Of Coffee and Commerce

As reported in the Westword story Pot of Gold and in follow-up blogs, some folks in the coffee business are casting a critical eye on fair trade coffee, a certification system that guarantees coffee farmers get paid a minimum $1.26 per pound of beans. Some argue that not only is fair trade threatening to turn into a corporate marketing gimmick, there's also nothing built into the system that encourages one of the most important ingredients in the development of a sustainable coffee livelihood: great-tasting coffee. Since fair trade farmers get paid the same price no matter the quality of their beans, there's nothing spurring them to invest in producing top-of-the-line coffee tastes, for which coffee buyers are often willing to pay way more than fair trade prices.

It's easy to complain about fair trade; it's far harder to come up with an alternative. One company that's trying is Intelligentsia Coffee, a Chicago-based coffee roaster known as one of the top artisan outfits in the business (and the buyer of the world's most expensive green coffee, $52-a-pound Panamanian Geisha). Recently on, a forum for super-duper coffee geeks, head Intelligentsia coffee buyer Geoff Watts described "Direct Trade," his company's new bean-purchasing program. In short, the system involves directly rewarding farmers for high-quality coffees; Intelligentsia promises to pay no less than $2 a pound for coffees it discovers that score about 86 points or more on a 100-point tasting scale. The program requires Intelligentsia see proof that the money is actually getting into the hands of the farmers, not just the middlemen, as well as verification that the coffee's production involves sound environmental and social practices. To make sure all of this happens, Intelligentsia buyers like Watts are contractually obligated to visit the source of each Direct Trade coffee, the individual farms where the beans are grown, at least once a year.

Watts included a fiery call to arms to his over-caffeinated brethren:

[Direct Trade] 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... Let all those who support truly extraordinary coffees be candid in defining what we mean when we talk about sustainability, relationships, and cup quality. Let our actions reflect and validate our words.

Another inspired coffee buyer soon joined in the battle cry: Joseph Brodsky, co-owner of Denver-based Novo Coffee. After failing to find the mysterious origins of the Ethiopian Geisha last October, as detailed in "Pot of Gold," Brodsky remained in the country, searching through its thousands of wild coffee genotypes for other types of super-beans. Now, five months and endless coffee slurps later, he had a disheartening confession: "I've only found three." The problem, he said, is that there's too much dust on these black diamonds — too many poorly picked coffee cherries; too much antiquated processing machinery; too many lackadaisical storage, transportation and sorting procedures. To fix it all, companies like Intelligentsia might have to set their sights even higher than $2-a-pound Direct Trade:

It will take a lot more than $2 to get the dust off of these diamonds. And it will take a team effort and a collective vision that looks beyond our frantic scrambling to put together this year's most stellar green inventory.

$4 gets us much closer.

Not surprisingly, such inspired words have led to significant online discussion among Watt's and Brodsky's colleagues. Many agree with them that the rapid growth of the high-end coffee industry necessitates they seek out more sustainable methods of coffee acquisition. But they have many questions about Direct Trade and similar programs: Would a company like Intelligentsia or Novo use a Direct Trade relationship with a farmer to unfairly monopolize that grower's best beans? And what if that farmer's beans significantly decrease or increase in value by the time they're harvested — does the original Direct Trade contract still hold? And how, exactly, do coffee buyers encourage farmers to shift their focus from quantity to quality, especially in countries where the coffee industry has always been geared towards the greatest output?

Finally, there's the question of what happens to these high-priced beans once they're served in coffee shops halfway around the world. How much would a cup of coffee cost that comes from $2, $3 or $4 Direct Trade beans? Condensing these coffee geeks' rousing yet esoteric coffee talk into a unified, understandable message that inspires everyday coffee drinkers to shoulder much of the financial burden of Direct Trade and beyond — that may be the most daunting challenge of all. — Joel Warner

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner