The limits of certifications

Dany Marquis

I'll tell you an anecdote. I was on vacation somewhere in Quebec. In a restaurant ranked #1 according to trip advisor, really good, the food was good, good service. When I got to dessert, the waiter offered me a coffee.

I then ask him what coffee he serves, he answers: fair trade coffee.

Ok, it's fair trade, but what is coffee, what origin, the grade, who roasted it? The guy looks at me surprised, and says he doesn't know. He just knows that he is certified fair trade and that he is going to find out. He comes back telling me that no one knows and that the owner is away. To not sound too pretentious, I said, “Well, let’s go with your fair trade coffee!” »

This type of behavior is very common and in some cases the label of the certified product, whether fair trade, organic, etc. has overridden all other information relevant to the tasting experience to be given a label. As an epicurean, telling me that a wine is red, that a beer is blonde or that a coffee is fair trade tells me absolutely nothing about the experience I will have when consuming it.

It's the equivalent of asking, is your coffee good? And to answer, I don't know, but it's fair.

I have been importing coffee for several years and I realized that certifications have not helped producers get their product out of what is called the convenience market.

What are amenities, these are the so-called essential products without personality, sugar, salt, flour. This has the effect, despite the certifications, of keeping the price of coffee relatively low and of making it difficult to present superior quality coffee to consumers. But truly superior and not just in the name as some restaurants do, such as in superior roasting coffee.

The parallel with wine, beer and spirits for me is unavoidable. And if restaurateurs boast about their wine list, or their offering of microbrewery beer, it's lame when it comes time to serve coffee. Because coffee is a very aromatic and complex beverage, having more than 850 identified volatile aromas. It is therefore a noble product which can be as pleasant to taste as a good wine or a good whisky. We can describe a coffee this way:

I offer you a coffee from Ethiopia, a micro-lot from the 2016 harvest that we have just received, it is a group A sidama, from the Guji region. It is a grade 1, the highest grade of the Ethiopian exchange board, washed and dried in the sun which will give you aromas of watermelon, candied lemon and milk chocolate, it is a coffee with a beautiful freshness and pleasant acidity, very aromatic with a brief aftertaste of peach and melon. I suggest it as a filter as an accompaniment to our dark chocolate and Espelette pepper mousse on a maple crunch.

It gives you the taste, doesn’t it?

I find that fair trade certifications have a certain utility, namely being able to sell ordinary quality coffee at a higher price and guaranteeing a minimum price to the farmer for his surplus. But, I find that this limits the possibilities of developing consumer knowledge by only describing a coffee by certifications, or even by the producing country. This way of doing things keeps coffee in the category of convenience products, 2 cream 2 sugars, and prevents producers from marketing their grand cru at higher prices. Because there is a growing sector in the coffee market, namely high-end coffees with real aromatic properties that set them apart. And consumers are increasingly better equipped at home to realize the difference. And the development of consumer taste for quality products, beer, olive oil, etc. joins coffee.

So, coffee is a noble, tasting product that deserves a little more decorum and presentation than a simple label. Restaurants are slow to develop it because of the culture of loaning coffee makers from suppliers, but more and more consumers are drinking better coffee at home. And I would also say that the major characteristic that makes it so little known is perhaps the fact that it is alcohol-free…


To hear the interview on this subject in my column on Radio-Canada: Bon pied, bonheure, broadcast of September 22, 2016

1 comment

  • Aquafinapure

    J’ai particulièrement accroché sur votre finale. Du meilleur café à la maison. Je pense que peu d’endroit réussisse à servir un café à la hauteur du produit, vu la contrainte de la préparation. Une bière de microbrasserie en bouteille est plus aisé. Malgré qu’en fût, la galère prend vite… Secondement, le café est si peu connu est peut-être le fait qu’il soit sans alcool…. vous soulevez un point particulièrement intéressant. Pour ma part, la café m’intéresse en partie parce qu’il ne contient pas d’alcool ; )

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