Fake News and Your Friendly Neighbourhood Coffee Roaster
The world has changed - the days of journalistic integrity are over, facts are no longer facts, truth is entirely subjective, and fake news dominate the echo chambers of social media.
The coffee industry has also undergone a dramatic evolution over the last decade or so.
Gone are the days when your barista would struggle to tell you what coffees were in the their blend, or enthusiastically proclaim that their coffee was the best because it was roasted in Italy. What used to be a minefield of pseudo-Italian espresso brands, secret blends, and cheap on-loan equipment has been replaced by bearded hipsters waxing lyrical about the latest single origin, new uber cool filter brewing gear, and a dismissive attitude to anything that wasn’t blogged about by Scott Rao.
In the good ol’ days there was a myriad of coffee ‘facts’ that a barista or coffee lover was simply expected to take for granted. Most ‘facts’ stemmed from smart marketing roasting or equipment companies keen to keep the consumer in the dark lest they discover not all is as it seems. Questioning was frowned upon and deviating from the status quo was considered sacrilegious to the point of heresy. These ‘facts’ were more often than not completely wrong: there was the absurd notion that somehow a clean espresso machine had to be ‘oiled’ (made dirty) by running through a few shots of coffee before it could be used, also that dark roasted coffee was stronger and had more caffeine, and the ristretto was the ‘best’ part of the coffee shot. Over the years these facts have been broken down and exposed for the myths that they are, leaving many a barista scratching their head as to how they ever believed them in the first place. Surely the modern coffee professional couldn't be fooled by fake news, smart marketing and cliched industry speak anymore! Well let’s explore that a little further…
A lot of the original coffee fake news related to areas of the industry the barista didn't have easy access to - primarily, the roasting process and what goes on in a commercial roastery. A number of these myths were used by roasters to sell more coffee or equipment to accounts who were none the wiser. These days, roasting is a process very much out in the open. Roasters proudly proclaim what origins are in their blend, brew recipes are created for flavour (not to sell higher volumes of coffee), and many cafes are roasting themselves. So surely no-one stands to benefit from perpetuating coffee myths now that transparency appears to be key? Well I’m not convinced.
I can think of many modern coffee myths that look a lot like fake news and have etched themselves onto the zeitgeist of specialty coffee. To question them will expose oneself to the wrath and disdain of the educated modern coffee professional. However I think it’s worth looking a little closer at things the modern coffee professional takes for granted and hopefully enlighten the coffee consumer to make a more educated choice when it comes to selecting the companies they support.
Myth: Fresh crop coffee is the best, and only, choice for the modern roaster and cafe.
This is one of my favourites, because on the surface it seems genuinely reasonable. Fresh is best right? Well sort of, but the reality is a little more complicated. One of the mantras of the third wave roaster and barista isthat they only serve current (fresh) crop coffees because“coffee tastes like licking the inside of a toilet if it is over six months old!” A number of roasters in my city claim to only use fresh crop coffee - and they probably believe they do - but if they were to dig a little deeper, they would see that this is simply not the case. And I’d argue that it doesn't even matter how old the coffee is.
Firstly, coffee producing countries all have vastly different harvesting practices and seasons. Colombia harvest all year round, so if a someone says they only use Colombians at a certain time so that they're fresh, they're either lying or just plain ignorant. Guatemala controls the production of its coffee and its season really depends on who you ask and what their motive is, some say Nov-Jan, others Jan-Feb and others something totally different. They say this because if the buying season is only open for a small window, roasters fear they'll miss out and the price of coffee is driven up . I’ve visited Guatemala and I can tell you that they’re actually producing coffee almost all year round, and they're certainly not throwing out the coffee because it wasn't harvested in November! Brazil harvest all year round, Kenya has two harvests, Uganda has one, some origins have three, in fact some countries vary region to region. That’s just the first reason to be skeptical of the claim ‘fresh is best’.
The second reason is a more practical one: most coffee arrives in the importing country many months after leaving the dry mill and even longer after being harvested. Most of the farms we work with actually intentionally age their coffee before export because it makes it taste better! A Nicaraguan farm we work with begins their main harvest in October and that coffee won’t make it into country before May, and most would agree the coffee actually tastes better another few months after that. One importer we work closely with told me a story about a Kenyan coffee they imported. For whatever reason they over ordered and were left with a few bags well over twelve months old. They tried to offer the coffee off as past crop to a number of their clients but to no avail (even at a heavily discounted price). One evening when they were running an industry cupping they decided to put the past crop Kenyan on a table with current fresh crop coffees but not tell anyone. The results were comprehensive, every single person picked the past crop coffee as the stand out coffee of the night and it sold out! Farmers and importers alike will all testify that a well stored green coffee will often improve up to, and well over, twelve months old.
Like it or not, specialty cafes are most likely serving past crop coffees as fresh crop and you are enjoying every single mouthful. It is a myth that definitely comes from a good place it may just need a little readjustment.
Myth: The more you pay for a coffee the more the farmer earns.
This is another myth that stems from a good place, and there's some truth to it. A farmer can never get paid more if you pay less for the coffee you consume. Unfortunately though, regardless of how much you pay for your coffee there is very little you can do to ensure that extra dosh will ever make it to the farmer’s pocket. In the majority of specialty producing countries, farmers don’t directly sell their coffee to roasters. Most will either sell to co-op’s or exporters that will dry mill the coffee themselves before selling it to importers or roasters at whatever mark up they see fit. At the moment, the C-price (commodity coffee market price) sits at around 140 cents (USD) a pound. A farmer producing a specialty quality product might stand to make anywhere between 160-240 cents with fair-trade sitting at around 190. Some coffees are sold at private auction and may fetch even higher prices, but this is a pretty uncommon practice. Unless your roaster or cafe is buying and importing their own coffee, they have absolutely no control over how much the farmer receives.
Furthermore, the vast majority of roasters and cafes claiming to purchase directly from the farms are straight out lying - but I’ll touch on that in a moment.
The people that set the price roasters and cafes pay for their green coffee are actually the green bean importers, and they all have vastly different pricing structures. One importer I know was charging 100 per cent more than another importer we work with for the same green coffee. Same coffee, same farm, twice the price! Just because your coffee was a single estate micro lot, came nicely paired with a picture of your roaster shaking the farmer’s hand, and cost twice as much as a standard coffee, doesn't mean that the farmer is getting rich quick. Often all you're doing is lining the pockets of a greedy importer who’s really good at telling stories.
My advice would be to ask your roaster how much the farmer was paid compared to the c-price and if you're greeted with blank looks, you might have your answer.
Myth: We only use direct trade coffee.
I call BULLSHIT on this one. In fact I’m convinced that this modern coffee myth is doing more damage than all of the old school coffee myths put together. So many modern roasters and cafes claim to only sell direct trade coffee. If you ever hear this the alarm bells should start ringing immediately. At Commonfolk we proudly serve a number of coffees that we know for sure are direct trade, or at most have passed through a single coffee importing company (something we don’t have the licence to do). However we’re the first to openly admit to not solely using direct trade coffees. Some of the delicious specialty coffee we serve was purchased via a trading company or from a coffee exchange. In fact that’s pretty much the only way you can buy Ethiopian or Kenyan coffee. If someone tells you you're drinking a direct trade Ethiopian they're almost certainly lying. There should be no shame in admitting to using a green bean broker, many of them are incredibly traceable and ethical, and the best brokers will even invite you to travel to the farms and begin investing in a direct trade relationships with their farmers.
Even the definition of direct trade probably needs adjusting. Most consumers assume that direct trade means you literally call up ‘John Smith the coffee farmer’, negotiate a price, and he chucks it into a container and ships it to your country. The reality is that the direct trade the roasting industry is talking about usually involves a number of facilitators, all of whom take their not-so-little slice of the pie along the way. In my opinion this can be a great thing, it offers the farmers more protection than only selling their coffee to one roaster, and means that more people across the world get to taste the unique origin. Unfortunately the marketing appeal of a roaster trekking to a coffee producing country and discovering new amazing coffee farms is just too good to let go of. The biggest risk this white lie posses is that consumers will start demanding direct trade coffee without understanding the actual reality of the term. Dishonest roasters wills start to benefit from their false advertising while honest roasters will start to be demonised for telling the truth and their business will suffer.
My advice is to always be skeptical of sweeping statements such as ‘we only’ or ‘we never’. In my experience, companies willing to lie to their consumers are also ones happy to stop at nothing to make a dollar, including exploiting the most vulnerable people in the process. Once again, it might be worth asking your roaster or cafe what price the farmer receives for their coffee and if it’s above the C-price.
There’s a lot more fake newsthat the modern coffee professional runs the risk of perpetuating. It’s staggering to think that the very same people who ridiculed old school baristas for tapping the side of the group handle with the tamper are now making even greater claims to facts that simply don’t stack up. As a coffee professional and fake news cynic, I encourage coffee consumers to remain vigilant for any bold, sweeping statements involving coffee. One of the beauties of this young industry is that it has the ability to grow and develop, and this can only be hindered by the presence of absolutes. Innovation and invention often comes from the fringes. It would be a travesty if we all became drones who perpetuated the marketing spin of our industry’s most questionable companies.
So here’s to many more past crop specialty coffees, imported by middle men who pay the farmer well above c-price!