Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #23.
Higher Ground is an Alabama roaster that carries only certified Fair Trade, certified organic, and shade grown coffee. Shade coffees are not labeled certified, although some do come from Smithsonian (SMBC) certified sources; unfortunately the fee to use the seal can sometimes be cost-prohibitive to a small roaster in the same way that the certification fee can be unaffordable for farms and co-ops. Because so few Rainforest Alliance certified coffees are also certified organic and Fair Trade, as well as the company being uncomfortable with some of RA’s certifying practices, these have not been on the offering list. Instead, Higher Ground partner Alex Varner visits source farms (and knows his birds, by the way!), or relies on his importers to evaluate shade. He is actively working to find ways to improve this system, and is surely one of the most committed-to-sustainability and candid roasters I’ve ever corresponded with.
Higher Ground is a member of a number of environmental/sustainability organizations, including 1% For The Planet. Among other initiatives, they also offset their energy usage by purchasing renewable energy, use 100% recycled materials and biodegradable corn plastics as often as possible, and donate their waste as compost to local organic farms (I presume that means coffee waste!). They partner with a number of non-profit organizations, donating a good chunk of the proceeds from special-label blends for fundraising. I am extremely impressed with this company! (More on Higher Ground: Cup of coffee with a conscience — Birmingham Business Journal.)
We tried three of their coffees.
Bolivia. This medium roast is from the familiar CENAPROC co-op in the Yungas region. This co-op has twice won the Cup of Excellence, and grows on land once used for coca production on the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Occidental. The co-op has fewer than 90 members, and farms are typically about nine hectares.
Remember that our most highly-rated coffee was Bolivian, the beautiful Cup of Excellence winner Calama Marka, from Paradise Roasters. We’ve yet to find a coffee that really holds a candle to that, but it seems most Bolivians we try are real winners, as was this one. It had awesome chocolate tones not only in the French press, but even when brewed in our crappy office pot. The first sips were quite bright, then it settles into a mellow medium-bodied cup, with a lingering sweet candy-like aftertaste. Can coffee be yummy? This is. 3.5 motmots (one person scored it 4.5!).
Mexico. A light roast, hailing from the ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de Motozintla) co-op in Chiapas, made up of over 1200 Mayan farmers. Average coffee plot size is less than four hectares. Fair Trade and organic certification has made a huge difference in the lives of farmers in Chiapas, an acutely impoverished region. The higher prices paid for their beans has paid for schools and other community projects, not to mention boosted personal income. Benefits to the environment include improved soil conditions, as well as protecting the forest, because traditionally coffee in Chiapas is grown under native trees.
Mexican coffees are usually pleasant and enjoyable, and this was typically simple and smooth, with mild caramel and vanilla undertones. While not complex, a couple of us found it evocative, bringing to mind a bright, fresh spring morning filled with soft bird song. In fact, this is our new gig — to match a bird song to the coffees we review. My immediate response to this was House Wren — but not the energetic full song, but the gentle murmurings of a contended wren rummaging through the fresh spring shrubbery. A perfect breakfast coffee, 3 motmots.
Peru. This was a dark roast from the CACVRA co-op (Cooperativa Agraria Cafetalera Valle Rio Apurimac), grown in the Apurimac River valley. The Apurimac is one of the headwaters of the Amazon, and this is considered the southern zone of coffee growing in Peru. This coffee comes from the co-op’s higher elevation farms, at 1300 to 1800 meters, from mostly small holders (less than five hectares), grown under mixed shade which includes various fruit trees. I’ve cautioned that even organic Peruvian coffee may lean toward shade monoculture, but farmers in the Apurimac Valley are said to use an average of nine shade tree species on their farms. When Varner visited, he found some farms growing coffee under fruit and cacao trees in typical mixed family plots and others growing under various native tree species.
This coffee illustrated to me my complete transformation from a dark roast lover to a light roast fanatic. A year ago, I would have been crazy about this. Today, I enjoyed it but my tastes have changed so much that I know I didn’t appreciate it fully. However, the folks who are into darker roasts were enthusiastic. The final tally: 2.75 motmots, higher from dark roast fans.
Higher Ground exemplifies the situation with sustainable coffee today. They are trying to minimize their own impact on the environment; striving to work with a hodgepodge of seals and lack of seals and searching for ways to improve transparency in this system; fostering relationships and understanding at the source; and providing great coffee.