What is Direct Trade coffee?

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

georgehowell

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.

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