Is Direct Trade Past-Crop?

Please don’t read too far into this. I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to put down or bash anyone or any company, but there’s something going on in this industry that I believe needs to be addressed.

When I joined Intelligentsia in 2007, I was excited to have an opportunity to work with a company whose sourcing of coffee was direct, sustainable, and more than anything based on relationship with the producer, not the importer. In 2007, our industry looked to Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, and Stumptown as shining examples of green coffee sourcing. Everyone wanted to work with these companies coffees.

Recently, from behind a coffee bar, I’ve found I’m constantly addressing the question of if we roast our own coffee. Now, to be honest, I’m in a very unique market where we have more quality coffee roasters than we have stand-alone quality coffee retailers. Even still, this question is often the first thing to come from consumers mouths. Nothing of organic, fair trade, certify this, certify that… It’s all about if we are the ones roasting. Even as I continue in my career and look to what I want to do with my future, people constantly ask if I want to open a roasting company. The focus seems to have shifted to who is ‘turning it brown’ as opposed to whether or not the person growing the coffee is being compensated fairly.

In the past 5 years, we have seen the birth of some amazing coffee companies. Including the birth of Coffee Shrub… Enabling all small roasters to source quality green coffee with tiny minimum orders… And please do not take this as an attack on them in anyway. I believe in the work they are doing.

But what happened to our love, admiration, and respect for those sourcing coffee using standards of Direct Trade? Are we burned out on trying to figure out what a company means when they say their coffee is DT? Or, do we think we have graduated beyond it? Can we trust every importer, or roasting company to be receiving their coffee from the producer for a fair rate.

Part of me believes that the high rises in the C Market has affected this. That when commodity grade coffee is selling for high $2 prices, that some might believe the farmer is obviously winning no matter the deal. But it seems like specialty coffee has lost some of it’s convictions.

There are great companies producing wonderfully roasted coffee, some using variations of Direct Trade, some purchasing spot-coffee from importers. Some purchasing from importers, growing, and striving to be able to purchase coffee directly. I think we were really onto something when we were fighting for more transparency in our coffee sourcing. Let’s not give up that fight just because we’ve made improvements.