The specialty coffee movement has always attracted idealists of various kinds, from those obsessed with sensory perfection – the perfect espresso shot, the perfect cup – to those who simply are looking for stuff to sell in a way that will help the world. The two idealisms are usually entwined, of course, at least in publicity materials: Do good by drinking good coffee, the websites and packages tell us. This article gently tests this claim by reviewing ten coffees that dedicate a percentage of their sale price to supporting various causes.
The causes turned out to be as varied and lively, and as essentially non-bureaucratic and generous-spirited, as grass-roots specialty coffee itself. One dollar of the sale price of the PT’s Coffee Café del Sol (90) supports a youth soccer training program in the PT’s home town of Topeka, Kansas as a tribute to Jonathan Kaspar, a PT’s barista who loved soccer and who was killed in a traffic accident in 2010. Caribou Coffee donates ten percent of the sales of Amy’s blend (88) to CancerCare, a national non-profit that provides free support services for those affected by cancer diagnosis. The blend was inspired by Amy Erickson, Caribou’s original roastmaster, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 1995.
The Fair Trade movement is, of course, an extremely large, necessarily bureaucratized version of the do-good-through-drinking-good-coffee impulse. Five of the ten coffees we reviewed this month were Fair Trade certified in addition to offering support for other more specific, sometimes endearingly idiosyncratic, causes. The proceeds of the highest-rated Mystic Monk Fair Trade Ethiopia (93), for example, support the building of a monastery for Carmelite monks in Montana, some of whom roasted the coffee we reviewed. The Stauf’s Dominican Republic (88) offers coffee buyers a triple bonus: a coffee that 1) is Fair-Trade certified, 2) was sourced through Café Femenino, a program that assists low-income coffee producers who are women, and 3), additionally donates a generous 20% of sales to the Griswold Residency of the YWCA, a facility that offers shelter and assistance to low-income women in crisis in Stauf’s home town of Columbus, Ohio.
Bicycle Coffee, a roastery founded in 2009 a few miles from the Coffee Review lab, aims to reduce its carbon footprint and inspire a righteously healthy lifestyle by delivering all of its coffees, including this month’s Fair Trade Medium Roast (89), by bicycle. Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg, California, on the California coast north of San Francisco, is one of the pioneers of cause coffees. Paul Katzeff, the recently retired founder of Thanksgiving, was offering coffees that, if I remember correctly, benefited causes ranging from schools for children of coffee farmers to a new baseball field for the local community around the time most of the people involved in generating this month’s samples were contemplating their first day in kindergarten. We review one of Thanksgiving Coffee’s current cause-supporting offerings, Song Bird Shade Grown (88), a blend of Central American coffees verified by the American Birding Association as grown in mixed species shade that provides significant habitat for migrating song birds. This is verified mixed-species shade, by the way, not simply a sketchy canopy of sterile non-native trees scattered park-like around the fields. The Coffees behind the Causes
Which gets us to the taste question. Are these ten coffees good-tasting in their various ways? Yes, definitely. Are they super-good? The 93-rated Mystic Monk Ethiopia certainly is, the 90-rated PT’s makes a good case. But even moving down the ratings a couple of notches, I think the point can be made that a coffee like the Stauf’s 88-rated Dominican Republic, a coffee whose sales is saturated with generous commitment extending from the global to the local, successfully fulfills its double-loaded commitment to the consumer: a coffee that does good and tastes good. I am fairly certain that there are coffees offered at Stauf’s at this very moment that would attract higher ratings at Coffee Review; we certainly have reviewed some in the past, like the Nicaragua we rated 94 in August 2011. But 88 is a good score and this Dominican is a solid coffee, and certainly consumers who want to make a modest gesture helping low-income women both at home and at origin will not disappoint their mornings with this gentle, crisply chocolaty cup. Something similar can be said for the other just-under-ninety coffees reviewed here: All are interesting and engaging; all essentially live up to their promise to taste good while doing good.
A Word for Passion, Sympathy and Joy
Those who have come along with me this far doubtless recognize my position, which is that cause coffees like those reviewed this month are one element in the individualistic, open-minded, sometimes quirky, continuously inventive space of specialty coffee. For me they are a sympathy-driven complement to baristas experimenting with tiny variations in pour-over brewing or high-end roasters competing for tiny lots of distinctive coffee, a continuous effort to inject passion, sympathy and joy into our work in coffee and in doing so transcend a larger economic system that all too often seems intent on turning us into unfeeling automatons waiting for the weekend.
Afterword: Carrotmob and Thanksgiving Coffee
A quick return to a recent episode at Thanksgiving Coffee as further confirmation of the experimental, generous-spirited, sometimes eccentric nature of specialty coffee’s engagement with social and economic change. Just this past month Thanksgiving embarked on a collaboration with Carrotmob, an organization that brings people together to spend money as a group to support a business if the business agrees to make an improvement that Carrotmob, and presumably a significant segment of consumers, supports. In the case of the Thanksgiving/Carrotmob September campaign, the goal was to explore and eventually initiate a reduction in carbon footprint by experimenting with transporting coffee from origin to Thanksgiving’s roastery in Fort Bragg by sail rather than by ships powered by oil. Those of us closely involved with coffee will, of course, immediately recognize this goal as charmingly nostalgic (given the colorful history of coffee and sail transport in the early days of coffee) and also perhaps a little challenging technically, given the ease with which green coffee succumbs to fading during prolonged transport from origin.
But for me its quirky idealism impressed. As it turns out, the goal of $150,000 in sales over the month of September was not met, so for better or worse Thanksgiving is off the hook, but considerable money was raised through the campaign for Thanksgiving’s own non-profit Resilience Fund, which buys clean, efficient cook stoves for families of the Mirembe Kawomera cooperative in Uganda.