Zen and the Art of (Fair) Coffee Trading

May 7, 2015

The premium coffee scene is growing faster than baristas in Brooklyn can pump out espresso. No longer are customers happy with house blend made from a drip machine. Coffee lovers crave a new single-origin coffee bean extracted with a new brewing method each time — from siphon to the Hario v60.

But, just where do these beans come from and how much of that three dollar cup of coffee actually goes to the farmer who picked the bean? That’s the question I recently set out to try and answer. And this answer starts with a trip to Laos and a guy named Tyson.

The morning sun filters through the humid air as Tyson Adams peels aside his mosquito net, rolls out of his bed and walks downstairs to turn on the hot water and the lights of Jhai Coffeehouse.

He sets up a scale and places some fresh ground coffee beans into his Aeropress to make his morning cup of java: a favorite coffee brewing technique made popular by Tim Ferriss.

After a few sips, tourists begin to wander into Jhai Coffeehouse: the world’s first completely philanthropic coffee roaster and cafe located at the source in Laos.

Tyson first ventured into Laos during a bit of vagabonding after leaving his home in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S: an area where entrepreneurs and full-fledged coffee snobs unite over a fresh brew. He noticed that the coffee farmers in Laos produce high-quality coffee (graded 85+) and yet are paid for low quality commodity-priced coffee.

Tyson looked around. The neighboring area desperately needed water wells, new schools, and, of course, it’s own coffee shop. And the farmers needed a fair share of the coffee sale.

Since his first visit, Tyson has gone on to create a 100% giveback business model that gives proceeds to the neighboring community, bringing clean water to those in need. Dug thirty-five feet beneath the surface, these wells bring clean drinking water to children and families throughout the area.

He’s uncovering what most of the world knows little about: the unbalanced coffee trade industry, specifically in Southeast Asia which often gets overshadowed by African and Latin American coffees in the coffee-trading conversations.

Just how much coffee do third-world coffee farmers produce? “A good 2 billion of coffee cups are drunk every day,” says Marc and Nick Francis, the filmmakers behind Black Gold: a Sundance award-winning documentary that sheds light on the coffee trade.

“By 2001, coffee prices had fallen to their lowest levels ever, totaling less than one third of their 1960 levels,” says Tadesse Meskela, the central voice behind Black Gold.

What most people don’t know is that coffee is graded on a system and then sold at prices that reflect their grade. Commodity coffee runs less expensive than speciality coffee.

“Middle men lie to coffee growers,” says Tyson Adams of the the buyers in Southeast Asia. They buy speciality quality coffee from the growers at commodity coffee prices, but then sell at speciality coffee prices to coffee shops around the world.

Charlie Graham, founder of Tin Kettle Artisan Coffee Co. (a boutique speciality coffee house in Montgomery, NY) says that the demand for speciality coffee is rising. His customers desire a multitude of single-origin beans and brewing techniques to best bring out particular flavor nodes. Many of those customers also want to know that the coffee farmers are treated well. They look for the Fair Trade stamp and are willing to pay a bit more for organic.

The Fair Trade stamp is often misinterpreted. It’s confusing, says Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia Coffee. Consumers expect a high-quality bean along with fair pay for coffee farmers. He does not enroll in the Fair Trade system and prefers instead to give “the ten cents per pound that Intelligentsia previously paid TransFair USA directly to the farmers to improve infrastructure and quality of life,” writes Michaele Weissman in the book, “God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee.”

In Burundi, farmers only receive about half the value of their beans. Desire Nimubona, a Burundi journalist working for Bloomberg News says, “the cost of cherry is estimated at $4.2/kg…the farmer’s revenue is estimated at $2/kg.” This has led to a 50% decrease in coffee production in Burundi, mainly due to lack of motivation.

In Ethiopia, a similar story. Tadesse Meskela reaches out to individual buyers in attempt to bypass the international trading system and bring home more money for local farmers.

As I type this sentence, I’m sipping a delicious cup of coffee from my French press this morning (a natural Pacamara for you fellow coffee lovers). With this cup comes a bit of Zen interconnectedness and a whole new understanding of just where this premium coffee comes from.

Back in the U.S., Charlie asks customers what coffee region they’d like to taste that day. Over in Laos, Tyson delivers a pour-over at Jhai Coffeehouse. And if with every bean these customers try, there’s a whole different story of how it become their morning cup of coffee.

The Traveling Cup © 2016