Specialty Coffee

Specialty Coffee in Cameroon

“Specialty” is not an arbitrary designation for coffee; in order for a coffee to qualify as specialty-grade, it must meet several criteria issued by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Meeting these criteria requires careful picking and sorting techniques.

The SCAA grading system includes guidelines for assessing everything from the green (unroasted) beans to the flavor characteristics of the brewed cup of coffee. We take care of the roasting and brewing side of things at our roasting shop in Brattleboro, Vermont, but the beginning stages of the specialty qualification process occur on the farm of origin.

Major disqualifiers for specialty status include large or medium sticks and stones mixed in with coffee beans and bean defects caused by picking cherries before they are fully ripe or after they’ve fallen off the coffee tree. These are called primary defects, and no primary defects are permitted in specialty coffee. Very few minor defects (a few smaller sticks and stones or partially defective beans) are allowed in specialty coffee, so pickers and sorters have a high share of responsibility for the quality of the coffee at the end of production.

Our work with Cameroonian coffee farmers, pickers and sorters has been geared toward yielding specialty-grade green coffee beans from the farms in the region, a goal which has been achieved. This process began by training sorters in the mill to carefully remove sticks and stones as well as defective coffee beans from the supply before the beans made their way through the remainder of the production process and into the market.

We have also spent time training the workers who pick coffee cherries from the trees on the farm. The workers were trained to pick only the red cherries on the trees and not those that have fallen to the ground.  The result is a larger supply of quality beans delivered to the sorters. Cherries that are picked properly yield beans that are devoid of common defects that would rule out SCAA specialty status.

We’re currently trying to find a vibrating table called a Density Sorter that we’d like to use to separate light-weight coffee cherries, called “floaters,” from cherries of the appropriate weight. This will help reduce the instance of a defect that is hard to detect with the eye, thereby leading to higher yields of specialty coffee.

A Better Business Model

Coffee workers all throughout the production chain are among the most exploited workers in the world. On many coffee farms, the workers who pick the cherries (often young children) get paid by the bag, and the wages are very low. In many mills around the world, sorters (predominantly women) work indoors hunched over a conveyor belt and get paid, like the pickers, very little by the bag. Paying low wages by volume incentivizes careless sorting and picking practices. This business model is bad for the workers and bad for the coffee.

Our business model involves improving the quality of the product by helping to improve the conditions and wages of the workers who produce it. The sorters we work with in Cameroon work outdoors in a communal atmosphere rather than inside a factory. The pickers and sorters have their bags inspected and receive compensation commensurate with the quality of the cherries and beans they’ve provided. We pay farmers more for their coffee than competitors, and they agree to pay higher wages to workers throughout the chain.

By cutting out the middle man, along with paying above market price for coffee, Mocha Joe’s compensates workers in the coffee production chain with a living wage for their valuable role in producing high-quality coffee. The result is mutually beneficial: Workers get paid better and we get to bring you specialty coffee from Cameroon.