By Barbara Kessler
Before the rise of the Decaf Venti Macchiato, the Caramel Flan Latte and the Skinny Peppermint Mocha, caffeine-addicted Americans prepared their own fix. They dug a big red can of ground coffee out of the cupboard, lugged it across the kitchen, manually loaded the grounds into a rattling stove-top kettle and waited humbly until the crusty pot burbled forth a cup of joe.
Later, they rinsed out the grounds and washed the reusable basket. Imagine the manual labor, and so early in the morning!
We've come full circle. Today, the red can coffee offends our ever-evolving palates. Sniff. But some of us also are falling out of love with the calorie-packed and aggressively caffeinated Macchiato, and her ilk. Pushing us toward divorce: Neither our plain nor fancy coffee is all that environmentally sensitive.
Craft coffee is the new story and it comes with both local food credentials and a Fair Trade label. It supports hometown roasters in the US, Europe and Australia, and local growers in the coffee-producing countries around the world.
We Westerners (Americans and Europeans gulp most of the world's coffee) are reinventing coffee once again and it's tastier than ever, made at corner cafes that buy from local roasters. The roasters work directly with small importers, who buy from traditional growers in Costa Rica, Peru, Rwanda and Ethiopia.
This new movement isn't exactly threatening to take down the corporate coffee stores that line our avenues. But it's building steam.
The US imported 163 million pounds of Fair Trade coffee at last count (2012), up from just 76,059 pounds in 1998.
And you're most likely to find that coffee at your locally owned coop grocery or coffee bar. Those are sprouting up, faster than you can compose a Cinnamon Latte. Well, not really. But pretty fast.
These enterprises, in turn, support local craft coffee roasters. How many of those are around? If you drink coffee you can probably name at least one local brand that's roasting beans in your town.
The movement is akin to the local micro-brewing phenomenon that's transforming the beer industry, says Richard Duncan, owner of Addison Coffee Roasters, which began in 1984 in a Dallas mall.
Duncan has been there for all the caffeine ups and downs (make that ups and ups), and helped pioneer the locally roasted coffee movement.
In that first store, then called The Coffee & Tea Trading Company, in Prestonwood Mall, customers could watch the green coffee beans being roasted in a window display and then sample a truly fresh cup of coffee.
Today, Addison Roasters continues, more popular than ever, from its headquarters and roasting shop in an Addison business park. It imports coffee from a couple dozen countries and sends several varieties to Central Market groceries and other buyers, such as the coffee bar/jazz bistro Banter in Denton, Texas. These vendors are all seeking sustainably grown, Fair Trade coffee that's fresh, fresh, fresh, says Duncan.
"That is absolutely key to what we do. We make a point that every bean we sell, we roast to order," he said.
Coffee is best right after it's been roasted, and over time, say many weeks, it loses its piquancy, Duncan explained. Like wine, it's got good times and bad times. That's why those grocery store coffees ran so many ads about how the freshness was zipped in. Even better, buy it fresh, buy it locally.
This modern coffee sophistication has pointed us, paradoxically, back in time, to small growers using artisan methods that bring out the nuanced, geography-dependent flavors of coffee.
"As people's palates have expanded and gotten more interested in flavors, it's led us back to the small farmers who in the past couldn't make a living doing what they do" because they weren't big enough to serve large commercial concerns, Duncan said.
"All some of the small farmers could do was to roughly pulp their beans and sell them to somebody — they called the middlemen coyotes — who would then take them up the road and sell it to someone else, so basically the farmers were getting nothing," he said.
Now, however, these farmers have an advantage because they can grow beans that are valued for their diversity of flavors, and the unique tastes that are best produced by smaller operations. They’ve connected with Fair Trade cooperatives set up around the world and are exporting to small artisan coffee roasters.
"The beans are now in demand and they're able to make a much better living,” Duncan said.
Addison Coffee Roasters was, Duncan believes, the first roaster to bring Fair Trade coffee to the Dallas market.
Fair Trade, as customers of artisan coffee are learning, assists small farmers with their business operations, encourages environmental stewardship and collective bargaining to improve the lives of growers and their communities. Fair Trade certified farmers set aside a small portion of their earnings for community betterment and strive to preserve the land through traditional methods, such as planting under the shade of the native tropical canopy. A big percentage of Fair Trade coffee is also organic.
Industrial coffee production, with its focus on volume, hasn't been as kind to the forests or to growers. It took down forests, built monoculture plantations and turned landed farmers into wage earners, critics say.
Fair Trade moved in, starting in the late 1990s, to ameliorate these mistakes.
"Fair Trade is all about sustainability, in every sense of the word. It means sustainable livelihoods for farming communities, the promotion of sustainable farming practices, and strong, sustainable supply chains from farm to shelf," explained Jenna Larson, public relations manager for Fair Trade USA.
Call it a slow food coffee movement. That seems to be what's happening at the consumer end, too, as coffee drinkers scale back on the technology (not everyone has a Keurig), making their coffee with French Presses or Chemexes.
These slower processes aim to extract the multi-layered flavors of fresh roasted, specialty coffees.
Duncan, a connoisseur, uses a Technivorm Moccamaster coffee maker or French Press at home and enjoys coffee processed with Old World methods, like a "dry process" used in Yemen, that brings out the nuances of coffee and also use less water.
Addison Coffee Roasters’ recently purchased roaster also conserves resources. Duncan is proud to report that it recaptures heat from the exhaust stack and returns it to the burner box, reusing it to roast the coffee beans. His found this new efficient heart for their shop a couple years ago in Oklahoma City.
And so the local business chain expands.
As we chat before the dozen or so coffee varieties for sale at the mini-storefront attached to the roasting facility, Duncan reflects on 30 years in the business and the Ethiopian and other coffees he favors. He lets it slip that, yes, he does travel with special equipment, "a little manual pour over" for when he's away.
Pour over, he muses. Not long ago that wasn't even a term we knew.
(Video by Brett Kessler.)