Attention coffee lovers! The integrity, the very existence of your favorite beverage is at stake! Don't let the international coffee cartel take your cup from you! Go to your neighborhood barista and demand to pay more for your coffee NOW!
No, this isn't an April Fools' joke. The world coffee market is in crisis, threatening the farmers who grow the world's premium beans with economic disaster, and it's up to lovers of a fine cup of joe to save them.
We have some unusual allies in this campaign. Even leaders of the American gourmet coffee industry—people you'd think would be delighted to see the price of their raw material fall—spent a lot of time at their annual trade meeting in Miami this February discussing ways of keeping the price they pay for green coffee beans up.
And specialty coffee retailers, long a leaderless collection of jealously independent free agents, are beginning to realize that in the current economic crisis, big guys like Starbucks and the little roastery round the corner have common interests.
It's hip for Seattleites to think of Starbucks as a soulless marketing machine, but if they'd heard CEO Howard Schultz's address to a March meeting of the National Coffee Association (NCA), they might have had a shock. The NCA represents the really big coffee companies, the multinationals like Nestl頴hat make Starbucks' bottom line look like a latte stand's.
Pacing the stage like a televangelist, Schultz issued a kind of ultimatum to his mass-market brethren that they must begin to strike "a balance between profitability and humanity." "The consumer is performing a cultural audit," he went on to say, according to a March 8 Reuters dispatch: "Authenticity is the number one rule for the day in business with the customer." If coffee companies big and small don't start acting like good international citizens, coffee could go the way of other commodities like steel and copper, becoming an economic millstone instead of a source of profits for all involved in the trade.
Specialty coffee is big business. In 2001, U.S. cafes, kiosks, and carts pushed nearly $7 billion worth of the beverage, while retailers totted up sales of nearly $4 billion. But an $11 billion market ain't beans (sorry) compared to total U.S. imports in the same period of 3 billion pounds of beans, mostly destined for bottles and cans in supermarkets and for low-end commercial use. The U.S. consumes less than a fifth of the world coffee market, and most of the world's annual 16-billion-pound coffee output is crap. It doesn't even come from the same species of bush as the best arabica coffee, but from an inferior relative, coffea robusta, discovered about a century ago in the Congo. But in the weird world of commodity trading, that makes no difference.
Commodity traders, operating in millions of units with every trade, don't want to know anything about what they trade but its price per unit. If the number next to the cursor on the screen says coffee is worth 40 cents a pound today, that's what it's worth, and don't give me any guff about a subtle aroma reminiscent of hazelnuts.
BUT THAT DOESN'T make sense, right? Why should the price of crummy coffee beans affect the price of really good coffee, coffee that people in Seattle or Copenhagen are happy to pay $11 or $12 a pound for? Well, for the very, very best coffee—or at least the most prestigious, like Hawaiian Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain—it doesn't.
But most good coffee isn't grown on such fancy and well-branded patches. (A lot of what's sold under those labels isn't grown there, either—but that's another sad story.) Most top-grade coffee is grown by small family producers on anonymous little patches of Guatemala (or Kenya, or Sulawesi), where the combination of soil and climate, sun and shade are just right to produce a premium berry.
Coffee from the field next door may not be a quarter as good, but by the time all the berries from all the fields on all the farms in that valley have been hauled away to a central location to be processed, any distinction between one bean and the next has been lost. It's all plain "Guatemala" and worth $1, 75 cents, 50 cents, 40 cents: whatever the international market says its worth.
Specialty coffee roasters, of course, don't just place multi-ton orders by e-mail. They demand samples from importers, sometimes sending their own employees into the field to track down processors and millers willing to meet their standards in exchange for a premium price.
Trouble is, the same growers who produce the best coffee also produce a lot of less distinguished beans. Nobody's out shopping for those beans; they have to be sold at the open-market price. Thanks to Vietnam's entry to the world market, there's a huge surplus of cheap, low-grade beans out there, taking Latin American and African bean prices down with them. Thousands of coffee farmers and laborers have lost their land and jobs as a consequence, which in turn has led to a rise in illegal emigration and increased drug trade.
While our government has ignored the dislocations brought on by its obsession with the mantra of NAFTA, dozens of social action groups—from missionary organizations to radical advocates for social change—have been scrambling to find ways to repair or reverse the damage. Together, they've begun to raise the curtain of ignorance that insulates American coffee drinkers from the realities that govern production of their benign addiction. But by putting forward an array of different criteria for politically correct coffee consumption, they've also confused the issue for many of the people who'd be most eager to support their programs.
Take "shade-grown." Activists concerned with the destruction of tropical forests from Indonesia to Kenya have had a good deal of success getting concerned consumers to ask coffee roasters to offer beans from bushes grown the traditional way, in the dappled shade of the subtropical forest understory. In theory, that's great: Natural forest prevents soil erosion and provides habitat for many species of animals and birds, including the North American songbirds that winter in areas from Mexico to Colombia ("bird friendly" is another rubric turning up these days on bags of coffee, thanks to the Audubon Society).
But just as a bean's a bean to a coffee broker, shade is shade on a coffee label. The shade of some "shade-grown" coffee is cast by fast-growing eucalyptus trees planted on clear-cut in a grid rigid as a chessboard. Songbirds don't like eucalyptus; it's useless habitat for ground-dwelling creatures; it does nothing to revive the soil it's planted in. But its shade is good enough to earn the beans grown beneath it a premium price from oblivious Anglo coffee drinkers.
Then there's "Fair Trade." Administered by TransFair USA, the Fair Trade label can appear only on beans for which the wholesaler has agreed to pay a premium price. The cost of this premium is passed on to you, the consumer (Fair Trade coffee beans run about a buck above the average per-pound price), and you get to feel you've helped the people who grew your beans make a sufficient income to weather the worst of the inevitable price swings the market throws at them.
The only problem with Fair Trade is that the program isn't open to all growers. Only cooperatives, democratically operated along some pretty detailed guidelines laid down by TransFair, can apply. But a lot of traditional coffee plantations aren't co-ops; they're privately owned, sometimes by families that have been in the business for generations. Such a plantation may produce first-rate coffee, pay decent salaries, and provide humane working conditions for its employees, but it can't earn the Fair Trade label and premium.
And then there's "organic." Coffee plants can be shade-grown without chemical pesticides and fertilizers by happy, healthy co-op members and still produce beans that aren't fit to drink—because drinkability isn't determined by what you put on the land alone but also by how fit the land was for coffee in the first place.
SPECIALTY IMPORTERS and roasters aren't responsible for the coffee glut or social injustice in the lands where coffee is grown. But they are the ones who take the heat, because they're the ones whose products are sold on every street corner in America. (It's not much fun picketing a can of Folger's.) So it's not surprising that importers and roasters are the ones pioneering a new approach to ensuring consumers both a good and a decent cup of coffee, without a proliferation of confusing labels or political litmus tests.
The evolving model comes from the wine business. Wine grapes are produced in million-ton quantities in temperate latitudes around the world, but wine prices are not set by anonymous commodity traders in London. When you buy wine, even cheap wine, the label on the bottle contains a lot of information about what's inside and where it comes from. And the amount of information is remarkably proportional to the price. People will pay more for a bottle of Chilean cabernet than for something called "Chilean Red." Cabernet from a particular Chilean valley rates a higher price yet, a named village in that valley ditto, and so on.
Not one wine buyer in a thousand may visit the Sauer family's famous Red Willow Vineyard, five miles west of Wapato, Wash. But they know they could if they wanted to, and that confidence is worth money, both to the Sauers and to the winemakers who buy their grapes.
Coffee importers, too, have realized that "transparency" pays. David Griswold, president of Portland-based Sustainable Harvest, shares the ideals of activists trying to improve the lives of the people who grow the coffee we drink, and he takes advantage of all available certifications in marketing his beans to the trade. But he believes that the best way to reverse the commodification of coffee is to eliminate the anonymity that shrouds its origins.
"If you buy coffee labeled 'French Roast,' you really have no idea what you're getting, beyond a dark roast. And the darker the roast, the less you can taste the individual character of the beans that went into it. Same thing with 'organic' and 'Fair Trade.' They say something, but not about the coffee."
As far as possible, Sustainable Harvest labels its coffees not just by country of origin but by region, village, or farm. Griswold's Panamanian beans come from a specific farm, Finca Bar. His Rio Coco is a "regional" containing beans from a number of small growers in Nicaragua, while "Volcan Fuego" is more like a brand, referring to beans from Guatemala's premium coffee region around the city of Antigua.
"There are relatively few great coffee growers in the world," Griswold says. "The way you find them is to 'go to source' and seek them out. That's what we do. [Every member of the Sustainable Harvest team is bilingual.] It's the only way to find out enough. When someone like Allegro [the coffee arm of Whole Foods] comes to us for exemplary certified coffees, we can show them photos of the plantation the product comes from.
"When we find growers who meet our criteria of quality, we try to develop an ongoing relationship with them. Naturally we're tempted to try to keep them to ourselves—I used to stay up nights thinking, 'What if these growers go to someone else?'—but the importance of transparency outweighs that. Ideally, I'd like everybody to be able to go on the Web and see the people and the plantation their favorite beans come from."
Go to www.sustainableharvest.com, for example, and click on "Costa Rica Cloud Forest Organic": You won't learn just about its "sweet, rich flavor, medium acidity, and chocolatey aroma," you'll also learn that the beans are grown under medium-density multispecies forest cover at an altitude of about 3,300 feet near the Monte Verde Nature Preserve by a cooperative of over 600 farmers producing just under 500 152-pound bags each November to January harvest season.
Griswold, who got involved in coffee in the first place as part of "my own little private Peace Corps," is not content with posting information and pictures on his site for customers to look at. He encourages customers to "go to source" themselves.
One such visitor was Scott Merle, green coffee buyer for Olympia's high-end mail-order coffee company Batdorf & Bronson. Merle has been in the business for 16 years, 12 of them with B&B, but it took two days of hard physical work processing raw coffee berries this January in the mill at Finca la Manita, in the mountains south of San Jos鬠Costa Rica, to complete his connection to the trade. "It's one thing to visit a farm and have someone tell you that the berries have to be turned in the sun on the patio for two or three days, and [another to be] working yourself turning them for a couple of hours and thinking, 'Eight hours of this, huh?' It makes you appreciate the dedication of the people who make good coffee possible."
La Manita, which produces 1,200 bags a year of superpremium beans, routinely invites importers and roasters to visit the farm during harvest. Smaller operations don't have the luxury of that kind of bonding with their customers. It was pure luck that Sustainable Harvest's Griswold ran across beans from a tiny farm outside Antigua, Guatemala, called Finca el Valle a few years ago and realized he was on to something really special. He passed the news on to Whole Foods coffee buyer Kevin Knox, who had been buying beans from neighboring properties for some years.
"Cristina Gonzales is a woman in a business dominated by male old-money guys," says Knox. "Except for seasonal harvest workers, her family literally does all the work [of] producing maybe 500 sacks in a good year. She didn't have any capital, so she had to borrow to cover her costs until harvest—in a country where the interest rate is maybe 30 percent."
El Valle's entire annual output could keep Whole Foods' Allegro brand in business for about three weeks, but such was the quality of Gonzales' handcrafted beans that the company started looking for ways to make sure she could stay in business. "We made her a deal where we paid 30 percent of what we contracted to pay for her crop up front—in effect offering her U.S. rates of interest to finance her crop."
Griswold sees such focus on the concrete needs of quality growers as the key factor in maintaining and expanding their prosperity. As president-elect of the Specialty Coffee Association of America for the coming year, he has to be tactful about the pressure groups who want to leverage his business to achieve various political, social, environmental, and ethical goals: "I like to look at solutions that are outcome-based, not structural." Knox is less discreet, talking about "joyless cause coffees" and dreaming about getting coffee drinkers to abandon their attachment to anonymous proprietary blends and look instead for coffee redolent with "the taste of place."
If that sounds impossibly idealistic, remember that even Howard Schultz says he's seen the light when it comes to letting everybody in the coffee pipeline have a fair share of the take. "Success is very shallow and lonely when it is not shared," Schultz told the world's coffee magnates last month. "The rules of engagement must change. We can't allow people at the bottom to be left behind."