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Posts Tagged ‘Fair Trade’

Raising the Bar on the Coffee Bean

In Coffee Education, Coffee Projects, In the news, Product Reviews on December 5, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Reprint courtesy of THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR

Stephen Armstrong simply doesn’t accept that some people don’t like coffee.

He can’t relate to it. It’s incomprehensible.

He’ll find them the right coffee.

It’s only a couple of minutes into an interview with a coffee non-convert when he declares that java has 800 flavour compounds, compared to wine with 250.

What’s not to like?

“Coffee is, hands down, the most complex beverage on the planet, ” says Armstrong, 42, a man with a variety of careers in his past, who’s decided that coffee is the way he can make the world a better place through his company Speakeasy.

Armstrong is a direct trade coffee importer, roaster, wholesaler and retailer.

Armstrong operates the Speakeasy Café on Ferguson Avenue North on weekends. In the small art deco space painted mauve outside, customers can buy coffee by the pound (prices ranging from $20 to $70) or the cup, sample new beans or take part in tastings (cuppings in the coffee world) or learn the right way to brew the perfect cup. More on that later.

His business is in growth mode. Armstrong has just opened a new micro-roastery in a former industrial site on Sherman Avenue North, that will join a roastery he owns in Kingville, Ont. He’s also this week closed a deal to buy The Ultimate Bean, a fair trade and organic coffee company out of Georgetown.

That acquisition will give him a client roster buying 4,000 pounds of coffee each week, roasting equipment, grinders, an invoice and accounting infrastructure and a developed brand. He will run The Ultimate Bean as a fair trade organic company and Speakeasy as a direct trader.

Armstrong works directly with coffee bean growers, helping them improve their crops and, if satisfied with the quality, buying the entire harvest. He calls it sustainable direct trade, pointing out that 90 per cent of the world’s coffee is grown on farms of three hectares or less.

While he supports fair trade, where growers pool together in a co-op to have some power in the market, he says that model isn’t about quality.

“When you work directly with the farmers, the ethics and sustainability is built in. I’m not selling politics without the quality to back it.”

So, Armstrong travels to coffee farms in Mexico, Kenya, Colombia and elsewhere to offer advice and direction to growers. His training allows him to detect problems and identify where they’ve happened in the production chain.

He is one of only 14 Q-Graders in Canada. It’s a licence earned through the Coffee Quality Institute after five days of rigorous exams. Armstrong is also a member of the Roasters Guild and teaches roasting classes for Toper North America.

Of his current offerings, Armstrong is excited about a Blue Mountain bean grown in Mexico, the only crop of the variety grown outside Jamaica. He has bought all 13 bags of this crop (152 pounds each). Where other Blue Mountain coffee sells for $60 or $65 a pound, Armstrong sells his Mexican beans for $25 a pound.

Armstrong was also the winning bidder for a Nicaraguan coffee deemed a Cup of Excellence. Those 17 bags of beans are considered among the top in the world.

This year, he added award-winning coffee creator to his list of accomplishments. Armstrong’s blend of Ethiopian coffee beans, called Kochere Gayo, was the Gold Bean java at the prestigious SIAL competition in Toronto. Based in Paris, SIAL is one of the world’s biggest food expositions.

For Armstrong, coffee is a niche business.

About 90 per cent of the coffee market is covered by corporate sellers, but Armstrong says there is plenty of room for small, independent roasteries selling interesting coffees.

“This couldn’t be more different from the double-double to go.”

Armstrong markets his world exclusives to coffee aficionados around the world. For instance, he has Japanese clients who pay $55 just in shipping every two weeks for four pounds of his Cup of Excellence coffee, which costs $30 a pound.

He is particularly proud of the world exclusive on his Kenyan Othaya coffee. With undertones of lychee fruit and red currants, it’s the most expensive green bean he’s ever bought at $9 a pound. To put that in perspective, he could buy a quality fair trade organic green coffee from an importer at $4.

Armstrong bought all 750 pounds of Othaya from its grower and was offered world exclusivity for future crops.

“If I can’t sell that, I’m in the wrong business. I should be selling blister packs to food service industry.”

Speakeasy supplies to restaurants and cafés and has recently signed a deal to provide some of the coffee services to the University of Windsor. Armstrong says he can offer better coffee at the same as the current supplier to the university. He hopes to work out similar deals with other campuses, including McMaster.

Armstrong is a father of five, ranging from 2 to 15, who landed in Hamilton when his partner Andrea Robertson came to McMaster for the midwifery program. She is now a professor at Ryerson and is working on a PhD from the University of Western Ontario.

The son of oil industry employees, Armstrong was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Thailand, Saudi Arabia, East Germany and Portugal. His career path has been just as varied. He’s a journalism graduate from Concordia and has worked as a freelance writer, a music producer, a DJ and a chef.

Armstrong is fascinated both by the science of coffee growing and roasting and the sensory experience of enjoying it.

He brews a cup of coffee with the care of an artist. He weighs the water and the freshly ground beans.

“What you don’t measure, you can’t make better, ” he explains.

He puts the grounds in a heavy, waxy-looking filter balanced in the opening of an hour-glass-shaped glass vessel called a Chemex coffee maker. He pours a small amount of hot water (he lets boiled water sit 45 seconds first) over the grinds.

He calls this blooming, and says it allows carbon dioxide to blow off and aids with flavour extraction. Finally, he pours the water through the filter, carefully watching the digital scale.

He has a probe that measures the total dissolved solids in the liquid. The ideal is 1.25, he says. If it’s not there, you have to look at the variables like whether the water was too hot or the grind too fine.

The difference between experiencing his coffee and that sold in tins in grocery store, is something like the difference between a frozen dinner and a gourmet meal, he says. Store-bought coffee is stale, he says. It has to be because fresh-roasted coffee gives off carbon dioxide and would blow up its packaging.

“I want to sell coffee that is remarkable, spectacular and unusual. My real objective is to do that with world exclusives.”


Grapevine Radio

In Coffee Projects, In the news on January 3, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Transcription taken from

Stephen Armstrong of Speakeasy Roasteries answered a few of my questions about his connections to coffee in Hamilton. Stephen has a café in downtown Hamilton, a roastery in Kingsville (near Windsor) and a Hamilton-based roastery opening in January.

What made you interested in coffee?

“I am a classically trained Chef De Cuisine (British Craft Guild of Chefs) and a recovering alcoholic; but I gave up alcohol and kitchens at around the same time (’95). My story is that I’m basically a foodie with OCD and addictions issues, so me and Specialty coffee were a natural pairing.”

You can see Stephen’s blog “Ten things I love about Specialty Coffee” on his blog. One reason he includes is: “Specialty coffee is a ‘culture’…a slow-food approach of sitting down with people and making connections over a cup of the world’s most complexly glorious beverage. This ain’t no ‘double-double to go.’”

What are Speakeasy’s personal values and goals for coffee roasting?

“[Our goals are to be] quality driven, environmentally conscious, ethically sourced, sustainably produced, transparently operated… I love that at least 80% of what I pay for green coffee is going directly to the farmer; I love that these coffees have personalities behind them…not faceless co-ops, but individuals and families that are invested in producing something ‘better.’ It’s also satisfying as a business to be able to offer world-class, world-exclusive coffees that really make a significant difference in the lives of their producers. These are the intangibles of what I do that I find the most satisfying.

[Additionally] all Speakeasy facilities try to be as close to zero emissions as possible so I am having an afterburner made for the Ferguson location. An afterburner is a Ministry of the Environment approved emissions incinerator that is fitted to the roaster.”

What do you see Hamilton’s role being in ethical coffee consumption?

“To my understanding, Speakeasy was the first coffee roastery in Hamilton’s recent history (est. 2004). It was certainly the first Fair Trade Certified roastery in Hamilton, so I’ve always felt Hamilton could play an essential role in the growth of the ethical purchasing movement. Hamilton offers a unique environment where the mainstream coffee consumer might also be labour-issues aware; given a push in the right direction. We access a unique urbanicity that’s surrounded by a wealth of local artisan food providers, vineyards, orchards, and family run farms.”

Why have you chosen to work with Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade?

“Cup of Excellence is a third party organization that conducts ‘competitions’ in coffee producing countries. Anyone with a crop can enter. [The Cup of Excellence] jury narrows this down to the best 20 – 25. Members…are then able to bid on these coffee lots via a live auction. In this auction year, Speakeasy has acquired two different 2010 Cup of Excellence coffees.

The Direct Trade model sees coffee as a ‘seed to cup’ product – everything along the chain of production has impact on quality in the cup. In this model of quality, if you can’t eliminate links in the process chain, then the strategy is to make those “relationship” links stronger. This model rely on the roaster to do the import, shipping, quality assessments etc. (and absorb the associated costs) These models are about purchasing directly from the farmer based on quality…and based on quality, my cheapest green coffee costs me 3 times the Fair Trade minimum of $1.25 USD / lb. I might not have a certification group behind me to logo my bags, but my money couldn’t possibly be doing more.

Cup of Excellence and Direct Trade coffees guarantee ethics, sustainability, and quality. I think what’s prohibitive about Direct Trade and Cup of Excellence for many small roasters is cost. Direct Trade is often an all-or-nothing way of sourcing coffee. Single lots of coffee may cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars…and that’s just for one new coffee addition. With Direct Trade, there’s no one-bag option…it’s the whole crop or nothing. Then there are the issues of traveling to ‘origin’ to source coffees, and having the skill set to assess whether prices are reflective of quality. [The next step] is getting your coffees out of origin and into Canada. Currently, Speakeasy warehouses over 20 different single-origin coffees that are direct trade, Cup of Excellence, or microlot, with a value of well over $300k; significantly different from purchasing one or two bags at a time from an importer (at a cost of about $400 for a [Fair Trade certified] bag).”

How do you see Fair Trade in terms of ethical sourcing?

“Speakeasy spent it’s first 4 years are a purely Fair Trade roastery and I continue to maintain certification. Fair Trade is a global phenomenon and essential in providing market access to small-scale farmers (Direct Trade is small in comparison).

Contrary to the popular perception of ‘plantation’ grown coffee, about 90% of coffee is produced on small family owned plots of 5 hectares or less. If your farm only produces 5 bags of coffee every crop year then it’s very difficult to gain market access, and these farmers are open to exploitation. Fair Trade pools together the product of many farms and now the 5 bags is 500 and a more attractive volume to larger buyers. The flaw in the model is that one or two of those crop lots might be spectacularly high quality coffees that are being lost in the great blending pot of collectively milled coffee…good for market access, but not so good for quality.”

Do you have any future plans for Speakeasy that you’d like to share with us?

“I am working on creating ‘green’ buying co-ops (in Canada) that will make the issues of cost less prohibitive to artisan micro-roasters that may not have the pooled resources to engage direct trade on their own.

Speakeasy now works directly with an organization called NinetyPlus; they are aptly named because all of their coffees ‘cup’ (a set of protocols used to assess the quality of roasted coffee) at 90 points or higher. The members of this group work with farmers to improve all aspects of their coffee process. Speakeasy is discussing the possibility of taking on land in Panama that will be managed by NinetyPlus. What’s most interesting is that this group are not specifically coffee-based, but rather, specialists in the fields of agricultural micro-management, multi-culture crop environments, cross-strain varietals horticulture (i.e. agro-scientists).”

What’s your favourite Speakeasy coffee that you are currently offering?

“[My current favourite,] the Kenya Kagongo, tastes like freshly squeezed grapefruit… Speakeasy coffees try to offer experience…not coffees you would necessarily drink day after day… Because we generally buy small-lot coffees, it’s unlikely that we will even offer the same roster of beans 6 months from now. Love it or hate it, everyone who tries our coffees says ‘wow, I’ve never tasted anything like that in a cup of coffee before.’”

You can visit Speakeasy and drink some delicious coffee at the Speakeasy care at 445 Ferguson Avenue North.

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Support Canada’s Artisan Coffee Roaster

In Coffee Projects on September 2, 2010 at 6:53 pm

On September 26th and 27th, Speakeasy Roasteries will be exhibiting at the 2010 Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. You can find us at booth #343 in Hall 1 of the International Centre. Companies and individuals interested in attending Canada’s premier coffee and tea event can email to request a free show pass; compliments of Speakeasy Roasteries.

In preparation for this event, Speakeasy wanted to pull together a collaborative, “non-partisan” project that spotlights the highest-quality coffee providers Canada has to offer.  The “Support Canada’s Artisan Coffee Roaster”  t-shirt campaign was born. We put out the call to some of the best artisan coffee roasters across the country and ended up with an impressive list of sponsors. We are thrilled to have world-class coffee representatives from Eastern, Western, and Central Canada.

“Support Canada’s Artisan Coffee Roaster” t-shirts will be available through the Speakeasy webstore, or you can pick one up  at the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Quantities are very limited, so reserve yours today!

Take the time to check out the extensive list of quality coffees available from any one of our sponsor companies. Discover the local artisan coffee roaster, wherever you live.

Detour Coffee (Dundas, ON)

Everyday Gourmet (Toronto, ON)

49th Parallel (Burnaby, BC)

Fratello Coffee (Calgary, AB)

Java Blend (Halifax, NS)

Phil & Sebastian (Calgary, AB)

Reunion Island (Oakville, ON)

Sammy Piccolo (Coquitlam, BC)

Slayer Espresso (Calgary, AB)

Speakeasy Roasteries (Kingsville, ON)

TAN Coffee (Wolfsville, NS)

Te Aro Roasted (Toronto, ON)

Transcend Coffee (Edmonton, AB)

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Is Fair Trade sustainable?

In Social Justice & Environment on July 25, 2009 at 8:59 am

Is a guaranteed premium price without a guaranteed premium cup sustainable?

In December 2006 The Economist argued that “guaranteed pricing could not only supplant the reflex to diversify crops, but encourage more producers to grow coffee; driving down the conventional price even further.”

Fair Trade guarantees that farmers are paid an economically sustainable price. The Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO) markets and creates demand for fair-trade products; consumers are made increasingly aware of living wage issues, and that certified products can improve the lives of workers. Fair Trade continues to grow – less than ten years ago all Fair Trade coffees came from Central America. Today, certified coffees are available from almost every coffee producing country.

The suspicion is that Fair Trade is designed to sell low quality coffee at higher prices. Fair Trade co-ops are composed of hundreds of farmers producing different qualities of coffee often blended together. Money flows back to the co-op and is allocated equally amongst its members. The argument then is there’s no motivation for individuals to improve farming techniques, experiment with other coffee varieties, or access new markets.

According to Coffee Review the average cupping score for Fair Trade coffees in 2004 was 87.3, whereas the average for non-Fair Trade certified coffees was 86.8; bringing into question claims that Fair Trade coffees are inferior to specialty non-Fair Trade. Furthermore, Fair Trade coffees seem to be improving. The average rating for Fair Trade coffees rose from 85.0 in 2001-2002 to 87.2 in 2003-2004; supporting the position that paying more money on a guaranteed basis will improve quality.

TransFair explains that Fair Trade has a floor price rather than a fixed price. While the floor price may be irrelevant when farmers are selling above it by virtue of quality, Fair Trade certification often ensures that these same small-scale specialty coffee farmer have direct market ties. Nevertheless, despite continued market access and a guaranteed price, farmers are still struggling. Many coffee professionals believe price increases based on quality is the solution

Non-certified coffees that earn fair trade or higher prices are what some call the next wave of sustainability. Cup of Excellence (CoE) and Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade programs aim to reward quality in the cup. With the primary goal of selling coffee at a profit, organizations that self-certify face a conflict of interest that’s hard to ignore. Third parties like FLO are invested in the integrity of their certification label, not profitability. This is not to say that models like CoE or Direct Trade do not operate with integrity.

Fair Trade fills the gap between the micro-lot coffee aficionado, and the grocery store Robusta buyer. Consumers rely on the seeming transparency of certifying bodies to help guide their purchasing choices; they’re off to a good start with any specialty coffee, including Fair Trade.

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Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Alliance

In Social Justice & Environment on April 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm
At Speakeasy, we try our best to inform our opinions and purchasing choices with the most current and accurate information. It is never our intention to undermine or misinform. If you believe there to be inaccuracies or glaring ommissions, then feel free to give us a constructive kick. At Speakeasy, we are committed to engaging larger social dialogues…it’s about more than just beans. However, we hope that our attempts to “keep it simple” aren’t interpreted as essentialist – coffee is, after all, the most complex beverage on the planet!
Once I started to look at Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Alliance, it became clear to me that it’s a multi-faceted debate.
I’ll admit from the start that I carry some corporate skepticism into the equation. It’s not a moral “right or wrong” assesment of business practice; but rather, informed by the assumption that “corporate” is governed by profit margins and shareholder returns. A certification sytem that is endorsed by Kraft (owned by tobacco giant Phillip Morris) lacks social credibility in my opinion. In recent past, corporate coffee has not demonstrated itself to be a leader (neither in quality or in social justice); why assume so now?
The bigger issue I have is the perception in the marketplace that Rainforest Alliance certification is somehow a reasonable alternative to Fair Trade. Retailers participate in this deception by charging a premium pricepoint for RA products when they are (in my experience) significantly cheaper at the “green” supply level.
Rainforest Alliance coffees are cheaper for the reasons that differentiate them from a fairly traded, organic bean:
  • Only 30% compliance to receive certification; ie. up to 70% may be conventional, non-organically grown bean
  • No guarantee of a minimum price for it’s workers
  • Production models based on mass land holdings (private estates & corporate plantations), and indigenous subsistance workers
The question is further complicated by issues of quality…some Rainforest Alliance certified estates are CoE (Cup of Excellence) winners, others produce lowest common denominator coffee. The sad reality is that the majority of the high-end bean will not end up in the mainstream “consumer” market.
In fairness, Fair Trade faces similar concerns in a marketplace that’s becoming convoluted with low quality, non-organic, fair trade certified coffees. Fair Trade is also limited by it’s “blended” co-op product; making it difficult for the serious coffee afficiando to aquire certified single-estate beans. A reputable artisan roastery that deals in gourmet  “direct trade” or “fairly traded” coffees is often worth investigating.
I’ll give Rainforest Alliance some recognition for it’s commitment to the preservation of the natural canopy…particularly when countries like Peru are saturating the market with low cost organic coffees being produced on large tracts of clearcut (because it’s easier to organically certify cleared land compared to a natural canopy.)
That said, it’s our opinion that corporates are invested in the sustainability of coffee producing land; their commitment to environmental stewardship has little to do with improving the quality of life in the communities these multi-nationals occupy.
Fair Trade vs. Rainforest Aliiance? Don’t believe the hype.
For environmental commitment, social justice, and economic equity…
I’ll take a shade grown FTO coffee over Rainforest Alliance any day.
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