Alex Brown never waits in the line at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. To him, coffee quality is worth more than a sleepy morning any day. In fact, for Brown, caffeine is not the point of coffee at all.
Brown, an employee at Counter Culture Coffee, spends his days searching for the most perfect cup of coffee human kind has ever seen.
Counter Culture is a specialty coffee company focused on direct trade. The company sources, roasts and delivers their own products, unlike many other companies that only focus on one step of the process.
Direct trade is often confused with fair trade. In fair trade the distributor buys from a cooperative that pays the farmers. The price has to be at least $1.69 per pound, according to the Direct Trade Coffee Club.
Unlike fair trade, direct trade is when the roaster buys directly from the farmers. The price floats between $3 and $5 per pound, however it entirely depends on the quality of the product.
“Everyone wants to be philanthropic,” Brown said. “But there is a problem with giving people more money for not a quality product.”
Brown explained that when fair trade farmers are paid more for the same product, the cooperative can cut the farmers at any time, and then they are stuck in the exact same impoverished situation they began in.
With direct trade, farmers only get paid a higher price if they are producing a quality product. Counter Culture works with the farmers to make sure that they are using the right techniques to produce the best product that they can.
“We find coffee with potential, coffee that’s already good but could be excellent,” Brown said.
Wholesalers like Counter Culture are looking for specialty coffee. Coffee under the name of specialty coffee “represent 37 percent of U.S. coffee cups and are considered the highest quality in the world,” according to Specialty Coffee Association of America.
Coffee is ranked on a scale of 1 to 100 by professional coffee producers across the U.S. to determine whether it is specialty coffee or not. A perfect score would entail that the coffee has a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness, which apparently “never happens” said Brown.
In order to be considered specialty coffee, the product must rank higher than 80 in a tasting.
When Brown is in the field he looks for three things in the product; where the coffee is grown, how many varieties the farmer produces and how the coffee is processed.
Brown has experienced some unrest when searching for new coffee growers. However, motivated farmers typically want to produce a higher quality product and will listen to their advice, said Brown.
Counter Culture is able to give advice to farmers because they have been in the business of searching for specialty coffee since 1995.
“We have a wider perspective than most,” Brown said.
Brown finds more unrest from the U.S. coffee market than with the growers. Direct trade pushes up the demanded quality of coffee, and although it is more expensive, it takes a large population away from fair trade coffee.
Counter Culture combats the backlash through being overly transparent. Each year the company creates a Direct Trade Transparency Report that outlines the prices paid per pound to the farmers and updates readers on the status of the relationships with each farm.
In the future, Brown hopes to see all coffee venders practicing direct trade. With this method of production, all aspects of growing coffee are captured in the cost. Buyers end up with a cup of quality coffee which gave an equal pay check to everyone in the supply chain.
“If I could say Counter Culture is about two things it would be education and relationships,” Brown said.