It’s hard to explain how lucky I feel to be in the coffee business. It’s not always like this—often times the dark cloud of spreadsheets, uncupped samples, missed deadlines and customer service overshadows the joy of this work, but then there are moments of clarity. For me, it’s often late in the afternoon after a long day of work with a cooperative, pushing ahead on a quality improvement project or the successful negotiation of a contract for this year’s coffee.
But there are many other moments as well. Getting a call or a card from a customer who is so happy with our coffee that they went way out of their way to tell us about it. The time my friend Rio, who grew up down the street from me, came over and told me that the Sidama Natural was his favorite coffee ever. That he didn’t know coffee could be so sweet and complex. That he looked forward to it every morning. And that he had heard that I’d found it on one of my trips to East Africa, and gone all the way into the mountains to meet the farmers who grow it! That’s cool.
And I just had another one—a chance meeting with a great organization doing amazing work in Rwanda. They are called Project Akilah, and if you’re in Tampa, Florida, you should definitely attend their event tomorrow night.
Check out Project Akilah’s website to learn more about their work to support the next generation of Rwandans—young women specifically—who have grown up in the shadow of the genocide, yet are moving forward, thanks to the support or remarkable people like Elizabeth and her team at Project Akilah. It often times feels like a contradiction, but if you ever want an affirmation that human beings are good, go to Rwanda. And when you go, make time to see the majestic gorillas. But also make time to visit the farmers we work with, and the school that Project Akilah built.
We’re honored that our coffee will be part of the event, and encourage any of you who haven’t, to taste one of the world’s best coffees.
Shade is good when it comes to coffee because the coffee tree is a shade loving, evergreen deciduous, tree whose leaves are too tender for direct sunshine. But they do need light to grow and thrive . In the sub tropical rain forests where most coffee grows, all the trees in the forest reach for the sun and left unchecked, the taller trees will completely block out the light needed for those coffee trees. Things grow fast in the tropics so shade management is an integral part of the coffee farm work load.
There are many quality levels of shade as one could imagine. It is really great to wander through a coffee farm shaded by old growth Mahogany and Rosewood trees that are ancient and massive, needing no more then two to four to shade an entire acre (400 coffee trees). That kind of coffee farming must come from a deep respect for the land and a long , continuous relationship to it over many generations, otherwise those incredibly old trees would have been cut down long ago. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about that Jaguar stalking me as I wandered off the path to touch one of those monster survivors.
Then there are farms that have no ancient forest on their land so they plant bananas for shade and maybe a local species of nitrogen fixing leguminous tree to rise above the Banana Trees. Here are two types of shade to give you a visual understanding of what I have described. The first picture shows how compatible the coffee and Banana Trees are together. Shaded by the wide fronds the coffee tree at bottom center is a deep dark green , indicating adequate nitrogen in the soil and a healthy and hardy tree. The next picture shows a very different kind of shade application, one that will support a much greater biodiversity . In the foreground, the coffee trees are under Inga trees which have obviously been planted to provide shade for the coffee trees. You can tell by their even spacing. In the background lies the undisturbed forest .
Shade is good for ecological reasons too. Tropical rains are intense. Tree roots hold topsoil and stabilize mountain sides. The over story absorbs the full force of the rain and softens the impact of torrential rains.
Shade produces “leaf litter” that decomposes on the ground providing nutrients to the soil. Shade provides homes for migratory song birds, monkeys, and a host of species that derive their sustenance from the e land also. And the birds take care of the insects so less pesticide use results . It is good to know that coffee is the perfect forest cash crop . There is no need to clear land , just the need to manage the shade that is already there . Most encouraging is when farmers start restoring their forest And that is what we encourage when we shop for coffee with shade grown on our mind (and yours).
One of my favorite shade-grown coffees right now is our SongBird Costa Rican Coffee. It is sweet with nice caramel notes with a soft finish.
Another one of my favorites is our Songbird Guatemalan coffee , same sweet notes but a bit more bright and lively in the cup.
Fair Trade Retail Pricing
Posted: 06 May 2009 02:11 PM PDT
I recently received this question from a coffee lover in Oakland California.
â€œA friend recently commented that â€œfair tradeâ€ growers are still underpaid, with growers paid less than a dollar a pound for a product that retails for $12. of course there are many cost involved in getting product to people, but can you confirm or comment on the compensation for Fair trade coffee? â€œ
My reply :
Dear Nancy, Your friend is correct if you want to compare coffee farmers in Peru with a coffee farmer in Hawaii(USA) . Hawiian coffee costs $14.00 a pound green in 100 lb sacks. Why ? Because the Hawaii farmer is paid at least minimum wage ($ 7.50/hour.) So you , the consumer will pay $24.00 per pound in the grocery. The Fair Trade Peruvian Farmer sells his coffee to a his producer cooperative of which he is a member with one vote. The coop gets about $2.00 per pound for its certified organic coffee from roasters in the USA . The coop keeps about .50 cents (it varies from co-op to co-op) so the farmer is getting $1.50 per pound. That is hard to translate into wages per hour but it is allot less then the Hawiian coffee farmer. You can tell because one is poor and the other is middle class. One has electricity and a life in the fast lane, the other has a horse and a quiet village with only a small school and a church. However, Fair Trade farmers are not as vulnerable as their brothers and sisters who are not co-op members. There is strength in numbers and there is commeraderie as well. Coops build their communities socially and economically so they are a further benefit to people and communities. Only cooperatives can be certified to be Fair Trade sellers. Individuals and Plantations are not eligable for the Fair Trade Certification.
As for the economics of coffee. Here is how it works on a per pound basis :.
.50 â€¦â€¦..20% shrinkage in roasting
.50â€¦â€¦â€¦ roasting costs for gas and labor
1.00â€¦â€¦â€¦Packaging materials and production labor
3.50 â€¦â€¦.operating expenses (for the coffee roaster/distributor)
.50 â€¦â€¦gross profit to roaster before taxes
$7.50 wholesale price
3.50 retailers gross profit
$ 10.99 shelf price.
The Fair Trade price is set at $1.51 per pound FOB country of origin. This is the lowest price one can offer for Organic Fair Trade coffee. Most often, a premium above the FT minimum is paid for quality so the price is often about $2.00 per pound. The price is paid to the cooperative , not the individual farmer. The farmer gets a percentage of that price depending on how well the cooperative is run, what social benefit programs they sponsor, and how good their financial situation is. In reality, this persntage averages around 70 % . The cooperatives organizational structure and their financial records are monitored yearly by The Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) and cooperatives that do not meet open and transparent standards are â€œdecertifiedâ€ . This is obviously a major simplification so for a greater ,in depth look at Fair Trade you can check out www.FairTradeCertified.org.
One of my favorite Fair Trade Coffees comes from our partner in Rwanda , the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative. Their coffee has been described as â€œdeliciousâ€ by some and having hints of dark cherry and chocolate by others. I enjoy it because it makes my mouth water, and has a beautifully round acidity that is mellow and soft .
SALT SELLERS IN THE MARKET ; RWANDA 2007
2 zakies of great coffee, carefully protected by secret coffeeman code.
We got a long-awaited package in the mail a few days ago, from Amsterdam. Labeled â€œ2 zakies groene koffie bonenâ€ (and although I don’t speak dutch) this was no mystery: this was the much anticipated, occasionally fretted over, often nagged at pre-shipment sample of this year’s Sidama Natural from the Hache Cooperative, part of the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union.
This is a coffee I fell in love with last year during my first trip to Ethiopia. I actually fell in love with it from across the room at first (smell) sight. I was cupping a selection of the best washed coffees of the year and the next table over samples of the washed sun-dried naturals were being preparedâ€¦suddenly, deep in my cuppers trance, I smelled sweet sweet strawberry. I stopped, interrupted everyone else, and made a fool of myself hopping around on my two overcaffeinated feet asking about that sweet smelling coffee that had just been ground. Later, after I’d settled down, had an amazing lunch of Injera and Doro Wat (Ethiopian food is as great as their coffee, if you ask me), I found the same coffee, this time hidden as sample number 17 or whatever it was.
We bought a whole container of it, and over the past year it’s become a stand-out favorite among staff, long-time customers, and new friends alike. It’s the backbone of our espresso, and a couple other signature blends. Its jammy sweetness, deep heavy body, and sweet berry aroma are unique. These flavors are the result of a graceful coincidence of dozens of critical variables, and hundreds of other weighty factors as well. Ripe, sweet cherries produced by antique coffee varietals, slowly ripened thanks to high altitude, the gentle stress of good contrasting diurnal temperatures, just the right amount of rain to encourage the coffee to blossom and then a dry period long enough to encourage good pollination, followed by enough rain to allow the coffee trees to produce full, juicy fruitâ€¦and that’s all before the coffee has even been picked!
After that it’s selection, and careful drying on raised bends with plenty of airflow and a drying period long enough to allow for some sweet wine-like flavors to emerge through light fermentation, but not so long that sour or dry flavors develop. There is certainly a lot of science going on here, but its at least as much if not more artâ€¦and the result last year was thrilling. This year it is too!
The pre-shipment sample shows that same unique jammy strawberry character. It’s becoming clear that this is the hallmark of natural coffees from Sidama, as contrasted with the distinctive blueberry sweetness of natural coffees from Harrar. Only in Ethiopia, with such elegant and intense coffees, could we get away with waxing this poetic on coffee from specific micro-climates and appellations. But it’s there, in the cup, I’m sure a lot of you have tasted these flavors yourselves. In addition to that syrupy strawberry, there are a host of flavors in this year’s Hache much more characteristic of the washed coffees from Sidama: sweet citrus pith, and heavy jasmine blossom perfume-like elegance. At a darker roast, these flavors will hold and convert to heavy chocolate notes. At a lighter roast, the acidity will shed light on the full dimension of this coffee’s character.
What changed this year is a question burning a small hole in my head at the moment. I’ve already sent out a blitzkrieg of emails, and started comparing plane tickets on Ethiopian Airlines versus KLM. I’m thrilled, and pleasantly surprised. The farmers are happy. And I can’t wait to share this coffee with you. Last year’s Hache is still standing up nicely; if you want to get a final taste of it order soon. And stay tuned for notice of this coffees arrival sometime towards the end of June.
At Thanksgiving Coffee Company, and with respect to Mirembe Kawomera in particular, we talk a lot about voting with dollars. Buying Mirembe Kawomera coffee offers consumers a chance not only to support Fair Trade, not only to buy certified organic (and kosher and halal), but also to participate in an amazing shared vision for peace.
I had a chat yesterday with a woman in Lancaster County, PA who is organizing a program for her church pre-school’s moms group. She was building the program around a recent purchase of hers, the “Better World Shopping Guide”. If you aren’t familiar with this epic pocket guide of how to be a wiser and more diligent consumer you really ought to have a look: http://www.betterworldshopper.com.
Now in its second edition, the guide offers consumers viable information about big and small businesses and their practices; which commodities to be most mindful about, and various lists and resources for shoppers to refer to. In assessing business practices the guide focuses on five categories: Human Rights, the Environment, Animal Protection, Community Development, and Social Justice. In a world where green branding has quickly overshadowed green standards it is an asset to have a reliable resource helping us make informed decisions.
The woman in Lancaster County reached out to Thanksgiving because we appear in the “Coffee” section of the guide as well as occupying the number 6 spot on the Better World Shopper website list “10 Small But Beautiful.” It was fantastic to have a conversation with someone who was really thinking about the big picture, how our purchasing power has impact. Not just for the consumer, not just for the vendor but at every point along the supply chain and beyond.
Thanksgiving Coffee works diligently to maintain high ethical, environmental, and social standards in all that we do. Right down to composting our coffee grounds on site in our worm farm for use at the Community Garden in the adjacent lot that the founders Joan and Paul donated land for. Mirembe Kawomera coffee is no exception. We have worked with the farmers to improve their product so that it costs us more. Seems counter-intuitive for a small business like ours, and yet, we are thrilled to be paying $1.85 per pound this year instead of the $1.61 we have paid in the past.
Just like you, we are buying these beans and voting with our dollars.
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For those of you who have been following the story of Rwanda, our work there, and the intersection of horror and hope, the May 4 edition of the New Yorker has another important report from Philip Gourevitch. Gourevitch is the author of â€œWe wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our familiesâ€ which remains the most comprehensive human chronology and analysis of the 1994 genocide. He returned to Rwanda in April 15 years after the genocide. His report sheds light on the remarkable recovery there, and also the fragile peace, and reminds us that we owe a debt to humanity and to these remarkable people who are living in the shadow of history, still seeking the dawn of a peaceful future.
You can read a synopsis on the New Yorker’s website.
I of course would encourage you to explore the story of the 2,000 farmers of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, who are living this story day in and day out. They are remarkable people, farmers, teachers, mothers and fathers, and producers of some of the finest coffees in the world.
For further reading, I would also suggest Gourevitch’s book, Stephen Kinzer’s â€œA Thousand Hillsâ€ and Mahmood Mamdani’s â€œWhen the Victims Become the Killersâ€.
It was a big day in the cupping lab. Starting with a sample roasting session that went well after dark the night before (I got started a bit late thanks to a fan belt breaking on the company rig coming over the coastal range from San Francisco—that’s another, not so fun story) and picking up at 8am I had a chance to sort through, taste, and ponder this year’s crop from Cooperativa Solidaridad, in Aranjuez, Nicaragua. The exciting (and labor intensive) part of this cupping is that each of the cooperative’s farmers processes their coffee on-farm, and then keeps their beans separate all the way through to shipping. This enables us to explore the variety of flavors being produced by different farmers spread out over a mountainous area of about 30 square miles high in northern Nicaragua.
I came to work with my game face on (and a hearty bowl of oatmeal in my belly) and settled into a final check of the coffee roasts. Roasting each of the 100gram samples identically is critical; any difference in roast profile, time, or color will impart a variability that makes it impossible to compare one coffee to the other, which is the simple (and challenging) goal of this exercise. I spent about 5 hours yesterday roasting, checking, and re-roasting the samples. It’s an exhausting and enthralling task. There is a rhythm to the process, and pretty soon you find yourself immersed in a world of steam, smoke, flame, and smell. The end result, double and triple checked this morning, was 15 samples identically roasted, and ready to be scored and ranked.
I have to do this blind, otherwise I start to think about the farmers. I know these people, and have spent time on their farms taking shelter from a rainstorm, eating a delicious meal of chicken soup and potatoes all raised within 50 feet of their kitchen, or underneath the shade of their trees talking about coffee, farming, and their cooperative. They are friends, teachers, and partners, and I can’t help but think of them when I taste their coffee. Knowing that tasting with this kind of relationship is quickly an emotional experience, the first thing I do when the coffees arrive is number them, and tear off the tags identifying farmer, quantity, etc. Quite the scientist, I knowâ€¦
Then there’s the moment of truth: small 10gram samples are scooped out, and ground. Water is boiled. The perfume of sweet fresh coffee fills the room. And the hints of Aranjuez begin to float around tooâ€¦I move from sample to sample, spinning the rotating table underneath me smelling sweet maple syrup in some, deeply carmelized butterscotch in others, yellow raisins, and lightly toasted cashews. I pour equal amounts of freshly boiled water, and smell again. The aromas intensify. It’s almost as if the coffee blossoms. A timer sounds. 5 minutes is up. I break the cap, smell deeply, and clean away the wet grounds. Spoonful by spoonful I taste the coffees. Bright and lively they score well on acidity. Most are fantastic. A few really jump out. They are round, deeply toned with the clean characteristic sugary maple syrup-caramel that is the hallmark of these coffees. A number of the best blossom in the cup: their taste begins sweetly and with a lively citric acidity, a new dimension of flavor opens a second later (deep maple syrup rich sweetness) and a full buttery richness envelopes your palate. The flavor fades gracefully, and exits leaving a sweetly toned cacao bitterness. Damn, that’s good coffee!
More than half score over 90 on a scale of 100. That’s a full step up from previous years. The farmers’ hard work and our shared investment in the future of coffee is paying off.
We’ll load two shipping containers, the first with the 90-plus coffees. These will head for single origins, and our espresso blends. The balance will add a deep sweetness to our dark roasts. While the coffee heads north from Nicaragua, copies of my scoring sheet will head south. Benjamin Rivera, the Cooperative’s quality control officer and I will confer on the scores, and he’ll visit the farmers one by one to share the results. Where coffees are great, we’ll try to replicate the farmer’s craft at his or her neighbors. Where the coffees need help, we’ll dig in to identify and fix the problems. Already these coffees are greatâ€¦they get better each year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the new crop Nicaraguans with you soon—you can find them in our new single origin â€œJoya de Aranjuezâ€ 12oz. package.
Behind the Ship the San Juan, built in 1931 is the Oldest building on the Noyo Harbor. Built before the great earthquake of 1906, it is what remains of the two story building that it once was. When the earthquake hit, it created a landslide knocking the first story right out from under the second story. Creative lumbermen jacked up what was left , mounted it on the dock and in 1974 Thanksgiving Coffee Company moved in to the eastern corner , occupying an area 30 feet by 20 feet. The building is sixty feet long by thirty feet wide. It is constructed 100 % old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir. Half of the building is on land with the other half on the dock over the water. The photo above was taken in 1975. Note the puff of smoke and the Thanksgiving Coffee sign atop the structure. The company operated out of those digs from 1974 until 1987, going from just Joan and Paul to 26 employees after we purchased the entire building in 1977. The San Juan was owned by Albert Reynolds and Bruce Abernathy at the time and was actively used to drag cable across the Pacific when the communications cable was laid from Point Arena, California to Japan in 1975. It is 71 feel long and as of 2009 is the last remaining ship of its type still afloat. It is still moored at our dock but has not been out of the water in 30 years and I am afraid it is no longer seaworthy. Here is the same scene as it appeared to my camera last month . We purchased the building in 1975 and still the company still owns it . We use it for storage and keep it to remind us of our humble beginnings, and of all the amazing old salts, cranky fishermen, and drunken parties that were a frequent part of our friends lives on the water when the Noyo Harbor was just another “Cannery Row” along the Pacific Coast, complete with “fish houses” where local woman filleted fifty pound King Salmon, iced three pound crabs and packed Black Cod fillets for shippment to Eastern markets to be smoked and sold as” smoked sablefish” to the Jewish Delis in Chicago and New YorK City. All that is gone now(2009) but the memory still remains. I guess you can say , those were “the good old days”.