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#69 | Re:co Podcast – Ellen Jordan Reidy on Quality Foundations for Success (S3, Ep. 4)

#69 | Re:co Podcast – Ellen Jordan Reidy on Quality Foundations for Success (S3, Ep. 4)

This podcast is brought to you with the support of

Today, we’re very happy to present the fourth episode of “Value Chains: Transparency and Market Linkages,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. Acknowledging that this isn’t the first coffee price crisis, this session brought leaders together to ask: How successful were the tools we employed previously? What new tools offer potential solutions?

If you haven’t listened to the previous episodes in this series, we strongly recommend going back to listen before you continue with this episode. 

For over 20 years, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has worked to improve coffee quality through a diverse set of programs addressing foundational issues affecting the value chain. These programs have been aimed at improving the lives of people and communities who produce coffee. During this time, CQI has had a front-row seat to a multitude of private and public sector projects that have sought to resolve the serious issues that face our industry. Certainly, there have been both challenges and successes. Do global training and quality improvement programs result in positive changes? Which strategies have worked, and which have met roadblocks? Here, Ellen Jordan Reidy shares the “lessons learned” which are relevant in today’s coffee world.

Special Thanks to Toddy 

This talk from Re:co Boston is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates, that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at http://www.toddycafe.com.

Related Links 
Full Episode Transcript

0:00 Introduction

Peter Giuliano: Hello everybody, I’m Peter Giuliano, SCA’s Chief Research Officer. You’re listening to an episode of the Re:co Podcast, a series of the SCA Podcast. The Re:co podcast is dedicated to new thinking, discussion, and leadership in Specialty Coffee, featuring talks, discussions, and interviews from Re:co Symposium, the SCA’s premier event dedicated to amplifying the voices of those who are driving specialty coffee forward. Check out the show notes for links to our YouTube channel where you can find videos of these talks.

This episode of the Re:co Podcast is supported by Toddy. For over 50 years, Toddy brand cold brew systems have delighted baristas, food critics, and regular folks alike. By extracting all the natural and delicious flavors of coffee and tea, Toddy Cold Brew Systems turn your favorite coffee beans and tea leaves into fresh cold brew concentrates that are ready to serve and enjoy. Learn more about Toddy at toddycafe.com. Toddy: Cold brewed, simply better.

Re:co Symposium and the Specialty Coffee Expo are coming to Portland in April 2020. Don’t miss the forthcoming early-bird ticket release – find us on social media or sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep up-to-date with all our announcements.

Today, we’re very happy to present the fourth episode of “Value Chains: Transparency and Market Linkages,” a session recorded at Re:co Symposium this past April. Acknowledging that this isn’t the first coffee price crisis, this session brought leaders together to ask: How successful were the tools we employed previously? What new tools offer potential solutions?

If you haven’t listened to the previous episodes in this series, we strongly recommend going back to listen before you continue with this episode.

For over 20 years, the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) has worked to improve coffee quality through a diverse set of programs addressing foundational issues affecting the coffee value chain. These programs have been aimed at improving the lives of people and communities who produce coffee. During this time, CQI has had a front-row seat to a multitude of private and public sector projects that have sought to resolve the serious issues that face our industry. Certainly, there have been both challenges and successes. Do global training and quality improvement programs result in positive changes? Which strategies have worked, and which have met roadblocks? Here, Ellen Jordan Reidy shares the “lessons learned” which are relevant in today’s coffee world.

Also, to help you follow along in this podcast, I will chime in occasionally to help you visualize what you can’t see.

2:40 An introduction to the story of the Specialty Coffee Institute and initiatives that didn’t work initially

Ellen Jordan Reidy: Thank you, Peter, for those kind words. And what great fortune to follow Ted’s session. Because so much of what I’ll tell you about today epitomizes many of the connections about which he’s spoken. Some of you here today may know CQI to our Q Grader initiatives, and that’s fantastic. But today it’s my privilege to tell you a little bit about our 20-year journey, a journey that is replete with successes, with challenges, with evolutions and with pivots that were needed to make sure that we remain true to our mission and remained true to the coffee community. I’ll tell you this from my front-row seat, having joined CQI in year two of its existence and having spent now two-thirds of my three-decades-long coffee adventure affiliated with this great organization. In closing today, I’ll tell you a little bit about my personal perspectives about where we find ourselves in the current time. So back to the beginning. Our organization was founded 23 years ago, originally as the Specialty Coffee Institute. Our birth and our early efforts were a direct result of the last coffee crisis. It was our call to action. We brought together a group of talented, passionate, dedicated people who were willing to give tirelessly of their time and talents to work hard at making a difference. As originally conceived, the Specialty Coffee Institute’s focus was to look at advances in science and technology and combine them with agricultural practices and industry. We thought that was the way forward to solve the situation. It was noble. It was big. It was audacious. But as we soon came to realize, if we were to be successful, our focus needed to be far narrower, more targeted, more direct. So we paused, and through candid introspection and self-assessment, we took a look at our organization. We took a look at the world around us. And we decided that we may have missed the unmet need. We may not have correctly understood what our niche distinctions were and what our organization’s core strengths were. In your three of our existence, we rewrote our playbook and our where-to-play and how-to-win strategy. The result was our name change to the Coffee Quality Institute, and our mission is to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it. Inherent in that name change was the recognition that specialty coffee most certainly wasn’t the only area in which assistance was needed and focus our mission to improve the quality of coffee demanded that we look at all coffees and all growing regions. Our work, as became keenly apparent, was with and through people. Now it may surprise some of you to learn that some of our early efforts at CQI actually were focused on attempting to create an alternative market platform. Our belief was the C market conditions and differential system would never allow for equitable rating of coffee quality and all of the labors of love that went into its production. We worked really hard. We were convinced if we could just extract quality coffee using the C grading and now a burgeoning country of Q graders. If we could extract it from the C market, that would be the way forward. Well, sadly, that perspective in those efforts never really gained traction. Was it too early? Were they different times? Perhaps both, probably both. But, you know, understanding the past is really important as we look at what we’re going to do moving forward.

Yet another strategy early on that we employed involved Q licensed products. So attempting to take a page out of the wine industry’s success using Robert Parker’s Wine Spectator scoring system, we said, OK, here’s the leap of faith. We want to draw consumers, understand except and purchase coffees and pay accordingly based upon their score. Wasn’t the SCA cupping scoring system, CQIs efforts, perfectly suited to this? We had another belief, and that was fundamentally there were many, many retailers who wanted to sell great coffee, who were passionate, and were committed to seeing that these differentiated products would find their way to their consumers. But unlike other vertically integrated organizations or behemoths organizations like Starbucks and others that were able to have boots on the ground, those retailers didn’t have legitimacy in the category because they didn’t have that depth of penetration. Our view, our hope was that through the licensing program, where a consumer would equate that score with the level of care and cupping and greatness that went into production of the coffee that everyone would win. We did have some limited success, primarily in the Club channel also in Japan. But, alas, those efforts never gained traction or continued.

9:30 The story of the CQI’s Coffee Corps project and the Q grader program, including Q Processing and the Partnership for Gender Equity

Ellen Jordan Reidy: But now – and thank you, Ted, for that reference – now let’s talk about some CQI projects that have not only enamoured but have flourished and the reference that Ted makes to our coffee core program honestly, in my heart, one of the greatest programs we’ve ever had. It originated through a grant 15 years ago, a little over 15 years ago now from USAID. And its central premise was to take coffee industry experts and bring them to origin to work on CQI projects or with groups with whom we were working on our project. These dedicated experts volunteered their time. They donated their time to work at origin. Peter Giuliano himself is among hundreds of people who participated as a Coffee Corps volunteer, And he, like so many others, will tell you it was an incredibly transformative experience.

And it wasn’t transformative unnecessarily because of the technical skills or knowledge that was transferred. It was transformative because people came together. They met in forged relationships that often to this day continue. That was the beauty. That’s the magic of bringing people together. Coffee Corps projects take place all around the world. This year we have projects that took place in Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Myanmar just in the last 12 months.

Let’s talk about another program. My gosh. The stunning success, the stellar success of the Q grading initiatives. I call them the Q family. And I am just so privileged and excited and still passionate about being a part of it all. For any of you here today that are Q graders, you know what it took. You know the dedication, the time, the holding of your sensory skills, the repetitions to get this tremendous distinction. A process that is is arduous as any academic credentials. To all of you, we say thank you. Thank you for that dedication. Thank you for that commitment. Thank you for modeling the behavior that I am absolutely certain is going to be central to us finding our way to the future. Now specifically, Q Arabica graders is 6500 people strong. Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Perhaps an equally stunning statistic is that one-third of those licensed Q graders were certified in the last 12 months. Absolutely fantastic. We have mechanisms now to speak in a common language of quality, to understand how to grade the metrics, the scoring so that no matter where in the room we go back to home as home, we are aligned and calibrated and how we describe and see and rate quality coffee.

Q robusta. So back to the change in expansion and understanding of our mission breadth, Q robusta, there are now more than 400 certified Q licensed graders. This is a proud program that’s going to be expanding. We have tremendous interest, given the amount of production across the world, that’s going to be a very important, a very, very important program moving forward. I want to digress before I go to our next family member and just share with you something that always just makes my heart sing. I received emails from people, some I know, some I don’t know, and I often look down and realize that in their signature line reads proudly that they are licensed Q graders. There are pinning ceremonies, pins in different parts of the world that go on. Yet another emblem of pride that people take deservedly so to show this professional distinction that they’ve earned and how important it is to them. It makes me feel connected. It makes me feel like family. And today those family members live in 60 countries around the world.

And now our newest program: Q Processing. Candidly, we looked at the results of the Q Arabica and Q Robusta program. We could have been lulled into a full sense of satisfaction and complacency, but one of the things that became apparent was, while that was good, while I was great, it wasn’t enough. We needed to take that same training, those same practices in protocol, and we needed to roll them back origin and thus was born from that recognition and tremendous efforts. The Q Processing program. This program is spearheaded by our awesome Dr. Mario Fernandez. He and his team have worked tirelessly. It’s incredible. The program is intensive. There are three levels of certification, and what is it intended to do? We will come here. We sit in seats occupying different places in the coffee supply chain, different types of positions, some origin, some import, some purchasing. But all of us could benefit from a greater appreciation of coffee processing, post-harvest processing is quintessential to unlocking coffee’s quality, and this Q processing program is intended to help with that. We just last week started Year three of this program’s history and in the first two years in Levels One and Levels Two both, we have certified over 400 people in Q processing. If you’re familiar with the program and as you may see from some of these slides, it’s intensive, you’re at origin. But it’s phenomenal. and I predict it. We will look back in the not too distant future, realizing this is one of our most successful initiatives. Demand for this program has outstripped our wildest expectations. And what does that say? It says that we’re insatiable, we’re committed. Despite our current problems, we all want to lean in and step up and do better.

Another program with which you’re familiar but may not know was born and evolved out of CQI’s efforts is the Partnership for Gender Equity, yet another market-driven response, two things that were going on that needed attention. Started in 2014 the Partnership for Gender Equity was intended to expand women coffee producers’ opportunities, their children, their families inclusively. Out of early studies done, it became apparent that there were two other things that really needed tremendous attention in terms of the problem at hand. The first was out migration of youth and the second, not coincidentally, also is a function of that, is the aging population of the coffee farmer. There’s a formal agreement in place at the end of this year to have partnership for gender equity become independent. It will be lead under Kimberly Eastern and her team and these good works, and important work will continue into the future.

18:30 CQI’s future work projects in China, Myanmar, and Yemen

Ellen Jordan Reidy: And now I can’t tell you about CQI without telling you a little bit about the project work that we’ve done, the places we’ve worked, things that have been successful, things that have been challenges, I want to say. At the very front end of this, however, we had to choose a few examples over a 20-year history. We’ve worked in 80 countries. We’ve done enormous numbers of projects, and anything we reference here today isn’t intended to slight or omit anyone else because these reflections of the things that make for success our repeated across the world. We’ll start with Colombia. Coffee projects on which we’ve worked in Colombia have been tremendously successful. You step back and say why? Why? Well, there’s no doubt that with respect to this country, the institutional support that’s given, the FNC, the government, the way everybody pulls together looking for better outcomes. There is no coincidence that their programs have been so very successful, as other areas with great institutional support have been. And it’s not always the case.

China, three years later, emerging into the world stage, it’s incredible. The lesson from China for us is that it’s invaluable to be at the table and to participate from the ground up. A country’s brand new emergence onto the world stage, and it’s been done with the proper protocols, manuals and again, another element for success that his that is punctuated in the China experience, is the support that they’ve received from the Yunnan Coffee exchange. It’s been tremendous. Their government, they’re poised, and now what they need is market access.

Myanmar wasn’t a player in the specialty arena until very recently, thanks to the great contributions and funding of USAID. We worked on a project in Myanmar and we highlight this one for a couple of reasons as well. They have a wide variety, a wide range of varieties available. The conditions in which coffee is grown in Myanmar’s tend to lend themselves tremendously to growing great coffee. But there’s a human factors element to the Myanmar projects that I think we’ve found is distinctive. These people were so open-minded they were willing and eager to learn. They weren’t encumbered by past practices. And often, you know, that’s a big challenge. People say, “Well, my grandfather did this mites generations” and it’s hard to undo some of those practices. Myanmar was enthusiastic and this desired to get a prominent place. They’ve been tremendously successful. I think it’s the confluence of all of those things.

Yemen was an origin for which we had tremendously great hopes. Despite the fact that his head inherent challenges: Look at the topography. If there wasn’t challenging enough, their scarcity of water was another issue. Yet we were navigating collectively those issues, but what we couldn’t have predicted was the political unrest and upheaval that took place in 2015 is the media broadly reported. Due to all of that embassies were shuttered. People fled our USAID project was shut down. Our State department evacuated. Sometimes there are just forces over which you have absolutely no control.

22:45 To address the current price crisis we need to ask ourselves, “How can I help?” and, “How can we make the people around us more powerful?”

Ellen Jordan Reidy: So what does this all mean? What does it mean? What are the learnings from all of these initiatives? Well, I tell you that I believe that there is no go it alone approach that can be successful. There’s no one organization. There’s no one country or company or individual that can help us out of the place we’re in today. But I think the message I would strongly urge to all of us today to embrace is that we cannot stop training. We cannot stop these initiatives in which we put so much energy. We can’t lose faith. We can’t lose our way. We must stay the course.

I truly believe that it is only when we bring people together face to face, shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart that we stand a chance. So I step back, I the woman and ponder. What else might be necessary? What else may be needed for success? And in so doing, I am struck simultaneously by a lesson from my youth, and a lecture, the most transformative lecture I’ve ever heard in my career, both of which contain messages, and I think a really important for all of us moving forward.

The first came from my mother, an amazing and brilliant woman, more empathic even than intelligent, who taught me as a very young girl. They had the four most important words I’d ever use were How can I help? How can I help in good times and in bad? How can I help change any situation? We stand here at the end of Day One sessions. We’re contemplating our personal and collective calls to action. I think it’s something to think about the lecture, which I heard a decade ago, and it’s still, I mean, it’s as poignant for me today as it was then. It was at the University of Oxford, the hallowed halls of the University of Oxford in England, and the lecturer was Ben Zander. I’m not sure if any of you here are familiar with Ben. If you’re a local, it’s very likely that you may be. Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. If you haven’t had the great fortune to hear him, I’d really recommend that you listen to some of his Ted talks. He is just incredible. The focus of the lecture that I heard was about possibility. In fact, he’s written a book called The Art of Possibility that I would recommend. But that day our topic was about understanding “possibility.” He shared with us a story about a realization he had 20 years into his career as a conductor. Now maybe this resonated with me because, at that point, I too had spent 20 years within the coffee industry. He told us about this realization that the conductor doesn’t make a sound. The conductor doesn’t make a sound, but in fact, he relies for his power on making his musicians powerful. It was, I mean, it was an incredible epiphany to me, and I thought, it’s so true in so many aspects of life. How do we look out at the people that we’re surrounded by? How do we help them become powerful? What rolled we have in all of that? And I think as we look out at our world and as we look at our current situation, I suspect that my mother would suggest asking the question, “How can I help?”

Thank you.

27:20 Outro

Peter Giuliano: That was Ellen Jordan Reidy at Re:co Symposium this past April.

Remember to check out our show notes to find a link to the YouTube video of this talk, a full episode transcript, and a link to speaker bios on the Re:co website.

Re:co Symposium and the Specialty Coffee Expo are coming to Portland in April 2020. Don’t miss the forthcoming early-bird ticket release – find us on social media or sign up for our monthly newsletter to keep up-to-date with all our announcements.

This has been an episode of the Re:co Podcast, brought to you by the members of the Specialty Coffee Association, and supported by Toddy.

This post appeared first on The Specialty Coffee Chronicle.

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