We’ve been proud to publish hundreds of features this year on Sprudge, some groundbreaking, some challenging, and some just, well, fun. But as we push towards the last few weeks of 2017, we want to take a moment and put a series of work back in front of our readers with an eye towards enjoying a nice weekend long read.
Michaele Weissman is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and on NPR. Her 2008 survey of the American specialty coffee scene, God In A Cup, remains one of the most influential books on coffee ever written. It set the coffee world on fire upon its release and today is a must-read for coffee pros of all ages. Weissman’s book helped introduced mainstream America to concepts like Direct Trade and auction lots, and helped grow the myth of the Geisha coffee cultivar as the pinnacle of third wave’s flavor possibilities. For better or for worse, the book contributed greatly to the myth-making around some of the seminal figures in the early third wave movement. As a text, it’s not beloved by all, but as a historical document of a moment in time for the third wave coffee movement it is an invaluable primary source.
Starting in February of 2017, Weissman undertook a major new round of coffee writing in the pages of Sprudge. This work specifically focused on the successes, failures, and prevailing challenges of the Direct Trade coffee model in the years following God In A Cup. Across three sprawling entries—book chapters, really—Weissman interviewed dozens of coffee producers, importers, and assorted professionals around the world, unpacking the complicated reality of Direct Trade coffee in 2017, with an eye towards where it might be headed next.
We’re showing you this work again today because it’s some of the most essential content published on Sprudge in 2017. Below you’ll find direct links to each feature, plus some of our favorite passages pulled from each. It was our distinct pleasure to publish this work over the last year and to welcome Michaele Weissman as an original features writer on Sprudge. We hope you enjoy exploring the content below.
Published February 8, 2017.
“Direct Trade, at its very core, has no core,” says Trish Rothgeb, co-owner and roastmaster of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters in San Francisco and former director of programs at the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). “While Intelligentsia has a set of principles to follow—Geoff Watts is the best in the business. He really does his homework—most companies are pretty cavalier about what constitutes Direct Trade,” Rothgeb says.
A prescient observer of the industry (Rothgeb coined the phrase “Third Wave,” among other achievements), she believes that without foundational documents and the kind of policing mechanisms possessed by certification programs like CQI, “Direct Trade” more often than not is a marketing strategy wrapped in a cloak of virtue. To wit: the well-respected importer, a person otherwise known for their integrity, who ships their coffees in bags stamped Direct Trade to roasters who may or may not have visited origin. “Mostly,” Rothgeb says, “the term Direct Trade just muddies the water.”
To illustrate her point, Rothgeb recalls an online exchange she had earlier in the year with a European roaster who reported with pride that he had just bought his first Direct Coffee. An online chorus of congratulations greeted his announcement.
Rothgeb, who buys Wrecking Ball’s green coffee (2016 predicted sales: 90,000 pounds) from importers she considers partners, asked the European roaster to define “the Direct Trade components” of his purchase.
Well, he said, he had visited the farm, and he planned to market the coffee as Direct Trade.
Rothgeb asked—what was his level of involvement with the farm? Was his contract with the importer or with the grower himself? Moreover, she questioned, “if the coffee doesn’t live up to expectations when it arrives, who will bear the financial burden?”
“I wasn’t being judge-y,” Rothgeb insists. “I just wanted to know what differentiated this purchase from any other.”
Published March 30th, 2017
If you are a grower, why make the expensive effort to develop relationships with specialty buyers and jump through all their hoops? Your coffee might not make the grade. And if it does win the jackpot one year, it may not perform so well the next (this story is sadly common among Cup of Excellence winners). Isn’t there a better way?
The question presumes that farmers have choices. “Direct Trade is the worst system for buying (or selling) green coffee…except for all the others,” says Michael Sheridan. Today he’s the Director of Sourcing at Intelligentsia, but in a previous role he oversaw Catholic Relief Services’ path-breaking Borderlands research project, studying the impact of Direct Trade on farmers in Colombia.
Sheridan’s quote doesn’t pull any punches—nothing about this process is easy. Yet despite the uncertainty and added labor associated with Direct Trade, many coffee producers have embraced the challenge. Take Maria Elena de Botto, co-owner of Finca Nombre de Dios in the northwest Alotepec-Metapan region of El Salvador (she wears a second hat as “presidente” of El Salvador’s Alianza de Mujeres en Café). Botto has no doubts about this interactive way of selling coffee.
Direct Trade, she believes, is a lot more than a sales model—it’s a top to bottom reorientation that opened her eyes to coffee’s potential. “It taught me what coffee was and what I could do with it,” Botto recalls. “If you just hand your cherry over to someone else for wet milling and drying and selling—that’s how the C-market operates. If you make the additional effort to wet mill and dry mill the way your buyers want, that’s Direct Trade.” Without the innovations promoted by Direct Trade “coffee farming in my region would not be sustainable,” she says.
Published August 1, 2017.
There are no guarantees that Direct Trade will live up to its promise, but neither in my view is there much choice. Unless farmers’ lives improve—and again, buyers and sellers seem to agree that trading directly is the best hope for that—millions of coffee smallholders around the world, the ones high up on the mountain producing quality, will abandon their farms, accelerating a dire trend. At some point, specialty as we know it—an industry selling an affordable luxury to tens of millions of reasonably affluent people every day—will cease to exist. What will remain is a Rolls Royce industry selling astronomically priced coffees from a handful of farms, (many of them in Panama). Beyond that, there will be industrial grade beans traded on the C-grade market. Armageddon for coffee lovers outside the one percent.
I do not believe market forces will allow this to happen. I suspect specialty will prevail as a product available to an upper-middle demographic while the DT sales model evolves to meet changing market conditions. Some of these changes are already taking place and they are concerning. As the top roasting companies increase in size and power, they may continue to buy coffee direct from farmers, but can it be said that these negotiations take place between equal partners? In other words, can the ethical ideas embedded in the Direct Trade sales model survive the consolidation of the industry?
The answer, I believe, depends on how groups of farmers interested in and able to devote themselves to growing and selling quality coffee respond to consolidation. Maria Botto in El Salvador and Felipe Croce in Brazil both described successful efforts to form vertically integrated farmers’ associations that own their own mills, possess their own export licenses, and are able to have the heft to effectively represent their own interests. Will this form of independent grower consolidation develop into a full-blown trend?
One can only hope.
Michaele Weissman is a special correspondent to Sprudge Media Network. Weissman is the author of God In A Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee, published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and a freelance journalist writing for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and many more. Read more Michaele Weissman on Sprudge.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.