Art in a Cup
by Bruce Milletto

Support Fair Trade Communities in Tsunami Affected Areas

From Transfair USA

Growing Closer: Roasters Blend Results with Altruism
by Nick Obourn

What's Brewin' — New Coffee News

Growing Closer: Roasters Blend Results with Altruism

by Nick Obourn
Courtesy of Fresh Cup Magazine

That hunt for the perfect coffee is vitally important to every coffee roaster. To offer customers a prized bean, roasted to perfection, is the ultimate goal of dedicated craft roasting. The treasure hunt for perfect and undiscovered green beans takes roasters to some of the most remote places on Earth. They endure hardships and brave dangers in this quest. The payoff is gratification and profit. But along the way, relationships are formed. In many cases, roasters are becoming altruistic links along the coffee chain, taking steps to ensure the future of specialty coffee even in the worst of times.

Fair trade certified coffee has garnered a swarm of media attention in recent years, and for good reason. It has, on a global scale, changed the coffee industry.

But beyond fair trade and the large network of growers it encompasses exist a smaller framework of relationships keeping the coffee industry afloat. These direct relationships between roasters and growers play a smaller part, yet are an equally notable life raft for growers. These relationships often have more negotiable terms, and often result in the attainment of more personal goals than the institutionally-certified variety. The transparent relationships between roasters and growers keep productive trade at the forefront of the growers’ mind. For their part, coffee roasters know this beneficial relationship can not only gain them great beans, but, in small increments, alter the state of coffee as well.

These humanitarian programs, however, can be complex and require a series of steps and negotiations before completion. The journey often begins with a cupping, either at origin or at the home roasting location. Cupping, in fact, is one of the major issues at the center of these humanitarian efforts because cupping is the indicator for taste, and consequently, price. Farmers at origin, most of whom have never tasted their own product, are in dire need of cupping education. Support for origin cupping is one way for roasters to put their money where their mouths are on the issue of coffee quality.

Geoff Watts, green coffee buyer and roaster for Chicago, Ill- based Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters & Tea Blenders, instructed cupping classes for the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL). “A lot of them have never even drunk coffee,” says Watts. Each area co-op was able to send one person to attend the cupping school- funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and headed by Tim Schilling- to then bring that knowledge back to the farm. In August, Watts returned to Rwanda for the final week of the school. Before his trip Schilling had been sending him e-mails informing him he wouldn’t even recognize the students anymore because of their increased cupping skills. The project has been the profile of many articles, the most high- profile of which was a feature in the World Business section of The New York Times on July 27, 2004. The article discussed Rwanda against the backdrop of the coffee crisis and highlighted the financial backing behind PEARL. “ In addition to its own direct aid, which costs a total of $10 million, Project PEARL has facilitated grants from the World Bank, help from nongovernmental organizations, free advice from local universities, and in- kind help from the Rwandan government…” writes reporter Carter Dougherty. Through PEARL, Rwandan farmers are now able to grow to their highest potential, therefore, fetching the highest price on the market.

Through a program initiated by Paul Katzeff, CEO of Fort Bragg, Calif.- based Thanksgiving Coffee Co., a series of nine cupping laboratories was recently completed for co-ops in northern Nicaragua. Funded by a $300,000 grant fro USAID and through an agreement with the Cooperative League of the United States of America (CLUSA), the cupping labs furthered the nine co-ops, which represent 6000 Nicaraguan coffee farmers and 15 percents of all coffee farmers in the country. These co-ops are now able to compete in the market by knowing the quality of what they sell, what price should be affixed to it, and how to taste differences according to conditions in the environment. For roasters, this means that growers are getting as savvy as consumers.

Building Bridges

Once a coffee is cupped and interest is sparked, the roaster begins to search for that particular coffee. It is easy to purchase the coffee through a broker and call it a deal, but so-called relationship coffee is much more tangible. Traveling to the farm is usually the next step. At the farm, a roaster can meet with the co-op’s head and board of directors, or, if the other party is not a co-op, with the owner of the farm.

When a roaster visits the farm itself, he or she is always looking at the farm, the condition of the fields, the washing facilities, how the coffee is processed, what conditions the workers are living in, if they have health care, if they have schools. Steve Lanphier, roast manager for Portland, Ore.- based Portland Roasting, says he tries to gauge how willing they might be to accept new ideas. Lately, and perhaps most importantly, a roaster looks for how theses factors, in their current condition, affect the taste in the cup, and how the grower and the roaster can from a relationship to improve the farm and the taste of its coffee.

“ What needs to happen is that people really need to ask the co-op what (the co-op members) want,” says Kern Cebreros, owner of the San Diego, Calif.- based Elan Organic coffees. And this often varies. “ Well, I really need a donkey. I really need a road. I really need a pick-up truck,” Cebreros says. “ You start putting all these things on the drawing board, but it does take years.” Forming relationships with farmers is a long process, and it works best if both parties are well aware of their ideal parameters and expectations.

In 1989, Whitefish, Mont.- based Montana Coffee Traders first began traveling to origin farms, and R.C. Beall, the company’s owner, was introduced to the co-op manager of Coopesanta Elena, located in the cloud forests of Monte Verde, Costa Rica. A discussion ensued, which grew into an agreement to purchase coffee, and in turn help the farm during the dipping cost of coffee.

“ Prior to that time the co-op was selling its coffee to the general Costa Rican coffee market,” says Scott Brant, sales manager for the company. “ I think [the cost] was around 80 cents a pound. The concern was that, [then], as now, farmers would be leaving the farm or selling the farms or converting their farms to something else that may even have more of an ecological impact on the cloud forest and in that region.

Brant says the agreement struck with Coopensanta Elena let the co-op name its own price, which came to $1.25 per pound, a considerable sum to pay a farmer in 1989. The company also markets the co-ops coffee under the name Café Monte Verde and one dollar of every pound sold goes back to the origin community to fund different projects.

Cebreros admits difficulties can arise with relationships between growers and roasters. “ It’s a marriage,” she says. “ It takes a long time to build trust with small community growers. I’ve been working in some of my co-ops since 1991 and ’92, and we’re still renegotiating and trying to gain trust.” Both parties have to benefit from the agreement, and that has to be communicated in the clearest possible terms, whether it involves a lawyer, a notary or some other kind of third party. Cebreros has discovered that “ origins are big on ritual and formality,” and they are more inclined to take something seriously if it has been documented, stamped or sealed in the country of origin.

Certain origin countries seem particularly reticent to become involved in a relationship with a U.S. roaster. For centuries, dating from the days of colonialism to the present expansion of transnational corporations, many in Central America and South America have felt exploited. This legacy of injustice can make it difficult for a coffee roaster’s intentions to be welcomed. Watts often finds himself “having to explain the idea that better quality means better prices” to growers. Many of them have been using the same techniques for growing, processing, and pricing for generations. “There’s a cultural disconnect,” says Cebreros, and this often leads to intensive negotiations.

“ A lot of people don’t understand that coffee farmers are not necessarily set up well to deal with American bureaucracy,” says Randy Wirth, co-owner and roast master of Logan, Utah- based Caffe Ibis, “ and so a certain amount of hand-holding is very useful.” Caffe Ibis works with growers to assist in the certification process, whether for Fair trade, organic, or Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification. Recently Caffe Ibis worked with Federacion Indigena Ecologica de Chiapas (FIECH), an organization in Chiapas, Mexico, to find a co-op that was interested in gaining certification, but unable to achieve it alone. “We were able to work to see that the quality standards would meet specialty standards, and our standards, and once that was done we helped make the arrangements to see that Smithsonian was able to get an inspector there who could verify the conditions and help them through the certification process,” says Wirth.

Caffe Ibis now buys half a container of coffee each year from the farm as a result f the arrangements. Like most roasters, Cebreros tries to write contracts for several years in advance. “My goal is to try to partner up with communities that will at least allow me to write contracts five years forward,” she says. These agreements can prove to be turbulent with co-ops especially, as they are constantly in managerial flux. Cebreros recounts contracts that had to be renegotiated due to the election of a new co-op head. In these circumstances, having agreements in writing always helps.

An Apple for the Teacher

Many altruistic projects, such as those launched by Portland Roasting, Intelligentsia and Portland, Ore.- based Bridgetown Coffee Roasters, have been directed at the foundation or improvement of schools for farmers’ children, training new teachers for schools and offering scholarships to children who show exceptional talent.

The children who live on the Las Brumas co-op in Nicaragua have always had to walk two hours to school. But Intelligentsia is seeking to change that with the erection of a school on the co-op. The school was a result of visiting the farm and inquiring about its needs. Intelligentsia is also in the process of establishing a fund for the Las Brumas co-op, which will allow customers in the states to set money aside and contribute directly to the farming area in Nicaragua. Customers will be able to track their contributions to fully make the process transparent.

Don Jensen, owner of Bridgetown Coffee Roasters, first traveled to Malawi in 1996. There, Bridgetown Coffee Roasters helped growers understand the intricacies and importance of proper washing and processing and over the years have helped to build two schools.

Portland Roasting works closely with the Kinjibi tribe of Papua New Guinea, and has boosted the quality of the tribe’s coffee and created a tight-knit business relationship concurrently. In May of 2004, Steve Lanphier traveled to Papua New Guinea to meet the farmers who supply his company with coffee. Until this visit, nobody who purchased Kinjibi tribe coffee had ever been to the farm in all its 70 years of operation. “When we first encountered the Kinjibi tribe we tried their coffee and realized what a superior product they had,” says Lanphier. “The story behind the tribe was right up our alley with their focus on education and looking towards the future.” Lanphier recounts with great kindness with which the tribe treated him. The farm’s manager, Paul Pora, and his grandfather, Koi Mund, showed Lanphier the farm and the facilities and a project was born.

“ Their schoolhouses are basically thatch huts without windows, and very primitive, so Portland Roasting is putting in a permanent school structure,” says Lanphier. When it comes to funding these projects in foreign countries, Portland Roasting utilizes a method that allows both parties to contribute. “What we do is pay a couple of pennies per pound over the asking price, and they in turn match our donation either in procuring the building materials or in cash,” says Lanphier. “This way they play an important part in their own development. It’s not like we’re coming in and handing them something, they have to step up as well.” Portland Roasting is also working in Costa Rican schools to hire and train computer teachers.

Promotion of the Product
A relationship has been forged, the contracts signed and trade based on trust is born. But the roaster must still sell coffee. For many roasters, this seems easy because they personally know the importance of the product. But customers are not always aware of this importance and they can’t necessarily feel the moral weight of a bag of relationship coffee. Without this understanding, they are unlikely to pay a premium.

So promotion is the follow-through. “We want to buy your coffee because we’re going to tell your story,” says Cebreros. She also stresses the importance of branding as roasters created individualized labels and promotional materials to market these special coffees.

Perhaps two of the best examples of storytelling through packaging is Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s “End the Embargo” coffee, which proudly projects a high-contract image of Che Guevara and donates 50 percent of the profit of each bag to Global Exchange, and the company’s Gorilla Fund Coffee, which donates two dollars of every bag sold to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) to help protect Rwanda’s gorillas.

Portland Roasting begins promotion of its relationship coffees by notifying appropriate parties. “We start off with a press release and we’ll send out bags of this coffee to various people: chefs, coffeehouses, periodicals. Then we create promotional things, things like counter talkers or little pamphlets,” says Lanphier.

The object of promoting these coffees obtained by such unique means is to convey the importance of the coffee, and in doing so, support the importance of the entire coffee industry. No specialty coffee is morally more important than any other, and so every story deserves to be told.

Caffe Ibis finds that promotion through certification seals has helped tell the story origin farms and at the same time offers something to the farms. Letting customers purchase a Smithsonian Certified Bird Friendly coffee actually know what the certification means has helped Caffé Ibis develop a reputation as one of the most reliable triple-certified coffee sellers in the country.

Happily Ever After
The future of specialty coffee hangs in the unbalanced nature of today’s coffee industry. Chipping away at the surplus of mass-market coffee is only the beginning. Lanphier believes it is “establishing these relationships now that will ensure a steady long term supply of high-quality coffee.” The roaster gets that sought-after diamond-in-the-rough, and “producing countries will have a to produce, because they are working directly with people who are willing to pay them a living wage to get what they want. It’s really the only sensible solution down the road.”


home | what's brewin' | virtual coffee gallery | feature coffee articles | article archives | virtual coffee staff | contact us | links