This story appears in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Story by Lauren Ladov | Photography by The D4D
Amid the duets of neighboring chatter and clinks of stirring spoons, coffee unfetters revolutionary thought. Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee enlightens us with the thinking behind the Direct Trade approach to coffee.
We run on coffee. It is our fuel, our blood. If you are in the habit of drinking it, you drink it everyday, probably two cups or more. Most mornings, you can't get the sleepies out of your eyes if you don't at least smell the grinds. You can't pay attention to your teacher, your boss, your book, unless coffee is in your system. And don’t even think about talking to anyone or trying to walk a straight line before that first sip.
In the United States, coffee also sits in the passenger seat on a road to independence. The Boston Tea Party not only declared autonomy from British rule, but an allegiance to the other caffeinated beverage, coffee. It was in the Merchant's Coffeehouse of Philadelphia that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the public. More recently, coffeehouses helped solidify the transition into an online society, establishing some of the first free internet access points to the community.
But all these inspiring trends exist primarily where coffee is being consumed, not produced.
In most countries where coffee is farmed, this commodity drives already poor societies under the tyranny of the global economy. And because America is the largest importer of the product on the globe (followed by Germany and Italy), our unstable stock market dictates prices and demand. Furthermore, in a sea of certifications where labels flood the facades of coffee packaging, it’s difficult to know what or who to trust. Stamps like “Fair Trade,” “Shade Grown” and “Rainforest Alliance” all make a gesture of proof, showing us that their product is just and sustainable. Such gestures, however, cost quite a bit to make and often ring a hollow scheme.
Many coffee roasters and business owners, however, seek a route independent of the dictations of the stock market. In Direct Trade structure, the consumer uses a notion of trust to surpass a familiar badge and rely on a company’s personal integrity. It’s a structure that operates with no operating organization, no auditors, middlemen or outside quality controllers. The only certification they stand by is their own. This opens a kind of gray area for consumers looking for certain sustainability standards, thus encouraging the consumer to ask questions instead of passively taking the product at face value.
And as an avid consumer of coffee, I started to ask questions. Specifically to Geoff Watts, the man who coined the term "Direct Trade." Watts works as the vice president of green coffee at Intelligentsia Coffee, the largest coffee company in the country.
Eidé Magazine: Intelligentsia and Direct Trade structures, seem to work on a notion of trust. Could you explain how you build these relationships with the farmers?
Geoff Watts: Trust is something that is earned, not purchased or granted. One of the fundamental aspects of our Direct Trade approach is that we aim to build long- term, consistent relationships with farmers that become stronger with every passing year. Some of the growers we work with in Latin America have been our partners for a full decade now, and there is a great deal of trust because we’ve gotten to know each other very well.
The good news is that after 10 years of developing these relationships and enduring many seasons where they were tested in both directions we have grown to trust each other a lot. One of the biggest advantages of our Direct Trade model is stability and the massive reduction in risk — for Intelligentsia and for the farmers that are part of our network — that comes as a result of having reliable and sturdy relationships. We have a mutual interest in establishing real solidarity and working together collaboratively, because our goals are essentially the same: we want to keep growing, and we want to have security.
EM: So with Direct Trade, is there incentive for farmers to improve the quality of the coffee?
GW: Yes. We have a baseline quality requirement — coffees must be very good or we just cannot buy them. But from that starting point, there are premiums asso- ciated with incremental increases in quality. We buy coffees in different ‘quality tiers,’ and there is a built-in financial incentive to improve quality. The better the coffee gets, the more value it has and the more we can pay for it. The only limit comes from how much we are able to sell.
The other thing about Direct Trade is that it goes beyond financial incentive. We actively help [farmers] improve quality by sharing knowledge with them and helping them gain access to the tools they need. Our annual “Extraordinary Coffee Workshop” is a great example of that.
EM: And what about the consumers?
GW: Our customers play a vital role in all of this. They are the ones drinking the coffees, and they are the ones making the decision to seek coffees that taste great. They are the ones that are supporting all of our efforts by acknowledging that quality has a value, and by their willingness to pay a little more for a better tasting cof- fee. Consumers are the ones who will ultimately decide if this model has merit. They can choose quality and choose to support businesses that put their money where their mouth is. They can take the time to think critically about the coffees they buy and to understand the powerful relationship between quality, sustainability and the price of coffee.
EM: Why does Intelligentsia stress the importance of seasonality?
GW: Seasonality is huge. Coffee is like all other food products in that it is perishable. Roasted coffee is extremely perishable, and green coffee can begin to lose quality even a couple months after harvest. Many people think about coffee as having a very long shelf life, but the reality is that the things that give great
coffees their appeal — beautiful aromas, delicate fruit acids, sugars, amino acids — these things will always decay over time. Most countries have only one major harvest each year, and will be at their peak flavor for a number of months thereafter. For that reason it is important to roast and consume coffees while they are in their prime.
A good rule of thumb is to choose Northern Hemisphere coffees (Central America, Northeast Africa) during the late spring, summer and early fall. During the winter months and early spring, coffees from countries located in the Southern Hemisphere are at their peak.
EM: So for you, what is that perfect cup of coffee?
GW: An heirloom coffee variety that is cultivated in optimal conditions by a careful farmer who takes pride in their work, that is roasted with precision by a skillful coffee professional, and that is extracted thoughtfully and precisely by someone who knows what they are doing. When all of those conditions are met, the cup of coffee has these traits: it is effusively aromatic, full of delicate fruit acids, clean and refreshing in the finish and deliciously sweet.