No, there weren’t any wrestlers present, but there was a high concentration of coffee related ninjas on the floor. Last week, we were lucky enough to head down to Anaheim, CA, for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Main Event, which is a specialty coffee industry educational and trade show that covers everything from coffee growers to roasters to equipment suppliers to mad skilled baristas. This year, it also hosted the United States Barista Championship — with Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia defending and re-securing his title. He’ll be heading out to compete with the rest of the national barista champs from around the world at the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) event this summer in the UK.
But back to the show. We attended a few different lectures, talked with many of our vendors on the trade show floor, watched Midwest Barista Champ Mike Marquard compete in the USBC semi-finals and even headed to a little partay that Intelligentsia, La Marzocco and Espressi (makers of the MyPressi TWIST) were throwing at Intelligentsia’s roastery in L.A. Yes, Grammy got her groove on.
In this video, Gail talks to us about what she learned from the lectures we attended, discusses some new products we saw and even shares with us her new love for TWIST-inspired cocktails.
In the coffee world, there is a lot of conversation around sustainability — environmental, cultural, social and economic. Some specific brands of commerce and marketing (such as the Fair Trade certification or the development of direct trade relationships between larger coffee roasters and coffee plantations) have begun to flourish and really mean something to us, the consumers, at the other end of the coffee mug.
We may try to buy coffee that we know has a socially conscious providence or we may elect to do business with companies that are trying to create more equality throughout the entire coffee production cycle, from tree to cup. Another way we can contribute is to engage in microloans — giving money to an international entrepreneur through an organization such as Kiva, because $25 really can go a lot further in some parts of the world. These loans are mostly paid back to the lending organization and then you can choose to take your money back or to roll it into another microloan to help someone else.
For an example of how such a program can positively affect the coffee agriculture business, check out this great blog article on Kiva that shares the impact of its program on coffee farmers in Costa Rica.
Last November, we wrote about how the excessive rains in India were adjusting the forecast coffee exports from that country, and they have now reported a 21% decrease in exportable coffee during the 2008 – 2009 growing season. But it’s mostly about when the rains hit — they reported in June of this year that heavy summer rains will likely result in a 17% increase in coffee exports for the 2009 – 2010 growing season that begins on October 1st.
Because we’re working with an agricultural product, the flavor nuances and fluctuations created by the weather really do inform the more artistic elements of coffee overall. The ‘third wave’ of the espresso industry (which Eric from Seattle Espresso Machine Co. and Sam of Equal Exchange talk about in this video) was largely brought about by the ability to source very specific beans from estates around the world. Instead of buying huge blended batches of beans from an exporter, roasters started to go to the plantations themselves and trying different coffee beans, charting how they changed over time — sometimes the plantations produced an amazing coffee, other times they would maybe be just good or not-so-great.
Obviously, the specific plants and the altitude/growing style, as well as how the coffee is processed, will inform the flavor, but a big unknown every year is how the weather impacts the growing cycle. Similarly to how wine vintages are known for having a particularly good weather year, imbuing the grapes with the perfect balance of sugar and acids to make a great bottle of wine, the coffee cherries themselves produce different flavors every year depending on how the weather was in a particular region. This is why a blend you loved a few years ago may have changed in flavor over time — and why there is often a little bit more art than science involved with making really great espresso.
The Fair Trade/Direct Trade movements over the past few decades have helped bring about the opportunity to appreciate coffee on this very micro level, but while they have done a lot to contribute to the sustainable and cultural development of farming communities around the world, this excellent article by The Guardian outlines how contending with global climate change will require a more comprehensive, orchestrated approach. Last year, the rains hit India at the wrong time — a long drought resulted in intense flooding once the rains finally came — and this year they arrived at just the right time. That’s not always going to be the case; in fact, the global climate change projections indicate that this bust-then-boom weather is likely to increase.
Given that coffee is the top tropical commodity in the world, and given that most of the farmers who grow it already spend a few months of year in poverty — despite Fair Trade/Direct Trade/sustainable movements — this is not a pretty picture on the horizon.
With Portland’s Stumptown representing strongly for the West Coast and Durham’s Counter Culture keeping it real for the East Coast, Chicago’s Intelligentsia brings up the middle, melding it all together and offering a similar brand of java-love to folks in the Midwest and beyond. These three companies feature multi-city locations, direct trade values and a commitment to both the art and science of great coffee — to paraphrase Intelligentsia’s David Latourell, it’s about consciousness.
Flavorwire recently sat down with Latourell to discuss Intelligenstia, what it’s about, what the contemporary coffee movement is focused on and what’s next. We loved his references to slowing down and understanding what you’re ingesting, what you’re taking in and why. Sure, a lot of us drink coffee for its caffeine perks, but it’s more than that to a lot of people around the world and it’s good for us to take a step back and appreciate that. We recommend reading the interview — which also includes Latourell’s tips for finding great coffee and great cafes.
Social Entrepreneurship is the new Dot Com and you can find a great selection of new start-ups that are focused on balancing capital growth with giving back to whichever cause they happen to believe in. Enter Kate Schneider, founder of Buena Beans, a Massachusetts-based coffee importer and roaster with a business plan devised very specifically to help a cause close to her heart. Schneider spent a year teaching in the small town of La Violeta, Costa Rica, through Harvard’s World Teach program and decided that she wanted to give back to that area by assisting them with their primary agricultural export: Coffee.
The idea was inspired by the fact that thirteen families in the area were looking for distribution after they had a negative experience with a coffee cooperative. Schneider decided to get into the direct trade business and is now selling both green and roasted beans under the Buena Beans label. The company then donates 50% of the profits from each sale directly to the school in La Violeta, which serves about 40 children from the village. You can read more about the Buena Beans story in this excellent profile written about them for The Herald News, or you can contribute to her business by checking out the website.
Economic equality between genders is still quite disparate around the world, and the coffee cultivation industry is no different. In many places, women cannot even own the land they work and if their father or husband dies, the ownership reverts to the state or another male relative, regardless of who is inhabiting and working the land. There are many organizations that are working around the world to change this, because one of the major contributors to cyclical poverty is if a country does not support the personal ownership of land and property. Of course, the reasons for a state to not promote this kind of empowerment are varied and complex — and often can be attributed to long-held cultural beliefs around class and status. Since women are often considered a lower class in many parts of the world, they don’t have a lot of rights around changing laws and systems in order to improve their circumstances.
One project in the coffee industry that is taking on this issue is Cafe Femenino, a consortium of female coffee cultivators that seeks to secure land rights and financial security for its members. What began as a group effort by Peruvian coffee farmers in 2004 has grown into an international organization, which is supported, in part, by the Vancouver, WA, based Organic Products Trading Co. OPTCO is the sole importer of the coffee grown by member farmers and resells to many roasters and retailers around the US.
Learn more about Cafe Femenino, the evolution of the project, where you can purchase this coffee in order to support its growth and Organic Product Trading Co.’s history by visiting the project’s website.
If you’ve been reading our blog for awhile, you know that coffee is the 2nd highest traded commodity in the world, which certainly translates into its high impact — both negatively and positively — on the communities in which it is grown. Generally, a farmer sells to either a distributor or a large roaster, who then resells to smaller distributors for direct sale or to retail locations, which then finally sell to you. Each participator in this chain is leveling some profit margin on top of what they paid, so $1.25/pound paid to the coffee farmer ends up as your $12/pound bag of coffee in your home.
The idea of fair trade is often bandied about with regard to several commodity goods, and fair trade establishes a minimum price that, despite market fluctuations, participants will pay for a specific product. Many large scale roasters are taking a different tack: Going directly to the source itself. Perhaps in the past they were working with a distributor who would levy a profit on top of what they paid to the farmers and the costs of importing. The roaster may have been paying $4.00/pound for the beans, but the farmer was only seeing $1.25 of that, so a movement toward direct trade is burgeoning amongst larger roasters such as Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown in Portland or Counter Culture in Durham.
What is direct trade? Well, instead of dealing with all the middle men that add cost onto a pound of coffee, these roasters are developing relationships directly with farms themselves. This means they can contribute to an increased quality of life by paying a higher price that doesn’t affect their overall retail price. It also means they’re able to understand at a more detailed level the quality and origin of the coffee they’re roasting and selling. This gives them the ability to delineate between single origins and to perfect blends based less on generalized bean profiles and more on an understanding of the agricultural product, its environment and how it’s processed.
China Millman wrote this great synopsis of the specialty coffee movement toward direct trade. It urges us to be cognizant of what we’re buying and who we’re buying it from — especially in the context of the current international financial market reset. To skimp and save is on everyone’s minds, but it might just be more about spending wisely than not spending at all.
It’s important to keep in mind that beyond flags, borders and politics, this planet is more interconnected than we sometimes give it credit and something as simple as coffee can make a huge difference in the lives of families on the other side of that planet. To stop and make a choice to do business with someone who is cognizant of that connection and choosing to shift the economic and power balance out of the hands of brokers and into the hands of farmers is a powerful decision that will make every cup of that coffee taste all the better.
We found this very interesting letter to the editor of a Jamaican newspaper, which describes the state of the coffee agricultural industry in different regions around that country. The writer references the fact that the farmers in non-Blue Mountain areas decreased their coffee output as a form of protest against the commercial industry’s treatment and pricing. Over the last eight years, output has plummeted by nearly 85%, yet it hasn’t been addressed — or even picked up on — by the international coffee community.
Now, even Blue Mountain farmers are fed up with the industry and may head in this direction, as well, which would be a real shame. People often dismiss the essential influence of climate, environment and soil in the end result of any agricultural product — and Blue Mountain coffee has a distinctly unique flavor. While varietals were transported to Hawaii and form the basis of Kona coffee, the environment is quite different and Blue Mountain still retains its special taste.
This is part of a larger picture, however, that encompasses how we get our food — who grows it, how it’s grown, preserved and delivered. Applying a mass market ideology to our food supply has been detrimental in many respects, most poignantly in regard to the basic economic viability of smaller scale farms. If you’ve ever been part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group with an annual subscription, you understand that the cost and time involved in growing food on a smaller scale is significantly higher than what you might find at the local Safeway. It may not seem worth it — you know, when you can’t get oranges in December or your eggplants don’t last 6 weeks.
Could the Direct Trade or Fair Trade movements help balance this out? Will an international acceptance of more equitable trade practices happen quickly enough to address the issues these Jamaican farmers are experiencing? There is something to be treasured in the limited, hard-to-find, micro-production of artisan foods and we hope there will continue to be an avenue for Jamaican coffee to be shared with the rest of the world.
With the explosion of the Robusta coffee industry in China, whether or not the international coffee industry will see the value in quality over quantity remains to be seen.
Agricultural sustainability is a global challenge — from biodiversity to non-toxic farming practices, there are significant issues that we face in regard to ensuring our food supply is healthy, scalable and, most importantly, fair to everyone involved.
To that end, Lavazza launched the Tierra! Project in 2004, which supports sustainable economic, social and agricultural development in three coffee growing communities located in Honduras, Peru and Colombia. The Tierra! beans are 100% Arabica, completely traceable and you’ll know your money goes toward supporting an overall increase in the standard of living in these communities.
While coffee is regaled the world over and is the 2nd highest traded commodity, the farmers that grow these delicious beans receive very little of the economic boon you’d expect given the place their product has in the market. Supporting fair trade and economically sustainable coffee outfits is one step that you can take to help change this global dynamic. Sure, it’s small — but will likely make more of an impact than you can imagine.