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How to Support Specialty Coffee

As Stephen Satterfield explores in his feature in the May/June 2018 issue, the coffee world is at a crossroads where environmental, political and cultural challenges are forcing producers, roasters and retailers to reconsider the way they do business. Many large companies and organizations are tackling these issues head on, but there are also steps coffee drinkers can take to effect change. Mindful drinking is a win for everybody, says James McLaughlin, president and CEO of Intelligentsia Coffee. “If everyone knew how delicious coffee could be when grown well, and what kind of difference they could make for farmers simply by choosing to pay for quality, the impact of their decisions would transform the coffee industry.” Here are a few tips from McLaughlin and other coffee pros.

Buy Traceable Coffees “The best coffees are produced by specific farmers and roasted by people who care a lot about preserving even the most delicate flavors in the bean. If you buy traceable coffees you’ll have a product that’s fresh, tastes great and benefits the people growing it,” says McLaughlin. This often means looking past the marketing surrounding certain coffees. “If you take a minute or two to browse the websites of coffee companies but they don’t offer much detail about the coffees or their sourcing methods, be skeptical,” he says. “Those who are doing real work to support farmers and develop exceptional quality are usually very excited about describing it. And trust your taste buds—real quality is self-evident.”

Engage Your Local Café and Be Part of Their Change Climate change is one of the main threats to coffee farms, and cafés produce up to 50 percent of coffee’s carbon footprint. To help combat this, Hanna Neuschwander, communications director at World Coffee Research and author of Left Coast Roast, says consumers can be more demanding about sustainable practices in cafés. “There are a lot of things a café can do to reduce its carbon footprint, and coffee companies can make meaningful investments in efforts to help farmers adapt to climate change—they can support the work of World Coffee Research, or make investments in their own supply chains. All of it matters,” she says. “Companies respond to consumer demand and pressure. It works. So reach out and ask your favorite café what they’re doing, and ask them to do more. Also, take your mug with you to the café! Paper cups are atrocious on almost every level.”

Get Fresh Coffee is a seasonal product, and Geoff Watts, vice president at Intelligentsia, thinks customers could do a lot of good by buying with that in mind. “If you wouldn’t eat a peach or tomato out of season, don’t drink coffee out of season,” he says. “Disrupt the all-too-common notion that coffees stay fresh year-round by drinking coffees grown in countries north of the Equator between March and August, and ones from countries south of the Equator between September and February. The shorter time off harvest, the more vibrant the natural sweetness and flavors will taste.”

Think Globally “Learning the name of an individual farmer can be a powerful tool to create a sense of connection, but rare success cases can belie the reality that the average coffee farmer’s income hasn’t risen in 40 years,” says Specialty Coffee Association chief sustainability officer Kim Elena Ionescu. One way to help that is by creating demand. “Choose coffees from a variety of countries and regions of the world, not only because it’s fun to explore diverse flavors but also because demand is a key driver for investment at every level, from farmer to government policy.”

Pay for Quality Specialty coffee can sometimes seem pricey, but producers like Jon Allen of Onyx Coffee Lab want to challenge drinkers to embrace that premium. “There’s a range of quality, rarity and work that goes into producing all coffee, but that’s especially true in high-end and specialty coffee,” he says. “Try to think of another product that’s price has essentially stayed the same for 40 years. Today’s commodity price for coffee is $1.16. In 1978, it was $1.80. This baseline price to producers for coffee is borderline shameful. If your coffee is inexpensive, it’s not ethical, in my opinion.”

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