More Than Just Coffee
How a local co-op strives to bring us the best beans in the fairest way possible
Top left photo: Yideg Haile, master roaster Casey Blanche, Dan Ryan, Scott Coleman, Timmy Smith and Ada Love all of Just Coffee. Bottom right photo: Just Coffee co-founder and co-owner Matt Earley.
PHOTOS BY JACOB BIELANSKI AND GRAYDON SCHWARTZ
The Dominican Republic village of Polo has one paved road and little else. Set halfway up the mountains in the Caribbean country’s southern region, this is where a cup of Just Coffee’s Polo blend begins.
Along with El Corazon, Yirgacheffe, Gumutindo, Revolution Roast, Solidarity Blend and twenty-three others, Polo is a fair-trade, organic coffee sold by Madison craft roaster Just Coffee. Beans for the dark roast come from a farmers’ cooperative in the Dominican Republic, one of fourteen co-ops Just Coffee works with in Latin America and Africa through its importing group, Cooperative Coffees.
While Co-op Coffees has its own farmer relations staffer who regularly visits the farms on behalf of its twenty-four member coffee roasters spread across the United States and Canada, Just Coffee co-owner Matt Earley prefers to visit producers personally. In 2013 alone, he’s trekked to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and, in May, the Dominican Republic; he hopes to get to Columbia, Peru and the Democratic Republic of the Congo before the end of the year.
“We want to build direct, direct, direct relationships,” explains Earley, adding that his group seeks out farmers who have only two and a half acres or less of land and operate with democratic principles. “The general model in the coffee industry is to shop around—not long-term relationships.”
Those relationships are at the heart of Just Coffee, Madison’s only worker-owned coffee-roasting co-op whose mission is to practice trade based on transparency, equality and human dignity—and produce a stellar cup of coffee. But, as Earley’s recent visit to Polo revealed, doing all this is hardly an easy task.
Even with its large tires, the black Hyundai truck carrying Earley to the source of Polo coffee slips and occasionally stalls as rain comes in spastic fits. These qualities—the mountain slopes, tropical temperatures and on-again, off-again precipitation—are the ones upon which quality coffee beans thrive.
Earley’s here to visit the group of farms dedicated to fair trade that Co-op Coffees has been working with since 2009. He’s greeted with smiles from a small gathering of farmers, and he quickly gets to work shaking hands and returning grins, but also examining the conditions of the farm.
Just Coffee has been happy with the quality of the Polo coffee—it’s been selling well in cafés, co-ops, markets and companies in Madison, as well as in roughly thirty-five states across the country—but a few other members of Co-op Coffees have concerns.
Coffee quality is scored on a one-hundred-point system. Eighty is considered the low end for specialty coffees; Polo’s current contract demands a minimum of eighty-one and they have had trouble hitting that mark. A wide range of “precarious” factors can contribute to quality, from farmers’ plant choices to the timing of picking the cherries that encase the beans to their methods of de-pulping, fermenting, washing and drying.
“It’s an incredibly complex process,” Earley says. He’s heard rumblings about drying being the problem area for Polo. It turns out the farmers don’t have enough space to dry beans, and the process is taking longer due to climate change bringing more rain and moisture to the region.
And another problem is wreaking havoc before the cherries are even ready to be harvested. A fungus called roya develops at the base of coffee plants and spreads to the leaves, discoloring them with brown spots, and then the cherries, preventing them from fully maturing. Roya has destroyed between thirty to seventy percent of the organic coffee crop across Latin America and Earley says it’s doing no less than changing the entire landscape of the specialty coffee industry.
Chemicals exist to combat roya, but they’re not an option for organic farmers. Instead, they are starting to plant hybrids that are more resistant to the fungus; they’re hardier plants but produce beans that don’t taste as good. “There is definnitely not a silver bullet with roya,” Earley says. “It’s heartbreaking. This is a slow-motion disaster.”
Also heartbreaking is the reality that even though Co-op Coffee pays its producers more than the fair trade minimum (of $1.40 per pound for fair-trade washed coffee with a thirty-cent premium for organic certification), that alone will never pull those workers out of poverty. When Earley first started Just Coffee with friend Mike Moon in 2000—while a UW–Madison grad student of Latin American studies with an interest in co-ops, coffee and workers’ rights—he thought that dealing in fair trade would change the lives of the farmers.
“It’s degrees of poverty,” he says. “Small-scale farmers simply cannot grow enough coffee on their plots, which are usually less that two and a half acres. The math—even at $5 or $10 per pound —does not work if growing coffee is a farmer’s only connection with the cash economy. The key is trying to get enough resources to farmers to help them diversify in ways that will help them be less dependent on coffee.”
That’s where those long-term relationships come back in. Just Coffee’s partner farms can count on them to care about their problems and work toward solutions, help them get affordable loans, share ideas on how to diversify their businesses and bring in nonprofit organizations working in education, health care and other areas of need.
In fact, Earley helped form his own nonprofit to provide such community development. Just Coffee and Community Action on Latin America, a Madison-based organization that pursues issues of social justice in Latin American affairs, run Outside the Bean, which promotes and coordinates partnerships between Madison and coffee farming families, helping them secure safe water and food and determine ways to move away from a strict dependence on coffee farming. In the fall of 2012, they raised funds for a clean water project in Chiapas, Mexico, and they’re now planning a project with an all-women co-op they work with in Nicaragua.
“The idea is that it’s a partnership,” Earley says. “Some of these folks, I’ve known for ten, twelve years.”
PHOTOS BY JACOB BIELANSKI AND GRAYDON SCHWARTZ
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.