Cause Coffees: Introduction
Coffee ranks with oil and steel as one of the
world's most intensely traded commodities. Many smaller countries
depend on coffee for almost all of their foreign exchange. Millions
of families worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihood. The
majority are subsistence farmers who tend a few trees along with
some chickens and vegetables, and count on the coffee to bring
them just enough cash to buy the few tools and staples they need
As the specialty segment of the coffee industry
grows in power and sales figures, it has occurred to many people
that niche-marketing of specialty coffee can be a tool to help
both coffee growers and coffee-growing countries lift themselves
out of poverty.
To put it simply, if coffee sells as a complexly
marketed specialty beverage like wine rather than an anonymous,
price-driven commodity like branded supermarket coffee, and if
some of the premium paid for those complexly marketed specialty
coffees actually makes it back to the pockets of subsistence growers
rather than staying in the hands of marketers and dealers, then
specialty coffee becomes part of a self-regulating, market-oriented
solution to the rural poverty that haunts many parts of the tropics.
And, from an ecological point of view, coffee
is a crop that is already easier on the environment than many
competing crops. Most of the small subsistence farmers I described
never have used agricultural chemicals, and grow their coffee
mixed in with other crops and often in shade. I recall being in
parts of Central America where it is difficult to pick out the
coffee trees from the rest of the random tangle of fruit trees
and vegetables. Even traditional larger farms with neatly tended
shade trees and windbreaks tend to be far more ecologically sound
in their agricultural practices than large farms that grow many
other cash crops. Consequently, specialty coffee also offers the
opportunity for concerned consumers to reward environmentally
sound agriculture and discourage destructive practices.
In the very broadest sense, every time you buy
a coffee on the basis of origin from a specialty vendor rather
than on the basis of price from a supermarket you are supporting
a market-based solution to tropical poverty and environmental
degradation. In fact, you are helping everyone. You are helping
yourself to better coffee and a more expressive choice of coffee;
you are helping a college-student clerk work at something slightly
more interesting than taking orders at a fast food outlet; you
are helping roasters, dealers, and exporters lead more interesting
lives based more on shared passion than on pure number crunching;
and you are recognizing and rewarding the hard work of mill operators
All of this for a few cents more per cup.
However, coffee buyers can be even more specific
in their support of subsistence growers and the environment. They
can choose from a growing array of what, for lack of a better
term, will be called "cause coffees."
Organically Grown Coffees
The granddaddy of all cause coffees, and still
the most impeccable in its credentials, is the organically grown
category. Organics, as they are called in the coffee business,
are coffees that are certified by third-party agencies as having
been propagated, grown, processed, transported, stored, and roasted
without contact with synthetic chemicals -- particularly without
contact with pesticides, herbicides, and various other-icides.
The certification process is lengthy, thorough, rather expensive,
and, so far as I am able to determine, largely reliable and free
The organic movement is fueled in part by consumers'
health concerns. People are understandably wary of consuming agricultural
poisons along with their vegetables.
With coffee, however, the health issue is less
persuasive than it is with most other agricultural products --
apples or carrots, for example, which we consume whole and often
raw. We do not consume the fruit of the coffee tree. Instead,
we strip the fruit off and compost it, retaining only the seed,
which we then dry, roast at very high temperatures, grind, and
soak in hot water. Subsequently we throw away the dried, roasted,
ground seeds and drink the water. It seems unlikely that even
the tiny amount of chemical residue that may or may not survive
in the seed actually survives roasting and brewing to make it
to the cup.
Early on, however, idealists in the coffee industry
-- people like Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee, Gary Talboy,
originally of Coffee Bean International, Karen Cebreros, one of
the founders of Elan Organic Coffees, and David Griswold, one
of the founders of Aztec Harvest -- seized on the organic idea
with a larger vision in mind. They saw that they could work with
cooperatives of subsistence growers who had never used chemicals
in their growing practices, help get these cooperatives certified
as organic, and market their coffees directly to specialty roasters
or consumers. By doing so they could assure the growers a premium
for their coffee -- organic coffee, like organic produce generally,
retails for more than conventionally grown coffee -- and make
sure, through vertically integrated, direct marketing arrangements,
that a good portion of that premium actually makes it back to
the growers. Growers would make more money, take more pride in
what they were doing, and the environmental advantages of organic
procedures would be confirmed and institutionalized.
These early organic cooperative coffees -- Aztec
Harvest from Mexico, Inca Harvest from Peru, and others -- were
successful mainly on the basis of their stories. Their quality
was often spotty, owing to the difficulty of bringing disciplined
processing practices to large numbers of isolated subsistence
farmers. Nevertheless, these pioneer organics were successful
enough to encourage many other cooperatives, farms, mills, and,
eventually, international development agencies, to pursue the
same strategy. Today we have large-scale, internationally supported
efforts to establish organic cooperative coffees from Haiti, East
Timor, Papua New Guinea, and Sumatra, joining the many similar
efforts taking place in Latin American countries and elsewhere.
Joining organic coffees produced by progressive
cooperatives are coffees grown on larger farms that have successfully
converted to organic procedures. Although most of these farms
are in Mexico, Central America, and Brazil, the idea will doubtless
continue to grow and establish itself in other parts of the world.
As more organic coffees come on the market produced
in a variety of contexts, the overall quality of organics improves.
Today, some organic coffees rival the finest conventionally grown
origins in quality and distinction.