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.


2 thoughts on “Is Direct Trade Past-Crop?

  1. In my experience, between 2 years or so again and now there has been a serious drop off in how often I field questions having anything to do with the sourcing of a coffee, or the conditions at origin. I’d like to imagine, that at least in part, it’s because that the subsection of people that were likely to care about that kind of thing have asked those questions and done research and learned more about what it is that companies who participate in progressive sourcing are doing. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons we answer less questions about a specific thing is that at a point in time, we did such a good job explaining it to so many people, that now, many people who patronize our cafes on a regular basis know about these ideas.

    That said, the awful flip side, that I expect is at least as much at the heart of the trend you and I are seeing is that over the last five years, people have been absolutely inundated with marketing about sustainability, all sorts of certifications, environmentally friendly, proceeds being returned to trade participants or charities etc. This happens to an extent that, for me, as a consumer, my bullshit meter starts going off the minute I get the sense the a food or beverage (or, really any type of business) establishment or company is trying to sell their product, or build their brand on an image of benevolent or sustainable business.

    I imagine other consumers are the same, and I’ve actually had instances where customers have asked if a coffee was fair trade/organic certified and when I started to inform them about how Intelligentsia’s direct trade model works, their response has been a literal admission that I’d “got them” with that and that they felt obligated to buy a bag of coffee, ostensibly from feeling like they needed to contribute, or would otherwise feel guilty. When this occurs, I like to take the offensive, and tell customers that they shouldn’t buy our coffee strictly because of our relationship with the farmers, or because we invest in long term quality driving measures at origin, that may indeed make life better for people working on coffee farms. I like to tell them that if they want to buy our coffee, it really should be because it tastes awesome…and it tastes awesome because of all of those things that seek to make all of the transactions that take place between farmer, roaster, retailer, and consumer win-wins. When people get what it is that I’m saying, when I say that, I feel like I’ve made a pretty strong case for what it is we do.

    Transparency in how coffee is sourced is awesome, and is one of the things that made me want to drop everything in my life to work with such coffees and convey that message to customers. It’s a tricky thing to figure out how to value it and talk about it though…it’s a much more difficult thing to develop a comprehensive direct trade buying model than it is to buy from importers of any sorts, and there aren’t a lot of roasters or retailers who are excited to pay the premiums associated genuine direct trade when it’s significantly easier to slap “direct trade” on your bags with a slick logo and call it a day.

  2. But doesn’t it make sense?

    “Direct Trade” resonates with consumers for a simple reason: “Direct Trade” is about the direct-ness for them. More direct, more pure, more authentic, more ethical. So why wouldn’t they desire the roasted coffee to be more “direct” than not?

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