Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is Fair Trade really fair?

While the fair trade certification has played a key role in bringing awareness to the public, about the livelihoods and complexities of the coffee supply chain, recent events seem to indicate that the movement, and the FT certification is becoming nothing but another profit driven business.  See article:

Fair Trade USA's split from the FLO system, is not just a difference in opinions. It represents a trend in the commercialization of the "fair trade" brand and certification. I call it the commoditization of certifications. Everyone and anybody is now attaching the "Fair Trade" label on products. The split of the FT USA label from FLO system is just the culmination of this drift from commitment to commoditization. "Certifications" need to make money.  And to this end they need to get more subscribers and buyers of their labels. And to do this, they need to "certify" larger tracks of land and farm. Since this is not economically rational to do with small farmers, they must now certify "large farmers". Plantations actually. Big land owners who not necessarily practice "fair" standards in employment, sustainability or procurement. And while nobody is saying that they are "bad" or wrong and that we can certainly but from them, what we are saying is that they dont deserve the "Fair Trade" label. And that FT USA is bending the rules to allow these large plantations to use their label. Since these labels are private, no one regulates them, in the end, it will be us, you and me, who will decide the fairness of this. Will you buy and pay more for a Fair Trade USA certified product? Certainly not me! You make the call....

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What is Sustainable Coffee?

There is a lot of talk about sustainable farming and sustainable products  nowadays. Specially in the coffee industry, increasingly people want to know if the coffee they are buying is "fair trade", "organic", "shade grown", or "bird friendly". Its quite amazing how these preferences have taken off and become "mainstream" in many places and regions of the world. And while all these "wants" by consumers are good, in that they have created a number of mechanisms in the form of certifications, to help validate these claims, there is still much more that needs to happen, so that those farmers producing coffee at the end of the day, can really benefit from these market trends.


Take this couple from Northern Peru, where some of the best coffee comes from, and a region slowly becoming a major player in the specialty coffee market. San Ignacio, Cajamarca. This simple picture reveals a number of positive aspects about their farm that may not be too apparent at simple eye view. Lets see.

1. Look at the soil. Its covered with leaves and organic material that falls from higher elevated tress around the coffee plants that are right in front and right behind them. Natural cycle of things helping in soil conservation and reduction of use of fertilizers.
2. The coffee plants right in front of them and right behind them, are small. Probably no more than three years. What does this mean? They are replanting. Important. But they are planted next to larger coffee plants, which makes for an excellent rotation strategy.
3. At the far end of the picture you can notice a banana tree. Awesome!! Coffee plants growing under the part shade of banana trees and other shade trees.
4. Some of the leafs on the ground are coffee tree leaves. Excellent!! This means they have been pruning. A much needed yet often forgotten practice that enhances the life and productivity of their coffee plants by as much as 30%.
5. Finally, a thought. The couple is getting older. And their kids? Will they farm this well kept coffee farm? Will certifications encourage their kids to stay in the farm? Or will access to water, health facilities and education be the determinant factor in the long term sustainability of this stellar coffee farm?

What can you do?

Start thinking where your coffee is from.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Did you know the 2011 World Barista Champion is from El Salvador?

Baristas are one of the most important pieces of the coffee chain. They are the ones that transform that brown roasted bean into a specialty drink that inspires and motivates people around the globe. Baristas have a lot of responsibility in their hands. When they craft that drink, they are not just making a product for sale, but they are working at creating a piece of art, a delicate combination of water, pressure and coffee.
And it is no coincidence that Alejandro Mendez, from El Salvador, was picked as this year's World Barista Champion. This is a hotly contested event. Contestants from all over the world flocked down to Colombia this year to participate. And yet, for the past ten years, the Champion has come from the coffee "consuming" countries, not the producing ones. In part this is due to the fact that it is in these countries (US, Holland, Spain and the UK) that the most demanding coffee connoisseurs live. And so baristas from these countries are more accustomed to preparing high quality coffee beverages. But in 2011, the honor of the Championship was given to a young man from a very poor country, where increasingly, top quality coffee is grown. A country where young people desperately need role models like Alejandro, and jobs, to combat violence and unemployment. This is an exciting time for El Salvador. And for the Central American region as a whole. This event has been an inspiration. I've had the opportunity to travel to some of these coffee growing countries in the past three months. And the word is out about the Barista World Champion. People speak of the event and of Alejandro with a certain degree of pride and admiration. Enthusiastic that a world champion can emerge from a tiny little country such as El Salvador.
So our double congratulations go for Alejandro. Not only for being a great coffee master, but also for being a great young role model for his country and his region.  Adelante Alejandro!!        

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Did you know coffee is not really a bean?

We've started our series of "Did you know?" questions about coffee. Revealing the simple yet often unknown facts about that magical drink we can't live without. And we start with a basic one:

Did you know coffee is not really a bean but a cherry? And a beautiful one too! Take a look.

Coffee, and in particular, Specialty Coffee, is grown in many regions of the world, where the altitude is at least 1000 meters above sea level or 3300 feet. So while conventional coffee can be grown in the low lands and at sea level in subtropical and tropical regions, Specialty Coffee, that is, the really good quality coffee, can only be grown in altitude areas, where they are exposed to some shade and colder temperatures. This is where the “Arabica Coffee” variety is grown. And this is what coffee roasters sell in their labels on most bags of Specialty Coffee, when they designate their coffee as 100% Arabica beans.

The cherries grow on plants that can be as high as 20 feet, although farmers seldom let them grow beyond a manageable 6 to 10 feet. The tree has a broad dark green leaf, just like in the picture. Specialty Coffee is grown primarily by small farmers because it is labor intensive and it needs careful attention. The picking of the cherries is the most labor intensive part of the coffee process, and this is where farmers develop a skill to pick only the best and most mature cherries. It is an art.

Cherry picking is the initial stage of the process which will allow the coffee bean inside the cherry, to develop into a great cup of coffee. More on the whole coffee production process later. 

And more "Did you know?" questions about coffee, coming soon. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Initial reflection from the Peru trip

Traveling to Peru is always amazing. I love it. But there is something about a 9 hour truck trip up the mountains and to the tropics, that simply blows you away. Thats how this trip was to San Ignacio, Cajamarca. A small town so far North that it is almost on the border with Ecuador. San Ignacio has become one of the hottest coffee growing regions of the country. Competing head on with the more traditional coffee regions of Central Peru, like Villa Rica and Chanchamayo. To start, the scenery on this trip is just amazing. First crossing through rice plantations that offer so many greens over the mountains, that you think you are watching a really well put together movie, with exact and price lighting and filming. Except that its not film. Its for real.

You first must go to Jaen, a secondary city and a major commercial zone. CENFROCAFE, one of the most important coffee cooperatives in the North of Peru is based in this town. And we stop by to visit with them. I am sharing some of the pictures from our time with them. The cooperative even has a small coffee shop right in town. Here I had an awesome local young barista pull me a shot of some real good coffee.... Check him out. Local Cajamarca barista talent!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Off to Cajamarca, Peru

I am off to Cajamarca, Peru, where we will be meeting with some of the best coffee producers in the country, in the  region of Jaen. I will be flying to Lima first on Wednesday and Friday night to Chiclayo. Saturday morning we will drive over the Andes to visit the producers who back in 2008 were awarded the top prize for the National Cup of Excellence.