If you haven’t noticed, the average price per cup of coffee has nearly doubled over the last decade. There’s a growing disconnect between the expectation of exceptional coffee and what it takes to deliver. In the same way that western consumers have become increasingly insulated from the disturbing origins of our food, most people just don’t know where our coffee comes from – or the complex variables at play getting it farm to cup. As the larger commercial enterprises continue to tout fair trade certifications as the end-all-be-all, it’s critical to look further to truly understand best practice in the progressively volatile world of specialty coffee.
The economic role of coffee in today’s global market is second only to petroleum. That makes it an essential commodity on an international scale. Subject to the practical realities of bureaucracy, corruption, propaganda, and excessive regulation, coffee is one of the most controlled products on the planet. Here’s the bottom line: local crop-yields and subsequent prices relentlessly fluctuate with hundreds of complex variables, including: climate conditions, political unrest, workers’ conditions, free and fair trade considerations, habitat conservation, the international certification process, and market demand. Price only tells a small portion of the story, but it reflects these highly turbulent conditions.
The convoluted intricacies of the coffee dilemma start at the source. Premium specialty coffee beans are typically grown in remote, often poor communities amidst richly diverse, and increasingly fragile ecosystems. As global warming affects local climate, and ideal growing conditions become unstable, farmers endure unpredictable harvests. The world’s most sought-after single-origin coffee beans are sourced from places like Sumatra, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Honduras. As droughts and floods wreak havoc on small growing operations, farmers are forced to expand into threatened environment, including wetland areas and rainforests. Small farms in these areas produce the best coffee in the world and all of these farms operate on the edge of threatened habitat. With ever-changing conditions, many farmers further erode endangered areas, just to survive. As demand for coffee increases, industry races to maintain production. It’s a perfect storm.
If the environment is the first to feel the squeeze, the local farmers feel it next. With so much regulation around exporting premium product, there has been an overwhelming movement to safeguard the rights of the workers on the ground. The Fair Trade Certification process was established to help promote commercial practices that empower local farmers at the source with a fair wage. While fair trade has done much to bring awareness about the economic conditions facing local farmers, by itself, it may not be enough to ensure best practice. For additional considerations that look further, there are distinctions offered by Rainforest Alliance, UTZ and 4C Sustainable Coffee Growing that honor fair trade, conservation-focused and organic operations. However, some of the best small operations that qualify, simply can’t afford to pay for these certifications on their label.
So, how do roasters navigate the complexity of sourcing great coffee? Small coffee houses with their own craft roasting operations typically rely on specialty importers to do their homework. Importers like Thrive and LevelUp work vigorously to improve industry standards across the board. The relationship between importer and roaster is critical in order to maintain consistency in quality. As different regions fluctuate product availability, it is the importer that serves as the front line for sourcing from other parts of the world. More importantly, importers are usually the ones to develop relationships with farmers at the source. If a craft roaster seeks best practices in bean manufacturing, the importer guarantees assurances that include the full spectrum of considerations, including: bean quality, habitat conservation, worker compensation, organic materials used, and chemical-free processing.
At Bonfire Coffee, we rely on internationally reputable green coffee bean importers, committed to sourcing the world’s finest coffee – with specific attention to ideal conditions. Our importers include: Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders, Coffee Shrub, InterAmerican Coffee, and Café Imports. As craft roasters, we understand that it is our obligation to start with a responsibly sourced bean – and we also understand the realities of the industry. We know that just because a bean doesn’t have the organic certification, doesn’t mean it wasn’t manufactured in a chemical-free environment. We understand that just because a bean has the Fair Trade Certification, doesn’t necessarily mean that harsh chemicals weren’t used in production. We only use importers that uncompromisingly scrutinize every aspect of production, farm to cup, in order to bring you the very best coffee available. It’s a relationship built on trust and proven-reliability.
At Bonfire Coffee, we understand that some of our patrons appreciate a great cup of coffee – no matter the cost. We also know that our customers have a choice. For those who share our notion that sourcing a good cup of coffee is an ethical imperative, we invite you to enjoy the world’s finest beans, craft roasted in small batches to ensure rich, smooth, vibrant flavors synonymous with the Bonfire Coffee brand. It’s complicated, we know. But we think transparency is important and we think you will agree, a great cup of coffee tastes so much better when we understand exactly what it took to serve it up right.