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Coffee: transparency, trust and origins

With the rise of fair trade and now direct trade coffees, I’m surprised that the farm-to-table crowd isn’t talking about coffee much. Why is that?

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  1. Alistair Durie #

    Hi Anthony,Good coffee buyers / roasters are not afraid of transparency and disclosing the names of producers, because the name of the farm alone does not guarantee the quality of the coffee. The strength of the relationship (as you said), experience, and due diligence in a great quality control program is what it takes to source great coffee and roast great coffee. No other roaster can just start up and buy a batch of coffee from the same producer and produce the same results. Strong companies are not afraid of transparency.Other reasons for roasters not to disclose the name of farms / mills is mostly due to scale, costs, logistics and packaging. To put it into wine terms, imagine it like a large wine maker producing a “proprietors blend” made from grapes from dozens of farms. They label this a blend, maybe state some varietals, and market it as a regional wine at a good price point. To produce bottles that state where the grapes came from they would have to separate each harvest, micro-produce and micro-label, costing much more for them and the consumer.Large roasters who sell “Guatemala Medium Roast” are able to use the same packaging all year round, and buy whatever “Guatemala” coffee to fill the bags they like without it interrupting production, with less label requirements and less labor involved. The coffee may actually come from dozen of farms and it would be a lot of effort and cost for them to produce a different label every time they moved on to a new coffee. The larger the roaster the more difficult this becomes.Coffees you see only labeled with a country of origin would most likely be a blend, it is anonymous coffee. I would go so far to say that any roaster that is telling you that he is afraid of disclosing the names of farms is actually afraid of consumers knowing that they change this coffee all the time, and they may not know very much about where this coffee comes from at all and afraid of all the work it would take to do otherwise. Any roaster threatened by this question is probably not prepared with answers or prepared to do the work. They are probably competing in a market driven by price, not quality.I am very excited to be involved in specialty coffee at a time where consumers are asking more about where their coffee comes from. A knowledgeable consumer is more likely to be drinking and paying for higher quality coffee that is traceable to farms. Higher quality suggests (though does not guarantee) that the grower is passionate about the product they produce, the land on which it grows and the workers which they employ. It also supports the case that this farmer is able to fetch higher prices for their higher quality product.Look for the name of the farm on the bag. Look for the date the coffee was roasted (within 2 weeks). Look for light to medium roasted coffees. This should not be very difficult to find and its the minimum you should expect from your coffee roaster.Alistair DurieElysian Coffee

    January 25, 2010
  2. Anthony Nicalo #

    Thanks, Alistair. I always love when this happens- the comment exceeds the original post in quality by a factor of 10!I understand the difficulty of fitting all of the information about a blended, let alone a single estate product on the packaging. Both in terms of space and cost. This is part of the reason we’re building foodtree- to use the low cost available space online to communicate this background info.Great tips on finding quality coffee. Do you mean the name of the actual farm or is the larger coop sufficient from a quality perspective?

    January 26, 2010
  3. adelazzer #

    Hi Anthony,A couple of things come to mind from your post.First the secretive experience you describe is very 1996. Old school. That kind of approach was the de facto way all coffee roasters operated in the past. Only relatively recently has there been a move by many roasters away from that cloak and dagger model. At one extreme are those, actively promoting not only their green coffee source but perhaps even the percentage of those coffees as found in any given blend. There are varying levels of transparency all the rest of the way down the line.The choice of the word transparency and your mention of Fair Trade and Direct Trade models of sourcing coffee is a thorny topic. First, I think proponents of each model are trying to get to the same place, a better way to buy/source coffee and believe their way to be the best. How they get there however is very different. A discussion of the finer points between the two is beyond the scope of a reply here. Both however would claim a certain amount of transparency to be inherent in their transactions but a lot depends of how you choose to define transparency.I don’t know enough about the sourcing of wine to draw strong comparisons between it and coffee but the label of transparency as it applies to each is probably similar.Is it as simple as sharing the name of the farm or cooperative from which the coffee/wine came? That’s easy. Does it go so far as to open the books and share what was paid, to whom and for what? Some people do. A practice outside of most peoples comfort zone.With a sliding definition for the term there can become a lot of gray area as to what it actually is. It becomes very situation specific and relative to whose definition is being used.As it is, transparency is a term that has a halo effect of positive benefits associated with it. Not knowing exactly what you mean by that I (the consumer) assume good things that may or may not be in fact the reality.Does the idea of transparency sound appealing? Absolutely.Does it deliver a better product or provide a benefit other than marketing? Maybe.But I would argue, not. And I’m not trying to be trite or flip.To your question is it a concern or an opportunity? It’s a bit of a red herring.At the end of the day if it helps you sell your product, be it wine or coffee, is that such a bad thing? Not at all. But let’s call a spade a spade and not confuse marketing with something else.My enjoyment of a beverage doesn’t pivot around the transparency of the sourcing. It pivots around my tasting the beverage and it tasting “good” to me. Blended, unblended…knowing the name of the farm, the farmer and his dog…If (coffee roasters/wine buyers) really wanted to impress. Do all the amazing things you’re suggesting by telling me you source “transparently” and then don’t actually tell me what you’ve done. Give me something to taste that is so compelling and distinctive, I want to know what you’ve done. I want to know the nitty gritty details of where and from whom and how this fantastic liquid in my cup/glass came to be.Anthony, we’re scratching the surface of a big topic. I’d love to have you by for a visit. We can talk coffee, wine and transparent sourcing. Consider yourself to have an open invitation.Kindest regards,Aaron De Lazzer Director of CoffeeEthical Bean Coffee Co.

    February 4, 2010

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