I have come a long way from Nescafe instant coffee made with hot water from the bathroom tap during college all-nighters. I, like many Vermonters, enjoy coffee for the taste as well as the energy boost, and I have favorites here in Vermont.
But after traveling a bit to the places where beans are picked and processed, I returned with questions about how we can ensure that workers are not exploited. I followed my nose and took a caffeinated tour of our local roasters to ask some questions about “fair trade,” “direct trade,” and how coffee consumers can learn the story of the coffee they choose to buy. With so much to learn, I checked in first with a neighbor.
Cooperative Coffee: Middlesex
Ed Canty, from Middlesex, became the general manager of Cooperative Coffee after working for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters for 16 years. He traces the roots of the coffee industry back to colonialism, direct slavery, and human trafficking. He cites unscrupulous practices of labor brokers hired by large coffee estates to bring in workers during harvest, sometimes taking their passports.
“There are some good coffee estates out there. The problem is it can be tough to separate the good from the bad,” he said when I visited recently.
The supply chain of large exporting companies can be opaque, with collectors (also called “coyotes”) buying and selling coffee at the lowest bid.
Canty works with the many independent small-holding producers organized into cooperatives, mostly small family farms, bringing in workers if needed from the local community.
Canty says, “Buying fair trade products can help support labor practices, with ensuring a minimum price for their coffee, whatever the market. Twenty cents a pound goes to a social premium fund, controlled by the men and women in the community. This is the magic of fair trade.” Canty, who has visited farms in Honduras, cites the joy of seeing a producer’s child go to college or seeing roads and schools rather than camps in the woods, all decisions made by the community. He emphasizes the importance of building relationships over the course of years with specific producers and staying engaged with the supply chain.
Fair Trade and Direct Trade
Coffee consumers often are drawn to the official “fair trade” designation, which is an involved process that can be cumbersome to small businesses.
Fair trade certification seems to appeal more to the larger concerns, such as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, who offer Newman’s Own at McDonalds throughout the country.
For Vermont coffee roasters, a combination of fair trade and direct trade is more practical. Vermont Artisan Coffee and Tea Company offers fair trade Congo Umoja through Mighty Peace from Wisconsin, working with the Congolese Peace Movement. Owner Mane Alves buys directly from the farmers and visits them every few years. He says, “Not all the coffees we buy are direct trade. Some micro-lot coffees (such as the Congo, the Yemen, and others) we buy directly from their representatives in the U.S., not at farm-gate.”
Many of the local roasters here in Vermont are committed to direct trade, in which producer cooperatives have long-term relationships with the buyers. Canty urges consumers to seek out single-origin products that mention the actual producer organization or farm, rather than a general region. Does your purchase support initiatives on the farm and does the roaster have data-backed results of the impact on the lives of producers and communities?
Big Gear Roasters: Berlin
Paul Dayton of Big Gear Coffee Roasters in Berlin has chosen a direct relationship with Genuine Origin, a division of Volcafe, which trains local people from the coffee community in agronomy and small-business planning.
“More than a certification that customers can feel good about, it is a philosophy that can be verified by third parties,” Dayton says, adding that the organization works with producers year-round to provide technical field assistance and sustainable production techniques.
Dayton started Big Gear three years ago, attending the School of Coffee in Waterbury Center, and seeking advice from other roasters in Vermont, initially experimenting in his garden shed, then investing in a roaster and setting up his shop. Big Gear is a one-person company; Paul roasts the green beans, hand fills the bags, and delivers throughout the state.
Carrier Roasting Company: Northfield
Matt Borg, co-owner of Carrier in Northfield, is preparing their most popular blend, Chitchat, by roasting beans from Guatemala and Ethiopia separately, constantly checking the roaster on exact time, temperature (up to 400 degrees F), and cooling air. He values his relationships with the Tukuma group that produces Kesem Aba Gero beans in Ethiopia and Finca La Union in Guatemala. He is familiar with the individual farmers. Carrier’s sourcing philosophy emphasizes traceable coffee, developing long-term buying relationships with specific producers, and having access to their practices that maximize farmer prosperity and add to the wellbeing of the community. Matt uses the metaphor of the carrier pigeon (hence the name of the company), which connects to the source.
“Every type of coffee has a story to tell us. We work hard to connect with the producers frequently and give our customers information on each bag with flavor notes (from bright to deep) and the specific origin of the crop,” he says.
Initially experimenting by roasting beans in a popcorn popper, Borg and his partners organized Carrier as a CSA in 2015 and then opened the shop in 2018. The company moved on Feb. 10 to larger quarters nearby, which they call “The Aviary,” an old brick train engine house with modern renovations in Northfield; the coffee shop on East Street remains open.
802 Coffee: Barre
Bob Watson began roasting coffee in 1998 at Capitol Grounds in Montpelier. Branded 802 Coffee in 2017, with daughter Julia Watson, the roasting is done in Barre, Vermont.
Brave Coffee and Tea Company: Waterbury
Brave Coffee in Waterbury offers “Fair Trade Certified,” working with a women-owned cooperative, COMSA Honduras. Their single-origin coffee is Brazil Cerrado.
Local Coffee Shops:
Some of our local coffee shops do not roast beans on-site but are committed to ethical choices in their purchases. Here’s a very limited list:
PK Coffee: Waterbury: PK Coffee in Waterbury does not roast on-site but works with Counterculture Coffee, valuing their transparency and commitment to working directly with farmers. The head of their coffee program, Brett Ramusi says, “People don’t know what’s in their food. Always look for the details: who is checking out in the field?” For example, the beans from Honduras are from the family-run Finca El Puente, which Ramusi has visited.
Rabble-Rouser Coffee Shop: Montpelier: Ryan Geary, worker/owner at Rabble-Rouser, explains, “ We have decided to buy from a direct trade company, Inteligencia, from Chicago. They pay above market prices so that the workers are paid a fair wage.
In the coffee business here in Vermont, many consumers seek a connection to the source of the beans, given the long history of exploitation of those who pick the cherries and gather the beans to send to us. Those practices were the reason coffee used to be so cheap. Our local coffee roasters seek an ethical response offered through fair trade or direct trade, thus driving the industry toward responsible behavior toward workers and pickers. As Brett Ramusi from PK Coffee says, “Every cup of coffee is an ethical decision. Ask questions!”