More Than Just A Hill Of Beans

As advances in technology and transportation have made our world smaller, the number of choices -- for everything from vacation destinations to food -- have gotten larger.

The coffee industry is no exception.  I remember, as a kid, when arabica beans became a prized commodity; if you were drinking coffee brewed from 'inferior' robusta beans (with their higher, bitter-tasting, caffeine content), well, then you might as well be drinking motor oil.  It wasn't long before pretty much everyone on the face of the earth agreed that arabica beans do taste better, and robusta went the way of Betamax and cassette tapes.

Then came the explosion of varietals -- Bourbon, Caturra, Typica -- that lend subtle flavor differences to your brown-stained office coffee mug.  Personal preference plays a big role in which coffee varietal you like best, much the same as with choosing a wine varietal; who's to say Merlot is inferior to Malbec?  Skirmishes over these choices will continue until the end of time, and my advice to you is to Keep Calm and Drink On.

In the last few years, though, a debate has been sparked about how the coffee beans have gotten from the grower to your glass -- echoing a trend that has gripped the agriculture industry as a whole.  And, like the farm-to-table movement, the origin of the coffee beans has implications not only on taste but on socioeconomics too.

The first and most well-defined designation to gain popularity in the coffee industry was "Fairtrade," the standards for which are overseen by an international organization.  Fairtrade International promotes the well-being of farmers and farm workers worldwide by helping to improve wages, and guaranteeing minimum prices for the products they produce regardless of the current global marketplace.  If the coffee you buy has the Fairtrade seal, then you know the producers and traders have met international Fairtrade Standards.

"Direct trade" coffee has also become popular in recent years, but this term is more loosely defined than Fairtrade.  In general, direct trade coffee means that there is a direct relationship between the coffee company and the grower.  In some cases it can also connote that the coffee is purchased directly from the farmer, bypassing coffee resellers and organizations such as Fairtrade International.  The result is that buyers of the beans have an open line of communication with the growers to negotiate the terms and product quality, but those terms can vary from contract to contract, and from buyer to buyer.  In some cases this means that growers are assured a "fair price" for their product (as in Fairtrade), and some even negotiate above-Fairtrade-rates for their crop, but this isn't always the case.

The definition of "single origin" is similarly squishy; in some cases the moniker means the beans come from a single farm or a small collective of farms, but in other cases it means the beans came from a single country.  Big difference, right?  Like direct trade, single origin does not have a single definition, and how and when the term is applied is up to the roaster. Some coffee roasters feel that buying beans from a single producer allows for greater control over standards and quality, which produces a better-tasting and more consistent cup of coffee; others feel the final brew tastes better using a blend of beans.

Locally Five Watt Coffee sells and brews beans from Wisconsin-based Kickapoo Coffee, which buys Fair Trade, single-origin, and blended coffees.  Local roaster Dunn Brothers also participates in the Fair Trade USA program and direct-trade programs. Minneapolis-based Dogwood Coffee buys, roasts, and sells direct-trade and single-origin beans.  All of the coffee that Caribou Coffee sells and brews is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, an organization focused on sustainability and conservancy.  Personally, I also really enjoy Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, and Vancouver-based 49th Parallel Coffee, both of which source direct trade coffee that is available for purchase online.

Imbibe Magazine recently published an excellent article called The Direct Effect, which inspired this blog and provided much of the background for information for this post.  I am also grateful to Stephanie Ratanas, a coffee buyer with Dogwood Coffee Co., who provided additional background information.