I can’t stand coffee. Not even coffee ice cream. The smell, on an empty stomach, makes me almost nauseous. But there are all you addicts out there, and responsible coffee drinkers have a lot of issues to consider. Goldlentil recently asked whether buying her coffee from a local roaster was better than from her standard fair trade, organic, shade grown brand. First, kudos to goldlentil for buying lovely shade-grown (great for biodiversity), fair trade (back to the pay-your-farmers theme), and organic (generally environmentally beneficial) coffee. All you crazed caffeine junkies who aren’t up to her standard, work on adding in a couple of those adjectives [Ed note: shade grown, fair trade, and organic is easy to find in places like Trader Joe’s] and then you can get down to the debate on local roasting. There are three major issues to consider with “local” coffee: 1. There (mostly) must be middlemen. 2. Community self-sufficiency. 3. Coffee is inherently a luxury.
Coffee will never truly be local in Massachusetts, unless you taking to drinking a 100% chicory roast. But it does have to be processed, which could be done locally. Coffee is fermented, and then roasted before it is ground and brewed into your morning jolt. Very few coffee growers have the equipment, knowledge, time, and interest to fully roast, market, transport, and sell their coffee from their distant tropical locales to us. There are a few grower cooperatives out there that do process and market their own coffee to international consumers, but they are the exception and will likely continue to be the exception. The middlemen—anywhere from one or two steps to nearly a dozen steps, or transfers—generally do that.
Transparency is often a major problem in the coffee industry, with all the transfers on top of general corporate obstruction. It is virtually impossible to find out anything about the production or purchasing process (even what countries they buy coffee from) of major conventional brands, so making informed decisions about their products just isn’t possible. The middlemen (corporate and otherwise) become a possibly profiteering obstruction rather than providing a useful service. There are generally too many levels of meddling middlemen in the coffee industry between grower and drinker, but out of pragmatism, let’s accept the idea that you are willing to support at least one—the importer/roaster with fairly transparent business practices.
Is a locally owned coffee roaster the solution? It’s quite possible that the owner/operators are knowledgeable and willing to talk about their practices, allowing you to decide if they are responsible. The other major advantage of buying from them is that you then support your community becoming more self-sufficient. Your wages are being passed to the local business, which then passes them to its employees and vendors, so the money loops around the Main Street economy several times. (Studies agree that this actually happens.) Think about the germs-on-money theory—all the local hands it passes through—and the more germs the money collects before heading back to the bank the better. The money you spend locally supports your neighbors’ livelihoods until someone goes and buys gas, or to CVS, when the money starts to flow into the pockets of Exxon-Mobil, CVS, Johnson & Johnson shareholders, etc. A truly self-sufficient community would meet all of its needs from a regional area, creating a healthy economy with many active participants circulating money around from one business to the next rather than feeding it off to Wall Street. So in terms of community self-sufficiency, buying from a local business is highly preferable.
BUT. Coffee is a luxury. Historically, coffee traveled on horses and camels and ships along with spices, myrrh, and frankincense. It is a WANT, not a need. Coffee comes from far, far away and doesn’t provide any essential nutrients. A self-sufficient community might enjoy having its own coffee roaster, but one would be low on the local food priority chain. [I’m not advocating for a luxury-free society (I’m not giving up chocolate in the near future), just a sense of perspective.] Because it is a non-perishable luxury and you use a relatively small amount, coffee is a practical commodity to trade between communities: a region might very well only be able to support one or two roasters. Bread, on the other hand, is a perishable staple consumed in large quantities in most American households. In terms of supporting local food businesses, I’d advocate for supporting a local bakery (or grain mill) over a local coffee roaster any day. Given the energy involved in roasting coffee, I might even pick a coffee roaster that uses renewable energy over a local roaster. Of course, only if that the coffee was also fair trade, shade grown, tasted good, etc.
It’s your call: whose coffee do you enjoy more? What are you drinking now?
Volumes can and have been written about coffee. If you are interested, here are a couple of starting points.
Oxfam on why fair trade
Coffee and Conservation