July 2007

Monthly Archive

The Inconvenient Truth About Fair Trade

Posted by on 03 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Fair Trade

Although Fair Trade coffee has been around since the 1980s, it wasn’t until the past couple of years that it received heavy airplay. And unless you’ve been reading a rare opinion, such as this one (or the rare reader of The Economist), you’d think that to question the value and effectiveness of Fair Trade certification amounts to heretical blasphemy. Despite the volume of contradictory evidence against the panacea-for-poverty status currently enjoyed by Fair Trade, there is very little open debate on the issue. The coffee industry itself has debated Fair Trade’s claims and ethical merits for over a decade now, but the mainstream public only gets a sort of “party line”.

For example, in this month’s issue of Fast Company, we learn that “Fair trade ensures workers make a living wage”: Drink Better Coffee, Save The World – Mother Earth Coffee Co. – Jim’s Organic Coffee – Equal Exchange. Yet Fair Trade does no such thing. It merely guarantees a minimum price paid to co-operatives. Whether the co-operatives pass enough of the profits on to growers, and whether that minimum price can support living wages to begin with, are well beyond the scope of Fair Trade certification. Yet magazine publishers and socially conscious bloggers keep spreading these mis-truths without so much as batting an eyelash (or, at least, fact checking).

A smaller, but yet just as illustrative, example of this selective hearing comes from comments made on this very Web site. Following a movie review I wrote for the flawed coffee documentary, Black Gold, one reader could not be bothered to read the criticisms I raised about the movie and Fair Trade’s shortcomings — choosing instead to add a promotional movie/Fair Trade comment as if I had posted a chocolate cake recipe. Stick fingers in ears; yell, “La la la! I can’t year you!”

Which raises the question: why are so many consumers, greenies, and (worst of all) greenie preachers putting their blinders on and bestowing Fair Trade with infallibility? Is the issue that these major flaws — flaws that have inspired some of America’s top roasters to abandon working with Fair Trade altogether — represent inconvenient truths that people just don’t want to hear? Whatever it is, it cannot be explained away with simple naïveté or even just wishful thinking.

The mechanics of social activism

One today’s great ironies is that we scrutinize the caffeine in our coffee ad nauseum — coffee being something we have safely consumed as a species for centuries — and yet the Fair Trade label stamped on the bag it comes in receives virtually no scrutiny.

Is it because social activists are afraid of sending mixed messages that could frustrate the laymen they are trying to convert to the cause? Social activism is like a shark in some respects: it must remain in motion or it will die. Many activists fear that if an individual cannot follow explicit, personal instructions to do their part — even if those actions may ultimately do more harm than good — it will trigger the death of awareness.

It has been fourteen years since the death of César Chávez, and many Californians still boycott grapes. Yet most have forgotten why they’re boycotting, don’t know which grapes to boycott, and/or they have no idea when they are supposed to stop boycotting. We end up with activism for the sake of activism, regardless of whether it helps a cause or not. But is buoying awareness that much more important than actually doing any good? Is blind repetition worth the price of open discussion and debate about how each of us can truly make the greatest impact?

As another point of comparison, AIDS patients and activists of the mid-1980s were so desperate for hope that AZT, which was found to be a terribly flawed drug in the fight against AIDS, was considered better than having no hope in the pipeline at all. But unlike AIDS, few of us directly experience the malnutrition and poverty of the global coffee crisis, and we certainly don’t experience any real death. Which is why I’ve come to the following explanation…

The role of “religious” faith in social activism

People desperately want to believe they can make a clear and positive difference with a simple, personal purchasing decision — something as simple as the label on their coffee. The desire for such a simple solution to exist is so strong that we are willing to commit to the first thing that comes by and sounds promising. If we then ask few questions, we can sustain the convenient façade. We can live in good conscience (or denial, if you prefer) knowing that we’ve done our part to assuage any guilt we might have about living up to the ethical standards we hold for ourselves.

Buy a Toyota Prius, drive all you want, and global warming is no longer your responsibility.

It may seem harsh, but we are all more like Pontius Pilate than César Chávez in this regard: rather than actively question or doubt, we are happier to live in blissful ignorance by washing our hands of further responsibility. Perhaps it’s only fitting that we now consume our ethics in the same way we consume our apples: in low-commitment, bite-size, pre-sliced, “fun size” wedges that prevent our hands from getting too dirty.

Fair Trade espresso: Great taste and less filling than the other leading brands.

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. @ Ferry Building Marketplace

Posted by on 02 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

One of the odder, and better, espresso adventures in San Francisco is the outdoor Blue Bottle Coffee tent that descends on the Ferry Building Marketplace every week like a traveling Burning Man exhibition. Starting in 2004, East Bay artisan roaster James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee brought his coffee cart out to the weekend farmers’ market at this location.

James has long (and accurately) recognized the dire neglect of quality coffee by restaurants and cafés, so he’s been big on freshness since the beginning of his days at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. He won’t sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago, and he’s always bucked the local trend of charred roasts by promoting more moderate roast profiles. Not surprisingly, Blue Bottle was the 2004 coffee winner of the SF Bay Guardian‘s “Best of the Bay,” and they’ve received numerous awards ever since.

More controversially, before establishing a greater Blue-Bottle-branded footprint in SF proper, James also provided the original coffee service and training for the once-excellent Frog Hollow Farm inside the Ferry Building. Frog Hollow Farm’s espresso hasn’t been the same since they dissolved their business relationship, but more on that below.

Blue Bottle's circus tent at the Ferry Building Marketplace farmers' market Bags of Blue Bottle for sale

Blue Bottle operates two temporary locations here: one electrified kiosk on the West (arcade) side using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, and the other kiosk on the South side running off propane and marine batteries using two Astoria manual/lever machines (a four-group and a two-group). (Coincidentally, last week we hinted at James Freeman’s pragmatism this week, and his choice of Astoria machines in the field at this location speaks volumes.)

The lever machines give it the feel of the Toy Boat Dessert Café. Though the off-the-grid nature of this spot reminds me of perhaps my favorite lever machine espresso experience: in a fog bank atop Mt. Vesuvius, just before reaching the crater wall.

The lines here have always been long. But the fresh coffee pilgrims have made it so that I now recommend making up a unique, fictitious name for your order. I heard orders for ‘Greg’ called up four times within the 15-minute wait after ordering, which made things very confusing. This despite the larger pit crew James now fields here (James rarely makes appearances himself now). This location has a couple of benches, but most customers drink it standing up or order “to go”.

The Blue Bottle hustle behind the Astoria lever machines Blue Bottle's drip coffee station

They pull shots with a speckled, textured mixture of dark and darker brown crema that is surprisingly thin — at least on warm weather. (James told me their favorite days for consistency are socked-in August Saturdays.) Double shot ristretti are the default, and so are the paper cups — so order it in the traditional brown Nuova Point cups before they run out. For a ristretto, the body is a bit too thin, however — at least with the warm day of my last spot check. It has a flavor of smoke and smooth tobacco combined with a little honey, nectar-like sweetness. The brightness in the coffee shines through, but not as much as their Hayes Valley location. They also offer custom drip filter coffees.

While the overall quality of the espresso here is quite good, this location has never matched Frog Hollow Farm‘s espresso at its best in 2003-2004 — before James pulled out. Frog Hollow Farm seemed to bring together the best of James’ coffee and training with a fixed location and great equipment. Independently, both have suffered a loss of quality at this location since the split.

Following my farmers’ market visit, I headed home to compare my morning Blue Bottle experience with my own home espresso setup — using an espresso blend I made from “micro batches” of four different beans I had roasted with my Fresh Roast+ three days earlier. While it was clear I couldn’t create anything close to the milk microfoam Blue Bottle could produce, my espresso shots had a richer, thicker, and more colorful crema, a slightly weaker aroma, but a more robust flavor profile, greater brightness, and a thicker body. The Bay Area espresso elite should always give my home espresso a run for the money, and in the past three years this cart service has yet to do that.

Read the updated review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the Ferry Building Marketplace.

The Blue Bottle cappuccino at the Ferry Building The Blue Bottle espresso at the Ferry Building

The Naked Portafilter

Posted by on 01 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Machine

Because some people can’t start the day without a little espresso porn, INeedCoffee.com published an primer article today on the phenomenon of the naked portafilter: The Naked Portafilter (INeedCoffee.com).

We mentioned the phenomenon of naked shots here a couple years ago. Before Clover brewers were all the trendy rage in coffee, a few years ago the folks at Zoka Coffee in Seattle decided that you could get a better look at your extraction — and you could avoid some of the temperature drop-off at the portafilter spouts — by removing the spouts entirely.

Only a select few cafés in the Bay Area offer naked shots, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re all missing out. IMHO, naked portafilters add a rather subtle change to most espresso shots — with just as many examples tasting slightly better with spouts.

Espresso porn from a naked portafilter

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