The other day I saw another roaster post something on their Facebook about their new “direct trade” coffee from Ethiopia.  Knowing the roaster, and, actually, the original source (green buyer) for this coffee, I knew this was not what we – or many other roasters that source at origin — would call “Direct Trade.”

This particular coffee was purchased in a way that was transparent and at a price that was well-above commodity coffee pricing, but, the coffee was not sourced by the roaster.

It was sourced by a green bean buyer who is known for outstanding quality and responsible sourcing, but it could hardly be called a “Direct Trade” relationship for this roaster.   The roaster had nothing to do with finding this coffee at origin; they never met any of the growers; they never negotiated a green bean price, nor did they arrange for export/import.  They simply bought coffee from someone else who did all this.  And yet, the roaster is using the “Direct Trade” claim.

I also recently had a discussion with another roaster-friend to express some frustration about what to call coffees that we had recently sourced at origin, even though the coffee was not from a specific farmer.  “Direct Trade” was the “best” option to call that coffee he said.  Some may use the term Direct Trade not to mis-lead but simply because a better, more accurate definition of how the coffee was sourced does not exist.

What, then, is Direct Trade?  For starters I should note that the term Direct Trade is not a certification governed by a third party.  The term itself if relatively new and since there is no real certification needed to use the term for marketing, roasters have some leeway to define what Direct Trade is and, unfortunately, this can lead to situations where roasters make claims that simply are not true and/or are mis-leading for the consumer.

So perhaps it is best to start with what Direct Trade is not.  It is NOT Fair Trade.  Fair Trade coffee is cooperative coffee.  An individual farmer cannot be “certified” Fair Trade.  Only a cooperative can be Fair Trade.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of farmers can be part of one Fair Trade cooperative.  Fair Trade works to establish a higher price paid for coffee that is transparent and as long as the cooperative is well-run, some of this premium will filter down to the actual grower and some of the premium can be used for community improvement projects like better water filtration or for school supplies.

But, Fair Trade is not a quality-driven certification – it has nothing to do with the quality of the coffee produced by these farmers.  For Fair Trade coffee, hundreds of farmers are contributing coffee to a cooperative.  That blend of coffee will only be as good as the average farmer; the very best farmers’ coffee will be cut with the very worst  farmers’ coffee and most of the farmers, should we follow the normal bell-shaped curve, are average.  So, during a season with optimal growing conditions etc, the coffee can indeed be good.  But, usually a Fair Trade coffee will not be the standout on a blind cupping table.

Direct Trade, on the other hand, is usually grounded in superior coffee.  Great coffee needs to be the foundation for any Direct Trade relationship, otherwise, the relationship won’t be sustainable.  And, Direct Trade relationships are usually between a roaster and one individual farmer, not with a cooperative.

This buying model, one in which roasters work directly with farmers instead of green bean brokers, helped to usher in the era of third-wave coffee.  Companies like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown led the charge to origin as they procured supreme coffees directly from the people who grew it and often collaborated with the farmers to further increase quality.

While each company that practices Direct Trade may have a slightly different definition of the term, most would say that they are negotiating a price with the farmer directly and they meet with the farmer regularly at origin.  The benefits of doing this are in the cup.  If a roaster is able to establish a partnership like this, the roaster will end up with outstanding and exclusive green beans  – purchased in a way that allows the farmers to have enough profit to re-invest in their farm with the hope of producing even better coffee each year, providing the roaster with a sustainable source for great coffee.

Now, “sourcing at origin” does not automatically mean the roaster is establishing direct trade relationships.  From here we get into other terms like “Relationship Coffee” or “Responsibily Sourced” coffee.

If we are working with an exporter at origin, we may cup 50 to 100 coffees with that exporter on a particular trip.  Some of this coffee, the exporter may have already purchased for re-sale.  If we like it, as long as we are confident that the exporter paid a good price for the coffee and was done so transparently, we would then buy the coffee from the exporter.  We may or may not actually meet this particular grower.  In some cases, if the coffee is good year-to-year, we may establish a direct trade relationship – facilitated by the exporter — with this grower, but this first purchase would not be called “Direct Trade”.  The coffee, though, would fit into our Farm to Cup coffee program as a transparent or responsibly sourced coffee.

Some of this coffee cupped with the exporter might not yet be purchased, in which case, if the coffee is good, and the exporter willing, we would then meet directly with the grower and negotiate a price.  We would call this a Direct Trade coffee.

As long as a roaster is willing, there are other ways to establish direct trade relationships.  Coffee conferences bring buyers and growers together, and international coffee auctions can be used to connect with particular farmers – though purchasing via an auction would not really be “Direct Trade”.  A roaster may be introduced to a great farmer through the auction and might, then, establish a Direct Trade relationship.

But, regardless of how it happens, Direct Trade is/should be defined as a roaster working directly with a grower, as the term was originally defined by those who first participated in the practice.

The best of these relationships are the ones in which the roaster can take an active roll in the growing, harvesting, and processing of the coffee and the trading becomes a true partnership.

by Chuck Patton
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters