Frustrated with the foibles and shortcomings of Fair Trade certification — among them Fair Trade’s failure to address coffee quality, and its inability to contract with family farms or estates but only coffee growing coops — a number of boutique coffee roasters have chosen to go their own way. Some have made-do with suggesting their coffee is, “Fairly traded, but not Fair Trade Certifiedâ„¢.” As a slogan it makes for pretty weak tea… especially as it’s a catch-phrase oft plied by merchants who in an earlier age might have specialized in snake oil sales.

More, the phrase doesn’t speak to what the best of these roasters are doing on the ground in origin countries. They’re walking the steep mountain slopes side-by-side with the coffee growers. They’re inspecting washing stations. They’re offering ideas on how to maximize quality over yield, and how to grow a crop in concert with the environment. They’re cupping coffee, and talking about the flavors and aromas and cup character that growers might strive for. And along the way, they’re living in coffee growing communities — sharing a roof with the growers — and building relationships that will last longer than any contract.

Intelligentsia Coffee is one of these latter boutique roasters, and last summer they, too, chose to forgo the Fair Trade label for one of their own making: Direct Tradeâ„¢. More, Intelligentsia has taken an important, additional step to define what Direct Trade is, and what it stands for. Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts:

Direct Trade™ is a name for a philosophy and a buying model that has been in active evolution for the last 6 years. We formalized it last April, and laid out a set of criteria that would give the phrase some backbone. It stands for investment in quality, for the development of very real and personal relationships with the farmers and millers who supply us coffee, and for taking responsibility for the impact of our purchasing to ensure that all the coffee we sell under this name came from situations in harmony with our social and environmental ethics. It also means reward for the farmer�high prices for incredible coffees, fully traceable to the farmgate.

Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade model is ambitious. It’s principled. And it’s transparent. But don’t take my word for it… they’ve laid it all out at their web site.

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