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

2010-11-24 Comments Off on 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.