When it comes to a feel-good cup of coffee, the choices are dizzying. It’s a battle between karma, birds, carbon, arabica and cost. The jargon jumble is growing, and trying to navigate your way to a sub-$5 latte necessitates a coffee crash course.
What does it all mean? Of course, consumers are familiar with some terms, as products brag about Fairtrade, 100 percent organic and even being bird friendly. Now there are claims being laid to carbon neutral, direct trade and shade coffee, plus talk of Fairtrade Carbon Credits.
There’s a growing responsibility in being a coffee-drinking consumer. Our identity is tightly linked to our consumer choices, and that impact is greater than our mood after a cuppa. Coffee is the most widely traded tropical agricultural product. Still, many of the 25 million small hold farmers producing 80 percent of the world’s coffee are struggling. Although coffee is grown in over 70 countries, 60 percent of the beans come from just four: Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.
The biggest coffee importers are the United States, Germany and Japan. The industry is precarious and volatile, with threats like food security, poverty, climate change and reduced land availability impacting production.
The Fairtrade designation began with Mexican coffee producers, as a result of the world coffee price collapse in the 1980s. Today, certified coffee producers are guaranteed to receive a Fairtrade minimum price for their beans. For 15 of the last 24 years, global arabica coffee prices have fallen well below the Fairtrade minimum.
In the complex chain from grower to consumer (insert traders, processors, exporters, roasters and retailers in between), coffee farmers were receiving 1 to 3 percent of the price of a cup of coffee sold in North America. Supermarket coffee sales netted a 2 to 6 percent value. The coffee crisis of 1994 to 2004 demonstrated the wicked pendulum of market prices and demand: in 2001, market price for a pound of coffee was a paltry 45 cents. It ballooned to $3.09 in 2011, but oversupply and a global financial crisis from May 2011 to December 2013 shot prices back down by 65 percent.
There’s no disputing the value of Fairtrade in allowing farmers to establish a more financially predictable living. Now Fair-trade co-operatives can count on a healthy minimum price of $1.40 per pound of arabica and an additional 30 cents if certified organic. Fairtrade premiums (20 cents per pound) allow producers to invest as necessary with just one parameter: 25 percent must be directed toward productivity enhancement and quality assurance. These projects can include improving soil health, community initiatives or planting drought-resistant crops.
Fairtrade supporters create partnerships based on dialogue, transparency and respect, with an unswerving goal to create greater equity in international trade. These standards are “designed to deliver against all three pillars of sustainability—economic, social and environmental,” according to the Fairtrade Canada website.
The designation has protected vulnerable farmers from unexpected production costs, crop disease, market curves and unpredictable weather.
When you see the Fair-trade sticker on a bag of coffee, it indicates that the coffee is certified and produced in line with fair trade standards. In 2014, 445 smallholder coffee producer organizations in 30 countries were Fairtrade certified and over 812,500 small-scale farmers were members of Fairtrade coffee producer organization. Here’s the number crunch: on 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) worldwide, 549,000 tonnes of Fairtrade coffee (34 percent certified organic) were produced in 2013 and 2014.
But Fairtrade is taking things a bigger step further. In Lesotho (a country landlocked by South Africa), rural communities are being provided with more efficient wood-burning stoves to help combat climate change. Financed by Deutsche Post DHL, Save 80 is the first Fairtrade Climate Standard project to be certified. The cook stoves use less wood than cooking on open fires, which is commonplace in coffee-growing areas,and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. The loss of forest has been staggering in places like Lesotho, where two-thirds of the forest have disappeared in 25 years as a result of cutting trees for firewood. In turn, that loss of forest has resulted in erosion and crop failure. Fairtrade premiums allow communities to invest in necessary local climate adaptation initiatives of their direction.
Climate change already has farmers worldwide knotted up with financial distress. For coffee growers, a two-degree rise in temperature can dramatically affect coffee bush yields. A three-degree rise threatens survival. Projects like Save 80 are geared to decrease greenhouse gases and help halt the ensuing drought. Over 12 million hectares (nearly 30 million acres) are lost each year to desertification.
Communities can proactively earn Fairtrade Carbon Credits through the development of renewable-energy production (solar, wind, hydropower) and energy-efficiency projects (improved cook stoves, energy-saving lamps, increased tree planting). The credits are banked by estimating the “tonnes of carbon dioxide that have been prevented from entering or been removed from the atmosphere,” according to Fairtrade International. Bigger and more prosperous companies can purchase carbon credits, which allows smallholders and rural communities to gain access to the climate finance generated.
Because coffee is Fairtrade consumers’ favourite product (it accounts for 25 percent of Fairtrade sales), Fairtrade Carbon Credits expands on a humanitarian and environmental cause that has inarguably changed the lives of coffee farmers and their families globally.
But let’s get back to the jargon and ethics debate of what kind of coffee to purchase.
This certification was created by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (part of the National Zoo) in Washington, D.C. Coffee producers must meet organic certification requirements first, which is why it can be difficult to find bird-friendly brands. Often famers can’t pay for inspection costs, even though the beans are organic by nature (since the farmers are unable to afford pesticides). To be certified, farms must maintain forest cover that provides bird habitat with a minimum of 40 percent shade coverage. Forests must also be diverse, with a variety of sizes of trees in the canopy to ensure biodiversity.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set the standards. No synthetic substances, such as pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, are allowed. To qualify, at least 95 percent of the beans must be grown in organic conditions.
This term is a relative newcomer to the coffee world. Coffee production has a notoriously giant footprint, as tropical forests are cleared to permit more sun for coffee crops. Coffee is then shipped to developed countries and shipped again to retailers and consumers. Those increased emissions support the very climate change that responsible coffee drinkers are trying to avoid. There are no internationally recognized standards (yet) for recognizing carbon neutral claims, so it’s a matter of trust in a company’s data.
Rainforest Alliance Certified (RAC)
This non-profit, tax-exempt New York–based organization promotes agricultural, tourism and forestry sustainability and biodiversity protection. In a partnership with the Sustainable Agriculture Network, the RAC sets standards for the environment, with strict criteria. There must be 40 percent canopy coverage, for example, and a minimum of a dozen native tree species per hectare of cultivated land. Farmers are not allowed to alter natural waterways, but they can use chemicals as long as they create buffer zones with natural vegetation between crops, road and villages. Labour standards protect children from under the age of 15 being hired, while those under 18 must have parental permission and work must not conflict with their attending school. Protective equipment and training are provided, in addition to minimum wage assurance (as per location). A container with just 30 percent of coffee grown under the RAC standards, however, can be certified. Be sure to look for 100 percent certified coffee.
These companies establish their own standards outside of third parties and organizations that monitor certifications. The roasters buy straight from the growers and usually visit the plantations to ensure quality. Direct trade purveyors are generally involved in social issues and community improvement projects. Consumers should take the time to check into the companies’ claims to ensure that they ring true.
Grown in the traditional way, shade coffee is planted under partial forest canopies. Beans from small co-ops and producers tend to be grown the traditional way, under other plants (shade) such as bananas. Some claim this traditional method produces slower-ripening and better tasting coffee. Birds rejoice, and there is no third-party certification or inspection for this claim (yet).
Now that you are well versed in the buzzwords, here are a few savvy places to order a feel-good cup.
Bean Fair, Wakefield, Quebec
Bean Fair was one of the first to sell Fairtrade coffee in Canada—the company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year—and it was also the first CO2-responsible coffee business in the region. The perky business offsets its carbon footprint by supporting a social reforestation project in Nicaragua. Its organic coffee is purchased from small-scale farmers and sold in compostable bags. Bean Fair is the MVP on the Fairtrade list for consumer education and embodying the values of fair trade above and beyond. As founder Anne Winship says, “I put the mental into environmental.”
Try: The Wakefield Blend. The best-selling brand ($16 to $17 per 454 grams) is a two-to-one punchy mix of French roast and Ethiopian beans. To save on packaging, Bean Fair prefers to sell pounds of coffee versus half-pounds, and to maintain its carbon-neutral commitment, it also prefers to limit sales to the Ottawa-Gatineau region but will support diehard fans farther afield.
Birds and Beans
Birds and Beans’ The Messenger Blend is a harmonious partnership between The Messenger documentary and Bird Studies Canada (BSC). Buying this coffee helps protect critical migratory songbird habitat in coffee countries and supports BSC’s protection of wild places in Ontario (10 percent of sales are directed to BSC).
The organic and bird-friendly certified coffee is small-batch-roasted in Toronto and is Canada’s only coffee roaster that exclusively roasts certified Organic Bird Friendly coffees. “We are the most eco-friendly coffee company in the country, especially when you consider that in addition to the sourcing of our coffees, we roast using 100 percent green power from Bullfrog Power, and our roaster, a Loring, is the most energy-efficient roaster available on the market,” says co-founder and roaster, David Pritchard.
Try: The Messenger Blend ($14.25 per 340 grams). The tasting notes read like the best daydream: “Milk chocolate on the nose, accented with a hint of flower,” with cardamom, white pepper and maple syrup flavours.
Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters, Calgary
“It’s a bit different and a lot nerdy,” so says the Phil & Sebastian website. This place is “your local” and promises to elevate your coffee experience. With a self-proclaimed “rigorous farm-direct green coffee procurement approach,” the brand offers bespoke subscriptions and tours of its roasterie, and holds weekly tastings and coffee classes. Phil & Sebastian started out humbly at the Calgary Farmers’ Market, and owners Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb work at ground level, travelling to collaborate with producers and integrating modern technology. They are both engineers who left their careers in the field to pursue their love of coffee, yet they continue to inject a very scientific and engineer’s approach to how they source, roast and serve coffee to customers. Their coffee bag labels inform about elevation, region, drying process, harvest dates and even include a small farmer bio.
Try: The Patricia Perez beans ($19 per 340 grams) direct from her five-hectare (12 acre) farm in El Diamante, Guatemala. Taste the marriage of Brazil nuts, toasted sugar and watermelon.
Monigram Coffee Roasters, Cambridge, Ontario
Owners Monica and Graham are all about community and coffee. They are uncompromising and transparent about ethical sourcing, in various forms of “direct trade” coffee for sale. They buy from farmers or importers, who are sometimes family members of the farmers, and insist on premium beans from strong, seasonal locations. They believe in doing this so they can “offer more, based on price and lack of middlemen, to the farmers and farm workers than a Fairtrade designation necessarily does.” The café features live music, Sip & Stitch nights, comedy and coffee workshops.
Try: Everything. They’re always experimenting with new things at Monigram, so you’ll be forced to visit frequently!
Chicken Creek Coffee Company, Smithers, British Columbia
Kathy and Ed Hildebrandt have been in the coffee biz since 1994. The Chicken Creek owners use Organic Fair Trade beans to ensure that families and growing communities are not affected by chemicals and that they are guaranteed a fair price. Kicking it old school, the couple roasts by sight, smell and sound at their small-batch artisan roaster.
“We are a small company, but choose to be just that,” Ed says. “Our customers are more like our friends. We operate from our 2.2-acre rural property, where people come by at all hours to pick up their coffee. We don’t stock any coffee beans. We roast only as orders come in. Our roaster is also different in that we use an electric roaster. If you use gas, the air flow goes through the chamber across the beans. With electric, it is just the air in the shop. Even the flavour of the coffee is different. Most roasters don’t like electric because it is like an electric oven versus a gas oven: the gas is much more responsive, and with electric you have to be a bit more careful. There’s nothing wrong with gas—it’s just different.”
The yard delivery truck was repurposed from an abandoned commercial lawn mower. “We are folks who like to recycle,” explains Ed. “We cut the mower in half, lengthened it by five feet, made the front the back, and reversed everything. We thought, ‘We are an old-fashioned artisan roaster,’ so building an old-fashioned-looking truck fit right in.”
When you call, they put your order in the roasting queue, so when you pick up your coffee, it is as fresh as you can get it.
Try: The Henhouse Blend ($14.25 per pound). It’s a must the next time you have a flock over!
Laughing Whale Coffee Roasters, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
All Laughing Whale coffees are certified Fairtrade and organic. In a community that prides itself on craftsmanship and detail, with artists, shipbuilders and fishermen at every turn, it makes sense. Laughing Whale keeps it local, composts like crazy, heat-recycles, supports women coffee farmers through its Café Femenino offerings, and strives to be the greenest roaster in Atlantic Canada. They also donate 25 cents per pound of retail coffee sold to the Ecology Action Centre, the oldest and most vibrant environmental organization in Atlantic Canada. Their goal is the pursuit of quality, playfulness and fairness, and to deliver the “lowest carbon footprint per cup.”
Try: Frankly Sumatra, Toothless Shark (a decaf with “big flavours, no bite,” to quote the website), Rock Your Boat dark roast, a Mexican and Sumatra blend, or go all the way to the dark side with Ooh La La! french roast (all $12.25 to $13 per 340 grams).
Jules Torti’s resume reads more like a well-folded treasure map. She has been a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer. Jules has volunteered (and eaten all sorts of questionable things) in the soupy jungles of Costa Rica, Uganda and the Congo. Her work has been published in The Harrowsmith Almanac, The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. She actively feeds her blog, Alphabet Soup, with posts on books, birds, burgers and beer (in no particular order) across the latitudes from Zanzibar to Iceland. Closer to home, she was grandfathered into the Galt Horticultural Society, was the caretaker of a 155-year-old stone heritage cottage and has chronic fantasies about church conversions, beekeeping and owning llamas. She has been known to slam on the brakes for photo ops of saltbox houses, saddle roof barns, snowy owls and sunflower fields. As editor-in-chief of Harrowsmith she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.