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Cherry Picking Coffee Beans

“Coffee is to Ethiopia what hops are to Bohemia or grapes to Bordeaux. That is, coffee is almost everything, from the cornerstone of the community’s economic fortunes to the lifeblood of its social relations. Java drinking is so deeply rooted here that Azeb was dumbstruck that I could have lived 40 years on the planet never having seen what coffee looks like before it’s plucked, peeled, dried, roasted, and ground.” – David Farley, Coffeeland

If one is going to trace the journey of a coffee bean from farm to cafe counter, exploring the precious crop being grown in Ethiopia (truly the Seattle of coffee-growing countries) is a great place to begin. Farley’s trip to Ethiopia as written about in Coffeeland shows that, like the best cup of coffee,the relationship between coffee growers and buyers starts with the bean. For the farmers who work closely with producers (like Intelligentsia) in a practice called direct trade, the math is simple: the better the bean, the more the farmers get paid. This is different than Fair Trade (note the capital letters), who wants to “guarantee organized farming groups a minimum floor price for their products.” By contrast, direct trade “aims to build a sustainable model based on individual relationships between roaster and farmer, and the assurance that farmers will always get better-than-market price for their coffee.” Minimum prices, sustainable models – they both sound great! Can I have my coffee now?

But just like the highly contentious debate between whether Chemex or Aeropress makes the best single cup of coffee (highly contentious meaning I’ve taken to staging elaborate debates between myself and the cat since I’m home alone by myself all week), the debate between direct and fair trade has supporters and producers taking sides. In The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee, Colleen Haight explains that a standardized minimum cost means farmers have less incentive to strive for truly great coffee, whereas direct trade, though not offering the safety net of a price floor, does serve to motivate coffee growers accordingly.

To be able to find flaws in Fair Trade (‘fair trade’ lower case is undeniably good: “trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries”) shows that the organization has been successful in raising the profile of coffee growers worldwide, thereby allowing other methods to flourish. “We generate awareness to create demand in the market,” explains Stacy Wagner, public relations manager at Fair Trade USA, who goes on to say that 50 percent of American households are now aware of Fair Trade coffee, up from only 9 percent in 2005. Now while awareness doesn’t always equal quality (Exhibit A: Kim Kardashian has the most Instagram followers in the world), we are talking about awareness as it pertains to supporting and empowering those who grow the most amazing bean from which stem’s the world’s most wonderful drink, so it is worth mentioning.

(Which brings us to today’s philosophical interlude: Does great coffee come as a result of natural processes, or careful nurturing? The answer may surprise you!)

The simplest explanation of the two, as Kirby Watson points out in Fair trade versus direct trade: the sociological breakdown, is that Fair Trade emphasizes the community and the cooperative, while direct trade works with individuals, emphasizing the quality of the product. Could their be a happy medium? For Watson, this is the ideal situation: “Direct Trade empowers producers by helping them improve the quality of their product so that they can earn more money on the global market, while Fair Trade empowers producers by strengthening community bonds and emphasizing collective improvement.” Some companies, like Allegro (of the Whole Foods family), do embody the best of both. It’s harder for the farmers to dance those steps.

This dream scenario faces difficult realities in countries like Haiti, the former home of half the world’s coffee production. Because of severe deforestation, aging coffee trees, and farms far removed from their national highways, the remaining farmers are facing a tough situation in which forming cooperatives is a challenge and the physical logistics make scaling up production nearly impossible. Despite this, and through the efforts of the Clinton Foundation, La Colombe, and Technoserve (an international nonprofit that supports business solutions to poverty), work is being done to make “coffee an engine of development in Haiti.” There are 100,000 who still farm coffee – now it’s a matter of getting their product back into mugs the world over.

For a blueprint of success, Haiti should look to Rwanda. Tate Watkins writes in Selling Haitian Coffee to American Hipsters about the history of Haiti’s decline from coffee dominance, and how it compares to Rwanda’s rapid ascent over the past decade, suggesting a possible “return to international prominence” for Haiti in as little as 12 years. At this point, Haiti’s “yields and production are too meager to consistently supply such a large distributor, which is why [they] wants to focus on niche markets for now.”  The hoped-for rise in quality would allow Haitian coffee to be sold at premium restaurants and coffee shops.

That path is easier said than done, as Evan Hansen details in Jesus Saves. Can Coffee? The gatekeepers of specialty coffee are exacting judges, and the audition process by the powers-that-be at Blue Bottle Coffee is as Portlandia-esque as you imagine it to be (to do the cupping properly, you’ll want to work on your inhaling, breaking and violent slurping techniques).

In the lineup of beans from Haiti, Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Indonesia, Ethiopia comes out on top. Haiti fails to make the cut, with the following review: “There is no compelling reason why we have to have this coffee.” While at first taste this seems quite bitter, the lingering notes are sweet for all you Haitian coffee aficionados: “They’re absolutely ready to compete. These are all high-end specialty coffees. None of them has any defects. The second Haitian is very high quality, very interesting. People would buy that.”

So, while Haiti leaves the Blue Bottle Coffee cupping empty-handed, their reunion tour is just kicking into gear. One of its core members, the Haitian coffee company Kafe Na Pou, espouses their belief in direct trade and having “roasters work directly with the farmer to increase the quality and value of the coffee. This model guarantees the social sustainability of the farmer, the economic growth of the farm, and encourages environmental sustainability and community development” (followed by throwing shade at Fair Trade – but that’s okay because shade grown coffee is popular in Haiti).

What is most valuable about this trade distinction is captured by Sarah Stuteville in her article Ensuring coffee growing communities get a fair shot, because while certifications like Fair Trade won’t solve everything, they will be part of the solution. The point is made that “successfully connecting farmers with markets is a crucial way to ensure that it’s not only big plantations that benefit from the coffee boom,” but “it’s just as important to connect consumers with the communities that produced their morning latte.”

So now, when you’re in line at Intelligentsia, or Blue Bottle, or Stumptown, or Grumpytown, and the barista asks you how you like your coffee, just say:

“I like my coffee like I like my trading partnerships: Fairly hot, and put directly in my mouth.”

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