The Wall Street Journal’s Fair Trade Faux Pas

March 12, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Today the fair trade adventures of the Bean Activists hit the big time in a story covering fair trade coffee tours in the Wall Street Journal.

The article gets off to a bad start by making the most common mistake of sloppy journalists covering fair trade – interchanging the terms “free trade” and “fair trade.” These terms are prima facie contradictory in meaning. Free trade in this context refers to the conventional global coffee market that allows coffee to be traded as a commodity on the New York coffee exchange. Fair trade refers to a system of trade that embraces principles of social and economic justice. Please, journalists, get this right. Your job is to communicate clearly, not to confuse very basic facts. If I seem testy about this it is because fair trade is complex enough as it is without the media complicating it further by making easily avoidable mistakes.

I suspect the journalist in question may actually be sympathetic to fair trade, as is often the case with people covering this issue, but unfortunately the article only gets worse after the unforgivable “free trade” faux pas. In predictable WSJ form, the article treats fair trade coffee tours as little more than a low-cost marketing tool used for building customer loyalty and increasing business.

Even worse is that the article contends that small coffee roasters embrace fair trade merely as a way of carving out a business niche. While this is undoubtedly true for some roasters, it is most certainly not true for at least two of the companies referenced in the article: Higher Grounds and Just Coffee.

They see their devotion to fair trade as a way to set themselves apart from less socially conscious competitors. And these companies are using tours to coffee farms that use fair-trade practices as a way to reinforce that mission — and, ideally, forge a stronger connection with current and potential customers who also are committed to the cause.

Higher Grounds was started by Chris and Jody Treter as a way of addressing economic and political injustices in Chiapas, Mexico. Just Coffee has a similar commitment to justice and sustainability. They even say so in their company tagline: “Not just a market but a movement.” In other words, they are specifically not trying to differentiate themselves from other coffee companies but rather to align with those who hold similar convictions regarding fair trade.

Fondo PaezI know from first hand experience that Higher Grounds conducts tours as primarily an opportunity for educational outreach (that’s me in the cowboy hat at left, with L-to-R Mel from Peace Coffee, Chris and Jody, and Miguel from Fondo Paez).
Higher Grounds does conduct paid fair trade coffee tours to Chiapas. Do they cover their costs through participant fees? Sure. Does it ultimately lead to increased customer loyalty and hence improved sales? Probably. Is that why they do it? No.

In fact, the particular tour pictured above was actually not even a paid tour – we were all there at our own expense to learn about the indigenous farmer coop Fondo Paez. To be fair, the journalist may not have known that about this particular picture, but it does point up the fact that the Journal seems incapable of seeing human behavior through any thing but a capitalist lens.

The point of fair trade is that profit isn’t the only thing driving human behavior. Justice and sustainability are important in their own right – not just as marketing strategies that permit business growth. The Wall Street Journal article misses this point entirely.


Coffee Review Gives High Score to Fondo Paez (roasted by Kickapoo)

March 2, 2008

Most anyone involved in the fair trade coffee movement can tell you that dectractors of fair trade often argue that the quality of fair trade coffees aren’t on par with micro-lots (small amounts of coffee purchased from one farmer) or ‘Cup of Excellence’ coffees. This is illogical for several reasons. First, the fair trade system provides guidelines for trading relationships between buyers in the Global North and disenfranchised farmers/artisans in the Global South. It does not dictate how farmers should grow coffee. Most small family coffee farmers have been farming for generations and they know more than most industry professionals give them credit for. In fact, it’s been our experience that small family farmers, whose livelihoods are dependent upon the fruits of their land, are the most in tune with the needs of the soil, the results of climatic change on their region, and the overall health of their coffee trees and family gardens. This is true for small family farmers here in the States as well as Jesus Rodrigo Yatacue, a farmer and socio of Fondo Paez coffee co-op from the Cauca region of Colombia. Second, instituting a floor price for coffee and other products does not result in mediocre quality. This argument – often posed by opponents of fair trade – is equivalent to saying that the institution of a minimum wage in the States is directly related to the quality of labor of a person. It’s not a fair assessment, nor a correct one.

January 2008 Visit with Fondo Paez farmers in El Maco -Jody & Chris Treter, Chris O’ Brien, Melanee Meegan

On to the point of this blog entry . . . it’s always exciting when one of our partner farming co-ops receive due credit. This past month, Ken David’s popular Coffee Review offered up a round of cuppings of Colombia single origins. Coffee from our partners at Fondo Paez was at the VERY TOP OF THE LIST with a 95 score (beating out several well-known micro-lots)! Kickapoo Roasters – a new member of the Cooperative Coffees importing co-op – did the roasting artistry. Kickapoo was founded by TJ & Denise Semanchin and Caleb Nichols. TJ Semanchin was once roaster extraordinaire at Peace Coffee, another company that recently made waves in the world of quality coffee when their head roaster – Keith – headed up the winning roasting team at last year’s Roasters Guild annual gathering.

Congratulations to Kickapoo and Fondo Paez!

Here’s the Coffee Review Report:

Viroqua, Wisconsin
Reviewed: February 2008

Overall Rating: 95 points

Aroma: 8
Acidity: 8
Body: 7
Flavor: 9
Aftertaste: 8
Roast (Agtron): Medium (51/62)

Kickapoo Roasters
Origin: Fondo Paez Cooperative, Valle de Cauca Department, western Colombia.Notes: This coffee is certified organically grown. Although the words “Fair Trade” appear as well on the label of the attractive 12-ounce valve-topped can, the trade-marked seal of TransFair USA, the sole American certifier for the Fair-trade Labeling Organizations International (FLO), does not. Fondo Paez is a cooperative of 550 farmers from the indigenous Paez people of central Colombia. Kickapoo Coffee is a Wisconsin micro-roaster devoted to organic and fair-trade principles and coffees. Visit or call 608-637-2022 for more information.Blind Assessment: Sweet-toned, delicately complex aroma: flowers, hints of honey, cedar and tart cherry, perhaps chocolate. In the cup very gently acidy, light in body but buoyant and silky in mouthfeel, and giddily floral- and honey-toned with complicating hints of chocolate, tart coffee fruit and Riesling-like white wine. Fades rather quickly in the finish but exquisitely clean with memories of chocolate and flowers. An exceptionally pure and balanced coffee.Who should drink it: A refined and refreshing coffee with great natural sweetness and balance. Avoid adding anything to it.

Sniff. Slurp. Spit. Repeat. Coffee Cupping at Counter Culture DC

March 1, 2008

Until recently, my formal beverage tasting experience has been singularly focused on beer. I’ve judged beer in competitions from South Africa to Virgina and held countless semi-formal tastings with friends and family. But, although I roast my own coffee beans at home, I’m a newbie when it comes to professional coffee cupping.


My first official cupping was just last month when I visited the Asorcafe coffee lab (above) in the small town of Pedregi, in the Cauca region of Colombia. The lab technicians were experts, as were my companions from Peace Coffee and Higher Grounds, so I had good coaching that helped prevent me from dribbling coffee down my chin. I did, however, begin the cupping while wearing a cowboy hat which Jody from Higher Grounds suggested I remove so as to avoid knocking over glasses as I bowed my nose to the grounds.

This morning I attended a free cupping at Counter Culture’s lab in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (For background on Counter Culture’s “direct trade” business model, read my online conversation with Kim and Peter from Counter Culture and my other recent post about the chat I had with folks from Intelligentsia, the company that trademarked the term Direct Trade.)

Here’s a primer on the tasting procedure and a report on the three coffees we cupped this morning.

The Cupping Ritual
Our host, Ryan Jensen, Customer Relations, prepared by lining up a set of about ten 8 oz. glasses for each of the three coffees. He scooped about a tablespoon of grounds (13 grams to be exact) into each glass. It’s important to cup several glasses of each coffee in order to avoid mischaracterizing a whole batch based on just one cup. A single glass can exhibit a defect from one bad bean but the rest of the batch might be flawless. Once the glasses were filled with grounds, we were armed with pens, clipboards and cupping forms. Silence and furrowed brows indicated that the ritual was about to begin.

1. Moving from glass to glass, we sniffed and noted the fragrance of the grounds.

2. Then Ryan poured 8 oz. of hot water into each glass. Going glass to glass again, we smelled the aroma of the steeping coffee.

3. We were given small paper cups and large spoons with deep basins. We used our spoons to once again move down the line of glasses and “break” the layer of grounds floating on top of the coffee, noting the fresh burst of aromas released by this technique. The grounds were then removed from the glasses.

4. For the final gauntlet of grounds, we dipped our spoons into the glasses and raised the samples to our bowed heads. Using our lips, we slurped across our tongues, aerating and roiling the coffee throughout the mouth, saturating every taste receptor from front to back, top to bottom, and side to side. After each swish, a few of the cuppers opted to avoid ingesting too much coffee by spitting the samples into their cups. Most, including me, chose to go whole hog and swallow every ounce.

In this last step we actually tasted the coffee, noting brightness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. In beer tasting terminology, brightness is similar to crispness. A bright coffee is snappy and clean like a pilsener, whereas a less bright coffee is mellow and smooth like an ale. (I’m generalizing here, don’t take this beer comparison too far because the exceptions will just make it confusing.)

Flavor wheelFlavor is what you taste. Anything goes – the point is just to recognize all the flavors you can identify. Flavor can be intense or subtle, direct or nuanced, complex or one-dimensional. I relied on one of the handy tasting wheels Ryan had distributed in order to help connect what my taste buds were experiencing with what my food-memory has stored in the recesses of my mind. Body can be full or thin. Going back to beer, Bud Light is thin-bodied and watery, while imperial stouts, barleywines, and double IPAs are rich and robust. Aftertaste is how any flavor lingers on the palate or cuts short and clean.

Here is a summary of my tasting notes.

Coffee #1: Peruvian from Valle del Santuario, Ignacio
Representative of its region, this certified organic, shade grown coffee is an everyday cup, the equivalent of what beer drinkers call a session beer such as an English bitter or American amber. Milk chocolate and brownies dominated the fragrance. Sweet, roasted peanuts appeared in the aroma. The break released leather and malt. As a routine morning cup, the brightness was light and mellow, with an earthy flavor, mild body and little to no aftertaste.

In one word: quaffable.

Kenya GatuririCoffee #2: Kenyan from the Gaturiri and Nyeri regions (auction lot #4486)
After the cupping, the participants unanimously requested this one to be brewed as our cup to savor during the post-cupping discussion. Because of the Kenyan national coffee system, direct, fair trade coffee buying relationships are nearly impossible. So, although this coffee’s region of origin is known, its exact farmers are anonymous. Furthermore, it is neither organic nor shade grown. Damp earth and dark berries and fruits in the nose made way for roasted nuts at the break, followed by a bright, tangy grapefruit, tangerine, spicey cinnamon flavor. While it was perhaps the most rewarding cup of the three, the medium body was just shy of the strength needed to counter balance the punch of citric acid that lingered in the finish.

In one word: conversational.

Coffee #3: Sumatran from Gayo, Aceh
Certified organic and shade grown, earth and smoke came to the fore throughout this complex cup from the damp forest lands of Sumatra. The nose was rough, like roasted chestnuts, pungent and acrid, with a full-bodied musty, tobacco-like flavor and lingering hide-like aftertaste.

In one word: comforting.

Proof that Beer and Coffee Are the Best Companions
After the tasting, I thought it was only fair to let Ryan know that the reason I attended was that I am an author and I’m conducting research for my next book. He replied that he had just started reading Fermenting Revolution two days ago. I’m hoping to make the Counter Culture lab a place for repeat visits in the coming months of research. I’ll have to treat Ryan to a beer sometime as thanks for his free educational cuppings.

Colombian Coffee – Past & Present

February 25, 2008

Posted by Chris Treter January, the BeanActivist crew arrived in Colombia over 200 years after the first coffee seeds were planted there. We touched down in a month that the nearly 600,000 coffee producers harvested over 1 million sacks (each weighing 132 pounds) of coffee – up 46% from last years January harvest. But unlike the pioneering times of the arrival of coffee, our llegada was planned and organized.

Coffee, on the other hand, arrived to Colombia in the 1700’s under still unknown circumstances. According to the Colombian Coffee Federation, a few stories exist that explain the arrival of coffee to the country. Some believe that coffee seeds were carried from Central America via the Urabá Antioqueño. Others say the small green beans came via Venezuela and found its first home on Colombian soil in the department of Santender and Cundinamarca.

In his book, “El Orinoco Ilustrado,” jesuit priest Jose Gumilla tells readers that the Santa Teresa de Tabage Mission was the first to cultivate coffee and then brought it to Popayán in 1736 where they began to plant profusely.

The most colorful of all coffee birth stories in Colombia is that of Francisco Romero, a fervent admirer of coffee and priest from Salazar de las Palmas. In the sacrament of Penitence he would make sinners take coffee seedlings to plant depending on the severity of their sin. It seems some large coffee plantations can be in the hands of the most sinful descendants of the country!, thanks in part to the Colombian Coffee Federation and the creation of Juan Valdez, coffee from Colombia is well-known throughout the world. The Colombian Coffee Federation was created in 1927 with the support of the Colombian government and intention to reign over the politics and commercialization of coffee in the country. At times, this has become a rather powerful force. With the country producing over 13 million sacks (each sack is 132 pounds) of green coffee in 2007 alone and holding the number 2 spot (2nd only to Brazil) as the largest producer of coffee in the world, the federation plays a very key role in the livelihood of thousands.

Juan Valdez, the-actor-pretending-he-is-a-coffee-farmer brand for Colombian coffee, is a well-known symbol that has been marketed throughout the world. In fact, many coffee drinkers who are still in the process of education (that is, they still drink Folger’s and Maxwell House) believe anything with the word “Colombian” is sure to be of high quality. His name is blazen upon over 200 Juan Valdez cafes, owned and operated by the Colombian Coffee Federation and its 560,000 growers.But, unlike the well dressed, clean and tighty Mr. Valdez, who jet sets across the world, promoting Colombia and sponsoring professional tennis matches, ski races, and figure skating championships, most of the countries farmers are poverty stricken. The image of Juan Valdez provides Colombia with a blank canvas through which to market their pride and joy in a country otherwise mired in continuous unrest, a healthy drug trade, and a heated in-country debate about the woes of entering into a free trade agreement with the United States.

The Indigenous Arhuaco of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

December 30, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In two weeks, I’ll join my fellow blogger-soon-to-be-authors Chris and Jody Treter for a visit to two coffee producing communities in Colombia. The first is the indigenous Arhuaco of the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. The Arhuaco are one of four indigenous groups believed to be descendants of the ancient Tayrona civilization which thrived around 900 CE and may go as far back as the beginning of the first millennium. We’ll be meeting Arhuaco representatives from the Tayrona Indigenous Federation.

In preparation for the trip I’ve been learning what I can about these people and their environs. I started by reading a chapter about them in Dean Cycon’s book Javatrekker and a few dribs and drabs floating around on the web.

Some themes emerge in what I read. First, as with many indigenous people around the world, coffee was used against them as a colonial weapon of oppression. But today they are tentatively embracing it as a potential tool of economic empowerment by seeking relationships with fair trade coffee partners.

Second, by all accounts they are distrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders. I suppose they have their reasons.

And finally, they have a deeply held religious belief that their mountains are the heart (or, depending on what you read, the navel) of the world. As such, they feel that the health of the Sierra Nevada range is critical to the survival of the world. Apparently, for decades now they have been diagnosing local ecosystem changes as symptomatic of global warming.

According to our trip host, Cooperative Coffees, the Tayrona Federation have the following eight objectives in commercializing their coffee. Here they are as quoted verbatim from the Coop Coffees website.

  1. Give to the Confederación Indígena Tayrona, as legitimate representative of the insterests of the Arhuaco people, the economic capacity to commercialize their own coffee.
  2. To strengthen indigenous institutionality of the Arhuaco natives, represented by the Confederación Indígena Tayrona.
  3. To strengthen economic self/sustainability in the Arhuaco community as a strategy to prevent deplacement of the indigenous population of the zone.
  4. To control the entering to the zone of external agents to the community that produce internal disarticulation.
  5. To assure that the coffee producing Arhuaco community members receive the benefits to which an organic producer has right.
  6. To refrain from cultural dissolution or crackeling of the community.
  7. To create the mechanisms that permit the Arhuaco community to have better sales processes in their agricultural products.
  8. To acquire knowledge based on experience of commercialization of agricultural products.

I’m very eager to learn whether selling coffee through fair trade relationships is helping them realize these goals. The beer activist in me is also very keen to see if there are some unusual versions of chicha being brewed up in them there mountains.