Given the brutally low prices being paid to farmers for their coffee at this moment in history, it is difficult to be critical of a concept like Fair-Trade certification. Larger farms are threatened with bankruptcy, peasant farmers with starvation, and the American specialty coffee industry with deteriorating supplies of fine coffee. Fair Trade is one response to this crisis. A Fair-Trade seal certifies that a coffee has been produced by a democratically run cooperative of small-holding farmers who have received a fair price, derived by formula, for their coffee.
Nevertheless, the Fair-Trade movement has created intense controversy and opposition inside the specialty coffee industry, including opposition from some professionals with a long and honorable record of active commitment to progressive and humanitarian causes. Furthermore, the Fair-Trade concept has provoked considerable confusion among coffee enthusiasts, who are regaled by five or six kinds of certification seals, are baffled by what they all mean, and are unclear about how they relate to the actual experience of the coffee in the cup.
Perhaps some of the resentment toward Fair Trade among specialty coffee professionals has to do with the oversimplified rhetoric that it encourages among some of its supporters (a kind of conceptual melodrama, Fair Trade vs. the technified coffee pigs, with no alternative approaches acknowledged), as well as its exclusive commitment to small-grower cooperatives, thus excluding the many medium-sized coffee farms whose management has made a long-standing commitment both to environmental and social responsibility.
Fair-Trade and the Q-Word
But the most persistent gripe among coffee professionals, and the most significant issue for coffee enthusiasts, is "quality" - whether Fair-Trade-certified coffees measure up to other fine coffees in terms of quality in the cup. I would add the term "distinction" - do Fair-Trade coffees match up in terms of quality and distinction? Because to me a really fine coffee should not only taste superb, but superb in a way that is a bit different from the way most other coffees taste, a way that reflects either the subtle influence of the place where the coffee was grown or the roaster/blender's artful intention.
So how good, and how distinctive, are Fair-Trade coffees? With the help of David Griswold of Sustainable Harvest, a leading importer of organic and Fair-Trade coffees, Seth Petcher of TransFair USA (the American Fair-Trade certifying agency), and several roasting companies that promote the Fair-Trade concept, I assembled 31 fair-traded coffees. Most of these coffees were single origin coffees; a few were blends of various Fair-Trade origins.
All are also certified organically grown, because the Fair-Trade movement has so far piggy-backed on the pioneering work already done by the organic coffee movement in identifying and providing incentive for cooperatives of peasant growers. It may be good to keep in mind that both Fair-Trade and organically grown coffees are examples of a much larger phenomenon called partnership or relationship coffees - coffees that reflect a direct, ongoing partnering relationship between the company that roasts and sells the coffee and the people who grow it.
Of the 31 Fair-Trade coffees submitted for the cupping, several were roasted extremely dark - to what is often called a "French" roast, a roast style that is so extreme that all that survives the roasting is a charred pungency and a vague, high-toned sweetness. Although it is difficult to evaluate any green coffee when it is so thoroughly dominated by the roast, I included two of these ultimately roasted coffees in this review because I felt that, in these cases, the extreme dark roast was carried out tactfully enough to allow some qualities of the underlying green coffee to be felt and evaluated.
Fair-Trade's Limited Menu
In terms of origin, the 31 submitted coffees broke out as follows: Eight Guatemalas (including four from the same cooperative), six Mexicos, four Costa Ricas, three Nicaraguas, three Perus (including two from the same cooperative), two Sumatras (both from the same cooperative), and five blends.
A glance at that list should suggest one limitation of Fair-Trade coffees. At least at the moment, there simply is not much variety. Where are the great coffees of East Africa? Where the sweet, smooth Brazils? The Papua New Guineas? The great twisty, fruity Harrars and Yemens? What about Colombias?
For example, the two arguably greatest coffee origins in the world, Kenya and Ethiopia, are not represented on the Fair-Trade menu. This despite the fact that almost all Kenya coffees are produced by the kind of democratically run cooperatives Fair Trade proposes to support, and almost all Ethiopia coffees are grown by small peasant holders in conditions that are de facto organic. Perhaps Kenya is not represented because Kenya coffees already command a relatively high price on the world market. In the case of Ethiopia, I do understand that a Fair-Trade Ethiopia Limu is on the way.
Fair-Trade Success: Gentle Centrals
But what about the Fair-Trade coffees we do have? What is there here for the coffee lover who doesn't care so much about variety, only about a good, singular, satisfying cup that pays farmers a bit more for their efforts?
The short answer: If that coffee drinker enjoys Central America coffees with relatively gentle profiles and pleasantly fruity and chocolaty notes Fair Trade offers some impressive options. This cupping turned up excellent examples of the softer style of Central America cup, including excellent samples from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. But if that coffee drinker prefers another style of singular cup - big and robustly acidy, for example, or low-toned and foresty a la Indonesia, or floral and berry-like a la East Africa, then even the best of the current assortment of Fair-Trade cups may not satisfy.
Fruit and Chocolate
But first the good news from Central America. The "La Voz qui Clama en el Desierto" cooperative in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala has been producing fine coffees for some years, and the four "La Voz" coffees reviewed here are characteristically impressive: sweet, nuanced with suggestions of fruit and chocolate, gently seductive. One of the four displayed a mild wine-like ferment, which is common with coffees from this cooperative. Purists will not like the sweet ferment, but I do, and many coffee consumers do also.
For the past several years coffees have been appearing from the large Prodocoop cooperative in Nicaragua that are superb in a different way: low-toned, resonant, full-bodied, chocolaty sweet. Only one of the three Nicaraguas submitted fully displayed these characteristics, but the Nicaragua Miraflor from Taylor Maid Farms reviewed here is an impressive example of the style.
The low-toned, chocolate-fruit-nuanced Costa Rica Tarrazu from Thanksgiving Coffee offered still another attractive Fair-Trade option from Central America, and the aggressively dark-roasted but still complex Costa Rica Monteverde from Caffe Ibis another.
The Rest of the Fair-Trade World
Now the less-than-good news: Overall, both the Mexico and the Peru Fair-Trade samples were rather disappointing, although the Mexico Pluma Hidalgo from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters impressed. In the case of the Perus, I suspect that the coffees were simply old crop and faded in flavor. The Peru harvest is taking place now, which means that the Perus in this cupping almost certainly were a year old by the time they were roasted. Peru is at best a delicate origin, relatively light-bodied and sweet, and such coffees often do not stand up well to lengthy storage.
On the other hand, the Fair-Trade Sumatra, imported by ForesTrade, a company that produces a variety of organic and ecologically sustainable products from Indonesia, seemed a bit improved over samples of this coffee I have cupped from previous years. This year's crop still doesn't approach the finest of traditionally processed Indonesia coffees, with their deep character and forest-floor complexity, but the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' version of the ForesTrade Sumatra, with its musty tones that read as spice or smoke, is a pleasing rendition of a style of sweetly musty Indonesia cup.
Finally, a Fair-Trade-inclined coffee drinker who avoids caffeine has an impressive choice in Thanksgiving Coffee's decaffeinated Guatemala Atitlan. This coffee, sweet, rich, deep, floral-nuanced, would surely hold its own in any cupping of decaffeinated coffees, regardless of certifications or lack thereof.
Tough on Blenders
The limitations of the current selection of Fair-Trade coffees is seen most clearly in the blends submitted for this cupping. Without any brightly acidy coffees to provide highlights, without any fruity or floral Ethiopias to tickle at the top of the profile, and, above all, without any of the deep, rugged style of Indonesias that give resonance and authority to the bottom of the profile, I fail to see how a blender can produce much of real interest using the current range of Fair-Trade green coffees.
This cupping's exception to that generalization is the "Beethoven's Viennese" blend from Santa Cruz Coffee, which perhaps succeeds because its goal, like the goal of all good Viennese-style blends, is the very sort of chocolaty, smooth, round character that is supported by the best of the softer style of Central America coffees that comprised the stars of this cupping.
It may well be that somewhere out there artful blenders have managed to produce other kinds of blend masterpieces with the very limited palette afforded by the current range of Fair-Trade coffees, but more than likely the great Fair-Trade blends will have to wait until the Fair-Trade leaders manage to bring some of the other worthy coffee colors of the world into their kit. Meanwhile, the current efforts of the Fair-Trade people may help at least a few producers of artisan coffees from disappearing into the maw of the global economy and getting spit out again in some anonymous city slum.