Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Bao Zhong

Name: Bao Zhong
Origin: Pinglin, Taiwan
Harvest Date: April 27, 2014
Type: Oolong Tea
Purveyor: Everlasting Teas
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of 200deg F water for 4:30 (I am unfortunately unequipped for gong fu cha), sipped plain

As I tasted this Bao Zhong, what was most striking was how different the notes seemed now that I set down to taste it with intent. I had had this tea - the same batch, bought in the same canister - a few times before, either flying out the door in the morning or sitting watching a movie. But this was my first time focusing on exploring deeply and intricately its profile. Normally this would result in a refined and nuanced understanding of how I already know the tea to taste; instead it resulted in a surprise: the brew tasted like a completely different category of tea. Has that ever happened to you? It was certainly a first for me.

The dry leaves are long and twisted, like desiccated tree trunks. There is an overtone of blue to the brown that gives them almost a mystical quality. A ton of maltiness, manifested largely as vanilla, dominates the aroma, and there is also a certain sweetness that is hard to place. Let's put it somewhere between molasses and caramel. The same exact notes in a white wine would indicate more oak than grapes. But of course, such concentration of notes is plainly expected with dry tea leaves.

The steeped tea is exceptionally light in color. If I didn't know any better, upon looking at the completed brew, I would say that the bag had just gone in there. The hue is somewhere between lemongrass and sea green, not especially out of line with the tinge on the dry leaves, and if the thinness of the color were not so distracting it would be really quite enjoyable to contemplate visually - in fact, I quite think it was anyway.

The aroma, notwithstanding the paleness, is very pungent. Plenty of maltiness, a little sweetness around the edge. As I asked my wife if she thinks the particular note is more like vanilla or molasses - in the very middle of my sentence - I realized that it is neither so much as chestnut. (With which thought my better half concurs.) This nuttiness is not pure nuttiness per se, but a curious result of maltiness, sweetness, and floral notes combined into one. Or is, perhaps, all nuttiness like that?

It is at this point that I realize that this is not a typical oolong. The snobbier subset of aficionadoes will scoff here. Outside the base and narrow paradigm of packaged nonsense that Americans eating Chinese take-out mistake for oolong tea, they sniff, there is no "typical" oolong so much as a wide and diverse spectrum of teas from across the Orient that happen to be treated similarly post-plucking. And it is not that these aficionadoes are wrong - they are quite correct - but is is still plainly possible to identify certain notes common to oolongs and easy to distinguish in a blind tasting an oolong tea from a green, black, or white.

And yet there I was, exploring a Bao Zhong from a batch that I had sampled many times in the past without having ever noticed the first discrepancy, and realizing that it came off very - eerily - similar to a green tea. A Hairpoint green is what was specifically brought straight to the front of my mind, there to remain indefinitely.

For a brew whose aroma is stuffed with maltiness and chestnuts, the liquid is rather thin. Tannins are there on the side of the mouth, but light. The flavor is delicate. I get grassiness. It is a wee bit acidic but in a mild, balanced way. Maybe it is a simple matter of me not being able to get this whole green tea thing out of my head, but I taste all of those Hairpoint notes, albeit without quite choking on them as one might with that green. All of this is a compliment to the Bao Zhong, by the way.

The finish is simple and wonderful: the notes fade a little, and I found myself licking my chops, enjoying the sweetness as it comes out deliciously on the edges of the mouth for one last hurrah before the next sip.

We may never know for sure, but I believe that if it was a blind tasting, I - and not for nothing, but I am not new at this - would not have guessed that the tea is oolong. Being wrong about something I ought to know? Happens to me more often than I care to admit. But having a tea taste so radically different just because I pay a little more attention than usual? That has never happened to me before. I must admit, I rather enjoyed learning anew how rewarding it can be to pay attention to what it is I drink. It was a great and humbling lesson.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Viña Ardanza 2004 Rioja Reserva

Producer: La Rioja Alta S.A.
Name: Viña Ardanza 2004 Reserva
Varietal: Tempranillo
Region: Rioja D.O.C., Spain
Vintage: 2004 Reserva
Tasted: February 18, 2015
ABV: 13.5%

It was August, 2007. A co-worker friend and I were sitting at a hotel bar in South Beach, Florida, after the first day of a trade show. We decided to relax over a bottle of wine, and he, knowing that I knew all sorts of things about libations and had a decent palate for them, asked me to choose the wine. But this was long before I had ever considered entering the wine world, and in fact, I was only a few months out of college, where whatever wine we drank was, let’s say, not quite fine. So, what my friend did not know, because I had cultivated a façade to the contrary, was that my wine knowledge was barely a step and a half above that of a casual guzzler, and that I was unfamiliar with every last producer on the hotel’s wine list.

I did, however, know what to expect from a good Rioja. There were a couple on the list, and I picked the one that said "Reserva" on it, to up the odds that it would be a good one. I was also sure to order it with a self-consciously confident trill in the Spanish language for the sake of my audience, you know, just to put a bow on how well versed I was in everything I was doing. (To give you an idea of how preposterous that was: among the bartender, my friend, and myself, I was the only non-native Spanish speaker, and we all knew it.)

Out came the wine, pop went the cork, and with a toast to health and life, my friend and I took a sip. It was outrageous. Starting out sublime, it just got better and better as the minutes and hours ticked away. As best as I can remember, tannins and fruit managed somehow to surround each other, and the herb notes, which were strong, brought balance and complexity to the whole thing. The wine was dark but not heavy at all, and the interaction of the notes, which were in constant (though not frenetic) motion relative to each other, just made the whole thing beyond belief.

I had always liked wine and I had always liked Rioja, but now I loved wine and loved Rioja. To this day Rioja remains my favorite type.

The wine in question was Viña Ardanza Reserva 2004. We were sure to write it down, but when we got back to New York neither of us could find it in any wine shop. A few months later I read somewhere that it had sold out. Sorely disappointed, I gave up the search, hoping perhaps to stumble across it again somewhere in the future, but not expecting to.

Fast-forward to the present day, minus two or three months. I am still no sommelier by any means, but I am a wine representative for Angels’ Share Wines, so I have been exposed to the best, and know my way around a wine conversation. The love of my life asks me if I will accompany her into a wine shop near her work and help her choose holiday gifts for her employers. In the shop, which was new to me as a consumer and outside my professional territory, I find a couple of wines from ASW’s book and recommend them to the lovely lady.

And then I see them. Two bottles of Viña Ardanza Reserva 2004 sitting on the shelf in the Spanish section. I must have spent twenty minutes staring at them, just to make sure they were in fact what I thought they were. The store charged me $35 each; as far as I am concerned, it should have charged a hundred times as much.

Those who know me must be so proud: I, the least patient and most goofily impulsive man on planet Earth, did not head straight home, fly through the door, rip out the cork on the fourth or fifth try, and pour the wine across countertop, glass, and floor. In fact, I did not even open them that evening or weekend. I put the bottles on my shelf and let them sit there for a few weeks until it was the right time to try them: a slow evening that I had all to myself, a full stomach, and the right mood to really sit back and feel out a wine.

I set the bottle on the table and looked at it. It was really cool to see my first wine love right in front of me. "This is what it’s all about," I thought. But what if it disappoints? That's the kind of negative thinking to which many aficionados – of anything, not just wine – fall victim when preparing to experience a personally meaningful find. It is also a thoroughly pointless type of concern. "Don't bother with expectations," I told myself. "Just dive on in and have fun with it." And so I did.

At a little over ten years of age, the Reserva is different, but no less sublime. The aroma shows it age beautifully. I won’t quite say that it does so gracefully at first – it is in a funky sort of age – but in a good way, as an older person who still has verve and energy and life. The notes are of typical Rioja herb and spice, principally cedar, very nicely expressed. These fruits, are they all awry? No, but they are old. Strawberry and plum, and oh, some vanilla! Oak, welcome! These aroma notes all come out evenly, well balanced, and sophisticated (or, at least, properly complex; maybe even impressively so). The oak, which can easily dominate a wine like this, does no such thing just yet.

The most striking thing about the palate is how light it is – I found it to be no heavier than a Pinot Noir. But the Tempranillo notes hold up, and together, perfectly. The fruits and oak are identical to the corresponding notes on the nose; the spice is similar, but more pungent, though without overwhelming anything else. The tannins and acidity are both moderate, and quite lovely. The tannins, in fact, play especially well with the fruit, and the other notes also get along quite nicely together. This whole is many times greater than the sum of its parts.

What a superb wine.

After breathing for twenty minutes, the Reserva’s nose mellows out a little, with the oak emerging as the dominant note. The fruits have not changed even an iota; the herb/spice, though, has nearly dissipated. The palate remains light as ever, with increased acidity, and unchanged or perhaps even diminished tannins. Oak prevails much as it does on the nose, but here it has teamed up with the herb/spice of cedar etcetera, while the fruits have become little more than an undercurrent. The specific notes have not changed, though the oak, being so augmented, has opened itself up to much more nuance than the simple sliver of vanilla that we had twenty minutes ago.

I cannot express strongly enough how insufficient the written word is to describe the sublimity of the Viña Ardanza 2004 Rioja Reserva. I can pile adjective upon adjective; I can blither on with aroma and tasting notes; I can depict the scene and create the mood to make everything come together; and so I have. Or I could have stuck with pith: “The ’04 has gotten light in its old age, showing tannins and acidity, and combining with artful sophistication fruits, herb, and an oak profile that starts small but comes to dominate after only a short while of aeration. Good show!”

None of it is good enough. With poor wine, describing the notes is pointless, unless as an exercise. With good wine, fleshing out the tasting notes becomes a ton of fun, and also a very useful tool in that people can distinguish it from similar wines and know what to expect if they pair it with food and/or occasion. But with wine at a higher plane, bothering with such words becomes pointless again: The wine has transcended so far past the sum of its parts that to focus on those parts actually distracts from accuracy and relevance. The only way to know what a wine like this tastes like is to actually taste it.

I have written this article because I love writing, especially about wine and other beverages; I have wanted to contribute again to The Nice Drinks In Life for a long time now; and as soon as I sipped the Ardanza I knew it would be too much to resist pouring my heart into a paean to it as a renewal of my activity on the site. But I would be wrong not to include this disclaimer, if you will. The wine is above the words about it. It is just better. Better than what? Yes. It makes me weep. I actually got choked up (and no, it did not go down the wrong pipe or anything).

Shortly after I had the first bottle, I took the second to my parents' house to drink with dinner. They are Rioja people, in that they typically drink whatever popular-label current vintage is on the store shelf. Don’t get me wrong; though I am a snob, I drink those Riojas, too. But I was concerned that this older, unknown (to them) Rioja would disappoint them, which would embarrass me a little. It is lighter than young Riojas by a lot; oakier after a short while; just different. Would they like it?

They loved it. My dad snapped a picture of it on his phone to show his friends. I heard about it for a week. Even my mom, somewhat less adventurous than others in her family, took a second glass. All listened as I told them the story from Miami in between sips, and then we took the occasion to recall a few Riojas that we drank together in Spain on a trip some years back.

That evening was everything that is special about wine, everything for which we wine lovers stand. Everything. So is the Viña Ardanza 2004 Rioja Reserva.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

An Adventure with Carmenère

Reading old reviews and articles about Carmenère – even some that are not so old, in fact – one sees hope that the grape will, as it is improved and perfected by Chilean growers and winemakers, graduate from blending grape to a stand-alone varietal in its own right. Such an outlook appears, in 2014, quaint and nostalgic, rather like reading a scouting report about a college athlete after he is already a veteran of the big leagues.

Carmenère today accounts for some 10% of Chilean wine production. That may not seem like much, especially if compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, which weighs in at over 40%. But compared to where it was just a little while ago, Carmenère is doing phenomenally; before 1997, it was not counted at all. Truly, Carmenère has come a long way in such a short amount of time.

In fact, the grape's recent ascendancy in Chile as a high quality varietal is just the latest leg of a much longer journey, begun in the plains of Bordeaux a couple hundred years ago. Carmenère was a minor celebrity in the Médoc as a blending grape. In the larger region it was, though not especially obscure, somewhat marginalized due to both the prominence of so many other grapes there and the difficulty of growing it properly. It requires more time than most varietals to ripen properly, and waiting for those extra days to get it just right opens up vulnerability to early frosts, which ruin everything. After phylloxera pulverized the region and the farmers more or less started over from scratch, they did not really bother with Carmenère again, even in the Médoc.

But right in the nick of time, just before the upheaval, some Carmenère vines found themselves aboard a ship headed for Chile. In that slice of the New World, some enthusiastic winemakers (and wine drinkers) were overseeing the creation of an Andean viniculture. French varietals of all sorts were brought over, planted, made into wine, tasted, refined, tasted again, refined again, and so on. It would be a long time until Chilean wine achieved the high quality that it has today, but Carmenère had found a new home in which it could safely await its moment to shine. Phylloxera never made its way to Chile, and the longer growing season there proved perfect for the varietal.

The story did not quite end there, however. There is a remarkable twist before the odyssey comes to an end. As Chilean wines became the focus of increasing attention in recent decades, concerns arose that certain vines producing what had been thought to be Sauvignon Blanc were in fact producing the inferior Sauvignon Vert. (The latter is also known as Sauvignonasse; the suffix –asse in French denotes a pejorative.) These concerns were confirmed by experts.

In the course of their investigations into the various Sauvignons, those same experts stumbled onto another item of confusion. They noticed that the leaves of many Merlot vines had an exceptionally pinkish hue compared to what is normal for the varietal. It was not long before the explanation presented itself: What makers (and, one can only assume, drinkers) of Chilean wine had always thought to be Merlot was in fact none other than our intrepid protagonist, Carmenère.

How such confusion came about is uncertain. Maybe some amateurs unloading the shipments from France back in the 1800s missed a label or something. But it really is remarkable how the mistake was not noticed much earlier. Carmenère takes a substantially longer time to ripen than Merlot, and in the glass tends to be a bit heavier, less fruity, and more floral than its erstwhile pretension.

But it is all too easy to jump to judgment about Chilean viniculture in the face of this snafu. Such luminaries in the wine world as Karen MacNeil, Jancis Robinson, and the late, great Frank Prial have all written about it without even raising an eyebrow as to the mix-up not being noticed sooner, and I think it is safe to say that they all know something – many things – that I do not.

Furthermore, this is not the only instance of Carmenère successfully masquerading as something else; the Old World has its own examples. We learn from Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine that in north-east Italy many vines of what was thought to be Cabernet Franc are in fact none other than our chameleonic friend. This is on the face of it no less egregious than the confusion with Merlot: yes, both Cabernet Franc and Carmenère started out jointly contributing to the prestige of the Médoc and larger Bordeaux; and yes, both share an etymological root (Cabernet Franc was once known as Carmenet in the Médoc; the root refers to the color carmine); but the real Cabernet Franc ripens somewhat early and is light, a bit less than medium bodied, and fruity while Carmenère ripens late and is dark, full-bodied, and herbaceous.

And yet, the experts pass no judgment. For that reason as well as more scriptural ones, neither shall I.

In any event the Chileans, or at least those whose Merlot was no such thing, found themselves in a real spot. Confirmation of their error came in 1994, right as a craze for Merlot was conspicuously burgeoning in the US (Chile's principle wine export market) and elsewhere, and as Chile's reputation in the wine world was set to grow. It was more than a small error: some estimates put the percentage of mistaken vines at 70% or more of the country's "Merlot". Initially there was a bit of a panic, including the human capacity for denial; authorities finally admitted the truth in 1997. And as late as 2001, Karen MacNeil and Frank Prial noted that many Chilean Merlots still contained a sizeable percentage of Carmenère.

But also by that time, a certain realization about the virtues of Carmenère came about. Cooler heads sat back and considered: If Chile’s reputation in the wine world has been growing in the past few decades, and if Carmenère has been a major part of Chilean production during this time, then is it not possible – likely, even – that there is much to be said for the varietal? It had a respectable history in one of the world's most venerated wine regions. The list of Chilean Merlots in which Carmenère was blended even after the public confession included the highest rated and most in demand. Clearly, this was no second-tier grape. Not to mention, the long Chilean growing season turned its late ripening from a liability into a perfect fit, and its abandonment elsewhere in the world gave it a uniqueness on which Chile could capitalize, a distinguishing factor with which the country could stand out.

Those cooler heads soon realized that what they had, far from a problem, was a golden opportunity. Their countrymen concurred. And Carmenère went almost overnight from unknown to denied to embraced.

So what exactly is this adventurous actor of ours? What does it taste like, what is its personality? What are we dealing with here? I tasted three Carmenères from different regions and of different ages.

Producer: Concha y Toro
Name: Casillero del Diablo Reserva
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Rapel Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2011
Tasted: March 26, 2014
ABV: 13.5%

The first of the three was a gift from my cousin for my birthday last summer, a 2011 Casillero del Diablo Reserva grown in the Rapel Valley. Seven months later, convinced that it was in bottle for exactly long enough, I opened it up, and indeed the age was perfect. The wine was a deep, dark purple, and a very fragrant one at that. In fact, it was pungent – in fact, it was more than pungent, much more. Having turned my back from the opened bottle for all of two seconds, I could smell it from across the room, without actually having poured any yet.

The aroma had light notes of citrus, vanilla, and leather. Very few reds were present. Perhaps I detected a note of deciduous fruit. On the palate, however, there were many reds out and about: strawberry, other berries, a hint of cherry. The aroma notes were also present in the mouth, and there was spice as well. These three facets of the wine's profile balanced each other out beautifully; it did a great job turning complex components into a single simplicity. The body was about average for a red with 13.5% ABV; it held the flavors well, and did not insert itself into play.

After aeration the aroma, without losing any of its earlier notes, picked up a great deal of reds. The palate lost much of the spice, gaining in its place a certain smoothness; the balance from earlier seemed to have recalibrated itself quite perfectly in light of this switch.

The 2011 Casillero del Diablo Reserva is, without question, an excellent Carmenère. It comes very highly recommended.

Producer: Viña Errázuriz
Name: Single Vineyard, Max Reserva Estates
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Aconcagua Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2009
Tasted: April 10, 2014
ABV: 14.5%

A couple of weeks later I had the 2009 Max Reserva Single Estate Carmenère from Viña Errázuriz, from the Aconcagua Valley. It, too, had a purple tinge, though being two years older than the Casillero del Diablo it was less dark. The aroma contained deep reds, principally strawberry and cherry, with a little bit of herby spice. Very minimal notes of vanilla and toffee rounded it out. The palate was spicy, full of red fruits, rhubarb, strawberry – it almost, in the strangest way, reminded me of a Chianti. The flavor was heavy, quite befitting a wine with 14.5% ABV, but the body was actually medium. And, I underlined in my notes, the flavors worked great together.

After aeration, the only difference was that the palate had acquired a bit of a lighter tone; nothing else changed at all.

The 2009 Max Reserva was another great example of how a Carmenère, composed of disparate tones and tasting notes, expertly fits them together into one, unified, harmonious experience.

Producer: Odfjell Vineyards
Name: Orzada
Varietal: Carmenère
Region: Maule Valley, Chile
Vintage: 2008
Tasted: April 16, 2014
ABV: 14%

Finally, a few days later, I sipped the 2008 Orzada Carmenère from Odfjell Vineyards in the Maule Valley. This wine looked brand new with deep, dark purple hues, but the nose and mouth could tell right away that it had been in bottle for a little while already. The aroma was of chocolate, vanilla, and leather, with floral musk. Not too many red fruits were present. The palate also lacked fruit, though it was bright, and mellow, with notes of toffee, chocolate, leather, coffee, and vanilla. Tannins were felt, and the wine was a tad heavy, though not too much. On the finish I detected strawberry – finally, a fruit!

After breathing for a while the Orzada’s aroma acquired some reds, lost the vanilla and florals, and mellowed out very pleasantly. The palate at this point had definitely become much more like the younger Carmenères; the rejuvenation was very clear. Red berries, strawberry, tannins joined a slight herby spice and the old notes of chocolate, leather, and florals, all together creating a harmonious whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

It is remarkable what a little aging in the bottle – and subsequent aeration – will do for a Carmenère. The breathing is more crucial as the wine sits in bottle for longer, but it suits the wine at any age, really. The herbs in the flavor give way to the fruits as it endures contact with the air, which only serves to illustrate the superb sophistication of the Carmenère. Its aptitude for uniting disparate elements – leather and strawberry?! – into harmony is really something special. For those who like to pair wine with food, just about any red meat will do, especially if grilled.

As I look back on those articles from a few short years ago, reading about all the high hopes that wine writers had for the varietal, I feel glad that Carmenère overcame the odds and achieved success in its own right. And indeed, those were not the easiest odds. Consider: it was a minor grape to begin with, overshadowed by giants in a land of giants; it was transported across the globe to a faraway land (even farther away before airplanes) where it was not clear that wine would ever have a place, while its remaining brethren were obliterated by phylloxera; it was completely and utterly forgotten about for almost a century and a half; and nearly the entire world’s first reaction upon its rediscovery was to recoil in unpleasant surprise. And in no time, it has risen to prominence and prestige, held highly by an entire country as a mark of distinction. Get your hands on some today to find out why. And enjoy.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Direct Trade & Fair Trade: Practices, Principles, & Possibilities

Coffee drinkers are not unique in harboring an interest in the provenance of their beverage. Tea drinkers will often have an origin of choice. Whiskey and beer drinkers usually prefer one place's tradition over others'. I'm sure I hardly need to describe how wine drinkers can be.

What set coffee drinkers apart in this context, however, are two things. The first is that it is not only connoisseurs of specialty coffee who care about where the beans come from. Many people who would not know a craft roast if it jolted them awake in the morning are sure to note their coffee's origin, and can usually tell a difference (which speaks volumes about the importance of terroir). The second is that it is not just where the coffee comes from that coffee drinkers care about, but also how it got to them from there. The particular origin is important for quality and taste, but most coffee drinkers are at least as concerned about the trade model that brought it from farm to cup, for the good reason that its import derives from ethics and sustainability, which are of course much more important in both the long and short terms.

At least on the surface (and we will see later on how the superficial scenario here is deceptive) there are two trade models competing for the hearts and minds of consumers, roasters, and farmers: direct trade and fair trade. Like most consumers, I thought I knew pretty well what the basic premise of each was, and took comfort in both taking the side of one of them and still feeling, shall we say, a tad sympathetic with the other. But also like most consumers, I misunderstood at least as much as I understood, and also remained ignorant of many important details, where (of course) the devil lies.

This article will discuss direct trade and fair trade with respect to coffee. The two models are of course relevant to scores of different products, but for the sake of simplicity, which is already conspicuously lacking with this topic, discussion will be limited to the coffee market. I will offer a conclusion with my own thoughts, but, while I certainly hope it proves itself worthy of consideration, that will not be nearly as important as the longer discussion preceding it, in which all aspects of direct trade and fair trade are more objectively explored. The goal here is to educate, illuminate, encourage thoughtfulness on the topic, and perhaps do a humble part towards making the world a better place. To that same end, thoughtful comments below are encouraged.

Once upon a time, the status quo was that coffee was traded on the exchanges as a fungible commodity. This is still true in large part today, especially with lower grade coffee. Growers sold the cherries to processors, who brought about the green coffee beans and sold to exporters, who sold via commodities exchanges to importers, who sold to roasters, whence finally the coffee made it to retail: cafes, restaurants, packaging companies (e.g. for supermarket shelves), and so on. There were variations on that model among some organizations, but most crucial elements were the same.

The farmers, farthest removed from consumption, were the poorest and least able to benefit from the trade. In some instances it was a case of a large estate employing coffee pickers for a pittance, and in others it was small plots of land being farmed by a local individual or family that was likely to lack, if not business savvy, then at least a familiarity with the global supply chain and consumer preferences, which knowledge could be leveraged to produce better coffee and increase income.

The processors and exporters (and estate owners where relevant) generally took advantage of the farmers' ignorance of the larger market. They also had a tendency to lump all coffee together and both buy it sell it by weight. These practices had the effect of removing nearly all incentive for the farmers to look towards coffee as a way to improve their lives, for them to risk entrepreneurship at the production end of the industry, and for them to invest in improving the quality of their product or in differentiating it – all of which in turn contributed towards keeping them at the margins of the global coffee industry, and so on in a rather unpleasant, if not entirely vicious, cycle.

"The main instigator of Fair Trade was the lack of incentives growers were getting to improve the quality and sustainability of their product as well as the transparency and ethical handling of fair prices for the products grown," says Evan Closson of Roast Coffee & Tea Trading Co., a Long Island sourcer and micro-roaster.

By the time that fair trade as we know it today came around in the 1980s, there had already existed for many years charitable and other organizations that sought to pay poor farmers a premium for coffee. But what was different, and what really allowed for fair trade and later direct trade to take off, was the growing demand for single-origin and craft-roasted coffee – the growing understanding among professionals and consumers that Coffea arabica is no more fungible than Vitis vinifera, that stories of people and place make coffee better, and that while the particular terroir of a coffee may make or break it, the odds of "making" it are greatly augmented with investments into improved agriculture. In this way, the specialty coffee market, with its emphasis on origin, is in large part responsible for the new models of trade that have made the world a better place for coffee growers.

"Both Fair Trade and direct trade were originally created to help famers deal more directly with buyers and retain more value in the supply chain," says Jenna Larson of Fair Trade USA (previously TransFair USA), a fair trade certifying organization. That is about as succinct a way to introduce the big picture as possible.

We will soon see that the dichotomy between direct trade and fair trade is in large part a fiction. But it does form the basis of many important decisions that are made in real life, so it makes the most sense to first treat each separately. Before parsing details and exceptions, I would like to present an idealized, simple, textbook analysis of each.

Fair Trade
"Fair Trade is a simple way to make every purchase matter," according to Fair Trade USA's media kit. "When you buy a product with the Fair Trade Certified™ label, you know that the farmers and workers who produced it were paid better prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and earn community development funds to empower and improve their communities."

"Fair Trade specifically means coffee or products that are Fair Trade Certified. In other words the entire supply chain has been verified as Fair Trade from crop to cup," explains Mr. Closson. "We are a Fair Trade USA Certified roaster. This requires reporting our Fair Trade coffee supply chains to the Fair Trade USA organization a few times throughout the year."

Rodney North of Equal Exchange, a fair trade worker cooperative, rounds out the picture from the institutional angle: "Fair trade is a voluntary set of business practices designed to shift more of the rewards and the security of trade to historically disadvantaged producers." It also serves to "shift more of the risk up the chain to the historically advantaged coffee importers, roasters, distributors, and so on."

At its core, fair trade is a certification system ensuring the livelihood of the farmers and their communities. As long as both farmers and consumers are content with the certification criteria, all stakeholders stand to benefit. Farmers can be assured that their coffee will fetch at the very least a floor price and usually more; distributors and roasters can use the fair trade label as a sort of marketing tool; and consumers can rest easy knowing that they are contributing not to penury but to prosperity in the third world.

Dan Streetman of Irving Farm, a coffee sourcer and craft roaster in New York, explains that with fair trade the farmer is paid a "minimum price and 'premium' (allocated monetary value) for the product in exchange for the auditing process conducted by the Fair Trade labeling organization, the license to use the 'Fair Trade Certified' trademark, and a 'social premium' which is allocated for specific purposes at the producer level." FairTrade USA's media kit identifies just a few areas in which these premiums are typically invested: "Healthcare, scholarships, women's leadership initiatives, micro-finance programs, quality control and organic conversion."

Ms. Larson identifies four "important elements" of fair trade: "standards" ("social, environmental and economic… audited by independent third-party auditors"), "premiums" (which "go into a separate fund, managed and used by the farmers and/or workers themselves"), "price protection" (a "safety net" protecting against market price fluctuations), and "democracy". Similarly, Florentine Meinshausen of Fair for Life, a European fair trade certifying organization, notes "the basic pillars of Fair Trade: fair production methods, long term cooperation between producers and handlers, commitment to support and work with suppliers as well as fair pricing." Ms. Meinshausen adds that Fair for Life fair trade "assur[es] physical traceability from producers to the final product."

Another key element of fair trade, especially in the early days but even still today, is its emphasis on moving away from the plantation model in which the owner can take advantage of employee laborers, in favor of the small farmer model. Mr. Streetman explains, "The historical model of Fair Trade… was a move to push the market towards groups of small-holder farms… versus the large mostly vertically integrated estate style producers." Ms. Larson's focus on "democracy" (described as "organization and participation among the farmers/workers") is also a part of this facet of fair trade. Movement away from plantations is one of the principle reasons that most fair trade certifiers give preference to co-ops, so that small landholder farmers – analogous to the small businessperson of the USA, but generally without the advantages of available capital or reliable rule of law – may have an inclusive, local, and democratic institution. To his earlier mention of "historically disadvantaged producers," Mr. North appended: "…specifically small farmer cooperatives." (More on co-ops later.)

Not everyone's explanation of fair trade uses the same specific language, but the gist of each is the same. Farmers are protected economically, given access not only to markets but in fact to a transparent supply chain, and offered incentive to improve their communities socially and, often, ecologically.

Direct Trade
Many of these aims are shared by direct trade. But the model itself differs somewhat. "Direct Trade emerged due to the perception of many coffee roasters that Fair Trade was not fulfilling its mission sufficiently," says Mr. Closson. "The result was direct relationships between roasters and growers that focused on quality, sustainability and mutually beneficial business partnerships."

Marc Chiusano of The Gentle Brew, a Long Island, NY, craft coffee roaster embarking upon direct trade relationships, puts it nicely and simply: "In direct trade, the buyer or roaster goes to the farm and buys directly from there. No middlemen."

"These programs generally involve price transparency at each step in the chain, and can involve multi-year outright contracts," adds Mr. Streetman. "This means that the producer of the coffee and the roaster agree on the price of the coffee at the farm gate." While the roaster is usually responsible for such items as "transport, logistics, taxes, storage" and the like, it may hire a third party to handle such things. This is to be distinguished from the inclusion of an importer in the chain: A traditional importer actually possesses ownership of the coffee for some time and adds his own markup, while a third party in direct trade is hired by the roaster, operates under its direction, and is simply paid a fee for a service (storage, shipping, etc.).

The implication is clear: the farmer gains access to the broader market not through layers of certifications but rather through dealing directly with the other end of the chain and negotiating his own price, in person. "Most (if not all) 'direct trade' roasters believe in paying a 'fair' price for the coffee," explains Mr. Streetman, "and the underpinning principle of mutual price agreement certainly gives the producer a voice in that conversation." Ms. Larson would seem to agree: "Direct trade… focuses primarily on paying top dollar for the highest quality coffee." Mr. North sums up, "[Direct trade] is, ideally, the coffee roasters directly buying their green beans from small scale producers in ways that are economically advantageous to the producers, above and beyond what they would get in a regular commodity market."

Further, deeper benefits abound as well. The roaster can specify a variety of requirements (bean quality, certifications such as organic, etc.), and can gain access through the relationship to microlots early on. The farmer can charge higher prices for all of these premium benefits, and both organizations can make money due to the absence of middlemen. The consumer, furthermore, has the best chance (in fairness, by no means the only chance) of finding the highest quality coffees from direct traders, who can be particular about what beans and lots to purchase. The consumer also has access to the most intimate information about each bean, lot, farm, and community from the direct trade model, whereas such access varies with other models.

"For Direct Trade the benefits are the relationships that are cultivated with growers," Mr. Closson opines. "Our mission is to educate our customers about the world of coffee and the best way to do that is to know every last detail about a particular coffee. Having a direct trade relationship with a grower allows for this."

A further important item of direct trade is sustainability. It is all well and good for a farmer to do premium business, but as any businessperson will confirm, it is much more preferable in high-risk environments to have a steady source of price floor security (e.g. of the fair trade style) over many years than to net a whale one year and be left adrift the rest of the time. Indeed, a review of the principles of fair trade above reveals that sustainability is of implicit importance to all of them. But direct trade provides for that, too, in that long-term business relationships benefit both parties.

Direct trade roasters visit farms at least once a year. More than simply shopping around for beans, signing an order, and leaving, the roasters learn detailed information about each lot, offer insight as to how the crop may be improved, and often invest financially in enhancing the agriculture for the sake of growing better coffee. They also ensure return on the investment by signing multi-year contracts with the growers for specific lots of coffee, at the aforementioned mutually-agreeable prices. It is a joining of forces between roaster and farmer, and everybody wins.

Mr. Chiusano and some Gentle Brew co-workers recently visited the Cerro San Luís farm in Costa Rica, and their experience there exemplifies the potential contained in direct trade.

"When we landed in Costa Rica we were taken straight to the farm," recounts Mr. Chiusano. "On the farm we spent a lot of time just learning how they do everything: picking coffee, identifying different beans, processing, washing and drying, and so on.

"The main things we were looking for," Mr. Chiusano continues, "were operations and processes, how they care for the product." To that end, the Gentle Brew team observed the sorting, did cupping, and so on. But there were other considerations, too, lending themselves to the sort of sustainable relationship that is ultimately what really lets roasters and farmers connect with one another. "Can the farm grow? What are its future plans? We are looking to create a long-term bond. You don't do direct trade just for a one-off deal."

Cerro San Luís is a family business, run by its third consecutive generation of farmers. "The current generation has only been at the helm for three or four years now," says Mr. Chiusano, "and they are really positioned to explode, much like the Gentle Brew is on our own end. The current generation, they've been really pushing hard to increase standards. Also too, they have been experimenting with all different varietals of coffee, so you have in addition to the usual sorts of coffees found in Costa Rica, other types that they are hoping will give their farm an edge. It’s a gamble," he continues, "but you know, it’s worth the shot." Especially if you have a partner organization working with you.

It is more difficult, outside of direct trade – in a model in which the farmer is much more anonymous and has minimal access to feedback from the other end of the chain – for such innovation to flourish. Direct trade hardly brings any promises of results, of course. But it most solidly offers the farmer a legitimate opportunity to shape his own destiny.

The anonymity of non-direct trade models is also an irritant to many roasters and consumers on the other end of the chain. Consumers, especially craft coffee connoisseurs, relish the opportunity to engage intimately the land and people whence their coffee originates. Roasters, then, enjoy bringing to their customers a first-hand account of such communities. They also prefer to observe for themselves the quality processes of the farms and perhaps even directly influence the nature of that quality. Direct trade is the best way for them to become intimate with how things are done.

Even gaining intimacy with the "why" of things makes a big difference. Let's look at a hypothetical. Cerro San Luís employs a honey process, which is semi-dry. The Gentle Brew learned on its trip that this is to conserve water. It just so happens also to result in coffee of optimal quality. But if, hypothetically, another processing method were preferable, then Gentle Brew could have worked with the farm to invest in and develop a program to either augment the farm's irrigation, or conserve water elsewhere on the farm, or otherwise adjust the farm's infrastructure to allow for optimal processing. Cerro San Luís would be given both incentive and means to augment quality, and Gentle Brew would be given access, probably exclusive, to such high quality product. Such cooperation generally includes a contract whereby the roaster agrees to purchase a whole lot's harvest at a specified price each year for a number of years, as long as the farmer engages in the agreed enhanced agricultural practices. The details of numbers and practices would be specified in print. Both sides would be bound to the contract – and both would stand to greatly benefit accordingly, with the long-term nature of the relationship and investment adding a great deal of security to both sides.

The odds of such arrangements taking place successfully in the face of multiple layers separating all the steps of the supply chain are, obviously, substantially diminished, regardless of any certifications adhered to them.

The relationships, furthermore, once established, have the opportunity to grow beyond a unidirectional supply route in a direct trade model. When I asked Mr. Chiusano why he thinks Cerro San Luís wants to engage in direct trade in the first place, he said that money may well be the principle concern, but that there is much more to it than that, consistent with the principles of growth and cooperation. "We didn't even know this until we got there," he explained, "but they also want to get into roasting themselves, and maybe even open a café." The Cerro San Luís team has a small home roaster on their premises, and everyone experimented together with some roasting of the beans. The Gentle Brew team worked with the beans from the farm itself, and offered pointers to their hosts on the craft. That had the obvious benefit of confirming the roast potential of the varietals on the farm, but it also offers a means for the relationship to grow closer and more reciprocal. The farmers have a standing invitation to visit the Gentle Brew on Long Island and do a roasting workshop for a few days.

Cerro San Luís, should it decide to open a roastery in its community, now has cheap and easy access to real expertise. So, if it vertically integrates that way, it is looking at an enhanced chance of success, which would open the doors to growth, prosperity, and security for the organization, as well as insight into what sorts of experiences and challenges exist for the roasters on the other end of the chain. That knowledge may be used to improve the choices they make in varietals to plant, farming practices, and processing methods, again furthering their ability to grow, prosper, and sustain their business.

At this point we may feel ready to reduce the question to a few basic points. Is it not just a complex way to pit certified good ethics against determination for high quality? The answer is no, but in any event we have much more to explore before we can fully understand the legs on which each model stands. There is no better place to continue from this point than the co-ops, about which alone entire volumes could be written.

Mr. North describes how he and Equal Exchange believe the co-op to be nothing less than the "lynchpin for enabling these small-scale producers to get ahead," whereby the prosperity of a coffee farming community cannot be tied to the success of individual farmers but must be predicated upon the shared success of all. He offers as an analogy: "You have some run-down, or sort of downtrodden neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. And, like in a reality TV show, somebody comes in and takes somebody's little house and does a total make-over. And so someone could say, well, yeah, that homeowner's doing great. But it's done nothing for the neighborhood. And in fact, it can breed tensions, where it's like, well wait a minute, how come Joe, my neighbor, he got a big house and he's not really that much more deserving than I am?"

The large coffee estates, or plantations, historically the typical coffee farm model, have always been sources of woe to the laborers who work them. These organizations exist in places where worker protections and the rule of law have rarely been worth the paper on which they are written – or rarely even written down in the first place, for that matter. Laborers are just as often cheated, swindled, abused, and otherwise taken advantage of as they are treated honestly. And "treated honestly" only means "paid what they expect," which is of course extremely little, rarely more than enough to keep a family from starving.

The tragedy here – outside of outright theft and abuse (the severe extent and frequency of which must not be underestimated) – is not the owner's greed; there is no sin in profit. It is rather the bastardization of the profession of coffee farming. Even today in many parts of the world, it is possible to belittle someone as being "just" a coffee farmer, but not to make a similar remark in admiration. If working the land and growing coffee is likely to result in wretched penury and social marginalization, and even in the best case scenario can only result in modest survival one year at a time without any hope of ownership or even recognition, then nobody is going to invest in learning how to do it well, let alone hone it into a craft.

The alternative has been individual coffee farmers owning a small plot of land and working it themselves or perhaps with the help of family or a few hired partners, building their equity through expertise and quality product. But how can a small landholder in a third world country selling a (most often) once-a-year crop be secure in his business? He must obtain credit, form relationships, negotiate contracts, weather market cycles, protect against natural and unnatural disasters, decide on investments, get certifications, be trained in best practices and stay current as they evolve, perhaps hire associates, and so on, all while competing against a large plantation down the road. All else being equal, this is rarely possible – but when a number of small farms band together to cooperatively pool their resources, they can share in increased scale, lowering costs of shared activities and augmenting their bargaining power.

Farm cooperatives, or co-ops, take many different forms, in that by their very nature they are democratic organizations in tune with local culture, norms, and conditions; and different parts of the world are home to wildly different cultures, norms, and conditions. What they have in common are the basic collective business activities, and the community orientation.

Co-ops "are primarily a method for selling coffee, and distributing earnings," explains Mr. Streetman. "Most of the time, the co-op is buying the cherry from the co-op members, and then overseeing the washing, and drying of the coffee. Usually this is important because each producer is too small to process their own coffee, or they do not have the capital to buy the equipment necessary."

Plantation owners, and others aligned with them, have not taken the threat posed by the co-ops sitting down. Many times co-op coffee is slandered as being of unreliable quality. Sometimes they are intimidated politically or physically, or both. Sometimes the old guard gets crafty.

"We see these examples time and again where the people who historically had been buying up all the coffee in a community, and buying it cheap, begin to see that they're losing market share to the co-ops, because now the small farmers are in business for themselves," tells Mr. North. "They will go into a community one year, and they'll just pay top dollar for everything – for the best coffee, for the worst coffee, and for everything in between. The idea is just to suck up all the coffee, there's nothing to sell to the co-op. The co-op is a business, it has fixed costs, salaries, mortgages… and what happens to the co-op? It has no coffee to process and export. It can't fulfill its contracts and goes bankrupt. It's gone. Next year, we're back to where we were twenty years before, and once again the small farmers are going to get squeezed."

But the co-ops have persevered. They are popular with many coffee farming communities, and also with many coffee consuming communities. Many co-op farmers have also wised up and voted for protectionist measures, such as requiring member farms to sell at least a certain percent of their crop through the co-op each year.

Ultimately, the co-op model has really done a lot to save the independent farmer from oblivion. Accordingly, fair trade organizations have typically focused principally, even exclusively, on working with co-ops, as mentioned earlier. A co-op that wants the fair trade prices and premiums must be audited and approved by a certifying body to make sure that the money is properly distributed to the farmers, community funds, and the like. Mr. Streetman mentions that "since they are democratic, the members in the co-op vote… for example on how to spend the 'social premiums' from Fair Trade, and it could be spent on anything from a school, or doctor's office, to a road… soccer fields, libraries are popular as well."

But even co-ops have their limits, and their pitfalls. Many are legitimate concerns, although some are urban legends, probably vestiges of slander. The most common complaint heard among roasters and consumers, which is important to address because it arises seemingly everywhere, is that co-ops mix all of their farmers' coffee together and sell it practically as a fungible commodity. Fair traders and other co-op defenders insist that this is completely false. The truth on this count does not so much lie in the middle as depend on the co-op. "There’s hundreds and hundreds of cooperatives around the world, and they don't all abide by the same practices," explains Mr. North, "but more and more they are segregating their coffee just like plantations do." Many co-ops divide the coffee by varietal, by growth elevation, by certification, by producer, sometimes even by micro-lot, and weigh some or all profit disbursement accordingly. Indeed, there are also many co-ops that quite disregard the individuality of member farms, and prefer to simply mix all the coffee together. It depends on the co-op's rules, just as a farm's quality depends on the individual farmer's practices.

Other issues abound as well, some real and some imagined, but I will not dwell on them here. It is extremely easy to get distracted from a comparison of direct trade and fair trade with a discussion of the co-ops, but it does not behoove this article to digress any further. What is important to remember about co-op downsides are two key points.

The first is that a co-op's policy is generally the result of democratic voting among the member farmers. Whatever its practices may be, they reflect how the majority of members themselves see best, or at least safest, to arrange their organization. Roasters and consumers in the developed world may look at a co-op and think of a million ways that the farmers could do better business, and maybe even a few such ideas would make sense. But the farms and communities are their own, and so are the rules. It is no longer an ethical issue.

The second is a series of questions, none of which can be answered categorically; just a collective grain of salt that I offer up for the sake of level-headedness. What if Mr. North, et al., protest too much? What if the picture is not so cut and dry everywhere? What if, indeed, at least in some cases, we infantilize and romanticize the farmers, indulging our "save the world" instincts at the expense of realism? No doubt, for the majority of small farmers in the third-world, the co-op has been nothing less than a life-saving institution over the past few decades. But is it such an absolute rule of thumb that the story we have heard is necessarily always how it goes and always how it will go? Could it be that, whatever the origin of the co-op's popularity in farming communities, we can ascribe a large part of its remaining popularity to the simple fact that that is where fair traders typically channel their premiums? Could it be that the co-op is not the only choice for coffee farmers to build a decent life for themselves and their communities? Could it be that at least in some communities, and at least in some cultures, the co-op is at best a historical stop along the way to independent wealth (of the honest kind) for coffee farmers and their communities? With the continuing evolution and innovation of trade models, do co-ops not face very legitimate competition for the hearts and minds of small farmers? And what if the analogy about the South Side slums fails to do justice not only to the value of a coffee’s quality but also to all that is put into creating it, and to those who would like not just to get more but in fact to honestly earn more?

How Co-ops Fit with Direct Trade & Fair Trade
For the longest time, fair trade certifiers would only certify coffee sold through co-ops. And the logic was as reasonable as it was obvious: co-ops were the only reliable, consistent way for the goals of fair trade to be realized. Build a better life for the farmers; move away from the plantation model; allow people, families, and communities to flourish; remove economic barriers to environmental protection; and make these improvements sustainable. Looking at the macro picture of a few decades ago, it was clear enough that a premium here and there for a lucky handful of planters was not going to get the job done. The fair traders found a solid ally in the co-op model, and stuck by it.

But controversy quietly ensued over whether there is a non-sequitur in there somewhere. The co-ops were (are) means to a larger end. By exclusively institutionalizing one particular mean, some argued, the fair trade system would ultimately constrain those whose best chance to reach the common goals lie elsewhere. In other words, few people were outright hostile to the co-ops, but many remained unconvinced that they alone held the key to salvation.

Still, co-op defenders continued to implore that we beware the results that may come from loosening co-op ties; that what seems like an innocuous, even promising open-mindedness may in the end spell the undoing of the co-ops and all of the progress that they have heralded.

In 2011, Fair Trade USA, the predominant American fair trade certifier, parted ways with its erstwhile associate, Fairtrade International, the major global fair trade certifier headquartered in Germany. The reasons for this were various and manifold, but of particular interest here is that, post-schism, Fair Trade USA began to certify not only co-op products, but estate products and non-co-op small farmer products as well – all along the same standards and guidelines.

This is not to say that the co-ops have been eschewed or marginalized; quite the contrary. Co-op connections have been maintained, and are in fact encouraged through a number of programs. However, plantation owners now have material incentive to improve their treatment of workers, and small farmers who do not wish to abide by the majority rule of their local co-ops are not forced out to a cold isolation. Anybody may partake of the promise afforded by fair trade principles, and co-ops must compete harder for both members and customers. And, it is only fair to note, Fair Trade USA's business has expanded quite concurrently with its scope.

It remains to be seen how this will affect the various stakeholders and institutions in the long run.

As for direct trade, it is unclear how it ties into the co-ops, for the simple reason that there is disagreement over whether a roaster going "directly" to the co-op even counts as direct trade. Direct trade purists believe that only going to the actual farm can count. They point out that cutting out all middlemen, literally landing straight at the source and working only with exactly those people who grow the coffee, is the supreme way to ensure quality, oversee investments and innovations, form close and long-lasting relationships, and properly allocate rewards. Co-ops may be good when there are a few layers of the value chain separating everyone, but, according to the purists, they are no more than obstructions in the direct trade model. There is nothing they can offer that the roaster and farmer together cannot offer better, and in any event, a middling layer is added. To involve the co-ops, the purists declare, can be called anything we want, but it cannot be called direct trade.

Others disagree. There may be situations in which contracting directly with a farmer makes sense, they counter, but there are also situations in which the farmer has a vested interest in thriving communally via his local co-op. These non-purists identify situations in which the roaster heads to a farm, bonds with the farmer both personally and professionally, reviews his practices, identifies a winning lot… and then performs the actual purchase through the co-op, which guarantees precisely the lot desired. Any investments into the farm's own infrastructure may be made either around the co-op or through it; in the latter situation, the co-op guarantees the intended improvement to the farm's production. What, the non-purists ask, is so wrong with all of that? Just which of the benefits that the farmer, roaster, and consumer expect from direct trade, they would like to know, are compromised?

As it happens, some direct trade roasters deal only with farms, others only with co-ops, and still others with both. It generally depends on the roaster's convictions, options, and goals for the venture.

We have begun to see that neither direct trade nor fair trade is a monolith; indeed, each takes a variety of forms not only on paper but also in practice. Some of these manifestations perform the vital function of allowing us to observe different ideas in action and learn from all that ensues; others, unfortunately, allow us to observe nothing but bunk.

Fair Trade
What does it mean to buy fair trade coffee? Well, ostensibly, the consumer approaches a café counter or grocery shelf; sees a fair trade label on a coffee; understands that all sorts of institutional processes, audited by good authority, have been in place along the production chain to protect the most vulnerable, pay the most to the neediest, and safeguard the environment; and based on that understanding, chooses the fair trade coffee. (Presuming, of course, that the consumer is not a schmuck.)

But wait! We have not yet begun to understand. You see, with direct trade, my more astute readers will have surely noticed, there is no certification or other third party assurance of legitimacy. More on that later; for now, suffice it to note that consumers, when confronted with direct trade coffee, are naturally curious, perhaps even suspicious. Knowing that they are being given an unverifiable story, they begin to scrutinize facts. But quite the contrary with fair trade. With the vague knowledge that fair trade is supposed to imply some sort of audit process, consumers, in the face of the fair trade logo, actually let their guard down, and become vulnerable to deception. There are, in fact, many questions to be asked upon encountering a fair trade logo.

First question: Who certified the coffee as fair trade? What are their standards and guidelines? Did the same organization travel and do the auditing, or was that outsourced, and to whom? In other words, what, exactly, is the certification certifying? Things to look for include the guidelines for what kinds of places their coffees may come from (not to mention what kind of place the coffee in front of you actually came from), how the workers may and may not be treated, how the audit process works, and under what framework the organization oversees everything.

Second question: Money. What are the prices being paid for the coffee? Some fair trade organizations institute one floor price and one premium for an entire geographic region or even for the whole world; depending on the amount, it may suffice just fine, or it may only make sense for a couple of places. And, of course, when it comes to money, it is not only the certifier to be scrutinized, but every buyer along the chain.

What counts is to not assume that "fair trade price" necessarily equals "enough". It does most often, to be sure, but a little investigation is worthwhile. That is more true nowadays that it used to be, because in recent years major retailers (e.g. Starbucks, Walmart) have begun marketing fair trade products. That says a lot of wonderful things about the average American consumer, but at the same time we must be wary of the effects. Some such retailers use their bargaining power against both their suppliers and some certifying organizations to reduce the price that they pay. That is not to claim that large retailers always pay less than a price that will work for the fair trade system; that would be a categorically false and unfair statement, and in any event, if a contract is signed, it usually means that everyone is willing to accept the terms. But still, the consumer's guard should be up.

Just as importantly, of course, we must ask: How is the money distributed down the chain to the co-ops, to the farms and farmers, to their employees, to their communities, to the environment, and so on? It is the age-old question: Cui bono? The details count more here than anywhere else.

And when it comes to money, there is more still. "A big part of it is not just how much you pay but when you pay," Mr. North tells us. "And that's one of the things that drives us up the wall is this fixation just on 'what price did you pay?'" He explains: "As you can imagine, with coffee producers… generally you get one harvest a year… which means one paycheck a year. And that makes it really hard to do the budgeting, especially if you are the cooperative and all your farmers are more or less bringing their coffee in at the same time. Where do you get all the cash to pay them?"

Indeed, the farms' and co-ops' accounts payable encompass substantially more expenses and debts than only people's paychecks. The bills pile up. That is why some organizations (including Mr. North's Equal Exchange) offer credit, or other forms of monetary commitment, in advance of harvest time. Here I asked how local roasters and other small businesses, who are fair traders but hardly sitting on piles of disposable cash themselves, can be held to such a standard. Mr. North sympathized, and then told of a few small roasters who themselves formed a buying cooperative. With their resources so pooled, those small roasters were able to fulfill this facet of the fair trade promise.

Such extraordinary criteria may not reasonably make or break a purchase decision about a cup of coffee; or perhaps they may. But in any event, they are certainly worth asking about.

Question three: When was the coffee certified? That is not to ask on what date, but rather, at what point in the value chain it was certified. People take for granted that the certification process is a step ahead of things, and usually it is, but not always. Mr. North sheds light on a particular maneuver that would probably surprise most fair trade consumers: "There is a practice in fair trade where Company X needs beans, they go to the broker, and the broker goes, 'Well, I've got this coffee from Co-op Q. I didn't buy it on fair trade terms, but we can retroactively get it certified.' So big Company X has not made these commitments in advance, but they need a few more containers that have to have the right certification. So then the importer says, 'Well, I will do the paperwork, and I will pass more money down the chain back to Co-op Q.' Bingo! Now, regular coffee has become fair trade coffee. So it's true that now the co-op got more money than it would have. But it's not just about the money. It's about these long-term relationships where the co-ops can make plans."

Most people, including many fair trade advocates, may wonder why they should get worked up about a co-op getting what seems a whole lot like a bonus. They expected to sell standard coffee, they got their money for it, and the next day they find out that extra money is coming their way because a retailer or roaster in the US wants to put a fair trade sticker on it when they sell it. And indeed, this may be among the least problematic quirks of the fair trade system.

It is certainly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, no doubt. But it must be repeated: They money is not the point. Money is a means to an end, and that end necessarily includes a sustainability and prosperity in business and community. If it had known ahead of time about those extra containers of coffee being fair trade, the co-op may well have made radically different decisions about how many people to hire, how much to pay them, how much to tell the farmers and their families to expect in compensation, and so on. That, in turn, would have affected not only household spending decisions across an entire community, but also large-scale investment decisions about farm equipment and irrigation, community institutions, environmental work, etc.

It is not, in other words, like leaving a diner and then returning to tip your waitress a little more after you get back to your car and reconsider her service. Entire communities, usually with comparatively small and fragile economies hinging on a once-a-year crop, rely very heavily on financial foresight and planning. Fair trade's mission is to support and aid them in that, not pop in with a surprise handout.

"If people later, sort of 'just-in-time' – and this is a bad application of 'just-in-time' management – if they 'just-in-time' get their coffee fair trade certified," sums up Mr. North, "it's not doing anything for the stability or the predictability that the co-op needs."

If the above discussion looked a lot like direct trade talk, then do not be alarmed; it was not a mistake. What you just read was indeed a description of fair trade that emphasizes the importance of cooperation, connections, sensitivity to the needs of other players in the value chain, and holistic relationships among all such organizations. There are many businesses and consumers who see fair trade as an expensive marketing device; as a price tag and a logo sticker. But we are beginning to see that the spirit, the true essence, of fair trade goes profoundly deeper than that.

Also critical to take away from it all is that, while fair trade may reflect some of the best intentions that human nature has to offer, the logo's presence in a retail situation is, in and of itself, nothing more than a "supposed to". Logos do not create reality. People do. And people are… people. The certifying organizations do a great job of staying on top of things and keeping everything legitimate and transparent, but sometimes something slips through the cracks. It happens. So when buying fair trade, hope for the best, which so far remains a likely enough scenario – but be ready to ask questions anyway.

Direct Trade
If you think that fair trade has many different forms, wait until you consider direct trade. Talk about people being people! "Because there is no entity governing the use of the term 'Direct Trade' there is no guarantee of what is meant by that," explains Mr. Streetman. We already saw one way in which direct trade takes on different forms vis-à-vis the co-ops. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are nearly as many iterations of direct trade as there are practitioners of it. We can divide them (very roughly) into three categories.

First, there are the honest practitioners of direct trade. Details will always differ, but the principles will not: regular travel to farm; elimination of middlemen; close, reciprocal, and long-term relationships; bilateral planning and communication; mutually beneficial arrangements, including price, terms, investments, and more; and high quality coffee. Key concerns for all players include entrepreneurship, sustainability, quality, distinction, and cooperation.

Then there is opportunistic direct trade. There are different degrees of this, but the story usually follows the same format: A roaster heads down to a farm, looks at how pretty the fields are and how cool the equipment is, snaps a photo for his customers to see, maybe cuts a check for a few bags of coffee, and heads out before lunch, no more likely to return than to forget the name of the farm before he even gets to the airport. Obviously, this is not exactly evil, but it really misses the point in a way reminiscent of the retroactive fair trade certification. A fair trade purchase would have in fact been better in this scenario, so that the farmer could be better protected from the aloofness and caprice of the roaster, and income could be more stable and sustainable. Of course, then the roaster would not get to take a totally awesome trip to a coffee farm.

Finally, there are your hucksters – those who, though they sell "direct trade" labeled coffee, cannot honestly claim to have ever visited their local petting zoo, much less a third-world coffee farm. This is rare, thank goodness, but it does happen. I have verified the story about one coffee roaster (who shall remain nameless) who boasts on his/her website all about his/her direct trade travels and credentials – but, in the picture accompanying the narrative, the featured sack of coffee has the importer's name clearly printed on it. Whoops!

So, this must surely raise some concerns. You walk into your local coffee shop, see a picture on the wall of the owner shaking hands with a farmer somewhere exotic-ish, and note that the coffee is labeled "direct trade". How do you know if it is legitimate or not?

You don't.

Except that you do, or at least you can. The obligations imposed on the consumer in either of these trade models are rather minimal, but they play an important role. Because really, in either case, but especially in direct trade, the consumer is asked one simple question: Do you trust the people who provide you your coffee?

Do you trust them? Do you know them well enough to know that, whatever trade model they employ, they are honest, competent people seeking in earnest to make a positive difference in the world? If so, then go forth and patronize; if not, then what are you doing there?

Formal research into the roaster or retailer may shed some light onto its reputation, but there is a much better way to learn whether to trust them: get to know them. There's a crazy idea! But it is the best one. Let's review some of the principles that we have come to know and love: connection, relationships, communication, two-way streets. The consumer who would exempt himself from these principles has no business evaluating the adherence of others on the value chain.

And make no mistake: the consumer is not only a principle player on the chain, but is ultimately responsible for its existence.

Really, it is not such a burden as it may sound. Getting to know the people in your local coffee shop is no different than becoming chummy with the proprietor of your local watering hole, being familiar with the gentleman running the hardware store you frequent, getting buddy-buddy with the guys at the gym, or what have you.

For example, on Long Island, the community of craft roasters is burgeoning, passionate, and highly talented; but still small. There is exactly one in my town of Long Beach, and the town is lucky to have one. It is not just that I am on a first-name basis with the folks who run the Gentle Brew, kibitzing with them regularly. It is everything I have picked up on in general: the extent (and type) of locals on a first-name basis with them; the way they treat strangers; the no-charges when out of a customer's first choice; the popping out of the back with a new muffin recipe fresh from the oven for customers to try; the participation in local events around Long Island; and a million more tiny facets of the nature of their relationships, both informal and professional. Co-founder Bryan Baquet was a philosophy major in college; his father told me, while tending the shop for Bryan during the Costa Rica trip, that his passion for such studies is what led to the name of their first proprietary blend, "Proletariat". After Super Storm Sandy in 2012, while Long Beach lay completely demolished, unmetaphorically awash in debris, despair, and utter ruin, most of those stores left standing were empty for weeks while the workers looked after their personal business and the owners argued with insurance companies. But the Gentle Brew, having been a part of the community for only three months at that point, gathered a generator and a propane tank, and opened its doors after only a few days – just to convert the entire place into a food and clothing drive, and to offer cups of hot coffee for a dollar.

So when the Gentle Brew excitedly announces that it is dedicated to a positive, sustainable relationship with the farm they visited in Costa Rica, I have no problem believing them. It is not about doing a personal audit of their financials and investigating their travel itinerary; I could do that, but it would be beside the point. I know them, just as they are embarking on a path to know their partner on the farm. Direct trade is about that kind of knowing: engagement, familiarity, unity, community, even a type of intimacy and affection.

There is one last iteration of direct trade that needs to be mentioned here, and that is the direct trade importer. You read that correctly. Direct trade, done by an importer. A middleman-less model operated by a middleman. How can this be? Surely it must be bunk.

Depends whom you ask. Some say yes, based on exactly that description; others see a lot of good to be had.

It works exactly the same way as standard direct trade described above, except that the person visiting the farm or co-op, forming relationships, signing contracts, and all that jazz is not going to actually roast the coffee; instead, he will sell it to roasters. Mr. Streetman gives a great synopsis: "It is fairly popular especially among quality focused very small roasters. When you are a single operator it is very hard to leave your [roasting operations] and go to origin for 2 weeks, so the ability to have someone travel on your behalf is a big service. It also helps them recruit clients as they invite them on the trips and connect them with their contacts. It represents a small segment of the industry but it does seem to be growing."

So the importer goes to origin; fulfills (ideally) the direct trade promise on that end; brings the coffee, and story behind it, back to the roasters; the roasters then have assurance that the farmer and his coffee is worthy; and the roaster may even give feedback that the importer can bring back to the farm to improve the coffee.

This is not to exclude the roasters or their customers from themselves fulfilling the promise of connection and community. Mr. Streetman describes one intriguing function of these direct trade importers: "facilitating relationships with the producers." He explains: "[The importers] bring [the roasters] into the relationship by being the conduit for communication, and many times by initially connecting, or bringing the roaster along after they have been buying the coffee for a couple of years."

The middleman will take his share. And the roasters have every opportunity to buy the beans without caring a whit about where they came from. Those are undeniable downsides. But there are upsides, too. One is that, if the importer does his job right, a single relationship between him and the farmer can turn into multiple relationships between the farmer and a whole slew of roasters. Another is the elimination of risk.

One of the biggest problems that roasters have with direct trade is the risk of traveling to the farm just to find that the farmer is not a good partner to have, either because of crop quality, trustworthiness, or anything in between. A lot of time and money is spent on researching the farms, but there is only so much reliable information floating around. One roaster I heard from complained that they went all the way across the Equator just to find their hosts to be swindlers. Tours of the farm were restricted, cupping opportunities were limited to "pre-selected" beans, and the trip ended with a surprise bill charging them for the room they slept in and the food they ate.

Such things happen, and for a small business especially it represents a very substantial risk. Frankly, a farmer hosting a roaster faces a sort of mirror-image risk.

And let's not forget the invisible but tremendous risk faced by both roaster and farmer in direct trade: What if the contract is signed, things go great, and then one of them wakes up one day to discover that the other has gone out of business? There's a bad position to be in! The roaster may be suddenly left without any inventory or way to recoup his investment; the farmer may be left with custom-grown beans and nobody to sell to. (A farmer doing direct trade through a co-op is moderately protected from this risk, but still, it may cause a couple of sleepless nights.) Having an importer in the middle makes things that much safer in this regard.

I ask Mr. Streetman if he considers direct trade importers to be a legitimate offshoot of the direct trade model. "Yeah," he says. "I think the service is great for the industry. They bring more great coffees to market, and mitigate some risk for roasters and producers."

Law professor Seth E. Lipner, a wise man indeed, once said, "You can't have contracts that have no risk. You can only have contracts that allocate risk." The same goes for business models in general. Sometimes – often, in fact – risk is most safely allocated if orthodoxy is compromised. Direct trade importers certainly offer an arrangement with risk safely spread about. Is the compromise worthwhile?

There can be no doubt that a crucial element of intimacy is delayed at best, and often neglected. Even assuming that the importer is honestly dedicated to direct trade principles, the opportunistic and huckster retailers are still given an opportunity to do what they do. But does the offering of just another avenue for such people to be who they are anyway, really outweigh the opportunity that is offered to numerous small roasters and farmers who lack more viable options to embark upon direct trade?

These, much like most of my other questions in this treatise, are not for answering. Just think.

By Any Other Name
Among the questions I had for Mr. Streetman was one about the popularity of the two trade models among consumers. His answer shed light on something much more crucial. "Basically, these programs are popular wherever they have been successfully marketed," he began. "In the 'mass' market, [fair trade] certified coffee has a large popular appeal in almost all consuming countries, as a way to differentiate the commodity. In the specialty niche, roasters have moved away from wanting to promote the certificate marks, because there is not a way to differentiate between one certified coffee and another, so promoting certification becomes a commoditizing trap when you are selling a product that is differentiated by quality."

Take it from me: The importance of differentiation in any business can hardly be overstated; in today's artisan foods industry, it is arguably the most crucial element of the offering.

Mr. Streetman mentions that he and other roasters are frustrated by "people not wanting to buy coffees that [we] paid high prices for because they were not 'Fair Trade', or [we] were unable to certify because they were not from a co-op model." He clarifies: "We do not participate in marketing the Fair Trade label, even though we purchase Fair Trade coffees. This is mostly an administrative and marketing decision. We determined that is not worthwhile for us to market a mark which is used by other companies to promote our coffee. We decided this because, we generally found that promoting some of our coffees as Fair Trade, and not others led to confusion about the ethics behind the purchase decision for all of our coffee.  For this reason, we found it better to focus on our holistic purchasing ethics, and promote brand loyalty through differentiation."

That may be one man protesting too much; or, it may indicate a critical weakness in narrowly defining how organizations ought to achieve larger goals. Whatever the case, the efforts of the ethical sourcer must necessarily be able to improve the popularity and marketability of his coffee.

Make no mistake about it: The roasters and retailers, and their commercial success, all count. Big time. Those who care about the farming communities and their prosperity should not for a moment doubt that the concurrent prosperity of those buyers who ethically support them is paramount. Just ask the farmers themselves.

But wait – there's more. Mr. Streetman adds further: "We are firmly committed to the idea that farmers should receive a minimum fair price for coffee, the underpinning philosophy of Fair Trade and that has always been a part of our commitment. We decided in 2011, that moving towards long term commitments with our producers would benefit us, because we would gain access to better coffee, and create a feedback loop between ourselves and the producer to work towards our common interest/goals." So, Irving Farm has decided against a strictly fair trade model because it ends up working against him and many other coffee roasters on the other end of their business. And yet we know that they ethically source from origin. So that would make them direct traders, right? Not necessarily, no.

"With the proliferation of the term 'Direct Trade' as a marketing tool, it can diminish the value of it as a point of differentiation," explains Mr. Streetman. He goes on, after adding a word about direct trade importers, to say, "For these reasons at IF, we don't explicitly talk about 'Direct Trade' even if it is implicitly understood/assumed that is what we do, instead we emphasize the relationships that we (as IF, not our agents) have with our producer partners, and focus on adding value to the coffee experience through the information provided to the customer about the coffee (this is difficult to do)."

So direct trade, as an institution, has reified itself, and fallen into a similar commoditization trap as fair trade. Therefore, the label is eschewed.

Direct trade, not having concrete and auditable guidelines, may be so broadly definable as to include Irving Farm by default. But on the other hand, the ethos of independence that direct trade bestows upon its practitioners surely ought to allow a roaster to exclude himself from that group as easily as it allows him to include himself in it.

In any event, here we encounter an insight of great moment: direct trade and fair trade are not the end of the story. They are but two fish in the sea, two stars in the sky. The universe of ethical sourcing has room for many more. "Over the time that IF has been roasting coffee (since 1999)," says Mr. Streetman, "there has been a large shift in transparency, and connectivity throughout the coffee supply chain. This has led to increase awareness about how to achieve certain goals. For us, our goals have always remained constant, buy the best coffee, and ensure that the environment and people are protected through-out that entire process. How we have tried to achieve those goals has changed as we learned new ways to achieve them."

Consider how we have come to understand fair trade as meaning more than a price tag and a logo, and how direct trade means more than a sojourn and a purchase order. "Both have their place as an attempt at bettering the economic, community and growing conditions at coffee origins," Mr. Closson reminds us. Indeed, the things that matter are the same, are they not? They are, in just about every profound respect, entirely identical.

"Sometimes, there's a lot of the same stuff going on," notes Mr. North. "Real direct relationships, working with co-ops, paying high prices, maintaining steady relationships, doing a lot of work on quality… That's where Equal Exchange and Counter Culture [a direct trader] have more in common with each other than we do with some of our ostensible counterparts in the fair trade and direct trade sectors." The best practitioners of each are certainly much less distinguishable than the opportunistic practitioners of each, are they not?

Sometimes such "best practitioners of each" are, in fact, one and the same organization, as we have seen with Irving Farm. It is also true of Roast Coffee & Tea. "As a coffee roaster that specializes in sourcing coffee from all over the world we work with both Fair Trade coffee and Direct Trade coffee," Mr. Closson explains. "Although no trade certification is perfect we believe the mission of Fair Trade is an admirable one and are happy to support it when using such coffees. … Our mission is to help guide coffee drinkers in their exploration of the world of coffee. This requires that we use many sources and trading approaches throughout the world in acquiring coffee. In all of our trading we stay true to clarity in our supply chain. … While there is no official Direct Trade certification and/or definition we do consider our direct farm relationships Direct Trade. The principles that guide us in Direct Trade are the ones that we adhere to for all of our business-to-business relationships. We consider them partnerships and in order for partnerships to work both parties must benefit in a sustainable way. The best partnerships benefit all parties in their personal, economic and community growth. ... Over the years as we build more direct relationships with farmers we increase the amount of Direct Trade coffees that we offer. We fully expect to continue offering Fair Trade coffees as well."

Mr. North gives us yet another example of how direct trade and fair trade are so marvelously congruous. Equal Exchange, a quintessential fair trader if ever there was one, offers a product line perhaps more thoroughly direct trade than anyone else. "I think it matters that Equal Exchange actually helped to pioneer not only Fair Trade coffee but also the core practices of direct trade – that is a coffee company trading directly with growers, not with importers or exporters," says Mr. North. "To this day we are one of the few to import all of our own coffee, and to do all of it directly."

Ms. Meinshausen points out that direct trade "re-enforces the original fair trade approach of a trader/coffee brand working long term and very closely with one or many producer groups and making all efforts possible to support the suppliers and continue buying meaningful quantities from them." Indeed, we have come to associate those principles, beautifully spelled out by Ms. Meinshausen, with both models. That is because the two models both equally embody them. The looks may differ; the details may differ; the true spirit does not. At all.

"The real 'dichotomy' that exists between Fair Trade and Direct Trade (if there is one), is that they compete in the market for finite consumer dollars to funnel into their respective supply chains," declares Mr. Streetman. "The ideal solution to this would be that the market should reward supply chains which are the most efficient at producing the product, and maximizing value to all stakeholders."

Here is the bottom line: The real issue has nothing to do with choosing between direct trade and fair trade. It is of course possible to "choose direct trade" or to "choose fair trade", but those are just two options among infinite ones, subordinate to a larger choice. The most basic, most important choice for a roaster or retailer to make in this context is whether to commit to connecting with farms and coffee growers, investing long-term in the sustainability of their enterprises and communities, and fulfilling the larger promise that has loomed over this entire discussion. Once that choice is made, the rest is just details.

To be sure, the details do matter, on the organizational level. It is frivolous to choose such an important path if no attention will be paid to how, exactly, it will be trodden. But to get caught up in the labels and dogmas of two relatively specific means is folly – not least because they are, after all, twins.

Every roaster, every retailer, every importer, every co-op, every farm, every plantation, every worker, has different resources, goals, opportunities, commitments, relationships, and capabilities. Each should evaluate for himself how best to use his circumstance in the coffee value chain to make the world sustainably better and more connected for all parties, including himself. It may or may not be direct trade; it may or may not be fair trade; and it may or may not include a trendy label.

Who cares?

A special debt of gratitude is due to the people and organizations below for their very generous attention and their keen, candid insight, without which you would most certainly have been spared from reading this interminable treatise.

Mr. Marc Chiusano, Lead Barista, The Gentle Brew
Mr. Evan Closson, Founder, Roast Coffee & Tea Trading Company
Ms. Jenna Larson, PR Manager, Fair Trade USA
Ms. Florentine Meinshausen, Scheme Manager, Fair for Life
Mr. Rodney North, The Answer Man (Information for the Public & Media), Equal Exchange
Mr. Dan Streetman, VP of Wholesale & Green Coffee Buyer, Irving Farm