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March 20, 2019

Sourcing Rock Star Beans, Ethically

One question we’re often asked is what certifications Ohm’s coffee beans have.  Are they organic?  Fair Trade certified?  Gently de-pulped and massaged by hand before sun-drying on high-thread-count linen raised beds?  The answer, as with many things in coffee, is complex.

Many people assume that “Fair Trade” certification in coffee means something much more than it does.  It actually has very little to do with guaranteeing a farmer received a fair price for his or her crop. Rather, it sets a minimum price per pound for that coffee to be traded, and a $0.05/lb premium over the commodity price of coffee traded on the NY Stock Exchange (assuming that price is above the minimum.)  There are few, if any, stipulations about traceability, sustainable farming or business practices, and other limitations including a lack of incentives for farmers to continually improve quality.

Organic has its own pitfalls—certification can be hard and costly for small farmers who may be employing sustainable, organic (or better) practices, but don’t have the financial resources to obtain and maintain certification.

There are alternative certifications out there that attempt to address some of these shortcomings, such as Rainforest Alliance and UTZ.  But as of this writing, there is no unifying certification that works for the majority of specialty-grade coffee beans.

So how does Ohm address this challenge?

In a number of ways, which can be boiled down to two overarching principles: 1) by voting with our wallet, and 2) by demanding traceability. 

Voting with our wallet means paying top-dollar for top-quality beans.  We don’t throw money away, but we work hard to source the best-possible quality at prices we think our coffee-loving customers can afford. Far from a $0.05/lb premium, we routinely pay 2-4x (or more) of the commodity price for our lots.  Why? Because rock star beans are hard to grow, but they’re worth it.  Farmers don’t happen upon an amazing crop by accident.  It takes years of training, investment, tending of the land, and commitment.  And funny thing, when a farmer (and his/her neighbors) sees that commitment paying off in the form of higher crop prices, it tends to be a pretty strong motivator.  The “Third Wave” coffee movement has created a strong incentive for farmers to grow higher quality crops instead of shooting for the highest possible yields off a parcel of land.  And wouldn’t you know it, that mindset tends to drive investment back into land and people, creating a more sustainable future for the communities that supply us with our daily fixes.

Traceability is a similar motivator for farmers. When they can see their single estate or coop deliver quality that allows their crop to be brought to auction or market without being blended away, it builds prestige and price premiums at the same time. That creates further incentive to invest in sustainable farming practices and a more skilled workforce, thereby raising standards of living. That is why we list our bean sources in the product pages of each of our blends. We are proud of the quality that we’ve found for the price, and proud of the farmers who have worked so hard to share the fruits of their labor with us.

As an example of these principles in action, here are a few of the lots we are currently working with.  Click through to our blends for more detail:

Tweed and Black Magick Blends:

  • Guatemala Santo Domingo Café de Mujeres: Fair Trade Organic, female-owned cooperative.
  • Rwanda Gashonga Women’s Cooperative: Fair Trade, this female-owned cooperative is doing important and substantial work to improve the quality of life of its community.

  Half Stack Decaf:

  • Honduras Organic: 100% Honduras Organic, Swiss Water decaffeination process.   From the Lurvin Radames Ventura Sagstume co-op.

Handwired Espresso:

  • Brazil: Rainforest Alliance Certified and UTZ Certified, guaranteeing sustainable practices and social and economic benefits to the region of Cerrado Mineiro. We work directly with the farmer, whose daughter and son-in-law import the coffee to the US.
  • Ethiopia: Organic
  • Sumatra: No certifications, but the importer has worked directly with small-holder farmers for over a decade to help them make improvements in harvesting techniques and production methods, increasing cup quality and thereby farmer incomes.

Full Stack Blend:

  • Same Ethiopia and Sumatra as above
  • Papua New Guinea, Kimel Estate: No certifications, but the Kimel Estate is owned by traditional landowners, the Opais being the main tribe. Although locally owned, the plantation is managed by expatriate personnel, appointed by the local directors with extensive experience in plantation management. The plantation has a permanent workforce of 432 and they are housed on the estate in bush housing. The estate also provides schooling for the children and medical facilities for the workforce and their dependents. Clean running water has been made available to the estate workers by way of a community project financed by one of their overseas clients, and its implementation is overseen by the estate’s management. Since the estate is located along the Kimel River, from which it derived its name, it has access to good, clean water for the processing of its crop, which is a prerequisite along with sound husbandry and dedicated management to continually create quality coffees. The estate’s management also implements some ecology-friendly policies with regard to environmental issues, such as the recycling of pulp which is returned to the fields as organic fertilizer, and the recycling of water used during the wet processing. The cultivation is conducted under shade trees, like albizias and gravilleas.
It’s important to understand that ethically sourced coffee is about more than just slapping on a sticker and claiming a certification.  It is about realizing that we are interdependent with our farmers, and that their success means not just more great coffee, but also a more sustainable future for all of us.

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