More Than Just Coffee

How a local co-op strives to bring us the best beans in the fairest way possible

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While growing the coffee beans seems daunting enough, it’s only one step in a multipronged process to get those beans into Madison coffee mugs.

Once Polo cherries are dried in the Dominican Republic, they’re processed into a more stable form called oro, the Spanish word for “gold,” put into hundred-pound sacks at a collection station and then sent to a processor to be graded. The high-quality beans are set aside for export. When an order—like one from Just Coffee—comes in, bags are taken by truck to the dock and loaded on a ship that travels to New Jersey. Once in the States, a semi carrying between fourteen and twenty-four tons of coffee travels to Madison.

Every two to three weeks, such a truck unloads at Just Coffee’s new headquarters on the city’s northeast side, formerly Ancora Coffee’s roasting facility (and before that, a roller rink). Shelves in an airy warehouse are stacked with burlap sacks bulging with coffee beans from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Uganda and elsewhere.

Nearby, master roaster Casey Blanche pulls the green beans from tall boxes called silos for roasting. Darker coffee varieties go into the drum roaster, lighter ones into the new air roaster that uses eighty percent less energy and puts out eight percent fewer emissions—and allows Blanche greater flexibility in how he roasts the beans.

About two years ago, Earley noticed that Just Coffee was regarding its coffee as merely a vehicle to its mission of empowering farmers. “We realized that to truly do the best we can by the farmers, unless we are maniacal about getting the best out of every cup of coffee, we are doing a disservice to the farmers.”

This summer and fall, Blanche and others at Just Coffee have been retooling their coffee recipes, or “profiles,” and Earley can’t wait to share the results with fans. “It’s actually going to blow their minds,” he promises.

After all, Just Coffee can attract plenty of customers due to its politics and practices alone. But Earley wants the coffee to stand on its own—or, better yet, serve as a strong partner to the co-op’s philosophy.

“Our core customers, they’re attracted to us because we’re a worker cooperative,” he says. “We keep ’em because the coffee is good.”

In Madison, that means the Willy Street Co-op and the Jenifer Street Market, as well as Mermaid Café, Graze and L’Etoile, Steenbocks on Orchard, Banzo, Monty’s Blue Plate Diner and dozens of other coffee shops, restaurants and businesses—many of which are serviced by bike delivery.

And then there’s Trek Bicycle. At its Waterloo headquarters, the company goes through seventy-five to eighty pounds of coffee a week—all of it from Just Coffee.

“Cyclists tend to be a fairly caffeinated crew,” says Trek spokesman Eric Bjorling. The coffee has to be top-notch, but the biggest reason for buying stems from Just Coffee’s commitment to sustainable and fair trade. “[It] aligns perfectly with our own commitment to lower-impact manufacturing and creating a cleaner business.”

Changes are afoot within Just Coffee itself, too. In addition to the move to the old Ancora space, Earley is eager to redefine the structure of the co-op, which currently has six owners and twenty employees. The worker-owners operate similar to a board of directors, which then informs management decisions that carry over to the remaining employees. Not only would Earley like most employees to be owners, he wants all employees to have a say in decision-making processes.

“We have three times more employees than we did three years ago,” he says. “It can be clumsy and awkward but that tension is part of the opportunity—everyone has a real stake. That at the end of the day is the strength of the cooperative.”

Newcomers to Earley’s co-op might be surprised by such frank talk—discussing shortcomings and sharing failures. But he’s dedicated to maintaining transparency and promoting fairness, from his practices here in Madison all the way to the farmers he works with around the world. He’s up-front when something isn’t working, and considers where Just Coffee is at as a starting point—a place from which to ask questions and strive to do more.

“Sometimes I’ve felt like walking away,” Earley says. “But if I did, the coffee industry would still continue. Isn’t it better for us to keep trying—and shed light on what isn’t working and keep building a better model? It’s a worthwhile piece.”

The situation isn’t perfect, but people like Earley and groups like Just Coffee are trying—and they’re making coffee drinkers part of that process.

“We dig in and take people on our journey,” he says.

Jacob Bielanski is a writer formerly based in Madison. Madison Magazine managing editor Katie Vaughn contributed to this story.

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