One of the major criteria a roaster must meet to get favored nation status on the left sidebar as a source of sustainable coffee is transparency. C&C is all about educating consumers on how to recognize and appreciate sustainable coffee. All the knowledge in the world won’t help a coffee buyer if the roaster doesn’t provide enough information on where they get their beans. If a roaster provides country, region, and co-op or farm it goes a long way in helping consumers understand whether the coffee was grown in a sustainable manner. When a roaster has a close relationship with a farmer, they can provide even more data on exactly how the coffee was grown.
Counter Culture Coffee has always been excellent about giving customers lots of information on each of their selections on their web site. They recently announced an expansion and refinement of this commitment, which they are calling “Source.” Each bag of Source coffee includes the farm or co-op’s real name; authentic production details and tasting notes; a precise roast date; a regional map; and vibrant, original artwork inspired by the community that produced it. Indeed, the whole point, noted in their press release, is to
“…achieve a deeper level of consumer education through real, transparent information about each coffee’s distinct seasonality, tasting notes, geographic and cultural origins, and artisan cultivation methods.”
This program goes well beyond marketing and consumer education. Like Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade, and similar “unbranded” programs by other roasters, Source is about working closely with farmers to improve coffee quality and the quality of life for farmers. Fair Trade is such a darling of the green set, but it’s certification is restricted to cooperatives, and does little to address quality. Programs like Source or Direct Trade can do even more than Fair Trade, including paying higher than Fair Trade prices straight to farmers for their crops. For example, Counter Culture paid a 153% premium to the Guarapamba farmers for their La Golondrina Microlot, one of the Source coffees.
Not all roasters can follow this model. Economies of scale make it difficult for very large roasters; they are profit-driven and treat coffee as a commodity rather than a specialty food crop. You simply will not find specialty-grade coffee and close relationships with farmers from corporate coffee roasters. Very small roasters often don’t have the resources to develop working partnerships with individual farms or co-ops (which is not to say many are not sources for sustainable coffees).
Hats off to all roasters who strive to follow this philosophy. Working to transform coffee from an anonymous caffeinated beverage to an identifiable crop, nurtured by real farmers on land that sustains people and biodiversity, is a model we’d be wise to adopt for all of our food. Only then can we choose to purchase sustainable products, increasing demand, and in turn take steps to help to transform the world.