Think[ing] Coffee: Finding the truth about where coffee comes from

By Julie DeVito

When Matt Fury, Director of Coffee, at the New York City coffee shop Think Coffee, boarded a plane from the NYC to El Salvador for the first time five years ago, he hoped to find out firsthand where his coffee was coming from. After landing in El Salvador, Fury was met by a coffee farmer who would drive him back to a coffee farm.  In that ride, he discovered that there is more to the world of Fair Trade than he ever knew.

Fury began by shooting questions at the farmer about Fair Trade certification and all of the good things about it, but the farmer didn’t appear appeased.  In a country where there is a history of conflict with the U.S. there is more to the situation than Fury knew.

“He finally looked at me and he was like ‘Mateo, the things you are saying sound really good to your customers. The things you are saying were also said by the people who killed my grandparents, blew up my equipment, and tore our country apart for all of the 1980s. We’re still rebuilding from that stuff. Please be careful what you’re saying,’” Fury said.

So Fury went to the farm and saw that the farmer paid his employees well, they had access to healthcare, and he would go get them if it were muddy or they had trouble getting to work. He and his father even had a fund that was supporting entire communities of people surrounding his farm who were in need.

“This guy’s coffee was not Fair Trade certified,” Fury said. “I was like wow I would not buy your coffee because of a sticker and then I learned that I would buy this other guys coffee because of a sticker and he’s hiring gang members to blow up buses to threaten smaller farmers because they wouldn’t sell coffee to him.”

Think Coffee began when two friends decided to open a coffee shop where they knew the source of their coffee. Fury, who was building fountains in North Carolina was called in to help after business soared at the first location on Mercer Street. They came up with wish list; they wanted their coffee to come from sources that provide workers a fair, livable wage, access to healthcare and education, and a lifestyle that is at least somewhat safe and pleasant.  And so they sold only Fair Trade coffee when they opened.

Fair Trade Certification can be found on labels for everything from clothing to coffee and has risen in popularity in the last few years. Fair Trade is a “responsible food movement that seeks to lift farmers in the developing world out of poverty by offering them a premium for crops like coffee, cocoa and bananas” according to an article last year in the The New York Times . For coffee, the product has to come from a Fairtrade certified cooperative in order to be sold. This certification can be done by organizations such as Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International’s FLO-CERT certification. Fair Trade USA claims that their “standards will allow the many different producers of agricultural commodities to participate and compete in international markets in ways that are fair and equitable today and help them to progress and acquire greater business capacity over time.”

Fair Trade, Fury said, seemed the perfect fit at the beginning, but then he started asking his coffee roaster what was in the coffee blend, and the roaster had difficulty answering his questions.

“I realized that our roaster didn’t know really where coffee in general was coming from either,” Fury said.  “And he was hinting at the fact that it had something to do with the nature of fair trade certifications. [I thought] Why don’t I just go to a coffee farm and see what’s up?”

And so he went to El Salvador and met the coffee farmer who opened his eyes.

“If you decide you want my coffee because of the community out environment or workers or you like it or whatever reason you want buy my coffee then we agree on price, you pay price, I send the coffee. Is fair I think, no?” said Lichi Araujo, a farmer in Ciudad Barrios, Eastern El Salvador.

He realized that after the coffee is picked it is bought and sold until it finally ends up being sold to a ‘fair trade’ organization. And when orders come in for Fair Trade coffee, they take it and buy it and certify it and sell it to you. When no more people are buying that, the rest of it goes off as uncertified coffee.

“It’s all the same coffee and you have no idea where any of it comes from. We’re paying a higher price that’s going to go to the guy at the desk. And that money going to him is money that could be going to the actual coffee farmers if we identified who they were.”

So the Think Coffee creators decided to go to the coffee farms themselves to find out if the farms are satisfying their philosophy.

When Fury steps onto a coffee farm to decide whether to purchase coffee for Think, he wants to find out if he would work there, live there, eat food that grows there and if he did live there and he became injured, would he be okay? Are there things going on in the ground that he wouldn’t eat? If there are, what happens to those things, which direction do they run when it rains? Does the farmer know? Does the farmer know what stuff is that he’s putting on the ground? Do his kids eat food off the ground and would he let his?

“I don’t want to hold somebody that I don’t know very well, thousands of miles away responsible to do something that I don’t understand,” Fury said. “I’m not going to say ‘we won’t buy coffee from you if you use any chemicals on this coffee’ because I don’t understand enough about the chemicals. What I do understand is will I eat this? And I literally do eat a lot of the coffee fruit.”

Fair Trade certification even requires examination of certain facilities such as bathrooms, but in Fury’s experience even a bathroom that he might at first consider not ideal, isn’t a problem for the people living there and using it. They know what’s happening to the sewage because their kids are living in the area and eating the dirt.

“I try to judge this farm on a very impersonal level, but at the same time it has to be a personal feeling like do I want to work with you, would I live with you and work with you, would you take care of me? Even if it turns out we all have a low quality of life, we all love the coffee that we’re working with and so it makes that farm a completely viable relationship,” Fury said.

He said that many of the places that satisfy his requirements wouldn’t qualify for Fair Trade certification.

“Like maybe the kids work on the farm. I worked on my family’s farm. Okay they can’t get access to adequate healthcare, neither can I. Would they use any chemicals? I don’t know. You should see what we spray on our dishes before we give them to people,” he said.

Fury said that not buying solely Fair Trade certified coffee since the discovery has saved the company money, but also given the farmers more money. He said that the more time he spends at the farms, the more he realizes that often the people live a higher quality of life than the basic café employee in America, even though here there is more opportunity to rise above that position.

Fury said that he still has to make sure each trip is as efficient as possible by doing research ahead of time and trying to find out what he’s looking for before he gets there. He said that the people on the farms that he works with tend to be happy, have spare time, and have good relationships with their employers.

“The coffee industry is bad and terrible. This sliver of it that we are able to enjoy isn’t. But that’s because we go there and make sure that we only support responsible coffee farming and responsible coffee purchasing.”

As director of coffee, Fury ensures that each barista is being trained well, that each coffee drink tastes as it should, and that the coffee roasters are being supplied with enough coffee. He also helps look at coffees to create new blends for Think.

Sitting in his office two flights below the Think Coffee at 73 Eighth Avenue, a Barista comes rushing in with a cup of coffee. She’d gotten it from another location for Fury to try. The coffee sitting in front of Fury had resulted from a recent trip to Nicaragua, where Josh, another employee, had knocked on the door of a coffee farmer and left a note, thus beginning a new relationship. Fury planned to return the next week for more of the coffee.

For many students, the sourcing of their coffee isn’t a concern. Kristina Bogos, a sophomore at New York University, said that it’s because of the time crunch put on students.

“When it comes to Fair Trade and coffee, I don’t particularly pay attention,” Bogos said. “ I try to but I’m very busy and I think a lot of other students are very busy as well and their main focus isn’t necessarily on where the coffee comes from, but how quickly they can get their hands on it. It’s not that they don’t care about where the coffee comes from or the local farmers, it’s just like ‘oh I need some coffee.’’”

Think also sells single source coffee, or coffee that comes from the smallest possible geographic area in which you can buy one specific coffee, rather than a blend. Fury explained that different geographic areas and regions have distinct flavors, but that they can’t be generalized by country.

“Blends are not as distinctive,” Fury said.  “A blend, you create to have a general flavor, a general mouth feel and body. The single source coffees are very distinctive and they taste like what that coffee from that piece of land tastes like.”

Fury said that with single source coffees, they’re trying to highlight what a farm matched with a local roaster tastes like.

“With a blend, we’re highlighting what we’ve decided to taste. We create the taste versus the land,” he said.

The difference between Think and Starbucks does is in the buying process, Fury said.  Where Think goes to a farm and buys specific coffees, Starbucks will purchase an entire farm’s coffee, often in an area that really needs the money but has lower quality coffee. The problem, Fury says, is that they won’t guarantee the purchasing of the farm’s coffee the next year, but they won’t allow the farm to be bought by anyone else either.

Currently, Fury is working to see how he can take the ‘lower quality’ cheaper Robusta coffee and brew it to create a higher quality coffee. To get a good flavor, he wants to create a dark roasted blend that tastes good but isn’t burned.

As for adding flavored coffees like the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte anytime soon, Fury doesn’t seem very enthusiastic.

“It takes away from the fact that we have delicious coffee. It’s good and we don’t think it’s really fair to these farmers that spend all of this time trying to make their coffee perfect to really do that.”


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