Where Does Coffee Come From?

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment


     All too often, we look to coffee as that hot drink that wakes us up in the morning, and gets us through the afternoon.  Few stop to think about where it comes from.

I still remember the first time I walked into a Starbucks and saw their diagram about how the coffee bean begins as half of the seed of a coffee cherry, before it’s harvested and roasted.  I couldn’t get my head around it.  At the time, all ll I knew is that you could either buy it in dark brown beans, or pre-ground.

The first step to truly understanding coffee is understanding where it comes from.

Take five minutes to read about the people behind the coffee.

mauigrowncherries    Check out the new Coffee Sustainability page.  It is a work in progress, and meant as a quick overview of two things.  First, the problem today with poverty in coffee-growing countries.  And second, the solutions that are in place and what little things you can do to make a difference.

As a coffee drinker, you’ll have an even greater appreciation of it after you learn about the people who make it possible for us.  Check out the new Coffee Sustainability page.

Our Trek Through Central American Coffee Country

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee History, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment

IMG_2730     I’ve spent the last ten days in Central America, touring Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The primary reason for the trip was the bonding experience with my father, who has done this trip before, and acted as our guide.  The other reason was to venture deep into coffee country.

As a coffee lover, it was appealing to me to go to its source, see it as it grows, talk to the people that make it possible for the rest of us, and educate myself on everything that happens before a professional roaster makes it available to me.  Prior to this trip, I had made three separate trips to the Hawaiian islands, in part to visit coffee farms there.  The difference is that when you’re in Mau’i or Kona on the Big Island, you’re still in the United States talking to Americans making American wages.  In Central America, there’s none of that luxury.

IMG_2758     At coffee’s origin are arguably its hardest-working and poorest people. 

In the weeks to come, I have so much information to share with you coffee lovers about what I saw and learned.  I’ll give you a synopsis now, and a summary of what updates are to come.

My father met me in Belize City and we took a puddle-jumper plane to spend the night in the Belizean town of Placencia.  Belize produces coffee but lacks the altitude to be counted among the world’s finest.  Still, we were treated to fresh coffee while we were there.

From there, we made our way to Honduras where we had hoped to visit a coffee farm, but due to the logistics of traveling these countries off the beaten path, had to leave before we could.  We arrived there late from alternate arrangements we had made to get there.  Our host was unable to make us the farm tour accommodations he had hoped to make.  Not to mention the following day was election day, and we thought better of sticking around to see how it turned out.


Finally, we visited Guatemala.  For me, it is the coffee lover’s mecca.  Guatemalan coffee is my favorite coffee in the world!  We visited a coffee farm in San Juan, just off of the incredibly beautiful Lake Atitlan.  We toured the city of Antigua, just outside Guatemala’s largest area of coffee production.  Antigua is the unofficial coffee capital of Central America, if not the world, with its many cafes on every block.  Finally, we enjoyed farm-fresh coffee at every stop from Puerto Barrios to Flores.

Stay tuned!  The process by which coffee ends up in our kitchens is a long and arduous one, full of hard-working people who take incredible pride in what they give us, despite their poverty.  It was a very eye-opening experience for me, that I look forward to sharing with you in the weeks to come.

IMG_2818     I’ll take you on the Guatemalan coffee tour that my father and I were on, and do my best to translate the details from Spanish! 🙂  I’ll walk you through the cobblestone streets of Antigua, with its rich history and cafes on every block.  We’ll sit down with the owner of Kaffee Fernando’s, Antigua’s leading coffee roaster and chocolatier.  And we’ll have lots of fun too (the kind that’s fun after the fact), while I share my experiences on how to cross Central American borders on foot, riding the chicken bus to get around, and one night in the ‘murder capital of Honduras’.

Leaving for Central America Origin Trip

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment


     Tomorrow morning, I leave for Central America.

I will be flying out of everybody’s favorite airport LAX, to Belize City.  My father is already there, waiting for me to arrive.  No sooner do I land, will we be hopping on a small plane to Placencia, and from there, taking a water taxi to Puerto Cortes.  It should be a great tour of the less touristy part of the country of Belize.

Read: Preparing for my Coffee Origin Trip

Other than for some great bonding time with my father, this is a coffee origin trip.  From Belize, we will be traveling to Honduras and Guatemala, and stopping at coffee farms in each of those two countries.


   I have now on three separate occasions visited coffee farms in Hawaii.  All three were great eye-opening experiences, particularly the most recent where I traveled with the owner and head roaster of Canada’s Fire Roasted Coffee.  What an incredibly unique experience for a coffee-lover to watch our favorite beverage come full circle with a professional roaster talking to a coffee farmer!

Read: Check out our article in Roast Magazine
Read: My Kona Hawaii Trip Report

The aspect of this trip that will make it unique is that I won’t be in the United States.  I’ll be in poorer countries where I expect the plight of coffee farmers and their cycle of poverty will hit close to home.  I’ve spent the last three months diligently learning Spanish, and I hope to conduct an interview with a coffee farmer in Spanish (recorder in hand, for everything he says that I will surely miss).

Wifi will be hard to come by.  I will take every advantage to keep you posted on my trip.  You can follow updates by liking our Facebook page, or following us on Twitter.  Check back here too! – I’m already excited to share the experience with you.  Going to the source of coffee, where it all comes from!

What is Direct Trade coffee?

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Fair Trade and the Environment


This year, I was fortunate at CoffeeCON 2013 to meet and interview coffee pioneer George Howell.  George was the founder of the Coffee Connection in Boston, which was acquired by Starbucks as a means of entering the Boston market.  He remains a leading coffee expert, and is also the founder of the George Howell Terroir Coffee Company.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013
Check out: What is the Cup of Excellence?

One of my questions to George was, what is direct trade coffee?  With little awareness among the coffee loving public of just how poor the living conditions are in coffee growing countries, I asked George to simplify this solution to the problem.

The event that helped set Direct Trade in motion was the 1999 Cup of Excellence in Brazil.  This coffee competition emphasizes single farms, asking farmers to put forward their best lot.  The jury became formed of professional specialty roasters from around the world, and they spent a week cupping those coffees.  Among early members of the jury were other coffee giants like Jeff Watts of Chicago’s Intelligentsia and Duane Sorenson of Portland’s Stumptown.

After the Cup of Excellence, Direct Trade began to take shape.  It introduced more roasters directly to the farmers, and encouraged roasters to visit farms and create direct relationships.

Roasters had gone on origin trips before, but the interaction of roasters as judges, and farmers, as well as the competition’s emphasis on single farms introduced direct trade relationships.  Existing programs like Fair Trade ensured that farmers received a fair price, but the Cup of Excellence emphasized relationship coffee from the standpoint of quality.

The fuzzy part about Direct Trade is that it’s not a true seal or standard, like Fair Trade.  Direct trade is different for everybody, and the key things are:

  • Knowing the farm where you’re buying the coffee, and its practices aimed at the utmost quality, and
  • Making sure you know what they are getting paid – you want to know they are independent of the commodity market.

Find out what your local roaster does to stay close to origin.  I accompanied Dave Cook, owner of Fire Roasted Coffee on an origin trip to meet farmers in Hawaii.  It was an amazing opportunity to observe Dave observing the quality of the process at the farm, before deciding what coffee to bring into his shop to serve you.

Seven Facts About National Coffee Day

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee History, Fair Trade and the Environment

mauigrowncherries      Some of you may have heard that yesterday, September 29th, was National Coffee Day.  I’ll be honest and confess that it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve even heard of the event.  Well, guess what?  It’s real and it’s been around for at least 30 years.  And here are six more facts about National Coffee Day

– It’s actually International Coffee Day, but each participating country celebrates it as National Coffee Day.  This struck me when I noticed chains in the US giving away free coffee to celebrate, while friends of mine in Canada were also celebrating it as “National“.

– There are actually a total of six countries that celebrate National Coffee Day on September 29th.  In addition to the US and Canada, they are England, Ethiopia, Malaysia, and Sweden.

– The first known celebration of an International Coffee Day was in Japan in 1983, celebrated on October 1st.

IMG_2162     – The purpose of the day?  To celebrate the delicious beverage we all love.  The tragedy of it?  It is also meant to recognize the plight of coffee farmers in poor countries, a message that tends to get lost when in practice, it seems more about McDonalds and Starbucks giving out free coffee samples.

– The first known reference to National Coffee Day in the US was in 2005, so if you’re getting the news late, don’t worry – it’s less than a ten year old tradition.  Start gearing up now for next year!

– Coffee producing countries that celebrate Coffee Day in addition to Ethiopia are Brazil (May 24th) and Costa Rica (September 12th).

As David Cook, owner of Fire Roasted Coffee, says, “Happy International Coffee Day! or as we like to call it…Sunday.”


What is the Cup of Excellence? – for everyday coffee drinkers

in Buying Coffee, Coffee News, Coffees of the World, Fair Trade and the Environment

georgehowell     At this year’s CoffeeCON in Chicago, I was fortunate enough to get some time with Boston-based specialty coffee pioneer George Howell to talk coffee.  To say that George provided me with an overwhelming amount of coffee knowledge would be an understatement, and I’m looking forward in the weeks and months to come, to referencing this knowledge.

George talked to me about the Cup of Excellence program, and I wanted to take a few minutes to tell you what it is, and why it should be interesting for any coffee lover.

Check out: Trip Report CoffeeCON 2013

In 1999, George and other specialty coffee buyers and roasters were frustrated with the lack of appreciation for high-quality Brazilian coffees among North American specialty coffee buyers.  Brazils had a reputation for being mass-produced, and with little regard for being unique and prized.  George and company wanted to change that perception, and started the Cup of Excellence as a competition for coffee farmers in that country.  Farmers would submit their single best coffee, perfectly ripe when picked, exhibiting a well-developed body and amazing flavor.  A panel of international coffee experts would select the winning coffee, which is crowned champion.

Here’s the cool part.  In order to encourage with farmers the relationship between quality coffee and the price that they can get for their product, the winning coffees from Cup of Excellence are auctioned online to the highest bidder, with the farmer receiving 85% of the auction price.

The competition has since grown to include more countries than just Brazil.  Keep your eyes open for reference to Cup of Excellence.  If you see it, try it!

The Future of Fair Trade Coffee

in Buying Coffee, Coffee and You, Coffee History, Fair Trade and the Environment

No matter what they tell you in Seattle, the coffee capital of North America is Portland, Oregon.  Do a search of coffee companies and cafes in the greater Portland area, there are almost 7,000 of them.  And so, it struck me that in eight months of living here, I haven’t seen the Fair Trade logo, not even once.

Fair Trade is a certification program where you as a consumer are assured that for spending just a little more, the farmer will receive a fair price for his product.  The belief is that by free trade economics, farming communities will never make enough money to invest in the infrastructure of their communities, and get out of the cycle of poverty they are stuck in.  Meanwhile, we enjoy the amazing product that they give us.

Most of what I know of Fair Trade coffee, I’ve learned from the coffee roasters I’ve met, and from a book called Brewing Justice, a history of Fair Trade and its struggle.  One of the greatest threats to Fair Trade’s identity has been the participation of Starbucks, believed by many to simply be paying lip service to the cause.

Learn more about: Brewing Justice: Fair Trade Coffee, Sustainability, and Survival

I always get more than I bargained for when I meet people in the coffee business, and my recent visit to Kobos Coffee was no exception.

I asked Production Manager Kevin Dibble why I hadn’t seen the Fair Trade logo since I arrived in Portland.  He smiled a very telling smile, considered how to answer, and then said, “Yeah, we used to see that around here a lot in the 90s.” – read: yeah, that used to be trendy around here, but isn’t anymore.

Kobos Coffee is the one of the longest-standing coffee roasters in Portland.  Surely if there is a scribe of trends that have come and gone in the world of coffee, they’ve lived it.  I asked Kevin what Kobos did instead to promote sustainability.  They focus without the need for certification, on ensuring three things from where their coffee is grown: the economics of that area, the environmental impact of how it is grown, and social change.

“I needed to give incentive to the coffee farmers by paying a premium price for the best coffee beans.  I got great coffee, and they got the means to further their livelihoods.”David Kobos

When coffee cost pennies per pound, founder and owner David ventured that his business could revolve around paying $2 per pound, and promoting sustainability to his customers.  David opened his first shop in 1973.  Fair Trade USA was founded in 1998.

Sustainability is promoted in many different ways now.  The Fair Trade movement does much good, and stands for doing the right thing (paying a little more for better quality that improves the lives of the people that make it possible).  If Portland is the coffee capital of North America, and Fair Trade was considered a fad here, I wonder what other alternatives to promoting sustainability will take up the battle against free trade economics.

Shameless Marketing from Nabob

in Buying Coffee, Fair Trade and the Environment

I’ve worked in marketing in my life.  I had one friend in particular with no respect for my career choice at the time.  While I tried to explain the merit of quality marketing and company communications to the public, he told me I was in the propaganda and manipulation business.  Before moving from Canada, I saw a commercial from coffee brand Nabob that made me reconsider my friend’s perspective. 

Nabob is a Canadian brand of retail grocery store coffee.  If you look deeply enough, you’ll see that they are owned by Kraft Foods, the mac and cheese people!  First, we’ll look at the commercial I saw, and then we’ll look at the follow-through on the company’s website.  From there, you be the judge of whether a multinational conglomerate that says the “right things” is actually making a difference, or simply paying lip service for better marketing.

If a company wanted to strike a chord with coffee farmers living in poverty, this actor wouldn’t waste a pound of coffee by throwing it on the floor.  You may think I’m splitting hairs, but if you had an appreciation for the toil of a coffee farmer and the fact that on average, it takes one coffee worker to support one coffee drinker, then you wouldn’t waste product for a more interesting commercial.

A lot of money went into this commercial, clearly partnered with the Rainforest Alliance.  A 30-second spot doesn’t usually tell you the whole story, so luckily these days, we have websites for companies to use as more expansive brochures of their initiatives.  Let’s learn more about Nabob’s coveted Better Beans, Better Coffee, Better Planet program.  Page 1:

Bravo, Nabob!  All coffee is naturally green in color before it’s roasted.

I think the Rainforest Alliance is a cool initiative and I’m looking forward to learning more about it.  Here, there is no information given on environmental stewardship or sustainability.  I hope “greener” is in quotation marks to separate it in meaning from the color, and not because the marketer isn’t sure what the term means.

Hmmmm, no follow-up comments.  The Nabob coffee is green out of the coffee cherry (as is all coffee), and it is cultivated in undefined responsible ways.

Now, it’s just comical.  I think they assume that nobody would actually click the third and fourth coffee bean icons.  This reference to a better planet must relate to the undefined environmental practices, but the illustration shows us the tin can that the coffee comes in.  I’m becoming concerned that the Rainforest Alliance is a seal that lets lazy corporations pretend they’re making a difference – it is the only credibility that Nabob has in this campaign.

If you really want a better coffee, don’t buy it from the grocery store.  If you really want a coffee that’s better for the environment, look for the Organic seal.  If you’re interested in putting a few more pennies into the hands of the hardest working people in the coffee supply chain, look for the Fair Trade seal.  In other words, find your local coffee roaster.  If you’re having trouble locating one, e-mail me and I will be happy to help you find one.

Portland’s Big Coffee Scene

in Buying Coffee, Coffee News, Fair Trade and the Environment

I recently moved to Portland, Oregon.  Before choosing this city as my new home, I visited here on a weekend to make sure I liked it.  I already knew the city loved coffee, and while that certainly turned out to be true, it was beyond my wildest expectations.  If you follow me on Twitter (please follow me on Twitter), you may have noticed that my “coffee walkabout” the day after I arrived was my busiest day of tweeting since I opened my account.  Yes, the caffeine had something to do with it.

Here is just a flavor of what I ran into that day…

Embarrassingly enough, my coffee adventure started in the hotel room.  Hey, it’s not always easy to get this body moving.

From my hotel room, I made the shortest walk to a cafe across the street called Kobos Coffee, a Portland-bred roaster with a few locations and roastery in the city.  I had the Black and White Blend at their SW Market location, and sat down outside their store to enjoy it and consider how the rest of the day would go.  I decided to cross the downtown core of Portland to make my way to one of Stumptown‘s locations – by the end of that walk, I figured I would need another.

For some, Stumptown Coffee Roasters is THE name of coffee in Portland, due to their signature ambiance, appeal with local residents, but also consistency in their product and service for the numerous locations that they’ve opened.  I was also intrigued by their Direct Trade program, where the company’s purchasers meet directly with the coffee farmers to ensure quality and consistent growing practices.  This seems the natural evolution of Fair Trade, as long as you’re big enough to afford the direct sourcing.  Stumptown is one of a handful of roasters in the country that can afford it.

I would hit a second Stumptown location in downtown Portland before the end of the day.

My next stop was to hit a Portland staple, an actual attraction, Powell’s Used Book Store, the largest used book store in the country.  Don’t laugh, for a city that loves reading (hey, it’s one way to pass the time with all the rain), it’s a natural attraction.  And for another, it is truly a giant book store.  I suggest checking it out when you’re in Portland, but have a genre of book in mind, it’s way too big for browsing.  Located inside is World Cup Roasters, where I bought a 12oz cup of their Drip Coffee.

From there, I ventured back towards the downtown core.  By this point, I had sat down to enjoy two of my four coffees and walked with the other two.  One was served by pump container so hard to say how it was prepared.  Two were served by French Press, and the last was served by Drip Brew.  You know you’re in a city that loves coffee when they even tell you on their menu how it was brewed.

If you live on the west coast, you’d probably wonder why I would stop for a coffee at Peet’s.  After all, with as many homebred microroasters as Portland has to offer, why go for the chain?  That’s because I’m not from the west coast.  The Major Dickason blend from Peet’s was one of the first coffees that made me realize how good coffee is supposed to be.  I’ve gone on to different coffees from there, but never forgot how much that particular blend opened my eyes (and tastebuds).  Since I had never seen a Peet’s outlet for myself, I had to stop and get one.  This was my first coffee of the day that I confess I didn’t actually want.  I needed a break, but couldn’t turned down a fresh-brewed Major Dickason coffee.

I knew I was heading for a major caffeine crash at some dreaded later point in the day.  In the meantime though, I was full of energy.  Enough that I walked through downtown Portland to the Willamette River and crossed it to check out the south side of the city.  With all the energy I had, I would’ve swam across the river if it was warmer out.

My last stop of the day was at Coava Coffee Roasters, a roaster I would’ve never found had I not stumbled upon it, and one that you will hear much about in the blog posts to come.  It was the second time that a coffee was prepared for me by pourover (the first time being at Planet Bean in Guelph, Ontario, Canada), and the first time that day.  I sat down and enjoyed my coffee there until a wedding reception arrived to take over the floor space.  With all the coffee I’d drank, I couldn’t be sure if I was hallucinating the whole thing.

You’ll be reading alot about Portland, Oregon in the months to come, and the amazing and unique coffee it has to offer.  It is a great city that loves their coffee, and offers their coffee lovers many options and venues to choose from.  Forget Seattle, this is the capital of the coffee world!

Second Cup, what does “fairly traded” mean?!

in Buying Coffee, Fair Trade and the Environment

Something interesting happened this week.  I was at an outlet for Second Cup Coffee and I noticed a sign hanging from the ceiling that read: “24 fairly traded coffees available every day”.  I almost missed it, there wasn’t any other fanfare around this fairly traded business.

For those of you that haven’t heard of Second Cup, they are a Canadian chain of specialty coffee stores.  They’ve been around almost 40 years and have over 300 locations across Canada.  Where Starbucks is in every country, their biggest competition in Canada is arguably Second Cup, at least in the realm of specialty coffee (Tim Horton’s doesn’t serve specialty coffee).

In 2000, Seattle college students organized a threatened boycott of Starbucks if they didn’t start sourcing Fair Trade certified coffee.  The corporate giant cracked under the pressure and began purchasing a tiny proportion of their coffee through the Fair Trade channel.  Still a tiny proportion today, they are nonetheless the single largest buyer of Fair Trade coffee in the world.  The irony is that a tiny proportion of their size is still huge in the grand scheme, but because it is tiny, it demonstrates the company’s actual commitment to the cause.

To take part in “fairly traded” coffee on their own terms, Starbucks worked with a group named Conservation International to develop their own code of ethically-sourced coffee.  Given its size, Starbucks can now claim that they are a better “certifier” for the cause than the Fair Trade certifier itself.  Today, Starbucks continues to offer Fair Trade certified coffee at many locations and over their website.

When I saw the sign in Second Cup, it reminded me of Starbucks‘ reluctance to get into Fair Trade.  I decided to do some investigating.  Naturally I assumed that Second Cup‘s website would have the full low-down.  To my surprise, it references the “fairly traded” coffees but offers no information on what that means.  An invitation to “Click for Details” takes you to a short paragraph on their coffee that makes no reference to its sourcing.

Fortunately, their website includes a search function.  Unfortunately, it couldn’t find anything related to “fairly traded” or “fair trade” on the whole website.  This was surprising to me.  In this day and age, a company’s website is its complete brochure.  Why have a “fairly-traded” program and no supplemental information?  Shame on me for not asking the staff at Second Cup what “fairly traded” means and how it is different (better) than the Fair Trade certification program.

I started Googling for more information on the subject, and then asked myself why I was investing this much time looking for elusive answers to my questions.  I have a better idea until the answers make an effort to find me: continue buying from my local roaster of Fair Trade certified coffees, and stop for a cup at Second Cup when I happen to be passing one and feel like having a “fairly traded” coffee on the run.

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