Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Paradox of Fair Trade Coffee

We argue that the remote high mountain Mayan farmers are the unwitting custodians of the very best coffee. As coffee prices improved from the disastrous levels a decade ago, the fair trade price to the farmer has come to trail the premium price that quality importers are willing to pay for the Mayan’s best high mountain coffee beans.

The farmer’s cooperativa has therefore come to view fair trade pricing as a lower price rather than a higher price for their coffee --- a fixed price rather than a social benefit. Most Fair Trade coffee importers have continued to pay just the fair trade price and in tern receive a lower grade of coffee. The lower grade coffee may come from a nearby less carefully tended harvest or from a secondary screening.

The higher price paid for the best coffee, puts a considerable pressure on the Fair Trade importer to maintain quality and yet maintain enough margin to stay in business. Unfortunately, and due to this pricing paradox, most of the fair trade coffee is no longer of the highest quality. The largest Fair Trade Importer was the first to make the switch and we could easily taste the difference. To their credit, the switch to a secondary quality came with a name change.

Some importers, discouraged with the quality change in Fair Trade, adopted the term Direct Trade to denote their direct relationship with the growers and commitment to maintaining the highest quality by paying the much higher price for that choice selection. We use Guatemala’s own quality specification of SHB Arabica for the very best high altitude green beans as our designation of quality. Paying the much higher price and maintaining a direct relationship with the farmers and their cooperativa supports our commitment to the indigenous people, their families and community.

Fair Trade is only fair trade when the customer gets the best coffee for an affordable price. That belief makes the priority of quality an easy choice. Besides, we like it better ourselves. Good tasting coffee depends on freshness as well. That is why we roast frequently and carry a small inventory. We urge our Fair Trade resellers to store the product in a consistent cool dry environment and to deliver your coffee within a reasonable time. Coffee is perishable, as we all know. The big distributors claim six months of shelf life, but we suggest three to four months at the most. A freezer can extend that time, but the shelf life after coming out of the freezer is short, and frequent opening of the freezer door is not good either. To maximize quality, we roast your coffee within one to two weeks of delivery.

You might consider whole beans and grinding your own at the time of brewing. Even ground coffee will taste better if ground finer at the time of brewing. Good grinders are hard to find. For that reason, we plan to offer grinders and brewers soon.