Ben Corey-Moran is the Director of Coffee Supply at Fair Trade USA where it's his job to develop and strengthen the supply chain between the small coffee farmers of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America and coffee buyers from all over the world, some of them as large as Walmart. He's been in the coffee business since 2003 and has an intimate understanding of the whole picture, from the harvest of the fruit to how to create the perfect cup at home.
Ben walks us through his five essentials for understanding how our coffee comes to us, and how to find and create that perfect cup of morning coffee at home.
Like sugar, chocolate, and bananas, coffee is one of those things many of us consume without thinking too much about where it is from, or how it is grown. In part this has to do with the fact that coffee is grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn in Africa, Southeast Asia, and equatorial Latin America which for many of us is land far, far away, out of sight and out of mind.
But increasing pressures from climate change and a fluctuating market means that growing coffee is difficult, risky business and many farms at the very beginning of the supply chain are in danger of disappearing. This is where an organization like Fair Trade USA can help. Fair Trade USA "audits and certifies transactions between U.S. companies and their international suppliers to guarantee that the farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods are paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment and receive community development funds to empower and uplift their communities. Fair Trade USA educates consumers, brings new manufacturers and retailers into the Fair Trade system, and provides farmers with tools, training and resources to thrive as international businesspeople." (From their website Fair Trade USA)
Ben spends about one week a month in coffee-growing countries helping to create business opportunities between buyers and growers. "Larger companies are starting to understand that they need to establish long term connections with coffee farmers, that keeping those farmers in business is good business for them. It's bad business to destroy your supply chain; it's good business to nurture your supply chain.
"Fair Trade is one of the most accessible and effective ways for companies to do that because of the price mechanism, because it builds local organizations, because it embeds a lot of support that producers need into the transaction. A large scale coffee buyer doesn't have to go through the time and expense to set up a field station in Uganda, they just buy Fair Trade certified coffee and it's all there. So a big piece of what we do is to work to position Fair Trade as a solution for both sides of the relationship."
Ben Corey-Moran's 5 Essentials for Making the Best Cup of Coffee Possible (in Every Sense of the Word)
1. Seek a connection to your roaster. "When looking for a roaster to buy your coffee from, pay attention to two things: how your roaster interacts with their community and the quality and craft of their roasting, which is at the heart of what they do. Most roasting companies who are doing good work are really committed to education and they will create opportunities for you to come to their facility to take a tour, they'll host cuppings where you can taste their coffee and learn about their company. You'll know a good roaster when you see it. You can tell when a company is walking their talk. Ask questions, talk to the people that work there, do your research."
2. Seek a connection to the coffee. "This is also related to finding a good roaster. If you trust this company and they're telling you that they travel to coffee growing countries and they meet with the farmers, then that's beautiful. But obviously not everyone can do that so something like Fair Trade can be a surrogate. Ultimately, what you want to see is some commitment to and concern with their supply source.
"Always look for coffee that reflects your values. By 'values' I mean everything from consuming things that are delicious to finding goods that are produced in ways that are healthy for people and ecosystems and are also responsibly traded. Again, the Fair Trade seal is a good surrogate for this for times when you're looking on the store shelf and there's lots of brands and you don't know which one to choose. I say: choose Fair Trade.
"It can cost more, but not always. Fair Trade guarantees that farmers are going to be paid a little more than the commercial market but that doesn't always translate to coffee costing more at the retail market. You can buy Fair Trade at Walmart and it's cheap there! It's a lot cheaper to buy Fair Trade coffee at Walmart than it is to buy non-Fair Trade coffee at Whole Foods."
3. Tune into Seasonality. "Coffee is a fruit and it grows on a tree and like all fruiting trees, it produces one crop per year. In coffee producing countries that are north of the equator (Nicaragua, Uganda, Ethiopia), the harvest coincides with the fall harvest here in the US. When we're picking our apples and persimmons, coffee farmers are finishing up picking the coffee cherries and processing them. The coffee has to be dried, cured, and sorted so these coffees won't ship until February/March/April and won't arrive here until April/May/June. Come late spring/early summer, look for coffees from the northern hemisphere and drink those coffees for the next six months.
"This time of year (early December), you'll notice that a lot of places are featuring coffees from Honduras and Costa Rica but suddenly coffees from Bolivia, Brazil, and Indonesia slip in and those are coffees from the southern hemisphere. So come winter you can start to expect to see the coffees that were harvested in June/July/August south of the equator. Coffee drinkers are lucky because coffee is grown both north and south of the equator, which gives us two harvest seasons a year. If you pay attention to this, you can always drink super fresh coffee."
4. Understand what it is about coffee's set of flavors that most entices you. "Simply put, seek out the coffee that you love. First and foremost this has to do with roast. Figure out if you like a dark or light roasted coffee. You're just not going to have a happy coffee experience if you're thinking about seasonality and origin but you're drinking a light roast when you really like dark roast. Know your preferences!
"Then within those preferences, explore what it is about those flavors that fascinates you. Look at origin, beginning with a continent. For example, East African coffees are super floral and fruity whereas Central American coffees can be really bright and sparkly. And then drill in the difference between Kenya and Ethiopia coffees or the difference between Nicaraguan and Honduran coffees and explore that. It's really fascinating.
"If you want to really geek out and take it even further, you can find layers of subtlety around processing and how the coffee itself is processed on the farm and how the fruit is handled. Things like the level of fermentation that's involved and how the coffee is dried and if it's washed. This involves removing the fruit from the bean and washing it which produced a clean and sparkling flavor or if its a natural process, the fruit is dried like a raisin which produces jammy, winey flavor. Or maybe you like a blend? Whatever it is, understand the process so when your brewing your cup of coffee you're making all the right choices, from what's aligned with your values to what's aligned with your palate. Have that deeply explored and connected experience."
5. Understand the basics. "First, always drink freshly roasted coffee. Ideally look for a roaster that tells you when the coffee was roasted and buy coffee that's been roasted within the last couple of weeks if you can. Store it in an airtight container away from light. What you're fighting is oxidation which is of course about exposure to oxygen but also about exposure to light, as well as extreme temperature. Coffee should not be frozen or refrigerated! The best thing to do is get a mason jar, put your coffee in the jar, screw on the lid, and put it in the cupboard. Done. And purchase amounts according to your consumption. Don't be embarrassed to buy coffee in 1/2 or 1/4 pound increments, if that's what works to keep it fresh.
Ben on Brewing
"There are many ways to brew coffee and they all can produce a great cup. I think the most important thing is that people experiment and really refine their technique because coffee brewing is very delicate art and it's pretty easy to under or over extract. So understand what a coarse or fine grind does and how that's related to how long your brew it — be scientific about it. Start with a recommendation from your roaster when you're buying your coffee and experiment from there.
"I know it's like Portlandia and we all have too many gadgets, but using a scale to weigh your coffee is great. Be consistent, be scientific and experiment. Think of brewing coffee as a recipe and develop your own perfect recipe."
Ben's method: "I have a hand-cranked Japanese coffee grinder (Hario) that screws into a tiny little Mason jar. I grind just enough coffee to fill up the filter on my stove-top espresso maker and I use it to make an Americano: 1/2 hot water and half espresso."
On getting a lousy cup of coffee: "I had a somewhat lackluster $4 cup of coffee the other day. This happens more often than not, even when you've sought out a great cup of coffee and you've paid out for it from a place that has a great reputation and they have a great set up and they're doing everything right. Still, more than 50% of the time, the coffee hasn't been properly brewed. This has to do with a lot of things but mostly it has to do with how difficult it is to brew a good cup of coffee!
"We have this cultural expectation that we can order coffee and get it within 30 seconds. This is at odds with what it takes to brew a great cup of coffee. When order a meal you don't expect it to come out 30 seconds later and it's the same for a good cup of coffee. It takes time."
What's the biggest challenge for you? "Translating the realities that coffee farming families face to companies who operate within the logic of maximizing profits for their shareholders. There are these two partners, the farmer and the buyer, who are in a relationship with each other but there is such a vast space between their experiences and such a distance between their needs. I am their bridge, I help translate that conversation so there's a shared understanding of what it means to be in this relationship. And then I support these two sides of the relationship to actually engage and connect with each other.
"It's happening and that's really exciting but the challenge is that the vast majority of American for-profit companies don't really engage with that level of reality in their business efforts. They're learning and they ask good questions but they can also be very critical and stubborn. They're resistant to waking up to what is real at the base of their supply chain where coffee that they buy and sell every day, that they make money from every day, is facing some real serious issues.
"It's hard to get them to understand what it means to be a 45-year-old farmer whose kids don't want to be farmers because it sucks, and in the face of climate change and in the face of economic instability, it's just not worth it. There's a small window open right now— there may be another generation that will stick it out but we are close to the last generation of people who are willing to farm coffee. The average age of a coffee farmer in Central America is 45 to 55 years old and they're grandparents. Their kids and their grandkids are making choices to exit the farm and so what's the future?"
Anything positive? "Sure. I am seeing companies wake up to the fact that their survival is linked to these famers, so there's hope. The question is: is there enough time? Actually, the real question is can capitalism as we know it, as we've built it, civilize itself in time. That's the big important question."
Thank you, Ben!
More posts in this series
(Image credits: Dana Velden; Chris Perez; Anjali Prasertong; Faith Durand)