The Central Dogma of Coffee

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 is this:

raw material → raw product → consumable product
or
farm → mill → roastery

The central dogma 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 beloved 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 still must follow the central dogma; coffee begins as a raw material (a cherry from the coffee tree), is processed into a raw product (an un-roasted, green bean), and then further processed into a consumable product (roasted coffee).

cherry → green bean → 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 useable raw material requires skills in maintaining a healthy coffee tree. To effectively produce un-roasted coffee (green coffee) requires skills in processing coffee cherries (milling). Producing the consumable product requires skills in roasting coffee (one could argue roasting is an IRIFOY skill, but I would not recommend it from a business perspective).

farming skills → milling skills → roasting skills

See also: Roasting As A System

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

Gaining proficiency in each domain of skills 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 specific technology that requires unique skills to use. For example, farming coffee trees requires skills in fertilizer technology, pest-control technology, etc. Milling coffee cherries requires washing technology, drying technology, sorting technology, etc. In each domain, the technology can be very primative. 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 primative technology will be inconsistent over long periods of time. In the example of a farmer using manure 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, in the right form, at the right time.

Similarly with a roaster who uses a primative method of pan-roasting the coffee. It will produce a consumable product but there is very little control over the roasting environment with pan roasting. Air flow and heat application may not be precisely controlled and the roast environment might not be precisely monitored.

In each of those examples, a 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 few cases where the markets 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, un-roasted coffee. There is a lot of potential for overlap between coffee cherries and processed, green coffee.

Many mills that can buy and process 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 smallholders 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/broader access to markets than the smallholder, or the smallholder may desire some quick and easy money, etc.

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 then passed along the chain in a similarly thoughtful, meaningful manner. As I’ve defined it in the article titled What Is Specialty Coffee:

Specialty coffee is about quality and sustainability, which include traceability to its origin, the cultivar or varietal that produced the coffee, how the coffee farm is maintained, the means of processing the coffee fruit, ensuring the producers/farmers get a fair shake, and so-on. Specialty coffee includes roasters who work diligently to ensure their coffee purchases support quality and sustainability efforts at origin and it includes cafes that work in harmony with the roaster’s efforts.

Specialty coffee is the central dogma firing on all cylinders. For a mill to produce a specialty-grade 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.

See also: Coffee’s Inherent Quality

Producing specialty coffee means that each step in the central dogma is produced with expertise. This often means using more-advanced technology 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.

Conslusion

raw material → raw product → consumable product
or
farm → mill → roastery

I’ve been thinking about and developing this concept for several years now and I find it very valuable when 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; getting coffee to your cup is a 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 discrete 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, etc.


Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.