coffee has a different and unique market. There are a few cases where the market’s overlap, but by and large, they are separate markets. For example, customers who are in the market to buy coffee cherries aren’t typically also in the market for roasted coffee.

Similarly customers in the market for roasted coffee aren’t necessarily in the market for green unroasted coffee. There is a lot of potential for overlap between cherries and processed green coffee.

For example. Many meals that can buy and processed cherries would also be able to buy green coffee, to resell. Mills often have the capital to buy both. And because they sell green coffee as their product, it’s natural for them to be able to buy processed green coffee from small holders and resell it.

They can even buy lower grade green coffee from small holders to mix with coffee the mill has processed to increase the sellable volume. The mill may have better and or broader access to markets than the small holder. Or the small holder may desire some quick and easy money.

The difference between the markets means that players who want to sell multiple different products must have access to the appropriate markets. And this is where it gets interesting for producers who want to sell roasted coffee. The market for roasted coffee has the least overlap with any of the other markets.

Buyers of roasted coffee are rarely in the market for green coffee. And even less so for raw cherries.

Specialty coffee is manufactured. No single step in the central dogma is responsible for producing specialty coffee. Specialty coffee is the result of all steps performing at near-optimal levels. It is the thoughtful, diligent, meaningful production of a product that is been passed along the chain in a similarly thoughtful, meaningful manner.

As I’ve defined it in the article titled "What is Specialty Coffee?" quote; specialty coffee is about quality and sustainability, which includes traceability to its origin, the cultivar or varietal that produced the coffee, how the coffee farm’s maintained, the means of processing the coffee fruit, ensuring the producers and farmers get a fair shake, and so on. Specialty coffee includes roasters who worked diligently to ensure their coffee purchases support quality and sustainability efforts at origin. And it includes cafes that work in harmony with the roasters efforts. End quote.

Specialty coffee is the central dogma firing on all cylinders. For a mill to produce a specialty green bean, they must start with a specialty grade coffee cherry. For a roaster to produce a specialty grade coffee, they must start with a specialty grade green bean.

Producing specialty coffee means that each step in the central dogma is produced with expertise. This often means using more advanced technologies, such as meters and using structured processes to achieve a consistent product. The end result is a coffee with more value to more buyers within the market.

In conclusion. I’ve been thinking about and developing this concept for several years now and I find it very valuable in making sense of the coffee world Especially in regards to coffee prices and who gets paid what. It reduces the world of coffee to a digestible idea and that is Getting coffee to your cup is very complicated process that involves several production phases that turn the fruit of a coffee tree into coffee beans Without every step of the central dogma of coffee we have no coffee and each discreet step requires an entire domain of skills to complete. Therefore the central dogma of coffee is the basis or axiom for understanding the complexities and technicalities of coffee production, as well as the specifics of coffee markets, such as pricing, supply, demand, et cetera

This is Michael of oil, slick coffee. And that was me reading my article, titled the central dogma of coffee. Thank you for listening.