Fair-Trade Coffees by Ken Davids | CoffeeReview.com

September 2000

Fair-Trade Coffees
by Ken Davids

Coffee, the kind of fine coffee reviewed here, is one of the world's great sensual bargains. As I often point out, we enjoy coffees that are the equivalent in quality of the world's finest wines at the price of cheap cola. Consider that most fine coffees are artisan products: hand-picked, bean by bean, usually hand-cleaned bean by bean, and subject to nine additional complex, labor-intensive procedures. Given that attention and care, it would seem that coffee ought to sell for a bit more than it does -- say, at least as much as a decent table wine. The reason we enjoy fine-wine coffee at soda-pop prices is simple: Most of those people who grow coffee live in abject poverty, and have no economic recourse except either to grow coffee for a pittance or live in a slum and sell chewing gum to tourists.Nor is this sad situation the product of blatant corporate greed. Growing coffee for a pittance is a 300-year-old tradition rather than something invented recently, like producing athletic shoes in tropical sweat shops for two dollars per pair and selling them for fifty. Starbucks does not own any coffee farms, nor do any other large coffee roasters. They, and their coffee-drinking customers, simply take advantage of long-established market arrangements that are heavily leveraged against the people who grow the coffee.

Big Problem, Controversial Solution

This is a big, stubborn problem, which at the moment is addressed by a few small, tentative solutions. Fair-trade coffee, the subject of this month's cupping, is one of these hopeful solutions, a relatively new one that has provoked some controversy among coffee professionals. To simplify, the fair-trade movement determines a formula for a "fair" price for coffee paid to farmers, a price that will make no one rich but which will help subsistence farmers avoid absolute misery. The certifying agency, in this case TransFair USA, also confirms that the farmers who receive this fair price are small holders organized in democratically run cooperatives who follow positive environmental practices. The modest premium paid the farmers according to the fair-trade formula is passed on through the system to coffee lovers, who presumably will happily pay a couple of pennies more per cup, given how much those pennies help struggling farmers.The controversy mainly focuses on whether paying people for coffee on the basis of formula and democratic organization rather than on the basis of quality is wise in the long run. Some of us, me included, have dedicated ourselves to creating a culture around coffee analogous to the culture around wine, with the long-term goal of assuring that people who produce great coffee are paid great coffee prices, rather than the insulting pittance they receive now. In other words, change our cultural attitudes about coffee so that North Americans buy coffee like they buy wine, whereupon retailers can charge more for a genuinely fine coffee, importers can pay more for a genuinely fine coffee, and growers who produce fine coffee not only will receive more money for their efforts, but also will receive recognition as the dedicated artisans they are, equivalent to the world's fine winemakers. That strategy has worked to some degree, but admittedly it is a slow and arduous approach to an enormous problem. The fair-trade strategy instead tries to raise the consciousness of consumers through publicizing both the problem and the fair-trade solution, while appealing to peoples' tendency to want to feel good about what they consume. The long term goal, I assume, would be to capture the public imagination to the point that it would be difficult to sell a coffee, at least a specialty coffee, without the Fair-Trade Certified seal, just as it is difficult today to sell a can of tuna without the Dolphin Safe seal. As for quality, fair-traders argue that, if growers are paid more, they at least will have a bit more freedom to consider issues of quality, a freedom which they don't enjoy under present market arrangements.

Fair Trade in the Cup

Given the buzz and controversy around fair trade, it seemed appropriate to mount a cupping of coffees that carry the new seal.

The problem is, the fair-trade concept may be fresh and new, but most of the actual fair-trade coffees that arrived at the Coffee Review office were as familiar as comfortable old shoes. Almost all turned out to be coffees that already have been "discovered" and promoted by the organic coffee movement. One of them, Aztec Harvest, from a cooperative in Pluma Hidalgo, Mexico, was among the earliest certified organically grown coffees to enter the North American specialty market. I have been tasting it off and on for over ten years. Other coffees submitted for the cupping were almost equally well known.

So the fair-trade concept neither can be blamed nor congratulated for the quality of these coffees. If the coffees improve in two or three years, perhaps fair trade can be given some credit for that improvement. Or perhaps in coming years TransFair USA will begin to identify and deliver coffees that are entirely new to the specialty market, rather than coffees that already have been developed and promoted by the organic coffee movement.

Not Even the Teeth

However, one way the fair trade concept affected the submitted coffees is through encouraging small, in some cases new, roasters to specialize in them. About half of the thirty coffees submitted were roasted by smaller companies that make a particular point of offering organic and fair-trade origins.

Unfortunately, new and small in coffee roasting today often means poorly roasted or over-roasted coffee. Chuck Jones of Pasadena Coffee Roasters once described a (competitor's) coffee that was so badly burned he couldn't identify it until he sent for the dental records. I'm not sure even the teeth were left with a couple of the "French roast" fair-trade coffees in this month's cupping.

It seems a particularly poignant betrayal both of the pride that organic/fair-trade farmers take in their coffees as well as the eloquent promotion of those coffees by caring supporters to conclude that effort by destroying them in the roaster.

Some Fair-Trade Winners

Nevertheless, several delightful coffees surfaced from the sea of roast-impaired aspirations. Most were produced by largish, well-established companies with a track record of sound roasting, but there were a couple of companies new to me that produced excellent presentations of sound coffees. The most intriguing is Blue Mountain Trading Company, a roasting company in the small rural community of LaGrande, Oregon. Blue Mountain submitted a blend of dark-roasted and medium-roasted Mexico beans that turned out to be one of the smoothest and most agreeable versions of the mixed roast concept I have cupped in some time.

The Aztec Harvest Mexico Pluma Hidalgo noted earlier varied lot by lot, but the differences among the three lots reviewed this month constituted a pleasurable range of variation on a brightly to gently acidy, fruit-nuanced theme. The most distinctive coffee in the cupping, and one of the more interesting of cause coffees generally, was the Prodocoop Nicaragua Segovia: wonderfully big, round, fat, low-toned and luxurious. Certainly a premium is well deserved by all three of these coffees, regardless of rationale.