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Protecting an Origin

Unlocking Geographical Indications in Coffee.

If you have been paying attention to the news recently, you might well have spotted a couple of interesting stories. Firstly, the dropping of the Matterhorn and the claim ‘Swiss’ on the packaging from Toblerone, the famously triangular Swiss chocolate bar currently owned by Mondelez, and secondly the US ruling that Gruyere is just a generic name for a style of cheese so cannot be afforded any type of protection of origin.

The US court, according to the BBC said cheesemakers “cannot overcome what the record makes clear: cheese consumers in the United States understand ‘GRUYERE’ to refer to a type of cheese, which renders the term generic”. For Mondelez, the strict rules around manufacturing of products defined as Swiss mean 80% of the raw ingredients must be sourced from the country and so outsourcing production to Slovakia in 2023 means the packaging needs to be reviewed.

All very interesting, but what has this got to do with coffee? Well less commonly known, is that coffee too has various protections (or not) around names and denomination of origin.

We all have a relationship with food in one way or another. Some consume it just for fuel, to keep their bodies going for the next task and others care deeply about who created what they are about to eat and where exactly it came from.

Whether your particular area of interest is cheese (Cheddar), wine (Champagne), sausage (Prosciutto Toscano), or fish (Grimsby), we are often not even aware that sometimes, there are legal frameworks that govern what is allowed to be called what.  Some are so common we don’t always realise they are governed, such as Roquefort cheese or Café de Colombia, others such as Champagne we are more aware of.

Given the amount we talk about traceability then, this is something we absolutely are all over in coffee, right? How many coffees can you name that are covered by an origin protection?

Well according to oriGIn, The Organization for an International Geographical Indications Network – a not-for-profit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) based in Geneva there are ninety four coffees covered, or 112 if you include those which went down a trademark route instead.

The history stems from (amongst others) a 1958 agreement made in Lisbon by the World Trade Organisation. The concept of denomination of origin and the desire to create a union for their protection and international registration was agreed, and for countries outside Europe, there are bi-lateral agreements covering their recognition. Protected indications are treated as intellectual property rights under customs regulations.

Today Geographical Indications (GI’s for short) cover a whole range of sectors, and according to oriGIn represent some 576 associations of producers and other GI-related institutions from 40 countries.

There are three main acronyms in use, PDO, PGI and TSG. For coffee the former two are applicable.


  • PDO = Protected Designation of Origin

Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) – covers the term used to describe foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognized know-how.

  • PGI = Protected Geographical Indication

Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – the geographical link must occur in at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation.


  • TSG = Traditional Specialities Guaranteed

Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) – does not refer to the origin but highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production.

Country specific terms also exist, such as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC, French), Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC, Italy, Portugal, Romania, and Spain) or Denomination of Origen Protegida (DOP, Colombia).  This is hardcore anacronym territory.

What is interesting is that by going through this process, the concept of terroir has to be defined.

This the Instiutut National De L’Origine et de la Qualite (INAO) have done this and refer to it as:

“a defined geographical area in which a human community builds, along its history, a collective production knowledge based on a system of interactions between a physical and biological environment and a set of human factors. In light of the socio-technical factors at stake, a good produced in this area benefits from an originality, a specificity and a reputation.”

(Vincent, E., Flutet, E., Nairaud, D. (2008) « aoc et aop : un système de reconnaissance des terroirs au service du développement durable », Géosciences, numéro 7/8, mars 2008, Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO)

Institut National de Recherche Agronomique (INRA, a French public research institute dedicated to agricultural science) describe it as:

“a delimited geographical area defined from a human community which builds along its history a set of distinctive features, knowledge, and practices based on a system of interactions between the natural environment and human factors. Those interactions result in original and specific products and services that can be easily recognised. Those factors affect as well the people living in that area. The terroirs are living and evolving places that cannot be associated exclusively to elements related to tradition”

Both of these descriptions link the human element alongside the geographical, meaning that simple replication of criteria does not replicate the product. It is a combination of the learning and history as well as geographical context that imbues the product with meaning and value.

Rightly, then, some producers seek to improve their ability to market their coffee by protecting it and increasing its worth through uniqueness. Rene Urrutia from Urrutias Estates in El Salvador points out this more bespoke approach works in certain areas “For instance the Gourmet Section is where you can find the Origin Denomination products at the supermarkets”

We have seen this in DRW through the progression of Cocarive and the Mantiqueira De Minas PDO coffees in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and now are also receiving coffee from the newly awarded Café Apaneca-Ilamatepec (San Ernesto) or Café El Bálsamo Quezaltepec (La Virtud) in El Salvador via Urrutias Coffee. On their recent trip to Honduras, James and Henry visited the newly trademarked Liquidambar Farm. Often the PDO is connected to a minimum cup score as well as third-party verification, meaning roasters can buy forward with a quality certainty that perhaps is not always available elsewhere.

Finca Liquidambar, Honduras

Perhaps one of the more contentious speciality coffees that you would think of has it’s own story to tell. Jamaica Blue Mountain you would probably assume is protected and you would be right. Monsoon Malabar? Correct, both the Arabica AND the Robusta. Think Hawaii Kona though and you would be wrong.

The USA seems to be remarkably averse to creating the ability for a system similar to that in Europe, or other countries. As has been the case with Gruyere or Cheddar in the cheese world, remains true to them in the coffee world. This has meant Kona Coffee has had to go down the trademark route.

The difference is important, as a trademark is owned by somebody, and can be bought and sold. There is also no inherent link to quality, a point that caused a reported disagreement in the 90’s between the (then) SCAA and the Ethiopian government when discussing how best to protect Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe coffee.

This lack of protection led to companies passing off other coffee as Kona though and trying to cash in. There is a class action lawsuit still rumbling around with damages set at just over $6,000,000 or roughly $14,000 per claimant according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 1996, a grower was sentenced for 30 months in jail and a $900,000 dollar fine for buying central American coffee and selling it as Kona. Michael Norton, owner of California based Kona Kai farms also fought hard to block the trademarks of the Hawaii Coffee producers that were trying to protect their coffee from, well, the likes of him.

There is a certain what, irony? In the fact that the USA’s reluctance to adopt a PDO or similar GI scheme has in fact harmed it’s own industries, despite, as I mentioned earlier it’s willingness to overlook other countries too. It was not part of the Lisbon treaty and so has no obligation to follow it, and we are talking purely about a differing political opinion here.

Given that we care so much about origin, traceability and the work that goes into the coffees we buy, we should take a look to see how well protected those coffees are, how valued, and how we intend to support them going forward. It feels like a fully developed system not only allows us the insights into an area to afford ample marketing material, but also the trust in quality to more effectively book coffee forward, or buy without the need for a continual stream of samples.

It will never remove the high end innovation of coffee and profiles, and in fact, looking at the engagement required between history, people, processes, and the environment, even has that innovation baked in. What it does do though is help establish a firmer and more holistic baseline from where to start.