There are so many wonderful things about Specialty Coffee that attract and compel different people for different reasons. In my experience working as an origin- traveling and sourcing barista and later building a business around relationship-focused coffee sourcing, the most wonderful thing about specialty coffee to me is its ability to see potential realized in real lives and communities.
Conventional Coffee vs. Specialty Coffee
The conventional or “commodity” coffee market to which most producers worldwide are subject to is, in my view, an oppressive system for many small producers whose specialty products by no means fit into any category as a traded commodity. Specialty Coffee, from its original definition, is specialized as having a quality that marks it as being distinct in its flavor and quality representing the place from which it comes. A commodity on the other hand is an interchangeable mass-produced unspecialized product in which there is no distinction between parts or regard to who produced them like gold, iron ore, sugar . . . and coffee? Coffee is far closer to wine than wheat or sugar with its ability to reflect terroir just as in the world's most celebrated vineyards of Burgundy. I fully expect to one day map the farms of Santa Barbara Mountain in Honduras like the Burgundy maps hanging on my wall.
There are different faces to the dichotomy of commodity coffee versus specialty coffee but it is my view that the idea of coffee as a commodity is one in need of abolishing. Most consumers see specialty coffee as the final crafted product of a higher quality and experience whether in a cafe or in its marketing. But to those of us working within the industry it is one of green (unroasted) quality and trade dynamics. The value of coffee in a commodity system is completely disconnected from quality, place, or people, the very locus of definition for specialty coffee.
We do not see see specialty coffees as a boutique version of an otherwise normative commodity. We see specialty coffee as a window into the redemption of a broken and oppressive system in which personal and corporate distance places convenience and profit in front of dignity and humanity.
What if these producers were connected downstream and their coffee was traded in accordance with their quality and human dignity? What if growers only needed a chance and an opportunity to raise their vision of what their coffee could be, who they could be?
In the beginning, my goal for Saint Frank was to connect and source our own coffees through committed and sustainable relationships with small scale and motivated but disconnected growers by working with like-minded exporters I knew and trusted. For one small coffee shop this seems naive and ambitious, but I was never alone and we were never “just a coffee shop.” With a support network made of real people in real community I could take risks in new frontiers for producing communities that had no specialty market access. There were some who doubted whether we could make any difference in such a daunting and depressing challenge. I never did.
Following Our Own Vision
Looking back I think this is significant for a couple of reasons; both of which are related to the seemingly unavoidable challenge of being in a self-referencing industry. First, in the beginning we weren’t a roaster and I wasn’t trying to build a coffee brand at the time as much as something beautiful, human and authentic in the context of service. I wasn’t comparing or planning Saint Frank against the influence of competing coffee brands. Second, by beginning in a neighborhood with no focused expression of specialty coffee we were free to create our menu in a way that wasn’t impacted by outside or competing voices. All that mattered was making a difference with our producers to create something new and wonderful and the same with the guests who would walk in our door.
Some of my coffee colleagues were concerned that creating a coffee program solely built on long term committed relationships with small growers was too risky (and possibly boring) but I was confident in my vision and where it could go. One experienced and inspiring green coffee buyer who encouraged me was Ryan Brown, a hero and kind of mentor to me. Ryan recently authored a wonderful book called Dear Coffee Buyer: A Guide to Sourcing Coffee, and in his discussion of choosing and forming an offering philosophy he describes a subset of an origin-focused offering philosophy of which Saint Frank is the given example for a “Producer Focused” philosophy. I highly recommend the book if you are interested in coffee origins and the world behind specialty coffee sourcing.
Now six years into Saint Frank we continue to receive overwhelming feedback of what Saint Frank has meant to our neighborhood and the part it plays in our customers’ lives after working our own unique vision. I can also tell you that sentiment goes even deeper when traveling each year to visit our partner producers to which we have committed and invested in, usually in remote mountain communities often without electricity. What we do together and the bond we share through mutual respect and collaboration is truly something special and worth every risk, real or perceived.
In discussing our relationships with producers and any of our adventures to this point we are clearly among the group of coffee companies and roasters that would apply the term “direct trade” and justifiably so. But I want to take a moment to discuss what Direct Trade is and what it isn’t.
The Advent of Direct Trade
I remember at the beginning of this decade when I was with Ritual Roasters, we used to constantly find ourselves explaining to customers why our coffees were worth our prices and how direct trade was better than fair trade. Pioneers like Intelligentsia, Stumptown, Counter Culture and later Ritual Roasters were seeking out quality coffees and producers on their own rather than depending on the listed “spot” offerings of coffee importers and traders. (A “spot” coffee means that it has been sourced, imported and made available for purchase by an importer.) They wanted better coffees and a closer involvement in the sustainability of those coffees so they traveled themselves to find and secure the coffees they believed existed.
To differentiate their small business and quality focused practices they adopted the term “Direct Trade.” This was incredibly helpful because very few could claim that kind of sourcing and the coffees spoke for themselves. The coffees were expressive and individual, better than most importer offerings and paid with prices much higher than the Fair Trade certification that educated consumers demanded. They had the best coffees, roasters, baristas and cafes presenting and serving in a way no one had ever seen. They captured the imagination of a changing culture that was turning the tide of modern industrialism’s watered down homogeny.
When “Direct Trade” is not so “direct”
This early era of Direct Trade was once such a compelling and passion-driven phenomenon where its pioneering nature commanded authenticity. But sadly, I feel that it unfortunately doesn’t mean much anymore as a term as it has become overused with no real agreement over its meaning.
The most basic shared meaning among roasters today that leads them to apply this concept seems to be that a roaster contracted to purchase a coffee through some channel at origin rather than from the offering list of a domestic importer. While a roaster can access coffees earlier this way such can be done from the convenience of an email account and a small sample roaster anywhere in the world with little to no contact or commitment to producers.
Many roasters give the impression that they “cut out unnecessary middlemen” in their sourcing, but the fact is that even large roasters employ importers, exporters, and brokers to manage the trade of their coffees. The idea that the trading is literally “direct” from farm to roaster is simply not true in most cases. There are indeed harmful middlemen or “coyotes” who take advantage of small producers just as there are harmful and corrupt cooperative officials. But the idea that any step between producer and roaster is bad or unnecessary is both inaccurate and impossible when talking about small scale farmers. In Africa especially this cooperation is nearly essential.
It takes a global village to collaborate for the creation of specialty coffees in which there is a dynamic and relational supply stream. The challenge is to find the right people throughout the stream who share the same values and transparency that true specialty coffee requires to thrive.
Beyond Direct Trade: Relationship Coffee
There is nothing inherently wrong with the term “direct trade” or even the broader present model it has come to reference. But without governance (at least Fair Trade has that much) and accountability it is at risk of becoming a trend and marketing strategy that does little to open the window of specialty coffee toward a brighter, more flavorful, and more just future in the world of coffee. Anyone can source coffees at origin within the commodity trading system and use direct trade language. It is not uncommon for roasters to proudly market a smaller proportion of their direct trade coffees as the face of their practice while the bulk of their products are sold to consumers through the commodity system where they can capture the most margin. So where is the value in being “direct”? Certainly not to the producer or to the consumer.
Direct Trade is not direct enough for Saint Frank to use it in our language. It simply does not do justice to what it once meant during its advent and certainly does not accurately represent the work and commitment we make at Saint Frank to our producers and to our customers.
Saint Frank is a rare coffee company that works exclusively through committed and developing relationships with small scale producers to create value and transformation at origin while aiming to bring that same transformative energy to our customers. In Part Two I will share our story of how we have worked to connect and leverage our position to make a difference throughout the supply stream for joy, connection, and meaning.