Whether you’re sipping on a delicious cup of Velton’s Single Origin Mexico Nayarita, or savoring Zoka’s Espresso Palladino, your beans have started their journey hundreds or thousands of miles away from you (at least if you live in Seattle). Roasters source beans for their signature blends or single origins in one of two ways: They either buy green (unroasted) beans from importers, or they visit farms around the world to purchase beans directly from coffee producers.
Coffee is one of the most highly valued products in world trade, however it’s also an incredibly labor intensive crop with a yield at the mercy of weather conditions and a price dictated by market forces. An abundance of coffee in the global market drives prices down, while smaller harvests can demand higher prices. It’s a tricky business since it can take up to four years for a coffee plant to yield fruit, making it difficult for producers to respond quickly to a fluctuating market. In 2001, a global oversupply of coffee depressed prices worldwide to an all time low of 45 US cents a pound, and overnight thousands of farmers were forced out of business. It was an intense reminder of how vulnerable these farmers are to price fluctuations at a global scale.
The Fair Trade program was established to set a floor price for green beans on the global market (a minimum of $1.40/lb for unwashed Arabica, or the market price if higher, plus 20 cent premium for community development) and promote sustainable practices for commodity producers around the world. The participants must adhere to a series of standards such as participation in a co-op and investment of at least 5 cents in quality or productivity investments, and in exchange they become Fair Trade certified (identified by a black and white logo of a man with outstretched arms). Fair Trade Certification is monitored by an independent company called FLO-CERT to ensure that producers are following the outlined guidelines. How does this impact you? As a consumer you can breathe a little easier knowing that farmers were paid a fair price for the beans in your hopper. It’s important to note that Fair Trade has faced some criticism in recent years because it requires co-op participation (excluding some producers that want to remain independent) and some claim there is little evidence of community investment.
Direct trade takes a slightly different approach to sourcing, whereby roasters are traveling to and purchasing directly from coffee producers across the world. This gives roasters access to smaller growers that don’t want to participate in a co-op (and are thereby excluded from Fair Trade), and gives them more control over quality, consistency and visibility into immediate social and environmental concerns. While direct trade has become increasingly popular in recent years, there are no uniform standards that everyone adheres to. As a consumer, this means you are trusting your roaster to conduct business in an ethical manner. Some roasters like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture have established their own direct trade standards to promote visibility and accountability for their purchasing practices. Counter Culture even partners with Quality Certification Services, a 3rd party organization that verifies their own guiding principles. We are extremely fortunate to work with a number of roasters in the Seattle area who source directly; one of which, Caffe Ladro, recently traveled to Central America to source beans, visiting Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. By purchasing directly from producers, not only can they find the highest quality beans, but they can give back to the communities they work with in a tangible way. This year, Ladro will launch a program to donate $1 of each bag of Natamaya coffee to build a soccer field.
Since direct trade relationships have the potential to create long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with producers around the world, the business practice itself is sustainable and more transparent. That means that even those of us who are at the end of the line, enjoying delicious cups of coffee, can better understand where this product comes from and contribute to a positive community impact with every sip … and who wouldn’t dig that?
Over the past few years, Starbucks has been laying off employees and closing down storefronts to make up for lost revenue during the recession, but they’re also now operating in a more crowded competitive space. Where they once dominated the market for quickly prepped gourmet espresso drinks, larger players are coming to the table and upping the ante.
Competing against fast-food chains, like McDonalds, who’s playing hardball by providing their customers with coffee drinks with all the frills but at a lower cost, Starbucks is trying to lure back their coffee connoisseurs who’ve been bedazzled by fast-food prices by offering free internet and access to e-books and sites that usually come at a cost. They’ve also begun mandating a slow down in service that would limit a barista’s drink prep to just one drink at a time — clearly in an effort to show customers some level of artisan skill in the face of the fast-food, assembly-line approach they used before (and from which they are more actively trying to differentiate themselves). This comes into play even more when you consider the ‘third wave’ coffee movement’s focus on the culinary rather than commodity attributes of the mighty bean.
Another way they’re trying to compete is by making their food options more healthy, reinventing their menu by ‘raising the bar on food to be tastier’ with ‘healthier and lighter options.’ Making baked goods that are healthy but without the cardboard taste, Starbucks has incorporated organic blueberries, a higher percentage of real bananas and has made marshmallow squares less of a guilty pleasure at only 210 calories. But other than slimming down their treats, they’ve also added healthier drinks and lunch alternatives by taking a queue from local farmer’s markets. With basic yet natural options, they now have smoothies and salads (i.e. Strawberry Banana Vivanno and Farmer’s Market Salad) made from real produce, which, again, carry less of a calorie count.
Is this what a Starbucks customer really wants, though? If the company grew to become a competitor in the international food market that is on par with McDonald’s by implementing many of the same operational techniques, can they roll these back in a sufficiently effective way to court customers back to their cafes? And how healthy has Starbucks really gotten when you see statistics comparing a 483-calorie Mocha Frappe Latte with semi-skimmed milk almost on par with a 492-calorie Big Mac?
As we have been tracking over the past couple of years, global warming has been impacting coffee growing regions around the world — from excessive rains leading to flooding to increased temperatures minimizing the available coffee-friendly agricultural regions.
The Guardian now has another update for us: The temperatures are warming enough that they are inviting a lovely little pest, the coffee berry borer, to live in higher and higher altitudes. This little beetle wants the same thing we do — coffee, delicious coffee! — but couldn’t hang with the coffee crops all that often because they preferred a cooler clime than the beetle’s 68F degrees. Warming kicked up temps in parts of Ethiopia’s mountainous growing region to this level in around 1984 and scientists have been tracking the borer’s population expansion ever since — it’s now present in every coffee growing region except Hawaii, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
Coffee’s commodity price has been slowly increasing as a result of environmental and economic pressures and is at its highest this year. With an estimated $500m damage sourced to the coffee berry borer crew, it will only serve to increase the cost even more.
If you’re expecting to head to Rwanda and sample some of their world-renowned coffee, you’ll most likely be sorely disappointed in the cup of coffee you end up with. This is true of many of the coffee producing countries of the world, who actually have a relatively small population of actual coffee drinkers. The majority of their coffee is exported around the world — and you’ll probably find a tastier cup in Finland than you will in Ethiopia.
At the end of April, Bloomberg reported (from Euromonitor) the most avid coffee drinking countries in the world, measured by the quantity consumed in liters per capita. We took that, put it in a table and assigned each country a general region, as well, so you can sort it and see which parts of the world are the biggest coffee connoisseurs.
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Since spending a nice chunk of time in its rolling hills in our youth (St. Mullins reprazent), we have always had a soft little spot for Ireland. While the coffee scene in the rural areas was non existent, we didn’t really see much of anything going on in the major cities we visited, either, but that was 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then.
There are a few people holding it down for the bean in Ireland, making great strides to bring quality, experimentation and true gastronomic appreciation for coffee to their communities. We love reading the work folks like Colin Harmon (2009 Irish Barista champ) are doing and we stumbled upon the musings of David Walsh via Twitter. His blog, The Other Black Stuff, provides excellent tips, opinion, perspective and experience on a variety of coffee and equipment related subjects — a great read for anyone interested in how coffee is changing in Ireland, but also interesting from a general coffee perspective as well.
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.
For Richard Branson, an essential criteria for his business success, his compass, is the idea of ‘fun’. He has infused it into all the brands he has founded, promoted and seen flourish — and it’s arguable that the simplicity of the idea in and of itself is what has made the brands he’s launched gain traction and longevity in their respective markets. Sure, when we get too complicated, we lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve and run the risk of confusing the people with whom we’re trying to communicate.
While we absolutely cherish and extol the virtues of fun, when we thought about boiling down what we do at Seattle Coffee Gear to one simple, essential idea, we settled on another word: Knowledge. It’s in this blog we write, in the videos we produce, in our product descriptions, in the customer service we give on the phone and in the store — we have even dedicated a whole website to providing resources and knowledge to folks as they navigate the sometimes far-too-complex world of choosing their coffee related gear. While we have fun with this and it’s important to us to communicate the elemental joy to be found in the experimentation with, creation and drinking of coffee, teaching people, being honest and giving them the information they need to make the right choice for them is our ultimate ideal.
From a pure data perspective, this industry is really young in the United States: In Europe, the average household spends around $800 on their home coffee machine, while we spend an average of $80 in the US — obviously, there is significant room for growth and a big part of that growth is education. One of the most common refrains we hear from customers is that they want simple and concrete information, they’re confused by all the options, which is the best choice, etc. What these people are looking for is honesty, facts, advice and candid experience.
And that’s what we give them. But that’s not always perceived as a positive move in our industry.
While the Nespresso machines are clean, convenient and easy to use — as well as making darn good coffee — some folks are turned off by the fact that the capsules for the machine are available for sale only through Nespresso directly. We sometimes have people stopping into the store hoping to get a small batch of the capsules to tide them over until their next mail order shipment arrives…and you can imagine their sour disappointment when we tell them we’re not allowed to sell any of the demo capsules we have in the store.
It can certainly be a really convenient option for those that are great with planning ahead, especially because you can setup a regular delivery of your favorite types of capsules so, theoretically, you’d never be out. And the way that Nespresso has structured their product and pricing reflects the fact that, when you buy a machine from them, you are starting a long term relationship, not just engaging in a quick n’ dirty one night stand.
So it’s no surprise that Nespresso is reacting with a little bit of attitude to the recent news of a second large company (this time, it’s Sara Lee) in the process of producing capsules that will be compatible with the Nespresso machines to directly compete with them. Last year, another company (Casino Guichard-Perrachon) announced it would introduce capsules made with coffee from the Ethical Coffee Company. Nespresso says it has over 1,700 patents covering the capsules and the way in which they interact with their machines, stating that they will “defend our intellectual property vigorously”.
We think competition does benefit the customer at the end of the day, so maybe two companies coming after their business will result in Nespresso changing up their game a bit. In our opinion, if they widened their capsule distribution to include their authorized retailers, that would be an excellent benefit for everyone involved.
With a lot of recent scientific data pointing to the adverse impact our reliance on fossil fuels is having on the environment, inventors, universities and entrepreneurs the world over have been tackling the issue of alternative energy in different manners. As we wrote about in 2008, the University of Reno had successfully developed a method for converting used coffee grounds into a form of biodiesel. At the time, the results weren’t mind-blowing — yes, it was feasible, but was it scalable?
Over a year later, the BBC1 show Bang Goes the Theory took the idea of turning coffee into a more explicit form of fuel by converting a 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco to use coffee as it test drives 210 miles from Manchester to London. Dubbed the ‘carpuccino,’ the project was taken on to accentuate the importance of experimenting with alternative energy. The catch, however, is the fact that the cost of the trip is between 25 – 50 times that what it would cost if petrol was used instead of coffee. Depending on coffee quality, the cost of the trip could be anywhere between about $1400 and $2800, compared to about $55 for a journey fueled by gas.
So, obviously, this may be a fun idea, but really not a great solution. Add to that the recent assessment by the International Coffee Organization that climate change has begun to severely impact the coffee growing regions around the world — which is contributing to the noticeable increase in the cost of coffee — and the idea of using java to power our favorite transport, digs and gadgets is even more ludicrous. But, we won’t slight them for trying — even if it was ultimately just a publicity stunt.
One of our favorite discussions with Edwin Martinez of Hario USA was in regard to coffee and agriculture. He is a third generation coffee farmer in Guatemala, and also participates on an international level in several aspects of the coffee industry and community — from tasting competitions to product development. Because of this, he has a fairly unique perspective and he often sees the coffee chain from end to end.
In this video, he talked with us about roast trends in the US by region, how farmers react to different industry factors and gave us some insight into how coffee grown at different elevations have different flavors and acidity.