In Coffee We Trust

Costa Rican "super-certified" coffee.
Costa Rican “super-certified” coffee.

If your coffee comes with a tag of organic or fair trade or single origin, do you believe it? If you do, who does that mean you’re trusting?

No matter how direct trade gets, coffee drinkers in the United States will never be able to watch how their coffee is grown and processed. It’s always far away. And even if we go there once, we aren’t always there.

Which means people can tell us whatever they want about the coffee we drink, and we have to decide whom we believe.

We can go to the grocery store and buy a can that says “100% Colombian,” and we have to decide if we trust the company that labeled it as such. But we probably care about the label in the first place because we want it to taste a certain way, not because we have a particular concern about whether or not every bean was actually grown in a certain country. It’s not hard to believe the label because we can confirm its claim when we taste it. We’re trusting something we can more or less measure, not a set of principles about which we feel conviction.

But if we do have convictions about principles of sustainable agriculture, we can look one shelf up or down and reach for a bag that has the USDA logo on it and claims to be certified organic. Which means that now it’s not just the brand making a claim, a third party agency has also vouched for it, in this case a third party that is in turn backed by the US government (and the US government’s participation in international organic agricultural standards). So when we decide whether or not to believe that the coffee in the bag is in fact organic, we have to decide whether or not we trust the brand, the actual auditor contracted by the certifying agency, the certifying agency, and the government department that gave the certifier its right to certify. Which means we have to trust that the certifier’s auditor did in fact test the soil, etc. like they were supposed to; we have to trust that the items on the list were really checked, not just checked off. And then we have to trust that the growers are still doing those things the other 363 days that the certifier’s auditor isn’t there “checking,” because just like we aren’t there to see what’s going on, most of the time the certifiers aren’t either.

And now there’s a little more at stake; it’s not just that we want our coffee to taste a certain way (like we want coffee labeled as Colombian to taste like other coffee we’ve had that’s labeled as Colombian), we want assurance that the coffee in the bag complies with our convictions. Agricultural management is something we ourselves can’t measure, so we have to trust that someone else is in fact measuring it and reporting those measurements truthfully.

A retired coffee quality controller/product developer/sourcer for the now defunct Sara Lee says,

“Organic certified coffees come from countries where certification is relatively easy. You cannot go to Cameroon where they only have 5 trees and then you go to the next farmer who has 10 trees, you know. That doesn’t work. You have to go to a serious plantation. If you go to Mexico you can find one with 1500 hectares, which is 3000 acres, that’s a good one. So you can ask Rainforest Alliance to go there and check. But here…it’s also a little bit…for me, I wouldn’t even- I’ve had some experiences where I say- I wouldn’t even trust it.

I went to a farm in Mexico and, well, a whole lot of things happened, but at the end we were going through the stock of green coffee that was when the prices were a little lower than they are now, and he said, “if you want to buy-“ I had to buy for Hills Brothers- in Tapachula, towards the border with Guatemala, and they showed me the stock of coffee and they said, “well, you can buy that as well.” And I said, “but it says ‘Fair Trade;’ it’s been certified.” And he said, “well, same price.” And I said, “why is that?” And he said, “well they want me to certify and they want certified coffee, but they don’t buy.” So the farmer has paid for everything, but no one buys the green coffee, so I could buy it for the same price.

So usually organic coffees and fair trade coffees come from larger farms, not from the smaller ones that would really need it. That’s my feeling, anyway. And then there’s also fraud. The guy doing the certification says, ok, you can get a certificate if you pay me so much, and ok ok ok- done. But he just- it’s fraud. It’s not fair. So the fair trade is not fair. So I have my doubts about that. Especially if you need to find these big volumes like we do. You can’t find it.”

So is coffee in a bag that’s labeled as 100% organic actually all organic? Probably not. But there’s also a good change that coffee in a regular bag has some organic coffee in it too.

If we have a hard time trusting packaging, we can now also go to a coffee shop downtown that sells direct trade coffee. We can see the list on the chalkboard that say the coffees come from certain regions in certain countries, or even from certain farms or families. We can see the framed pictures of the owner posing next to farmers in far away coffee fields, we can read the shop’s online travel blog, we can watch their vimeo channels about sourcing trips. We can buy their roasted coffee that has a ‘farm profile’ blurb on the back of the bag. We can ask the baristas to tell us about the coffee they’re brewing, and maybe they’ll tell us about microclimates and the mountains on which the farmers grew the coffee.  And we can decide whether or not to believe that any of it has to do with what’s actually going on in those far away fields- or what’s in our to-go cup.

And maybe we trust every single story, conversation, and video. That then would mean that we also then have to decide whether or not we trust that the guys who run the warehouses at the mill didn’t mix up the signs on the bucketloads of ripe cherries or piles of bagged green coffee, and that the guy at the port didn’t load coffee from the wrong truck into the wrong container, or the wrong container on to the wrong ship. And then we have to decide whether or not we trust that the labels on the coffee in the domestic warehouses also didn’t get mixed up. And that the roaster didn’t put the wrong labels on the roasted coffee either. And that the guy brewing it also didn’t mix up the labels (or mix the coffee together) after he ground it. We have the choice to stop or start trusting whenever we want.

I can tell you that I’ve watched farmers painstakingly apply truckloads of organic fertilizer, I can tell you that I’ve seen farms in the middle of bird filled forests and show you pictures of happy families picking together in the cafetales surrounding their homes. I can report that mill owners watch every truck pull up to make sure the right cherries go in the right place and that there’s a quality control engineer who stands watch with a clipboard every time a truck is loaded. I can talk about how the bags of beans are stamped with lot numbers and port control checks every bag. I can list the names of people whose full time jobs are to trace the chain of traceability. But you have to decide whether or not to believe me.

Sometimes coffee from one family’s actual chemical-free farm all the way in the highlands of Costa Rica or Ethiopia really does make it to your cup in a New York coffee shop unadulterated and bearing its real name. Which is an incredible miracle- a miracle generated by a lot of meticulous work, backed by strong conviction, and coupled with a serious dose of luck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

There really are families toiling honestly on mountainsides growing organic coffee. And there really is coffee in your cup. How much you trust in the literal connections between the two is up to you.

Phil and Sebastian’s uncertified coffee. You decide if it vouches for itself.


  1. Thanks for sharing the above article.

    Of course fair trade is designed to pay farmers the price they deserve for the essential and difficult work they do. When consumers buy certified products we’re hoping that our convictions are translated into action- in theory. The higher prices consumers pay for fair trade prices don’t always translate into more money paid to the farmer, unfortunately.

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