Exploring Trade and Traceability

I remember when we conducted a tasting for a big customer. It was to choose the coffee they wanted in their offices Australia wide. We spent two days making and talking about a few of our blends with over two hundred of their staff. The blends we happened to have, had some sort of certification or label associated with them. Fairtrade, organic and supply nation, which helps support Australian indigenous communities. We do tastings like these all the time, and there are always common questions that arise. If this is fair trade, is everything else not? Does organic mean it tastes better? What is this direct trade coffee I’ve been hearing about? Why is coffee so expensive?

These are good questions, it’s always encouraging when people are curious, but it certainly shows that a disconnect exists between consumer, producer and especially the trade in between. This is also true for many of my friends and colleagues within the industry. We talk about quality, we talk about traceability and improving producers’ lives, but there are so many nuances in the middle, from the producer to the roaster. Once you start to scratch the surface it’s easy to understand why a lot of this information isn’t known or not well understood.

From our first event, ‘defining specialty coffee’, topics around the trade and traceability of coffee were raised. To delve deeper into this we invited Stephen Nankervis from Fairtrade Aus and NZ, Oliver Brown from Condesa Co. Lab – a green coffee importer, and Keith Klein from Grace and Taylor, a coffee roaster that focuses on establishing sustainable relationships with coffee producers.

There are a few different models a coffee roaster can use to purchase green coffee. It may change due to volumes and the quality needs of specific markets – all have their risks and constraints.

For Keith at Grace and Taylor, he says that “our goal as a coffee roaster is to buy coffees in an ethical way and very sustainable manner. For us, that means we’ve decided to approach this by buying from the same producers over and over. Granted, we’ve only been doing this for a year and a half, so that hasn’t really happened yet but partnering with people that are able to give us the traceability and connections to the producers that we want to work with, and then look at buying those same coffees each season, paying a fair price for those coffees, and bringing them in. We’re limiting ourselves to a couple of producers that we deal with. If one year they have a bad crop that puts us in a very difficult position, especially if we want to buy that coffee again and again. So the risk is quite big, but for us it’s about building those sort of long term relationships.”

Oliver from Condesa says that for an importer there are many levels of risk. “This may sound a bit of an odd challenge to face, but I think, for an importer, it’s very difficult to get right, this whole thing of importing coffee. And you might know three or four amazing origins that you want to work with, and you might know ten or fifteen different incredible farmers within those origins, but knowing that you’ve actually got a market for those is a really big question mark. I think, for me, a challenge linked to that risk, of getting the right coffee, being able to sell or not, is directly linked to quality. For me, this is fundamental; that’s the driver for me: making sure that quality stays all the way through that chain.”

In terms of sustainability Steve says “the Fairtrade model is around cooperatives and community. It’s about the community as a whole, because if one single farmer has a great year and one single farmer has a terrible year, that’s often just happenstance. Whether it be rainfall, right side of the hill, left side of the hill, or just picked it right. Sometimes it’s more than that; sometimes it’s nothing more than that. And if you’ve got a direct relationship where you’re just buying off this farmer, when they have a bad year, you just then go and move on to another farmer. The roaster doesn’t necessarily mind that the first farmer’s now not going to have a direct market for their coffee. But, if they’re part of a collective or a cooperative they’ve then got some ability to offset that risk.”

For our non-industry readers out there, a coffee cooperative may be responsible for a coffee growing regions’ processing, grading, quality control, marketing, sales and exporting. An estimated 70-80% of the world’s total coffee production is cultivated by some 10 million small-scale farmers, cultivating less than 10 hectares of land. This hasn’t solved our consumer’s dilemma – with all the different labels on a bag of coffee, what do you support? If you’re going to charge a premium for a label that sells ethics, it’s important that a certification is transparent.

Steve mentioned that “A company in America released a coffee and put a direct trade stamp on it, but they actually couldn’t identify the origin of the coffee. So I’m not quite sure how direct it was, but no one was able to actually challenge it, because there was nothing they could challenge it against.” This is because there are no clearly defined standards in direct trade. Each trade relationship is unique and doesn’t require a written standard. “If someone sticks a Fairtrade Mark on something, and we can’t trace it and they’ve got no relationship with us or with the farmer or with the trader, we can actually say, “Well, that’s not actually Fairtrade certified coffee. It’s easy to tell the stories of projects Fairtrade work with. I can pick out one from PNG or wherever and it’s quantifiable because it’s measured every year, it’s independently audited, the auditors are independently audited, and so it goes. You’ve got a standard that you can stick to and it’s traceable, and it’s transparent.”

Oliver commented on certifications saying, “In my point of view, certification helps to quantify. It helps to give quantification and justification as to why we’re buying these coffees. I don’t necessarily think there is one label that is the ideal, but each label in its own part helps to give guidance to the buyer, to the customer. And in an industry where we’re not very good at getting our message across to the customer, I think it helps give some clarity. So for me, whatever label you look at, each one of them has massive benefits. And they’re an integral part of what we do. And I think we need to get behind them and understand them, and I think there needs to be a bit more education about what each of them are, because I think there is sometimes a lack of understanding there, to put it mildly. Rainforest alliance: some people think that means quality, where it has nothing to do with quality. Even Fairtrade organic doesn’t necessarily define a quality in the coffee. And for me, a big part of sustainability is quality, because customers will always come back if the quality is there.”

Steve clarifies that “We work a lot with the farmers to get them to understand their agronomy better, to get them to understand how to pick cherries better, to get them to understand fermenting and washing. We run cupping trainings for them, so they can understand what the roasters and the traders are looking for when they’re buying their coffee. Part of our education as an organisation is to focus on quality. It’s very important to look after society. It’s very important to look after the planet, but if you’re not making money you’re doing it wrong. As a producer, you will most likely make more money if you produce better quality.”

This seems to be a consensus among the panellists, that quality is an important factor to sell coffee and help have a sustainable farm. A common comment, as stated at the beginning of this article, is that many general consumers think that coffee is already expensive. It’s a topic that comes up in industry discussions frequently, how do we get the consumer to value and pay more for quality coffee?

Keith raises this; “The big thing, and this is coming back to what we’ve all been talking about, is how do you sell that to the consumer? Calling it a specialty coffee and charging a higher price for quality is … It seems to work, in a certain sense, but at the same time we get this label, especially here in Sydney, of hipster baristas, right? “Oh, you’re selling a cup of coffee for six dollars. That’s absolutely outrageous.” I think there’s got to be a quantifiable reason for that. And if it’s quality, it’s really got to show. It can’t just be that this is a rare coffee; it’s got to be that when you taste this coffee, you’ve never had anything like it before. Or that you can actually show that this much more was paid for this coffee because of these circumstances, or this much more was paid for this coffee because that’s how we want to drink coffee. And I think in Australia we don’t do that very well, at all.”

On this Oliver says “traceability’s a fundamental part of getting people to understand why coffee’s special, why they should pay more for it. It’s a huge part of coffee, and I think it is going to become an even bigger part, and it will no longer be easy to sell a regional coffee without knowing exactly which producers make up that regional coffee. It’s the story, it’s the backbone upon which coffee’s sold.”

Keith says that “To me, it’s super important, but what I think is that it’s not a sales pitch that we do well in the café. You serve them the coffee, and you tell them it’s from this region, or it’s from this farmer, or whatever. To most consumers, that is just absolute jargon. Like, ‘here’s a natural Yirgacheffe’, and they just go, what the hell are you talking about? I don’t how to pronounce that word, I don’t know what you mean … and for a lot of people, it scares them off.” Steve says “One of the key things from a Fairtrade point of view is we have producer profiles. And our producer profile will have information about how many people are in the cooperative, when the cooperative started, what they do, their altitude, what sort of coffee they’re growing, what the flavours you should expect in the cup, what their recent grading scores have been. Then they’ll talk about what the benefits have been from being part of Fairtrade. What they’ve invested their Fairtrade Premium in.

The reality is that people remember stories. Look at the indigenous culture, the whole culture was passed down through stories, and people remember them. People don’t necessarily remember facts and figures, and they’ll wonder why you’ve asked them to look at the natural Yirgacheffe, when they just don’t get it. You’re talking about things that mean something to you, but don’t mean something to them. This group of villagers in PNG that have now got taps and running water, they can understand things like that. And they’ll remember those kinds of stories. You have to talk about tangible, relatable things.”

Surprisingly the consensus reached by our panellists was not a specific quantifiable metric, nor was it a particular label. The overarching theme that cut through was the need to connect more with the human aspect of the coffee trade, specifically by finding and sharing the stories of those whom work to cultivate and sell the raw product. Intrinsically tied to this is quality. It seems unanimous amongst the panel that if the ethical story isn’t linked to a quality cup, then the actions become somewhat disingenuous. As an industry we need to try harder to bring the human element back to what has become a common commodity.

Matthew Brown
Matty’s love of coffee started at a young age and exploded the moment his mind was exposed to the science that makes great coffee possible. Motivated by the endless possibilities of what coffee could be, Matty is in his element researching, exploring and implementing new ideas that help shape the next chapter in the evolution of the speciality coffee industry. Matty’s deep and extensive coffee knowledge continues to shape our Barista Training & Education Programs, and he is a key knowledge source influencing continuous coffee improvement within the business. On the rare occasion Matty’s head is not in the books, he can be found savouring in other molecular gastronomic delights, writing, tickling the ivories or singing up a storm.