By September 14, 2004 |Reviews Tasting Report
Fair Trade Certified Coffee

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

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. Until relatively recently there were no
Fair-Trade certified coffees whatsoever available from outside
Spanish-speaking Latin America in the American market. Today there are at least six non-Latin-American Fair-Trade origins available in the U.S. – not an
atlas-full of coffees, certainly, but a good start.

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.

Co-Cupper Lindsey

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.

2004 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Tasting Reports

About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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