Coffee Notes from All Over

It’s gotta come from somewhere… To the surprise of nobody at all, Starbucks is looking to double its coffee imports from Africa by 2009. “People are looking for something different, and East African coffee is very exotic in terms of its flavors and characteristics,” says Philip Gitao, director of the Eastern African Fine Coffees Association. The fine Arabica varieties found in East African highlands currently provide 18% of the world’s coffee, the largest share from Ethiopia, which claims to be the birthplace of coffee although Yemen disputes that claim. Says Gitao, “Starbucks is now taking African coffees very seriously.” I don’t know just when it started but I’ve taken to calling the collective of Stumptown, Intelligentsia and Counter Culture the usual suspects. Not only are they consistently purchasing the top lots at auction, but they’re also on the ground at origin wherever great coffee is to be found. Or is it that great coffee is getting found because they are on the ground at origin? Hmmm. In any case, they’re all getting some great press this week in the NYTimes in the feature, To Burundi and Beyond for Coffee’s Holy Grail, a piece that highlights the nascent Direct Trade model of coffee sourcing. “Direct trade — which also means intensive communication between the buyer and the grower — stands in stark contrast to the old (but still prevalent) model, in which international conglomerates buy coffee by the steamer ship, through brokers, for the lowest price the commodity market will bear. It also represents, at least for many in the specialty coffee world, an improvement on labels like Fair Trade,...

Shade Grown Coffee — Just How Shady Is It?

All third-party coffee certifications are not equal. I’ve touched upon this idea before, most recently in How Many Labels are Too Many Labels. I think it’s a point that bears repeating, and some critical examination, too. To our good fortune Coffee & Conservation is doing both, by digging deeper into some of those certifications. They’ve recently offered a closer look at two labels that certify shade-grown coffee — Rainforest Alliance, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly” mark — and found that not all shade is equal, either. [T]he criteria having to do with vertical stratification — the number of layers of vegetation and the leaf volume in each — are critical components for preserving a rich mix of species. Many ecological studies support the key role of structural diversity (sometimes referred to technically as floristic heterogeneity) in increased biodiversity — of many types in many ecosystems well beyond the realm of coffee growing. — Coffee & Conservation If that’s a little hard to follow, then the pictures and tables you’ll find at Coffee & Conservation will help. 😉 For more, Intelligentsia’s RoastMaster Gerneral, Geoff Watts, has written a thoroughly accessible piece on the subject. In particular he compares and contrasts shade-grown certifications with Intelligentsia’s own Direct Trade model. Too many of the programs marketed as “solutions” are really just patchwork attempts to fix historical mistakes and seek immediate gratification without trying to rebuild the system from the ground up in a way that can be enduring and self-sustaining. At their worst they involve a lot of moral posturing without providing a great deal of benefit to anyone...
Another View on Black Gold & Fair Trade

Another View on Black Gold & Fair Trade

Hasbean’s Stephen Leighton offers a point of view on the Fair Trade coffee documentary, Black Gold, that’s informed and thought-provoking, and that will surely cause some to get their shorts in a bunch. And that’s just fine. The Fair Trade system as we know it today does admirable things. It is not, however, a panacea. And it’s got some warts. And the only way to make it better is to keep the dialog going, otherwise folks who are serious-minded about coffee quality are simply going to route around it. Point of fact, they already are… witness the rejection of Fair Trade certification by some, and the various and sundry Direct Trade models that have begun to circulate. I don’t think third-party certification is going to become irrelevant any time soon, but I worry that greater numbers of ever more prominent roasters may fold up their tents in favor of systems that offer equal transparency, more equity for farmers — no matter whether they’re a single-family farm or a coop or an estate — and increased respect for coffee quality as a part of the...

How Many Labels are Too Many Labels?

Organic, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Shade Grown, Bird Friendly, C.A.F.E., Whole Trade, Rainforest Alliance… When Sam Fromartz’ article — Is This the End of Organic Coffee — first appeared in Salon it generated quite a lot of reader responses, with many folks writing along the lines of, “Just drink Fair Trade coffee, instead.” I wrote a letter, too, trying to make the point that not all certifications are created equal — Organic and Fair Trade are each distinctive certifications, with different goals and methods and results in coffee farming communities. To suggest that in lieu of buying organic you can instead buy Fair Trade is well intentioned, but misstated. Organic certification protects the land, the water supply, and the ecosystems that surround coffee farms — including many of those greenhouse-gas swallowing rain forest canopies that still exist — and exceeds the environmental goals and criteria of Fair Trade certification, alone. It takes *years* to achieve organic certification on a coffee farm, and it costs not only dollars, but blood, sweat and tears to do so. Pulling the rug out from under coffee farmers who’ve worked hard to attain certification for their farm — and the subsequent price differential for their crop — only to lose it at the stroke of a pen in a government bureaucracy thousands of miles away is not just disheartening, but it could break the will of farming folk who’ve endured hardship enough, already. In today’s Chicago Tribune, writer Monica Eng continues that theme by providing a Cert Cheat Sheet of sorts… and being in Chicago she includes Chi-town’s own Intelligentsia Coffee’s Direct Trade™ label,...

Intelligentsia Coffee Gets Direct

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 Tradeâ„¢ is a name for a philosophy and a buying model that has been in active evolution for the last 6...

Pin It on Pinterest