09 Jan Join Us On A Journey For The Best Coffee Cup Around. Direct Trade 1 Fair Trade 0.

There  is the classic coffee trade focused on the lowest price and leaving producers underprivileged, then there is Fair Trade that already provides them with a certain security, and finally Direct Trade that promotes single producers to well-deserved business partners and along with the term “Third wave of coffee” focuses on high-quality coffee, also called Specialty coffee.

Since we started experimenting with Specialty coffee, there has always been a revelation of some sorts, lingering to feed our curiosity. Coffee cupping event hosted by Kaschk was a greasy experience in that measure. This time it was The Collaborative Coffee Source presenting a variety of tastes from their coffee repertoire, directly purchased from the producers.

The venue itself deserves a brief introduction. Kaschk is a craft beer-o-rama and a coffee joint with nordic roots, neatly upping the hip-meter on the otherwise uninteresting east part of heavily car polluted Torstrasse in Berlin. Apart from their menu of wine-strong beer, during the day, Kaschk serves free-refill filter coffee to the ever present digital entrepreneurs and take-away. One of Kaschk’s main interior dominants, a sturdy wooden table, was on an August afternoon occupied by coffee samples presented by Alex from The Collaborative Coffee Source (CCS).

CCS is a great match for Highvisioned, because they push the limits of Fair Trade to another level. CCS cooperates with each producer directly, treating them as rightful business partners. On the other side, Fair Trade (here meaning the trade mark) obliges producers to be a part of cooperatives, thus creating borders and shifting benefits from them as individuals. For a comparison, Duane Sorenson, the founder of the Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, in 2007 directly traded a coffee lot from Marcio Benjamín Peralta Paguaga’s farm in Nicaragua, earning the farm $47.06 per pound. Fair Trade’s minimum price is $1.40 per pound.

Could you briefly introduce yourself? What are you currently passionate about?

All my life I’ve had many opportunities to travel. Flavor being one of my biggest passions in life, I’ve enjoyed being able to taste what the world has to offer. The complexity and variety of flavors, all the interesting combinations possible, along with a flavor’s ability to mutate into something completely different over time. Coffee is never just coffee; just as wine is never just wine. There are passionate and skilled people involved in the making of both and when a craftsperson makes something, it will always have a unique character.

What is the role of CCS and what is the company’s vision?

In my career as a coffee professional, I have the most experience being a barista. Being behind the bar, it ́s always been interesting to see people’s perception of coffee. Whether it’s people that don’t care, or people that appreciate the work put into brewing a coffee. Once I started to work with importing green coffee, I began to see that my barista experience only scratched the surface of what specialty coffee really is. In understanding this, I can say that Collaborative Coffee Source (CCS) has many roles.

The first is changing people’s understanding of coffee, in other words, to get everyone to understand that coffee not only comes from a farm and its farmer, but that all coffees have to be handled by a large number of people before it can possibly end up in a cup.

Secondly, CCS is about facilitating the best relationships possible amongst farmers, exporters, warehouses and roasters. One of our main visions has always been to help create long-term relationships that truly supports sustainable specialty coffee projects through finding the best producers out there.

Highvisioned.com_Morenos_2014_webPart of the Moreno family during harvest in Santa Barbara, Honduras. This family was the first relationship that CCS built, and one of the longest they’ve had. The area of Santa Barbara is now known for having the best coffee in the country.
Photography: Tuukka Koski

What are the problems on the current coffee market and how is CCS trying to make a change? Do you see an increasing number of coffee roasters and producers adopting Direct Trade principles?

We see an increasing number of roasters wanting to do “direct trade”. But with this kind of purchasing, there comes a lot of responsibility and work that most people aren’t aware of. The first reality is that along with having to travel long distances to find the best coffee, one must invest in getting to know the people behind the coffee. Can they deliver reliably great coffee? Even if one does find a great producer, it almost doesn’t matter unless a good relationship is also in place with an exporter that can handle the coffee with care so that it departs origin in pristine condition. As well, are the producer and exporter willing to cooperate with a single roaster? In most cases a small roaster cannot purchase the volume required for direct export to make logistic and economic sense.

Once these key relationships are established at origin, the buyer’s task is to screen/cup through (sometimes) several hundreds of coffees to find the right one(s) over the course of several cupping sessions. And then after all of this, one needs to follow up on all the paperwork, booking of various transporting (trucks, container, etc.) and finally, once at port, the buyer has to be able to handle customs and transportation. Throughout these very general steps, anything can happen. What roasters end up realizing is that direct trade is costly and not always sustainable. With today’s focus on global warming, it just does not make sense to send a container with just one or two microlots. This is why companies like ours are necessary to the specialty coffee trade: we can establish viable relationships while finding exceptional coffees and can then handle all the work that is necessary in moving coffees to the point where a roaster can stick their hands into those fresh green coffee beans. Hopefully we are also minimizing environmental impact and financial risk for everyone involved, in the meantime.

One final point about the role of an importer in relation to quality: In some direct trade cases, roasters receive coffee that degrades rapidly. This roaster then loses the point of buying specialty coffee.

Do you see that there is still something there to improve in the way coffee is traded? What do you imagine the next evolution step towards more sustainability, transparency and fairness would be like?

In my opinion, specialty coffee has come far with the last decade, but we are only just starting to see the possibilities of how quality can be controlled. Whether it is considering the process of handpicking of ripe cherries, pulping using color sorting machines, the endless ways one can dry and store parchment, or the roasting process and optimization of each and every brew, specialty coffee has come a long way. As well, we can see an increasing number of farmers recognizing the benefits of producing specialty coffee. And this is a very recent phenomenon on the producing side of specialty coffee.

highvisioned.com_2014_03_07_tk_for_better_coffee_honduras_hasselblad-244_final_webMiguel Moreno, one of the sons in the family that believed in the farms potential and entered the renowned competition: the cup of excellence. In 2005 he reached 18th, and in 2007 4th. These results are what made them want to expand and invest in their farm. 
Photography: Tuukka Koski

How do you approach coffee producers; what is the usual trigger to persuade them to start cooperating with you?

From experience, we know that we must often (though not always) rely on the exporter to recommend the next producer we might partner with, whether it’s a farm or a washing station. Exporters know best. For example, Benjamin Paz of San Vicente in Santa Barbara, Honduras is a great example of an exporter who understands what it takes for a producer to make specialty coffee and as a result, he has introduced us to the best producers in Honduras.

What is the CCS’s biggest success story and the biggest failure?

We have a lot of success stories to share. In addition to being amongst the first to discover Santa Barbara as a micro-region producing excellent coffee, we were also fortunate to be amongst the first to discover and promote Panama geisha. We also have a strong relation to Heleanna of Moplaco in Ethiopia and Long Miles Coffee in Burundi. Coffee producing origins are complex in general, but this is especially true in East Africa. We believe these two partners represent amongst the very best of what each origin has to offer, but being one of the first to discover under appreciated producers and coffees can (and usually does) come with some risks. During our first year of purchasing Burundi coffee we learned about the challenges related to the potato defect syndrome. This was and continues to be a major problem for Burundi coffee, and in our first year of importing from there, we had to figure out how to deal with the defect. We also had to learn how to teach roasters how to manage it. Fortunately for everyone, technology is beginning to impact Burundi coffee production and with the very best of producers, defects have begun to be sorted out much more effectively and vigilantly.

CCS is dedicated to being a transparent company for everyone throughout the coffee chain. When visiting producing partners, we always try to understand the farmer’s vision and way of doing business. In the end, however, flavor and quality are everything to us. With this always being a focus, we have managed to cultivate a good reputation in the specialty coffee industry amongst farmers and roasters who want to work with us.

Highvisioned.com_AlexAlex represented Norway in the World Barista Championship in Seattle 2015 and reached 11th place.
Photography: Pavel Zhdanov

Thank you Alex for caffeinating our curiosity. Follow The Collaborative Coffee Source on their Facebook or Twitter.