I managed to do little to no thinking for a solid week— just soaking up the sun, blissfully ignorant to what was happening outside of my visit with family in North Carolina— but the world goes on and the news, it turns out, is unavoidable. First it was more than 250 people killed by suicide bombers in Baghdad; then one black man and then another killed at the hands of police; then five police officers murdered at a protest. All of this happened within a few days. And it was all too sad. And it robbed me of my sleep. And it got me thinking again. And the nerve of this news happening while I was trying to take a break from thinking!
Why am I writing about this for a coffee blog? Because somewhere in the tumult of my brain right now, there are parallels being drawn between the ugliness in the world and the ugliness in the coffee industry—both of which continue despite the best efforts and best intentions of so many out there. I go through phases (see above) during which I tune out the ugly and focus on the positive, sheltered in my happy little Bay Area bubble because…well…I can. I’m not immediately threatened by violence, war, poverty, hunger; but my happy, comfortable life is so closely tied to an industry that is still rife with slave labor, child labor, hungry farmers, the developing world—which faces violence, war, drugs, natural disasters, and more. All. The. Time.
Reading about all of the ugliness in the coffee world or the world at large and knowing what’s going on will not make it go away, nor will tuning it out entirely. At the very least, when we hear the challenges people face, we become aware of a struggle different than ours. Take it a step further and we feel for the people. Further still, we act.
And here— in educating, in caring, and in acting— the coffee industry shines. There are so many examples and I’d like to encourage you to share yours in the comments section below. I’m going to share an experience I had recently that I thought creatively broached the subject of pickers’ wages. At the end of May, I went to San Francisco and bought myself a $12 cup of coffee. It was not geisha (as the barista somewhat bashfully told me). It was not laced with gold. It was expensive because it was picked by San Franciscans, whose hourly wages are much higher than those of the pickers in El Salvador. A little backstory – Ritual Coffee Roasters sent six employees to visit their producer partner at Finca Monte Rey in El Salvador as part of their Baristas in Paradise program that they’ve been doing for the past few years. While there, they picked coffee, which was separated and sent to San Francisco, roasted, and brewed at their cafes during Baristas in Paradise Week.
Coffee pickers are arguably the most marginalized segment of the coffee industry, often migrating with their families to get work during the harvest season and making barely enough to survive. (There’s a good, succinct article about it here.) Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual, addressed the issue by charging what she believes (and the math supports) the coffee should be worth if the farmworkers were to be paid SF minimum wages. She then took it a step further and used the extra revenue from these cups of coffee for projects on the farm to support the pickers: filtered drinking water made more easily accessible at the top of the farm so the farmworkers can drink while they’re working and meals distributed to the farmworkers that will be made from crops grown on the land. It should be noted that the point of this promotion was not to say that farmworkers should earn the same wage as San Franciscans, rather it was to serve as a catalyst for conversation and to get people thinking about this underrepresented class in coffee in addition to raising funds for projects. With this one example, you have baristas connecting with farmworkers and sharing their experience with the customers who come by the café. You have customers actively participating in a promotion that will give back to the workers on the farm. You have education and engagement.
Of course, Ritual is in a unique position and in a unique place. Not all coffee roasting companies in this country could afford to send employees to origin or have customers that can afford to spend $12 on a cup of coffee. But I’d argue that no coffee company can afford not to speak with their customers about the plight of the producer. I’ve had conversations with green buyers who feel their hands are tied by what their customers are willing to pay for coffee. I get that and that’s also often been Royal’s experience. But the more we educate consumers, the more our customers will understand the impact the extra money they pay for premium or certified coffee directly benefits the land and the people that harvest it.
I know a lot of roasters out there are small business owners trying to make ends meet. There are so many of you that don’t have the resources to travel to the trade shows and traveling to origin is a pipe dream. If that pipe dream, however, is somewhat within your grasp, I’d highly encourage you to grab it. Did you read about the cupping, auction, and farm tour that Royal and Inconexus are arranging in Nariño, Colombia in August? Please go! And then come home with some delicious coffee and share your experience with your customers. It might not save the world, but it will make it a little more connected and compassionate.
What do you think? Do you have any ideas on how to make the world a little less ugly? Would you pay $12 for a cup of coffee? What are some of your obstacles in educating customers? What have been some of your successes? Let’s discuss! Please share your thoughts or experiences in the comments below or email me at email@example.com.
All photos are used with permission from Ritual Coffee Roasters. Pictured in the first photo is Leslie Mah, Head Roaster for Ritual Coffee Roasters (left) and Bean Bull, Barista for Ritual Coffee Roasters (right). Pictured in the second photo is Shane Voight, Cafe Manager for Ritual Coffee Roasters (left), Nancy Majano de Arenivar co-owner of Monte Rey in El Salvador (center) and Bean Bull, Barista for Ritual Coffee Roasters (right).