Above Cafe Allegro's alley entrance off of University Way Northeast, a large banner clings to the brick of Seattle's oldest espresso bar promising, "No Excuses. Just Fair Trade." It is a reassuring sign for customers—mostly college students—who believe that every time you buy fair trade, a farmer gets his wings.
Several blocks away on Northeast 45th Street, Trabant Coffee and Chai operates under a different mindset. Owners Tatiana Becker and Michael Gregory don't sell fair-trade products. They have no banners and no excuses, just a small display to the right of their counter advertising their preferred coffee roaster, Intelligent-sia, along with several homemade poster boards depicting their recent trip to El Salvador to meet with coffee farmers.
"When we decided to serve coffee at Trabant," explains Michael, "we set our engineering brains to the task of finding the best quality and most fairly roasted beans we could find. Fair trade couldn't offer that."
Competition is quietly growing between small independent coffeehouses who play in a different arena than chains such as Starbucks and Tully's. Smaller coffeehouses must rely on quality coffees to attract devout customers. Some coffeehouses adopt the fair-trade crusade, which has great recognition with customers.
The fair-trade label ensures that farmers get a decent price for their crops, and that conscientious consumers know that they aren't suckling on the bountiful fruits of exploitation. To these one million farmers, fair-trade prices are often well above those that can be found in the volatile global market. Fair-trade labelers only work with co-ops comprising hundreds of small family farms.
Every co-op makes $1.26 per pound, or $1.41 per pound for organic beans, which is often both their base and ceiling. From there, it is up to the co-op to decide what each farmer will be paid. The beans from the farms are all mixed together, making it impossible to differentiate one crop from another, or to discern the different qualities of the beans. Some argue this method provides no incentive for individual farms to enhance the quality of their production or output.
This is why some coffee roasters, such as Intelligentsia, and coffee retailers, such as Trabant Coffee and Chai, have rebuffed fair trade and created a direct-trade model to conquer the complex world of coffee. The model is unique to Intelligentsia and, vice president/green-coffee buyer Geoff Watts believes, revolutionary to the specialty-coffee industry.
Direct trade involves roasters and buyers in the growing process. Intelligentsia sends representatives to visit each farm or co-op within their partnership up to three times a year, and at least once a year during harvest. Watts spent 253 days last year visiting farmers with whom he has developed direct relationships. During these visits, Watts inspects fields and farms, and sits with farmers and workers to hear of their problems and successes. Intelligentsia's goal is to seek out the highest-quality coffees by working directly with individual growers. Furthermore, Intelligentsia pays growers with the highest-quality coffees the best prices; the verifiable price to the grower or the local co-op, not simply the exporter, must be at least 25 percent above the fair-trade price to be considered direct trade, according to their website (www.intelligentsiacoffee.com).
"The problem with the [fair-trade] model is that it does not really incentivize growers to invest in the quality of their coffee," explained Watts in a recent e-mail to a customer, "because $1.26 is the price regardless of how it tastes. Nor does it encourage the planting of shade trees, soil conservation, or any degree of biodiversity... Fair trade is what it is—a price support mechanism for cooperative farmers—and nothing more."
Growers working with Intelligentsia must commit to healthy environmental and sustainable social practices, such as shade growing and community development. Intelligentsia also invites farmers to taste their own coffees, something that many growers, surprisingly, have never done. The organization hopes that by training farmers how to score their own coffees, they will be better equipped to demand fair prices from buyers.
Trabant Coffee and Chai is currently the only coffeehouse in Seattle serving Intelligentsia coffee. Owners Becker and Gregory are proud to be part of the process. To find out more, visit their website at www.trabantchailounge.com.