Archer Farms brand coffee by Coffee Bean International, available at Target
One question that people frequently ask me, once they learn about the importance of sustainable coffee, is where to buy it. For many people, convenience is a major factor. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more convenient than having freshly-roasted coffee delivered to my door. Although we’ve established that ordering coffee online is extremely affordable, some people can’t get past the psychological barrier of paying shipping costs.
In order to help consumers choose coffees from brick-and-mortar outlets, we will be rolling out more reviews of widely available retail coffee, with a focus on sourcing and sustainability of an overall line of coffees, versus individual origins or farms. Previous reviews along this line (aside from many posts on Starbucks and Caribou) are Einstein’s and Noah’s coffee, Panera Bread, Trader Joe’s, and McDonalds.
Here, we’ll tackle Target’s house brand of coffee from Archer Farms. Target is a large U.S.-based retailer with nearly 1,700 discount department stores nationwide. Archer Farms is Target’s exclusive premium food private brand.
Archer Farms coffee is sourced and roasted by Coffee Bean International (CBI), based in Oregon.
Founded in Eugene, OR in 1972, CBI has gone through several acquisitions and is now owned by Farmer Bros. Company, a large wholesaler and distributor of coffee and related products. Throughout CBIs history, the company has been a part of a number of important initiatives that have helped support coffee communities and/or sustainability, including a 20+ year sponsorship of Coffee Kids and being one of the founding members of the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign with the Seattle Audubon Society. CBIs commitment to sustainability for both their business operations and in the supply chain are well-explained on their web site and in their sustainability report (PDF).
CBI roasts 10 million pounds of coffee annually for restaurants, coffeehouses, and retail outlets via brands such as Panache, Public Domain, and Café Tierra as well as private labels.
Archer Farms coffees
Archer Farms is Target’s premium house brand. The coffee line is fairly extensive, and includes ground and whole bean, flavored coffees, Fair Trade and organic certified options, blends and single origins, and some even higher-end Direct Trade and Cup of Excellence (CoE) choices (the latter being part of this line since 2006).
Standard coffees are sold in twelve-ounce bags for around $7 a bag (pricing depends on store and sale pricing, which seems pretty frequent). Direct Trade, Limited Roast, and CoE coffees are sold in ten-ounce portions, with typical pricing between $7.29 and $14.99. The CoE and Limited Roast coffees are sold in nice, reusable tins.
In 2009 and 2010, we tried a couple of the Archer Farms coffees. One was their Fair Trade Organic Tierra del Sol from Chiapas, Mexico. The other was a CoE coffee, Bolivian Carrasco La Reserva. Both were listed as “mild” roasts at the time, yet both were what I consider medium-dark (indeed, the former is now listed as a medium-dark roast), with beans that were covered in oil. Unfortunately, the roast was the dominant flavor, and neither coffee had the mellow, sweet, chocolate tones typical to these origins.
We recently tried their “Direct Trade” (Project Direct on the CBI web site) coffee from El Salvador, Buena Vista, labeled as a light roast. This was, in fact, lighter than the previous two we’d tried, but some beans still had oil. We preferred this coffee much more than the earlier choices, although we found it a little disappointing for a 100% bourbon varietal selection. Two common traits were noted by tasters: an ashy flavor, and a long, not completely pleasant finish that was described by one as “abrasive.” The “best by” date on this coffee is 20 Feb 2013, and it’s my understanding these dates are one year from roasting. Although the roast was a little darker than I’d prefer with such a bean, the muted flavors did suggest that the coffee was a little tired after five months in a foil bag.
Controversy and parting thoughts
This brings us to the next point. Making CoE coffees available to consumers who have never even considered the fact that coffee competitions and awards exist is not without its detractors. Some contend that it’s a sin to sell such high quality coffee to consumers who are not likely to prepare it with the care it deserves.
CBI’s response is that great coffees are more forgiving to marginal brew methods than commodity coffees, and even if people only get 75% of the “value” out of it, they are well ahead of sub-standard grocery store fare.
Another issue is summarized by this blogger at ROASTe, who is particularly critical of a company such as CBI outbidding small roasters for top CoE lots, only to have these great coffees languish and stale on Target shelves. I’ll leave aside the fact that it’s silly to believe that only customers of small boutique roasters should be able to enjoy CoE coffees. I agree that the greatness of CoE coffees are often lost on the average American consumer. But for those folks who are bit beyond Folgers and ready to make the next step, they have the potential to spawn eureka moments, even if sort of stale.
I believe this is Target’s goal with offering limited reserve and CoE coffees. At $14.99, Target sells CoE coffees at a loss. As a large department store retailer, they are not looking to serve either committed specialty coffee drinkers, or even commodity coffee drinkers with these offerings. They are likely hoping to snag consumers in-between. They want their more sophisticated customers to trade-up to high grade coffees. It seems to me that the roast levels, flavor profiles, and price points of the Archer Farms coffees are spot-on for this purpose, given the tastes and habits of these consumers.
I’m generally in favor of coffee lines that help consumers step up to higher quality, regardless of whether I like them or not. A great example is Starbucks; I dislike most of their coffee, but they have done more than nearly any other retailer to introduce the public to specialty coffee. And, they have a strong record and commitment to sustainability in their supply chain.
Higher quality coffees are inevitably more sustainable than commodity coffees. Further, as CBI’s Paul Thornton pointed out in a letter to the editor in Fresh Cup magazine, Target has paid some very high prices for CoE coffees through CBI, benefiting farmers. Target has created a market for coffees from producers that did not make it into the final CoE rounds, supported charities such as Coffee Kids and Save the Children, as well as other initiatives.
Archer Farms coffees are certainly a step in the right direction. While not all eco-certified, there are a bunch of organic selections, and they are much more carefully sourced than the majority of coffees than line big-box store shelves. For the right consumer, they are absolutely worth a try.