Monday, February 7, 2011

Direct Trade Coffee

I will be the first to admit that in today’s coffee world, where you can find anything from Organic to Fair Trade to Bird Friendly-certified coffee, the last thing most people want to worry about is another coffee certification. But before you give up on this blog, what do you really know about the Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, or Bird Friendly Certified coffee that you bought this morning? The whole point of certifying a coffee is that the end consumer knows that certain standards have been met, but these standards are often so complex that it would take a college course to understand them all. There is a certification just starting to grow in the coffee world that is refreshingly simple and, in my opinion, much more beneficial to farmers: Direct Trade Coffee.

There are three simple guiding principles behind Direct Trade Coffee:

(1) High wages.

(2) High quality.

(3) Direct purchasing through a relationship between farmer and buyer.

Since Direct Trade is a new idea, these ideals manifest themselves in different ways. Industry leaders like Counter Culture Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Stump Town Coffee Roasters each have their own standards for what these principles mean, but these standards all include a minimum purchase price, minimum cup quality, and minimum amount of contact between farmer and the company. Although Counter Culture may set quality standards based upon their proprietary tasting system, while Intelligentsia bases it on their own system, these companies are establishing their own set of guidelines they think best fulfill the three guiding principles.

In my mind, Direct Trade is the logical step forward from the current obsession with Fair Trade. First, Direct Trade is set up so that buyers, not farmers, pay fees. Fair Trade, on the other hand, requires large up-front costs from the farmers themselves. This policy actually excludes the small-scale, independent farmers that consumers often associate with the Fair Trade logo!

Second, Direct Trade is more sustainable. Since Direct Trade is as focused on quality as it is on price, it gives farmers a reason to continually improve their coffee growing and harvesting techniques. Fair Trade certification says nothing about the quality of the coffee. As such, people often end up paying a premium for inferior coffee grown by a large coffee plantation that can cover Fair Trade Certification costs. At least it has a Fair Trade Certified sticker on the bag, I guess.

Finally, even though we may just be “average coffee drinkers,” we should still have the opportunity to learn how our morning coffee got to where it is today. When buying a Direct Trade coffee, coffee shops will know if it came from a small-scale, independent farmer or a large-scale plantation, how much was paid for the coffee, and probably more than we would ever actually care to find out. With this knowledge, it is no longer coffee intermediaries, exporters or importers, or even local coffee shops that determine who we buy our coffee from and how much we pay them. It is us, the coffee drinkers of the world, that get to make this important choice.


For more information check out these websites:


  1. just recently checked out your website and blog a bit, after my brother said he might be interning with you guys in Honduras. Looks like you guys are doing some good work and I woudl love to visit at some point maybe...if I can and hear more about what you are doing!

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