Posts Tagged ‘Fair Trade’

One year ago, President Obama came to office in the US with a wave of enthusiasm. Yes We Can was the mantra. Yes We Can to all kinds of things. Yes We Can end war. Yes We Can fix healthcare. Yes We Can promote equality. Yes We Can address climate change. Regardless of how you may feel on any of these topics, it’s the last point I want to address here. And I’ll give you a prelude to my opinion: the mantra should have been We Don’t Really Care. At a minimum, it’s safe to say, We Haven’t Yet.

This week, I have the opportunity to be penning this missive from Europe. On this trip, I realize that I’ve been coming here quite often, for quite some time now (several times per year, for nearly the past 20 years – it’s safe to say I’ve probably been here 50 or 60 times in the last two decades). The advantage of being in Europe is that one is acutely sensitive to world news here. (To be fair, one reason for that is that world news in the only English-language television or newspaper available, aside from porn.). In addition to Europe, I realize I’ve been exceptionally privileged to have traveled extensively throughout the world. I used to keep track of the statistics – dozens of countries, hundreds of cities (thousands of excellent meals and probably an equal number of dreadful cups of coffee), but honestly, I’ve lost interest in scorekeeping. For one reason, I have nothing left to prove. But more to the point, everything is becoming the same, everywhere. It is a small world, after all. As one of my graduate engineering professors liked to point out, everything is connected, it’s a matter of how tightly. That extends to you, your coffee, and your future. As well as mine, and everyone else’s.

The news in Europe this week is the Climate Change summit in Copenhagen (show of hands – how many of you even knew it was going on?). The world must act, is the punch line of all the coverage. (Despite all the coverage, it’s not clear to me whether President Obama will be here; presumably he will send representation, at least.) So what does this have to do with your morning cuppa? That’s a fair question. The answer is, hardly anything. And that’s part of the problem. It’s hard to care about small things. But it’s hard to act on big things. The classic Catch-22.

Climate change, driven by man-made carbon emissions, is a multi-faceted problem. The elephant in the room is building heating, cooling and electrification generally, accounting for approximately 50% of emitted carbon by some estimates. Nobody seems interested in addressing this (not easy, or sexy), so we make noise about chipping away at other stuff. Auto emissions, maybe high single digit percentage on the Bad Actors list. Aircraft emissions, 2%. Coffee – the proverbial pimple on the ass of the elephant.

But pretend for a minute that we really do care about chipping away at the small things. Organic. Fair Trade. That’s the answer, right?

Let’s dismiss the obvious. Fair Trade has to do with prices, not the environment, per se. But to some small extent, the ability to make a living wage on a small plot might prevent some slash and burn to plant more coffee (though from a pure carbon perspective, the coffee trees are good, too), so Fair Trade probably has some de minimus positive influence.

Organic? It’s hard to argue that organic practices aren’t better for the environment than conventional agriculture (at least you avoid fixing nitrogen from fossil fuels), so you get some points there. But both of these things, organic and Fair Trade, are pimples on the pimple of the ass of the elephant. It’s been observed that better than half of the carbon emitted due to coffee consumption is due to things that happen after beans leave origin, namely roasting and consumption. (I should observe here that I am very favorably impressed with the Rainforest Alliance and what there certification implies for sustainability. They are really about much more than rainforests, and my opinion is that they have missed an opportunity to reach American consumers because they are narrowly branded with a topic that most Amercans, frankly, do not really care about. Maybe that can be the topic of a separate post.)

On the consumption side, it’s the disposables that are the big culprit. Want to make a difference? Reusables are the answer, wherever possible. Bring your own cup, in other words. But packaging is an opportunity, too. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we package all our coffees in biodegradable, compostable bags. How do I know they are compostable, aside from the claim printed on the bag? I compost them myself. Three months in my Earth Machine and there is no sign of coffee bags, just rich fertilizer. Buy one from us and try it, I dare you. To our knowledge, we are the only company in the southeast using this particular compostable bag, and one of the few in the nation using any type of environmentally friendly packaging.

So what about roasting? Well, in most cases, this is an activity that has not technologically changed in a hundred years or more. Essentially, most coffee roasters (machines) operate by continuously heating room air, and blowing that hot air out the ceiling in almost instantly. This activity requires a prodigious amount of fuel. Say what you want about natural gas being better than other forms of fossil fuel, burning less of it is better than burning more of it. At Muddy Dog Roasting Company, we partnered with US Roaster Corp to help develop a new type of eco-friendly roasting machine, one that oxidizes smoke and recirculates heat. We use 94% less energy than conventional roasters. We can roast coffee in North Carolina and ship it anywhere in the US with less total emitted carbon, from roasting PLUS shipping, than the same coffee roasted on site with a conventional system. We are one of only a few of these systems installed in the world. You would think that people would care about these kinds of improvements. To be fair, most people, when they learn of our environmental leadership activities, are favorably inclined (the rest don’t care, and they say so). But it’s also fair to say that they were going to buy from us anyway, regardless. They buy from us because we’re local, they like us, and in some cases, it’s convenient. And we sell excellent products. By and large, they don’t make environmental responsibility part of their purchase criteria.

And therein lies the opportunity.

All else being equal, selecting the organic, Fair Trade, locally roasted option is usually the best course of action. And nine times out of 10, when you ask the right questions, you’re going to find that your options are roughly equivalent in terms of roasting and packaging technology. Same circus, different clowns, as it were. But occasionally, when you peel the onion, and ask the right questions, there is something new. Something different. Something better. When you find them, select them. And make a difference.

Yes We Can.  Change We Can Believe In.  CHOPE.  Call it however you like it, just DO something.


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This is the part that I love about this job – adding new coffees to the menu.  Especially naturals, a particular favorite of mine.

For those wondering, a “natural” is also known as a dry-process coffee because the fruit is dried in the sun instead of dunked in water (which results in a “washed” coffee), which is not exactly “unnatural”.  The net result of natural processing is an earthier, fruiter cup, frequently “winey”.

Once again I was smitten with an Ethiopian Sidamo.  It’s hard for me to say I have an absolute favorite origin, but certainly within regions I do have faves.  In Africa, it’s Ethiopia for me.  And within Ethiopia, it’s southern Ethiopia.  And within southern Ethiopia, give me the naturals.

And so, from the Shanta Golba Cooperative  comes this lovely elixir.  Baby A (aka Veggie Girl) and I spent about ten minutes this morning just sniffing it and trying to describe the dry aromas.  She said “bananas”, and then I could smell them, too, in addition to nearly overwhelming sweet fruits like cherry.  In the cup, the fruits absolutely assault you before retreating to allow the dusky leather to reveal itself in the finish.  If this coffee were wine, it would be a cuvee of savignon blanc (for the sharpness), merlot (for the fruit) and sangiovese (for the finish).  I know it sounds weird, but it works, I promise.

To add to the appeal, it’s Organic, Fair Trade Certified.  You gotta try this one, with the caveat that, like other naturals, they are not for everyone.


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?):  The Golba inspired me, and might be the one coffee worthy of blending with the Guji (though the question “why?” may still be valid).  So I whipped up an experimental espresso, code named Blonde, not for its IQ but rather for its finish – ultra light (I just realized in addition to the color, the analogy works with the stereotype, too), like interupt first crack light, which for those of you who blend know is always risky, but especially so for espresso.  I’m sipping it now, thinking it needs another day to rest.  Or it may need another 10 degrees of finish temperature.  It’s so far from the norm of how I blend I’m not sure what to say about it.  The quality is excellent, for what it is – a sharp, bright, fruity espresso reminiscent of Cafe Fiorre – it’s the best one I’ve ever had.  The question is whether espresso should taste like this, and to answer that I will need other opinions.  So to all my espresso homies – come over and get some, then give me you opinions.

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By now you may be getting the idea that I REALLY like Mexican coffee.  One clue is the fact that I have more Mexican offerings than any other origin – five Mexicans at current time!  Right now I’m stocking don Eduardo (also back in the house after an absence!), Oaxaca Mixteca Organic Fair Trade, Chiapas Organic, Nayarit Organic Dry Process (different, and a Roastmaster’s Reserve!), and the latest, described below, Miravalles Organic Decaf.   That’s probably too many, so enjoy them while you can.

Our latest just arrived last week – Organic Mexico Miravalles Mountain Water Process.  “Mountain Water” is the trade name of the process used by the company descamex, which operates an ultra-modern facility in Mexico using water from the Pica de Orizaba mountain.  In terms of process, conceptually it is the same as Swiss Water Decaf, yet my experience is that Mountain Water produces a vastly superior cup quality.  The most noticeable difference is in how the beans roast.  Swiss Water results in an extremely dark bean (before roasting, it looks almost like it has already been roasted), which ultimately results in a very dark appearance for the finished bean.  This has caused some customer confusion when I tell them it’s a light or medium roast (which it is, by virtue of actual roast temperature), yet it appears to be french roast.  The Mountain Water beans behave nicely during roasting, emitting the usual visual and auditory cues ones expects when roasting high quality green coffee.  And a medium finish LOOKS like a medium finish.

Anyway, this cup is classic Mexico – smooth and balanced, like a Oaxaca.  Not so surprising given that Miravalles is the geographic origin of this coffee, which is physically located just north of Oaxaca.


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?):  Christmas Blend!  Man, I’ve got Christmas Blend coming out the ears.  We vended an event in Cary over the weekend, and it had much lower attendance than anyone had predicted.  Hence I’ve got a lot of finished goods on hand.  Look for more specials this week.

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If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s inventory management.  My graduate degree is in a field related to Operations Research, which is essentially the study of industrial efficiency.  My specialization was in mathematical models, which are used to predict demand, calculate safety stocks to avoid backorders, etc.  For many years, things I learned at Lehigh, and later while earning an MBA at Duke, have served me well, and that continued to be the case with our small business.  Until recently, when I’ve engaged in more green coffee buying, and have had occasion to speak with numerous importers and traders.

The dynamics of specialty coffee are interesting.  And difficult, in some ways.  The first thing to realize is that the coffee we buy is not commodity coffee.  Commodities are items that are always available and, recent price volatility nothwithstanding, are predictable or can be hedged.  Think oil, or corn.  The Big Four of coffee – Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, Nestle, and Kraft – employee armies of people just like me, in fact I was a consultant to one of those companies early in my career.  Specialty coffee, however, is by definition the top of the quality heap.  Certainly the top 5%, maybe the top 3%.  So by definition, in short supply relative to the rest of the crop.  And with specialty coffee becoming a larger trend, there is more competition for that scarce resource.

Another nuance is the business model of the small importer.  While giants have the financial capacity to move large amounts of commodities without having to put up their own cash (or they have the cash), small importers like the ones we buy through stock their shelves the same way I stock mine – with inventory they actually own.  Bought and paid for, then resold.  (And we run a debt-free business, so I’m not about to stock more than I can sell.)  In any climate, this would limit the amount of selection available from a given importer.  But in these unusually turbulent and tight economic times, it’s even worse.  As importers have their credit squeezed, they can buy less coffee.  Which impacts my selection, and thus yours.

Lately, commodity prices have fallen.  Fill your tank recently?  Then you’ve noticed.  Yes, coffee prices have fallen, too, but don’t expect to see much of it flow through.  With commodity prices down, countries are demanding more price differential for the premium product.  And they either won’t sell at a lower price (good for them!), or they’re getting it.  We’re paying it.

Decaffeinated green coffees add another level of complexity, especially if you want organic and/or Fair Trade Certified.  Top quality growers, especially FTO producers, sell all they can grow for all the money.  They don’t need to submit coffees to decaffeination.  Of course, some top quality producers do produce decafs, but they are a minority – another short supply situation.  So when a good FTO decaf becomes available, they sell out quickly.  This means we need to buythem when they are available, from wherever they are available, instead of waiting to include them with a scheduled shipment from a specific importer.  Obviously this is inefficient, especially with respect to freight charges.  But we do it, and this is a big part of the reason why great decafs are more expensive.

Couple all this with unstable demand at the consumer level (let’s face it, you can live without premium coffee – we felt you hold your breath at the end of September as the markets began their free fall), and increased competition among specialty roasters, and it all adds up to more difficulty securing great green coffee at reasonable prices.  And it’s going to get more difficult as this current financial crisis becomes more severe.

You now have a little insight into my world.  But not to worry – we work with the best suppliers in the business, and we are well positioned to buy large enough quanitites of fine green coffees.  We’re placing an order this week that should arrive just before Thanksgiving, and I am very excited to offer our first Rainforest Alliance coffee (my cupping notes contained the words “balsamic vinegar” to describe its sweet, sharp acidity), as well as an excellent Mountain water Process Mexican decaffeinated.  Stay tuned!


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): Wow, this was a cupping weekend, so I’ve been tasting about a half dozen different coffees.  Right now, I’m drinking a Sumatra MWP decaf, which is wonderful, but not wonderful enough to overcome my current inventory position on Sumatra decaf and my immediate need for a Brazil.  One of those economic realities – I need to balance my taste with my forecast and budget.  Earlier today I cupped a Rainforest Alliance El Salvador that made my eyes cross, it was so good.  I’m buying that one!  But until it arrives and I find the sweet spot, then put it on the website, you can keep drinking our organic, Fair Trade Certified El Salvador El Jabali.

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When Pigz Fly Storefront

When Pigz Fly Storefront

Attention all you North Raleigh customers looking for retail outlets for our coffee!  You can now purchase Muddy Dog coffee at When Pigz Fly, a cool little eclectic artisan shop located at 11125 Six Forks Road.  It’s just north of I-540 on the left side.  It’s kind of easy to drive past (I did the first time), so look for a cottage-style electric blue building.  Their phone number is (919) 426-9127; they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Google map embedded below:
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When Pigz Fly is a family business that supports local artisans.  They sell all sorts of neat gift and food items, as well as antiques.  Owner Diane and her brother Jimmy have put in a ton of work refurbishing the building (just take a look at the Google Maps street view to see what it used to look like!), and have stocked it with all kinds of excellent merchandise, including many Fair Trade items.  If you go, make sure you tell them you read about it here.

The coffee selection at Pigz is still evolving.  I stocked what I thought may be popular.  I’ve already done one inventory change-out to focus on faster-moving items, and it’s bound to change again before settling in on a regular assortment.  But if there is something specific you want, especially exotics (Monsooned, Aged, etc.) or decafs, let me know and I’ll be sure to stock it there.

If you value family-owned, non-chain businesses, please stop by When Pigz Fly and vote with your wallet.  We work hard to earn your business and keep our communities interesting.


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink today?): I’m drinking the When Pigz Fly blend, an Organic, Fair Trade Certified blend available ONLY at their store (that’s right, not even on my web site!).  It’s an interesting marriage of high-altitude South American and bold, earth Indonesian – all of the body, with the high-end punch, too.

This one is just for the search engines: When Pigs Fly, 11125 Six Forks Road, Raleigh NC 27614 (919) 426-9127

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Remember the olden days, when there was lots of great stuff on the Internet for FREE?  That was like, what, eight years ago?  Well, welcome back to 2000.  Jaman is an online movie site with an incredible assortment of movies for downloading (rental) and streaming, including an amazing selection of FREE movies.  And when you sign up you get a free rental.  My Time Warner bill is going down, down, down.

I used my free rental to finally watch Black Gold, a movie I had been wanting to see for a long time, but which isn’t exactly mainstream.  It’s a documentary about the coffee industry, specifically the sad plight of coffee farmers.  It’s a reinforcement of why fair trade principles are so important, and why we need to think about the ethical dimensions of all our food, not just coffee.

Of course you are welcome at the roastery anytime to watch my “From Tree to Cup” DVD…


WWJD (What Would Jim Drink tonight)?:  I had a Classic Italian Espresso after pretty Italian dinner of farmers’ market frittata.

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I’m excited to have a couple of African coffees on the menu, for the first time in a while.

First is a Fair Trade from Rwanda. What makes this coffee special is the fact that it is purchased from a women-run cooperative. While that may not seem like such a big deal here, it is in Africa. Purchases of coffees like this are fundamentally improving the lives of many. Read about / buy the coffee HERE.

Rwanda Flag

Rwanda Flag

Second is a a Kenya AA from Hiriga. This is bright and beautiful Kenyan, with maybe not as much of that “winey” thing going on that you find in many Kenyans. Read about /buy the coffee HERE.

Kenya Flag

Kenya Flag


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