Later On

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Direct-trade coffee: the best?

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The NY Times has an interesting article today on direct-trade coffee. From the article:

Mr. Sorenson and a few like-minded coffee hunters around the country will go almost anywhere, do almost anything and pay almost any price in pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee. For people at Stumptown and friendly competitors like Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters and Tea Traders of Chicago and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, N.C., long trips to remote farms for meetings without immediate payoffs are necessary steps in a much bigger goal: reinventing the coffee business.

“These people have an almost unbelievable ability to source exquisite, unique coffees,” Mark Prince, senior editor at the coffee appreciation Web site, wrote in an e-mail.

Connie Blumhardt, publisher of the coffee magazine Roast, concurs: “They are certainly the leaders right now. Some smaller roasters just worship them, like they’re these coffee megagods.”

“Direct trade” is the most popular name of the style of business practiced by these coffee companies, known as roasters. It means, most simply, that the roasters buy their beans directly from the farms and cooperatives that grow them, not from brokers.

The term was popularized by Geoff Watts, director of coffee and green coffee buyer for Intelligentsia. (Mr. Sorenson’s air miles last week paled beside those of Mr. Watts, who flew to Burundi with another coffee roaster to consult with groups who want to revive that country’s once-great coffee tradition.)

Direct trade — which also means intensive communication between the buyer and the grower — stands in stark contrast to the old (but still prevalent) model, in which international conglomerates buy coffee by the steamer ship, through brokers, for the lowest price the commodity market will bear.

It also represents, at least for many in the specialty coffee world, an improvement on labels like Fair Trade, bird-friendly or organic. Such labels relate to how the coffee is grown and may persuade consumers to pay a little extra for their beans, but offer no assurance about flavor or quality. Direct-trade coffee companies, on the other hand, see ecologically sound agriculture and prices above even the Fair Trade premium both as sound business practices and as a route to better-tasting coffee.

By spending months every year visiting farms, these roasters seek to offer coffee that is produced as well as it can be, bought responsibly and roasted carefully. They aim, simply, to sell the best coffee possible.

“It’s an exploration of coffee’s flavor, really” is how George Howell explains his mission. Mr. Howell, who runs George Howell Coffee Company, a roaster based in Acton, Mass., has had a hand in practically every lurch forward in the quality coffee scene since he started out in the business in 1974. “We’re finding flavors we’ve never ever tasted before, different fruit and floral flavors from really pristine, clean coffees. These are flavors that have been lost or diluted in the old methods of blending coffee down to an average product.”

In many ways, the direct-trade roasters are building on the foundation laid by companies like Peet’s and, later, Starbucks, which went outside the commodity system to find superior coffee. But, Ms. Blumhardt said, those companies are too big to comb over every bean in every sack the way some direct-trade companies do. Starbucks bought more than 300 million pounds of coffee last year; Intelligentsia, the biggest of this group, bought 2 million pounds.

There’s much more at the link. The payoff:

Here are some representative coffees from the leading direct-trade roasting companies:

COUNTER CULTURE Finca El Puente ($10.65 per 12 ounces), from a single farm in Marcala, Honduras, goes by the nickname “the purple princess” for its exceptional dark fruit flavors:; (888) 238-5282.

INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE ROASTERS AND TEA TRADERS Los Delirios ($12.95 per pound) is an organic coffee from a farm in Nicaragua whose offerings have won or placed in every Cup of Excellence competition held in that country:; (888) 945-9786.

STUMPTOWN COFFEE ROASTERS Las Golindrinas ($40 per half-pound) won Nicaragua’s Cup of Excellence competition this year. Rwanda Karaba “E” Lot ($15.25 per pound) comes from the cooperative that inspired Stumptown’s owner, Duane Sorenson, to start the Bikes to Rwanda program:; (503) 230-7797.

GEORGE HOWELL COFFEE COMPANY Daterra Farm Special Reserve ($13.95 per 12 ounces) is shipped from Brazil in vacuum-sealed Mylar bags to ensure a clean, fresh taste:; (866) 444-5282.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2007 at 9:23 am

Posted in Caffeine, Daily life

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