The Fair-Trade Cup: Quality and Controversy
It has been some years now since the Fair Trade movement sprung itself on the specialty coffee world, using a passionate and skillfully managed media campaign to persuade a core of concerned consumers that they ought to pay a bit more for coffees that return more money directly to the small-holding farmers who grow the coffee. The timing couldn't have been more appropriate, because about the time the Fair-Trade movement kicked off, green coffee prices on the world market began their devastating plunge to what eventually became historic lows. Although prices since have recovered modestly, the current price paid for a decent grade of green coffee from many coffee-growing regions remains less than it costs farmers to produce that coffee, and suffering in coffee-growing regions continues.
Fair-Trade certification, for those who have not been paying attention, guarantees that farmers have been paid a formula-determined "fair" or economically sustainable price for their coffee, and that most of the Fair-Trade premium makes it back to the farmers who actually perform the work growing the coffee. From what I have observed, the national and international organizations that organize and monitor Fair-Trade certification make efficient and transparent use of the small part of the premium that supports their activities on behalf of the farmers.
As I often find myself pointing out, Fair-Trade offers just one alternative for caring consumers. Other certifications - organic, Rainforest Alliance - also have at least some positive impact on prices, plus simply paying more for a better-tasting coffee is in the long run a powerful and significant act of assistance to farmers.
Good Coffee with the Good Feelings?
Which gets us to the point of this review: better-tasting coffees. When Fair Trade first kicked off, I was regularly contacted by media people who wanted to know whether consumers who paid Fair-Trade premiums were actually getting good coffee to go with the good feelings. The suspicion, of course, was that Fair Trade was a do-gooder gimmick designed to sell lousy coffee at higher prices.
The first point I always made to these inquirers was that nothing possibly could taste worse than the blandly lifeless robustas inhabiting the cans and bottles of supermarket coffees, so consumers had a good start with any specialty coffee, including Fair Trade.
Fair News for Fair Trade
Even when we move beyond such simplicities, however, things still look rather good for fans of economic justice and fine coffee.
For this month's article we reviewed twenty Fair-Trade coffees. Of those twenty, ten attracted ratings of 86 or over. To my way of thinking (and tasting), any coffee that scores 86 or over is well worth drinking and enjoying, and ten out of twenty is a rather impressive box score. Certainly any one of these ten would blow the average canned supermarket coffee away in terms of character and quality.
On the other hand, only one of this month's coffees came off the table at 90 or better, and that one was a bit of an anomaly - a blend of Fair-Trade coffees that had been subject to Swiss-Water decaffeination. While a high-rated decaffeinated blend like this one is a coup for those who enjoy fine coffee without the buzz, it doesn't offer that much reassurance for those looking for the very best and most distinctive single-origins with all of the stimulation intact.
Solid and Improving
Interestingly, the two implications of this month's cupping - one, Fair-Trade certified coffees are on an average very good, but two, may not offer quite the number of peak sensory experiences as non-Fair-Trade coffees do - appear to be modestly confirmed by a quick statistical analysis of the Coffee Review archives.
Based on our ratings, the average score for Fair-Trade coffees reviewed in 2004 was 87.3, whereas the average for non-Fair-Trade certified coffees was 86.8. A half-point difference in favor of Fair-Trade may not be statistically significant, but it certainly dashes any claims that Fair-Trade coffees are in any way overall inferior to non-Fair-Trade.
Furthermore, Fair-Trade coffees appear to be improving. The average rating for Fair-Trade coffees rose from 85.0 in 2001-2002 to 87.2 in 2003-2004. This improvement appears to support the position that paying more money on a guaranteed basis to farmers will improve quality, not, as some in the coffee industry have argued, reduce quality by muting competitive pressures. (I imagine it must be difficult at times to care about the fine points of quality when one is literally either starving or about to lose the farm to the bank.)
But No Cigar?
On the other hand, an argument could be made using the same sources that Fair-Trade may not produce quite the percentage of truly exceptional coffees as generated by the larger world of non-Fair-Trade production. For example, 12.5% of the non-Fair-Trade coffees we reviewed in 2004 scored 90 or better, to 10.5% for Fair-Trade coffees. Not an enormous difference, certainly, but one that could be seen as reflected in this month's cupping, where several excellent Fair-Trade coffees appeared on the table, but none leapt off and rang the bell.
Fair Trade (Modestly) Crosses the Waters
For me, the problem with Fair-Trade coffees continues to be a limitation in range and geography. Certainly the Fair-Trade people have made some progress in this respect. Fewer than two years ago there were no Fair-Trade certified coffees whatsoever available from outside Spanish-speaking Latin America in the American market. Today there are three non-Latin-American Fair-Trade origins available in the U.S. - not an atlas-full of coffees, certainly, but a good start.
All three of these new Fair-Trade origins make an impressive appearance in this month's cupping: the low-key, musty-earthy traditionally processed cup of Sumatra, the high-toned floral-and-citrus-inclining wet-processed cup of southern Ethiopia (Sidamo, Yirgacheffe) and the boldly fruity dry-processed cup of eastern Ethiopia (Harrar). The two excellent Fair-Trade blends reviewed this month also may owe some of their distinction to the availability of coffee types that complement the classic Fair-Trade coffees of Latin America.
Nevertheless, given the daunting combination of obsession and luck required to produce a really fine coffee, the more farms and farmers there are in play worldwide the more chances there are that the stars and human determination will line up and we will be blessed by a few more plus-90 Fair-Trade coffee miracles.
Readers may notice that I asked Lindsey Bolger, coffee buyer for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, to share this month's reviewing with me. Green Mountain was an early supporter of the Fair-Trade movement, and, as her reviews confirm, Lindsey is an experienced and reliable coffee reviewer with an acute and metaphoric descriptive language.
For the record, Lindsey and I both cupped our samples using the usual Coffee Review protocol: Coffees were identified only by arbitrary three-digit number, and those coffees that were ultimately reported on were cupped twice. Lindsey is wholly responsible for those reviews in which her name appears; I am responsible for the others, including, of course, the two reviews of Green Mountain coffees.