Essays, interviews, criticism and commentary from over the years and around the web.

The Coffee Connection

When I was the Design Director at Zady, one of my primary missions was to illustrate the supply chains of the products we make, and to demonstrate how and why understanding where things come from is just so important. Understanding the genesis of a product whose origins come from the land give us a stronger connection to the Earth, and with that—hopefully—a greater sense of responsibility. Over the past ten years or so, people have become increasingly aware again of the origins of food, following several decades of disconnection. While my Depression-era grandparents always bought their food from local farms, the midcentury sprawl into suburban areas created more demand for supermarkets, where our food was packaged, homogenized, and sold without an origin story, for our consumption. As populations boomed, supermarkets competitively continued to offer year-round fare, tossing our knowledge of seasons and local harvesting out the window. But that is all reverting back now, with a population of people who are hyper-concerned with what should and should not go into our bodies. We are re-learning what is good for us, what is sustainable, and what is wreaking havoc on our planet.

I spoke with Tim Williams, who runs Bureaux Collective, a co-working outpost for coffee roasters in Melbourne, Australia, about one product most of us consume every day: coffee. While we often see labels like “fair trade” on coffee packaging, we often don’t consider the complicated journey the humble coffee bean takes to arrive in our morning cup.

ECS: Can you tell us briefly what the Bureaux Collective is and does? What was the opportunity you saw in the market?

Tim Williams: Because it costs a lot of money to set up and scale up a coffee roasting operation, it’s a business that lends itself to chasing growth and generating efficiencies. But that’s not necessarily an approach that yields the best quality coffee around. We wanted to build a workspace that allowed people to take on roasting with a different mindset; to grow if they want to, but also providing them with a platform to experiment, to test out ideas and to stay small if they choose.

Coffee has always attracted passionate, committed and intelligent people.

Where are some of your favorite places to go when sourcing coffee?

Of all the places that I’ve been to source coffee, Rwanda is by far my favorite. It’s a staggeringly beautiful country, populated by some of the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve met. And the rich red fruit cup profile of Rwandan coffee is something I enjoy a lot.


  Coffee cherries arriving from a local collection point ready to be processed at Remera Mill in Rwanda

Coffee cherries arriving from a local collection point ready to be processed at Remera Mill in Rwanda

What are some of the largest problems the coffee industry is facing right now, in terms of labor and the environment?

It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to labor and environmental issues that the coffee industry faces. Issues around gender inequality in labor and ownership are becoming more widely considered and discussed, but are a long way from being properly tackled. The living conditions of subsistence farmers and transient workers in sub-Saharan Africa and Central America are issues that are all too obvious within minutes of arriving at the farms. Then there’s the destabilizing effects of an erratic (though currently, low) price for coffee on the commodity market. And really, that’s the just tip of the iceberg…

But coffee, and specialty coffee in particular, is very fortunate in that it has always attracted passionate, committed and intelligent people. And there’s a lot of them doing great work to help the industry overcome a lot of the issues that it faces, and to help ensure that coffee heads towards being truly sustainable economically and environmentally.

Climate change is having a crippling effect on coffee production almost everywhere.

Coffee needs some pretty specific climate conditions in order to grow properly. Has there been concern about how climate change might be/is affecting growth and harvesting?

Climate change is having a crippling effect on coffee production almost everywhere. Coffee needs relatively cool temperatures and high altitudes to grow the best stuff. As the planet warms, the best growing areas for coffee are retreating further up the mountains and, by default, shrinking. The warmer temperatures are allowing for agricultural diseases such as coffee leaf rust to take over and, especially in Central America, nearly wipe out coffee production completely.

While leaf rust has been around for at least 50 years, it’s never been as prevalent as current plague proportions, and that is undeniably the result of climate change.

You’ve mentioned that Fair Trade certification also has its issues. What are those issues, and what are the main ethical factors you take into consideration outside of official certification?

It’s perhaps one of the thorniest issues in coffee, and certainly not one in which any single organization possesses all the answers, but no matter who they work for, I’ll bet that every coffee buyer spends at least some of their nights lying awake and wondering if they’re doing the best they can for the farmers that feed their industry.

For a long time a Fair Trade certificate was the best guess a consumer had at determining whether or not the coffee, chocolate or bananas they were buying had been produced ethically. But you don’t have to spend long traveling in producing countries (or searching Google) to see that Fair Trade alone is not the answer.

Where I’m buying coffee that’s collectively produced—whether as part of a co-operative, or smallholder farmers bringing coffee cherries to a privately-owned mill—I like to see that there is a secondary payment going to farmers. Essentially, one payment made when the farmer delivers their coffee cherries to the co-operative at the start of the season, and another payment to the farmer when the co-operative has sold the processed and dried coffee; a profit share arrangement. It’s good to find out that a mill has a low turnover of contributing farmers, especially in highly competitive areas, meaning that the mill owners or operators are paying back a good percentage of turnover to the growers. And with everywhere, trust in the other links in the chain — the exporters, the millers, the importers and other agents — are crucial to being confident that the right amount of money paid for coffee is ending up in appropriate hands.

There’ll always be more that we can do on this front, but dialogue with and regular visits to producing communities is, in my opinion, the best place for education and understanding of the issues to start.

With no secondary payment a farmer’s interest in the coffee ends when they sell off their cherries.

Can you tell us a bit about the supply chain of sourcing coffee?

Private Mill Farmers grow cherries — sell them to the wet mill (or, mill owner has their own trees, grows cherries, pays pickers) — wet mill processes cherries into dried coffee — sells to exporter (or exports themselves) — exporter dry mills (prepares for export) the coffee — sells to importer — importer transports to US/UK/EU/Wherever and sells to the roaster — roasters gonna roast, sells to cafes/end customers.

In some cases here, especially in Rwanda, there’s a mechanism called a secondary payment. This means that the farmers sell their cherries to the mill owner at a certain price, but keep a receipt of how many kilos they’ve delivered. Then, after the season has finished and the mill owner has sold the dried coffee, a percentage of the profits go back to the farmers, usually at a particular rate per kg. It’s a good incentive for farmers to pick ripe cherries, and to sort their cherries well (under ripe taste grassy and astringent, overripe taste funky and dirty) because the higher the quality of the coffee when it sells, the bigger the secondary payment they get.

With no secondary payment a farmer’s interest in the coffee ends when they sell off their cherries. As they only get paid by weight, they have no incentive to ensure the quality is good, just that there’s a lot of volume (which doesn’t help or entice people like me). I often work with a mill called Gitesi in Rwanda. I’ve also started a little charity there, so we’re communicating pretty frequently.

Co-op Society Most prevalent in Kenya, while Ethiopia is more organized into Farmers Co-Operative Unions. All are really bureaucratic and mired in bribery, kickbacks and backscratching, so it’s just like business or politics in the West, really. It’s not dissimilar from the private mill set up; there are people growing, people picking, people processing and people exporting. The more I think about it, the more complicated it is. There are strange mechanisms in Kenya that are supposed to stamp out corruption and monopolies. In Ethiopia it’s just as murky, but in an entirely different way. Coffee is supposed to be traded through a body called the ECX: Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. This body is meant to obscure the identity of individual coffee growers, so that the region is celebrated and publicised, but not the growers (like promoting all of Champagne, rather than just one good winemaker).

(originally written for Zady.com)


 The washing station at Remera Mill in Rwanda, where coffee cherries are processed

The washing station at Remera Mill in Rwanda, where coffee cherries are processed

We know here at Zady that the consumer can’t make educated choices if major steps of the process are left out or ignored. Do you think that the ethical issues in the coffee industry might help be resolved if consumers were more aware and created pressure?

It’s hard, because consumer awareness is really driven by terms that are quick and easy to read and digest on packaging, right? And how quickly can those be co-opted by anyone who wants to leverage a bit of the ‘guilt be gone’ buying incentives. ‘Fair Trade’ became this big buzz word around coffee ethics, and then other companies start talking about their coffee being Fairly Traded / Ethically Sourced / Relationship Coffee… it’s just such a huge issue, and a complex one, yet modern consumerism dictates a two-word summary to inform our grocery aisle decision-making.

I think it’s a broader issue than just coffee, or shirts, or milk. It’s about an awareness of provenance and educating children about where things come from. Farmers aren’t just characters in books that ride tractors, they’re the people that grow our food. Meat isn’t something that sits vacuum-sealed, surgically devoid of smell (and flavor) on a supermarket shelf, it comes from cows, sheep, pigs, whatever. It’s a tough balance, right, between scaring and grossing out a 2 year old, but I’m amazed at [my daughter’s] willingness to come to the butcher, see the carcasses hanging and start to understand that something gave its life for us to eat. Obviously, she doesn’t quite get it yet, but one day she will, and she’ll be informed enough to decide whether that’s right or wrong.

And I guess that’s what I hope for coffee consumers. People who snort with westernized derision at paying more that $3 for a cup of coffee, somehow imagine that the person charging them is taking $2.97 profit out of the transaction. Failing to appreciate (or give any effort towards considering) the legion hands contributing / mouths dependent on getting those 40 beans off a tree, dried, graded, transported, roasted and only then, brewed for their pleasure. It’s really a greater question of appreciation and consideration — and maybe asking too much of the wider population. But helping to get a curious few over the line, and them telling their friends, is probably the only place to start.

So what efforts can individuals can make when buying coffee?

A good place to start would be to:

• Buy from reputable roasters who can share a good amount of information about where their coffee comes from.

• Recognize that dirt cheap coffee simply can’t leave a lot of money available for the people who grow it.

Last but not least! What are your top three must-visit coffee places, anywhere in the world?

Coffee Collective Godthåbsvej 34B, 2000 Frederiksberg, Denmark

Lovely guys, great coffee and a super-ethical, consistent and genuine approach to how they source coffee. When everyone is claiming to ‘work directly with the farmers’, these are the guys actually doing it.

Esters 55 Kynaston Road, London, N16, United Kingdom

Esters was my local when my wife and I lived in London; not the closest cafe to our house geographically, but certainly the place we felt most at home. The owners - Jack and Nia - are a really sweet couple who work their arses off, and produce some of the most under-rated food in London. I was always careful who I recommended Esters to (for fear of overcrowding, but conscious that I also wanted to see it busy enough), and was glad they never became a wholesale customer of mine. I know they would have done a great job with our coffee, but I enjoyed being a customer of theirs too much to make them one of mine. I miss the place terribly.

Manteigaria Rua do Loreto 2, Lisbon, Portugal

In honesty, the coffee is terrible. And to be brutally honest, the pasteis de nata they make is only Lisbon’s second best. But the simplicity of it is a joy. Just the one product (plus coffee), no seats, and a glassed-in kitchen so you can see the pastries being made. I took my two year old daughter every day.