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Food For Thought: Fair Trade Coffee

September 21, 2009

Well, it looks like you missed another one of the WAMC and Honest Weight Food Co-op sponsored monthly film screenings.  Well, not all of you.  Albaniana was there, but we did not get a chance to introduce ourselves.

The rest of you can blame me.  I did nothing to promote it.  The event wasn’t on my Facebook fan page.  I did not even send a last minute tweet on my way out the door.

But let me tell you, you missed a good one.  This month was all about fair trade and not only were there fair trade coffees to sip, there were fair trade chocolate bars to nibble.  The cheeses were mostly local, and protected by American trade law, so we can presume they were fairly traded as well.

This turns out to be a very important distinction as called out by the panel speaker Dean Cycon of Dean’s Beans.  “Fairly Traded” is not the same thing as “Fair Trade Certified®.”

While the distinction between the two may be important, I have more pressing concerns.

Because just 100 miles away from Albany in Orange, Massachusetts is apparently one of the major players on the world stage of fair-trade coffee importing.  Really?  In the landlocked sticks of Western Mass?

And what makes it more interesting is that this company, Dean’s Beans, isn’t even a coffee company.  It’s a social justice organization that just happens to use coffee as a vehicle for its work.  The fact that the business is actually profitable is a nice little eff you to the big coffee companies that treat coffee as a commodity and have little to no regard for the lives of the people who grow the stuff.

Why am I just hearing about this?  Now I want to take a trip and visit the global headquarters.  Granted, it would take you about two and a half hours to drive, because Orange is really in the middle of nowhere.  And this is coming from a guy in Albany.

But here is a man who is so passionate about coffee he glows.  And all I can do is wonder, how does Dean brew his coffee at home?  Does his business have a café?  (It does.)  What does he think about how his precious beans are treated and consumed by cafés and their patrons?

So my question to Dean was less about the Fair Trade movement (Dean does think of it in those terms, rather than as a labeling system or marketing scheme) and more about the challenge of getting the consumer to care.

From my observations an alarming amount of people who drink specialty coffee drown the stuff in milk and sugar.  Those flavored syrups, caramel swirls, and chocolate are really just sugar – admit it.  And no matter how many shots of espresso you put into a latte, you’ve got one big-ass cup of milk.

A big part of the Fair Trade movement is trying to elevate certain coffee beans beyond their current status as a commodity.  And that has a lot to do with quality and taste.  If you cannot get people to really taste the difference and find it desirable enough to seek out that taste, then all you really have is a pretty label on a bag and a very clever, ethically virtuous marketing scheme.

But when I asked about how you get people to appreciate the quality of Fair Trade beans when most of them use coffee as a substrate for phantasmagorical sticky milky beverages, I did not get a very satisfying answer.  Perhaps I could have been more articulate in the phrasing of my question.

Dean pointed to the increasing fraction of coffee sales that come from the specialty coffee sector.  And it seemed as if he was saying that this is the core audience of people who truly care about high quality coffee. But in my opinion these are among the worst offenders in the “let’s fill it with sugar and fat and call it deluxe” fiasco.

Although he did reiterate exactly how high the quality of some of his Fair Trade beans is based on their cupping scores.  And I was impressed.  I was very impressed.  I am still impressed.  And I do not impress easily.  I want some.  And I may even go to the Honest Weight Co-op and get them.

If the beans have been sitting too long in their bins at HWFC, I may need to make a pilgrimage to Orange.  Anyone want to drive?  We can stop at Trader Joe’s.  And I can talk your ear off about food for over five hours!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2009 3:09 pm

    Thanks for blogging about Fair Trade today – the true story of coffee is one we all should know.

    The best Fair Trade coffee I’ve drunk recently is the Guatemalan brew served at the Perfect Blend cafe, Four Corners, Delmar. It’s deliciously smooth.

    Several other Delmar cafes also serve Fair Trade, and October (Fair Trade month) will be the time to try them all out. I invite you to join in Delmar’s first ever “Fair Trade Shop Hop” organised by the Fair Trade Delmar Campaign. Details coming soon at ftdelmarny.blogspot.com.

    Fair Trade is all about quality – quality of the product, quality of production values (including environmental care), and quality of life for the producers. I guess my main concern is with the social justice side of things, but it doesn’t hurt that so many Fair Trade goods taste really great and that’s also a valid reason to choose them.

  2. brownie permalink
    September 21, 2009 4:54 pm

    I’m all for workers receiving a fair wage, and paying a bit more to facilitate that doesn’t bother me at all. But advertising it as the primary benefit of your product guarantees skepticism on my behalf: By virtue of creating a false market in the “fair trade” of coffee beans, one invites the possibility of expensive but poor-quality coffee marketed as “fair trade.” While you make the distinction between Fair Trade Certified® and fairly-traded, most consumers (even the semi-socialist greenies among them) will not.

    Instead of marketing idealism, how about this: Give the consumer premium product, price it competitively with like quality, and exercise vertical integration to ensure those who harvest your beans are treated equitably (paying a supplier extra to do the same is trusting the wolf with keys to the hen house). Then find your market in the people who aren’t primarily concerned if the workers who harvest their coffee are treated well, i.e., the majority of coffee drinkers. If taste and quality are the primary benefits to them, call it the Taste and Quality movement.

    That way, when someone picks up their Chock Full O’ Nuts Taste and Quality edition and finds it dreck, they’ll be more inclined to toss it and buy better coffee than if it was labeled “fair trade,” which may persuade them to head back for more. “It’s for the workers!” they’ll exclaim with puckered lips as they proudly choke down their bitter swill.

    I’ll chauffeur if you buy me some Tejava and lemonade at TJ’s. A good Arnold Palmer always makes my day.

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