Friday, September 08, 2006

Seattle coffee culture starts with roaster


By ALLISON LINN / Associated Press

The battle for the best cup of coffee in Seattle is waged long before liquid hits cup, in cavernous rooms where coffee beans are piled high and noisy equipment churns out each company's unique coffee roast.

Many of Seattle's local roasters insist their small scale, decades-old roasting machines and intense attention to detail allows them to make a better cup of coffee than industry giant and hometown competitor Starbucks Corp.

Seattle's Caffe Vita roasts about 3,000 pounds of coffee a day, mostly in 80-pound batches, using circa 1939 equipment. In a cavernous, loud room behind one of the company's shops, the roasters say they judge whether a batch is done by listening, watching and smelling the coffee as it swirls around a big vat.

"It's full senses," says Andrew Daday, Caffe Vita's lead roaster.

Several times a week, Zoka Coffee owner Jeff Babcock heads down to the roasting plant located below his corporate offices to slurp spoonfuls of fresh coffee with the small group of roasters, who "cup" — or taste — the coffee twice a day to ensure quality .

"It's fine art," he says of the roasting and tasting process.

By contrast, Starbucks' 350,000-square foot roasting, packaging and warehouse plant in suburban Kent churns out up to 1.5 million pounds of coffee per week, using high-tech computer controls to monitor roasting equipment that can handle 400- to 600-pound batches of beans. The coffee there is subjected to periodic quality checks as well.

All three companies insist that they are roasting in small enough batches to guarantee quality.

"We're still a specialty coffee producer," says Gregg Clark, director of Starbucks' plant operations.

'Ethical' coffee workers paid below legal minimum

By Hal Weitzman in Lima

Published: 8/9/2006 Last Updated: 8/9/2006 21:05 London Time

"Ethical" coffee is being produced in Peru, the world's top exporter of Fairtrade coffee, by labourers paid less than the legal minimum wage. Industry insiders have also told the FT of non-certified coffee being marked and exported as Fairtrade, and of certified coffee being illegally planted in protected rainforest.

This casts doubt on the certification process used by Fairtrade and similar marks that require producers to pay the minimum wage.

It also raises questions about the assurances certifiers give consumers about how premium-priced fair trade coffee is produced.

As the board member of one Peruvian Fairtrade-certified coffee producer told the FT: "No certifier can guarantee they will purchase 100 per cent of a co-operative's production, so how can they guarantee that every bag will be produced according to their standards?"

Though certified coffee makes up less than 2 per cent of the global coffee trade it has become increasingly mainstream as large retailers such as Starbucks and McDonald's adopt it.

The FT visited five Peruvian smallholdings, all of which have Fairtrade certification.

Each farm hires 12-20 casual coffee pickers during the harvest season. All house and feed their workers, which allows them to deduct 30 per cent from their wages.

After that reduction from the legal daily minimum wage for casual agricultural workers of 16 soles ($5), farm owners are still obliged to pay at least 11.20 soles a day. In four of the five farms visited by the FT, pickers received 10 soles a day, while the other farm paid workers 12 soles a day.

Luuk Zonneveld, managing director of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, the Bonn-based body that sets fair trade standards, told the FT that the certification system "is not fool- and leak-proof" but said the problem should be put in context.

"Poor farmers often struggle to pay their workers fairly," he said. "Why are casual labourers there at all? There are wider issues here. We need to ask why this goes on and what we can do to help."

A number of industry insiders told the FT they had also witnessed fraud within the certification system which resulted in coffee from uncertified sources being exported as Fairtrade.

The FT has also been told of Fairtrade coffee being planted in protected national forest land in the northern Peruvian jungle. Using global satellite mapping, a Canadian NGO found that about one-fifth of all coffee production in one Fairtrade-certified association was illegally planted in protected virgin rainforest.

The Financial Times Ltd.