Fair Trade Certified Coffees by Kenneth Davids | CoffeeReview.com

November 2009

Quality and Fair Trade Certified Coffees
by Kenneth Davids; reviews by Kenneth Davids and Ted Stachura

Fair Trade certification has been on a bit of roll of late, steadily expanding both at origin and in the marketplace. Its producer programs have extended from their original base in Central America to more far-flung origins like Ethiopia and Sumatra. Fair Trade certified coffees are now sold in volume in at least one big box store, Sam's Club, and show up in smaller quantities at Target. Meanwhile, newer smaller roasters continue to make Fair Trade, bundled with organic certification, their main market differentiator. In fact, as our reviews suggest, Fair Trade has managed to grow without leaving anyone behind. One of the great pioneers of sustainable and cause coffees, Thanksgiving Coffee, is represented here with a 90-point Guatemala. Current stock-market favorite Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a key supporter of Fair Trade from its inception, roasted the top-rated Ethiopia Yirgacheffe (94). On the other end of the size and time continuum are tiny, recently established roasting companies that have never appeared in Coffee Review before and whose modest businesses are entirely focused on roasting Fair Trade and organic certified coffees. Yo el Rey Roasting, essentially a coffee house with a roasting machine next to the tables, is represented here by a 92-rated Yirgacheffe, and small Trailhead Coffee Roasters by two coffees, including a fine 90-rated Brazil. The newer forays by mass marketers into Fair Trade are represented here by a Fair Trade coffee sold only by Target Stores, the Archer Farms Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (89).

Fair Trade, for those who don't recall the fine print, is a third-party certification that guarantees peasant farmers what the umbrella organization, Fair Trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), determines is a "fair" or economically sustainable price for the farmers' coffees, plus a social premium farmer groups can collectively use to benefit their communities and business activities. In the coffee sector, only farmers who are members of a democratically run cooperative were eligible to apply for Fair Trade certification. Coffees are completely traceable to origin, and farmers, importers and roasting companies who sell and buy Fair Trade certified coffees all contribute a few cents per pound to the relevant Fair Trade certifying organization - in the case of the United States, to TransFair USA. These moneys are used to administer the Fair Trade programs, maintain traceability for Fair Trade products, and continue to raise public awareness of Fair Trade's particular answer to poverty in coffee-growing regions. Although Fair Trade certification has been extended to other products, from bananas to cotton, coffee represents about 80% of all Fair Trade Certified products imported into the United States. The premiums paid growers plus the cost of contributions to TransFair's budget are passed along to consumers willing to pay a bit more to support at least some of the hundreds of thousands of peasant coffee growers who are eternally on the short end of the economic stick.

Fair Trade's early efforts to organize coffee growers piggy-backed on organizational work already carried out by proponents of organic certification. This initial overlapping of Fair Trade and organic certifications has become standard practice today, so much so that almost all of the coffees we received for this month's cupping were certified both organically grown and Fair Trade.

Fair Trade and the Market

From the beginning critics questioned the quality of Fair Trade certified coffees. If all it takes to get the Fair Trade premium is membership in a democratically run cooperative, the argument ran, where is the financial incentive for farmers to produce quality through careful harvesting, fruit removal and drying of their coffees? This criticism may sound logical, but the logic has been trumped by the more fine-tuned dynamic of the contemporary marketplace. Since Fair Trade creates a niche market (some consumers only buy Fair Trade), coffees compete for attention and higher prices within that niche. Most of the coffees we reviewed this month probably were purchased from farmers for prices that exceed, perhaps considerably exceed, the Fair Trade minimum.

TransFair USA has begun a thoughtfully designed green coffee competition and auction program in Brazil intended to promote quality in Fair Trade coffees from that region, but most of the incentive for quality for Fair Trade producers appears to come from old-fashioned market forces: the best Fair Trade coffees sell for above the minimum and the poorer Fair Trade coffees may not sell as Fair Trade at all.

This development may in part defeat the broader ambition of Fair Trade, which I take is the creation of a price floor for as many small peasant producers as possible. Nevertheless, the price/quality link appears to be a positive outcome both for those Fair Trade certified producers who do meet the quality expectation of the specialty market and for those consumers of Fair Trade coffees who aspire to combine economic justice with coffee pleasure.

A Quality Report Card

We cupped forty-three Fair Trade certified coffees for this article, plus three more that reflect a sort of rogue approach to Fair Trade (fairtradeproof.org) based on self-policing and participation in the Fair Trade Federation, a membership (rather than certifying) organization devoted to "providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide."

Overall, we found the range of quality for these forty-six Fair Trade and faux Fair Trade coffees quite impressive for a Coffee Review cupping involving a cross-section of origins. Ratings averaged almost exactly 87. Only two coffees of the forty-six were plainly taste-defective, though neither was outrageously bad. Eight scored 90 or higher, including an impressive four from Ethiopia and one each from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. All of the 90-and-over coffees are reviewed here. Many of the others read as solid high-end specialty coffees, though for us they lacked the little exceptional shimmer of distinction that might push them from 88/89 to 90 and above. We reviewed six coffees in the 88/89 range, including a Kenya (89), Bolivia (89), Honduras (88) and two Sumatras at 89 and 88. Despite the abundance of Ethiopias in our reviews, we also included the 89-rated Archer Farms Ethiopian Yirgacheffe from Target because it appeared to be a worthy effort to make a distinctive Fair Trade coffee available to the mass market.

The Coverage Issue

TransFair USA also has been accused of offering Fair Trade buyers too limited a range of coffee origins and types. This accusation hinges on the fact that some coffee growing industries are almost exclusively reliant on the contributions of small producers and thus make good Fair Trade candidates, while others are dominated by large and mid-sized farms whose scale makes them ineligible for certification. Most Ethiopia coffees are produced by small-holding villagers in simple, chemical-free garden plots, for example, circumstances that encourage Fair Trade and organic certification. Widespread availability of Fair Trade-certified Ethiopias coupled with good harvesting and milling processes and the presence of superb local heirloom varieties of Arabica doubtless account for the success of Ethiopia in this month's cupping.

Fair Trade certification is a good fit for other origins as well: Peru, Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Sumatra, Timor, Mexico, Nicaragua, Tanzania, to mention just a few. Not many samples showed up from these origins, however, in part perhaps owing to the timing of this article. Roasters may have wanted to put their best coffee foot forward with what they felt were the freshest and most distinctive offerings on their menu. Nevertheless, very good to outstanding coffees showed up from virtually every part of the world, many showcasing the particular genius associated with their origin. The 90-rated Trailhead Coffee Roasters Brazil expressed the crisp dry-berry understatement we associate with dried-in-the-fruit Brazils; the Fondo Paez Colombia from Conscious Coffee the aromatic, fruit-and-chocolate-toned richness peculiar to many Colombias; the Batdorf & Bronson Costa Rica the balance and resonance we typically expect from this origin.

The Cooperative Challenge

The real challenge for excellence in Fair Trade coffees simply resides in the fact of their production by cooperatives. As coffee insiders know well, discipline is difficult to maintain in cooperatives. A handful of farmers who pick too much unripe fruit or who fail to cover their drying coffee when it rains can mess things up for the hundred other farmers who do things right. However, coffee insiders also know that cooperatives with strong quality traditions and disciplined organizations supported by reasonable infrastructure can produce some of the world's most exquisite coffees; witness the great cooperative coffees of Kenya.

As I cupped many of this month's coffees I felt (OK, maybe projected) the tension of their production in the cup, a tension between the purity that comes from coffee discipline and the understandable compromises that come from working in circumstances of limitation and challenge that most of us can hardly imagine: carrying a sack of ripe coffee fruit for a couple of miles to the mill every morning on your back, for example. In almost all of these coffees a little edge of imperfection crept into the cup, yet supporting it and giving it resonance and completeness was a fundamental soundness that only comes from dogged discipline and persistence. Take the little pungent herby note in the Yo el Rey Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, for example, which probably derived from mild exposure to moisture during the drying of the parchment coffee. A little more intense and this note might overwhelm the fundamental ripe sweetness of the coffee, but here it acts as a surprising little complication, and a reminder of the struggle that brought this coffee out of little garden plots in Ethiopia surrounding tiny mud-and-stick houses with thatched roofs through collective dedication of farmers and cooperative organizers and on through the sensory intelligence of exporters, importers and roasters to us.