To the untrained eye, the coffee futures ring is a pretty unlikely arrangement: 250 people hopping up and down hysterically. Looking down on the tumult from the eighth-floor gallery at the New York Board of Trade (NYBOT) in Lower Manhattan, however, Ed Faubert sees only order. "It's the collective wisdom of the entire coffee world asserting itself," he says. "All the coffee knowledge on the planet at this moment is being channeled into one place. Co-op farmers in their fields in Guatemala are monitoring what's going on with pagers; there are people in Japan calling in contracts in the middle of the night. It's amazing how well it works."
Since taking his first job 30 years ago in Toronto with General Foods, the founder and sole employee of L.E. Faubert & Co. has become not only a coffee broker and a private taster, but also, most important, a NYBOT-certified "cupper," or grader. His ability to occupy all three roles puts him at the choke point of the entire $19 billion industry, a slim bridge between the hundreds of importers, exporters, manufacturers, growers, and shippers, and the tens of millions of U.S. coffee drinkers.
"Clearly, more Americans are drinking more coffee, more frequently," says Joe DeRupo, spokesman for the National Coffee Association, whose annual market research report on the number of coffee drinkers in the country has been the industry's gold standard for 50 years. In 2006, says DeRupo, 82% of adult Americans will drink coffee, up from 79% just two years ago.
As with other commodities, the process of "discovering" the daily price for coffee is built on hand signs and even lip-reading; each contract accounts for 37,500 pounds of the estimated 16 billion pounds of coffee grown annually worldwide. Faubert and the other 47 NYBOT-licensed cuppers determine which coffee gets sold at the open-market price and which at a punitive discount because of inferior quality. So when the traders in the pit that morning were buying arabica futures for March 2007, they were betting not only on the size of the October 2006 harvest in, say, Antigua, Guatemala, but on what Faubert and his fellow cuppers would think of it.
A cupper grades coffee the way a wine-taster grades wine, in an exercise in carefully calculated subjectivity. The semantics are as finely parsed as they are difficult to define, with some 240 commercial classifications of coffee. NYBOT cuppers look—and smell and taste—for "defects" ranging from "fermented" to "earthy" to "potato" (yes, certain beans from Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda can actually taste like a raw Idaho baker). There is no perfect coffee, Faubert says. He is after a coffee that is simply "sound" enough to be traded on the futures market, meaning it will have no "substantial" bad characteristics. In those 2006 Guatemalan arabicas, for example, Faubert might detect, mixed in among those that are "clean," "acidic," and "bright" (all good characteristics associated with Guatemalan, Colombian, and Mexican arabicas), a cup or two that taste "dirty," "flat," or "musty."
But even Faubert has a hard time des-cribing what he tastes. "It's like if I ask you to describe 'sour,' " he says. "You know what sour is, but can you give me a synonym? Probably not." Still, he continues, with all due modesty, "I can tell from blindly tasting a cup of coffee not just that it is from Guatemala, but from what state it comes, at what altitude it was grown, and on what mountain." He then tells of walking with a fellow grader into the cupping room at the NYBOT, where five tables were set with 60 cups of coffee each. "There's a fermented cup over there," Faubert's friend declared, then walked to one of the tables, tasted a few samples, and pushed the offending cup forward. "He was right," Faubert recalls. "Three hundred cups of coffee in the room, and he smelled the fermented cup the second he walked in."
Not surprisingly, not too many palates are that finely calibrated. Every two to four years, the NYBOT attempts to anoint new coffee cuppers through a two-to-three-hour exam (a pair of cuppers serve as judges). Candidates are required to grade 10 samples by counting the imperfections; then they describe the myriad characteristics in 60 more cups of coffee. If 40 people take the test, one or two might pass. Often, no one does.
Faubert is a surprisingly decaffeinated soul. Speaking in slow, careful sound bites, he can deliver an exhaustive-yet-efficient disquisition on yield versus growth altitude in Guatemalan beans, or diagram the five-year rise of Vietnam in the coffee market. (The Vietnamese "strategy," Faubert explains, was to dump 16 million bags of low-quality robusta into a world market with only 1.2% annual growth, promptly crushing the world's robusta price: "They haven't entirely figured out capitalism yet," he says.)
The Vietnamese example is only one in a lengthy list of ways coffee has changed in the past few years. Perhaps the biggest shift, says Mike Cahill, an importer in New Jersey who has known Faubert for 30 years, is the emergence of the specialty coffee market, headlined by Starbucks. "The coffee industry has just gotten a lot more difficult," says Cahill, the owner of Cahill Associates LLC. "It's much more diverse and therefore a lot more competitive." He adds that it's Faubert's three-tiered business approach, with grading as the fulcrum, that has given him such leverage: "Cupping is very, very important in both the industrial and the specialty businesses. It's how Ed stays in the flow."
"I can tell from blindly tasting a cup of coffee not just that it is from Guatemala," says Faubert, "but from what state it comes, at what altitude it was grown, and on what mountain."
Much of that flow these days comes from Latin America, which produces roughly 70% of the world's coffee (Brazil alone accounts for one-third). "If there's a poor growing season in Brazil, then there's a real market famine," Faubert says. "In that case, I might have people—Maxwell House, for instance, which is owned by Kraft—who will call me and say, 'I need X number of batches of coffee with 27 defects, and another X with 9.' They'll blend those coffees to get the taste they want. I'll go around to the growers I represent in Guatemala or Mexico and find coffees with exactly the cumulative characteristics Kraft needs."
When Faubert isn't performing superhuman olfactory feats or brokering deals between growers and Kraft, he's working as a freelance quality-control agent. Once importers have actually taken delivery of their coffee—and in the United States alone, an average of 20 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee, or one-sixth of the world's supply, are imported each year—someone has to make sure that the buyers actually got what they paid for. Having a NYBOT cupping certificate puts him somewhere near the head of that line.
Faubert admits to the enormous pressure of reducing one of the world's biggest businesses to a simple question: Is it good? "To be a success," he says, "you need to combine a refined palate with the nerves of a hedge-fund trader and the social skills of a globe-trotting diplomat." Then, with a smile, he adds: "There's a reason I drink 10 cups of coffee a day."
Nick Reding is an author in New York. His second book, MethLand (Houghton Mifflin Company), about the U.S. methamphetamine epidemic, will appear in 2007.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.