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109. Coffee quality: What’s Fair Trade got to do with it?

I suggested yesterday that Fair Trade coffee is on a roll.  After all, Fair Trade roasters have claimed Roast Magazine‘s coveted Microroaster of the Year honors two years running.  I think it is important to reflect a bit more, however, on the relationship between Fair Trade and coffee quality.

One long-standing critique of Fair Trade suggests that it actually creates disincentives for quality by guaranteeing premium prices regardless of cup quality.  Roast’s recognition of Conscious Coffees (2011 Microroaster of the Year) and Kickapoo Coffee (2010 Microroaster of the Year) should definitively dispel the persistent false dichotomy between Fair Trade and quality.  Both roasters belong to Cooperative Coffees, the innovative sustainable coffee importer that sources exclusively organic, Fair Trade coffees on behalf of its members via direct relationships with smallholder farmers.  Their commitment to Fair Trade has not precluded them from producing best-in-class coffees.

But just because Fair Trade coffee isn’t necessarily bad doesn’t mean it is necessarily good.  There are plenty of Fair Trade roasters out there who aren’t winning quality awards or raising eyebrows at Coffee Review.  So what does the commitment of roasters like Conscious Coffees and Kickapoo to Fair Trade have to do with the quality of their coffee?

I would say that much of what accounts for the mind-blowing quality of their coffees has nothing at all to do with Fair Trade: extraordinary obsession with quality in sourcing, roasting and cupping; commitment to reveal the unique profile of each coffee; discipline to work with painstaking attention to detail; and reverence for the coffee process.  These characteristics have little intrinsic connection to the principles and practices of Fair Trade.  There are plenty of roasters who fit this description and have made no commitment to Fair Trade.

On the sourcing side, however, I believe that there are elements of the Cooperative Coffees trading model that have helped these particular quality-obsessed roasters get a leg up on the competition.  More on that tomorrow.


  • stefanfiebig says:

    Is this because FT raises the quality of coffee or because great farms use FT? I think it’s the latter I’m afraid…

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for the post. I think it works both ways, actually. Certainly, lots of farmers see Fair Trade as a tool and “use it” as you say to access another segment of the market for their already-excellent coffee. Some of the great U.S. roasters who favor quality incentives over social ones recognize this, and are sourcing microlots from farmers who belong to Fair Trade coops for reasons that have to do overwhelmingly with quality — their Fair Trade status is not really relevant to the decision. Some of the Intelligentsia Direct Trade coffees, for example, come from communities that are selling FTC coffee through their cooperatives but separate microlots that may meet higher quality standards and qualify for extraordinary quality premiums.

      I have also observed that there are ever more examples of the former: Fair Trade buyers investing in quality, raising their standards and suggesting that solidarity alone only goes so far. Kickapoo — and the Cooperative Coffees family of roasters it belongs to — is a good example, I think. Lots of strong Fair Trade coops — especially second-tier cooperatives or federations of cooperatives that can channel membership dues into building a strong core technical staff of agronomists, cuppers, etc. — have invested mightily in this function. In the case of Intelligentsia’s sourcing, for example, it may be the case that the cooperative investments in improved farming practices and quality helped develop those sources for Intelligentsia by bringing the quality to levels necessary to make them candidates for Intelligentsia’s rigid quality code. In that case, what might look from your end like quality coffee that happens to be Fair Trade — “the latter” in your post — may also reflect some of “the former” — returns on Fair Trade’s investments in quality.


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