Date: December 2004

Column/Title: Savory Partnerships: Relationship Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids

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When putting together samples of relationship coffees for this month's review, it became obvious that "relationship" is as ambiguous a word in the world of coffee as it is in the world of people, where "having a relationship" can mean anything from virtually married to, well, something considerably more casual.

What the coffees reviewed here have in common is that their path from tree to shelf is based on a long-term relationship between coffee grower and roasting company that goes a little deeper than a one-year fling. The "relationship" always involves a direct, face-to-face relationship between grower and roaster built around mutual trust and respect and aimed at insuring a price that is sustainable for both parties and an assured quality and quantity of coffee. Some of the relationships behind the coffees reviewed this month stop there; others add a more idealistic component.

These more idealistic partnerships typically involve a roaster entering into an agreement with representatives of groups of small-holding peasant growers that funnels some of the selling price of the coffee toward various projects that directly support the growers: better schools, medical facilities, and so on. This definition of relationship coffee was first promoted by coffee leaders like Paul Katzeff at Thanksgiving Coffee, David Griswold (now president of the green coffee importer Sustainable Harvest), the leaders of Equal Exchange (which has two relationship coffees reviewed this month), and many others. Recently the relationship concept has been pursued on behalf of small groups of Colombian growers with particular vigor by Alejandro Renjifo of Fairfield Trading, who facilitated two of the Colombian relationship coffees reviewed this month.

The relationship concept also has an advantage for the aficionado. One of the confounding differences between fine wine and fine coffee is the fact that a coffee seldom leaves an estate or mill as a finished product. It is almost always roasted and packaged by someone else, someone distant from the farm and the mill. "Estate roasted" coffee along the lines of estate-bottled wine has not caught on, mainly because coffee is a particularly delicate product after roasting and the complex machinery necessary to create packaging adequate to protect it (barely) on its long journey from tropical farm to consumer is quite expensive.

What a relationship means, then, is that the coffee enthusiast can buy a coffee that not only comes from the same farm (or group of small farms) year after year, but also is roasted by the same company using the same roasting machinery and roast protocols year after year, all of which promotes the same level of consistency as we experience in fine wines. Like wine, of course, the character of coffee varies harvest by harvest, but at least the roasting wildcard is reasonably controlled from year to year.

Finally, relationships bring a particular warmth and intensity to the act of telling customers about a coffee and why they might want to buy it. Certainly if I were selling the Fazenda Cachoeira coffee from Stone Cup Roasting reviewed this month my thoughts and words would be shot through with real human memory, of owner Mirian and her husband Rogerio, their children, and their commitment to their farm, which for me was summed up when they both broke off during a walk through their farm to spend some time checking on the special worms in their organic composting system.

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