Peace Coffee in Minneapolis, MN

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

There is no hiding the size of Peace Coffee and there is no hiding their influence. From their eco-friendly headquarters in South Minneapolis, the Peace Coffee team dispatches bike-riding messengers to bring fair-trade certified coffee to their numerous accounts in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

With one of the most marketable names in the industry, Peace Coffee has raised a consciousness in consumers about coffee and the ethics contained within the cup that wakes them up each morning. Built upon a platform of fair trade and organic beans, Peace Coffee has been given a stage by environmentally and ethically conscious companies such as the Wedge Co-op and Common Roots Cafe. As the company continues to grow, it raises the question: What is fair trade and where does this coffee come from?

Peace Coffee stepped into the coffee industry in 1996, with the goal of working with farmers to pay them a living wage. In 1998 TransFair USA was started, and in 1999 fair trade certification became available. This was in response to what is known as the “coffee crisis,” a time when the price of coffee was dropping rapidly, leaving coffee growers without a sustainable income to support their farms and families. The fair trade certification has become a cornerstone for companies like Peace Coffee and a symbol of ethics that is trusted by consumers.

Jena Modin / Heavy Table

At the Peace Coffee headquarters, Derek De La Paz (right), one of the three Peace Coffee roasters, tastes coffee. “When I taste I look for taints and defects, not just in the green, but in the roast,” says De La Paz, a Napa Valley-trained chef who was the executive chef at the Napa Valley Grille and did a short stint at Bouchon. De La Paz looks for taints and defects in the roast because all of the green coffee that is roasted is selected by Mane Alves of Coffee Lab International.

Coffees are selected by Alves and purchased by Cooperative Coffees, a North American green coffee buying co-op. Alves receives green coffee samples for Cooperative Coffees and makes selections for the company so that the individual members of the co-op do not have to take part in the selection process of green beans. “Peace Coffee was a founding member of Co-op Coffees and there are now over 22 members,” says Melanee Meegan, one of Peace Coffee’s veteran employees. Due to the size of Cooperative Coffees, Peace Coffee is not able to purchase coffee from individual farms. Instead, coffees are purchased from large farmer co-ops like the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, who De La Paz says, “is one of the larger co-ops, [with] about 10,000 members.”

Working with Cooperative Coffees has both advantages and disadvantages for Peace Coffee. The advantage is that they are able to positively effect a large number of farmers by consistently purchasing coffee from co-ops regardless of the quality of the product. “All of these products have value and it is difficult to have the product quality ebb and flow, but we trust our abilities as roaster to work with what we are given,” says De La Paz. The average price that Peace Coffee is paying their farmers is $2.15 per pound, a price that goes above the Fair Trade price, which fluctuates, but it is currently around $1.26 per pound. Peace Coffee brings this information to consumers by making their contracts available online.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The disadvantage of working with such a large scale importer and with origin co-ops is that they are not able to work directly with specific farms to create growing, harvesting, and processing improvements that directly influence and improve the quality of the cup. With co-ops ranging in size from 250 members at the CENFROCAFE Co-op in Peru to those with thousands of members to the co-ops in Ethiopia, it is difficult to make changes with individual farmers that will affect the overall product of the co-op. Although Peace Coffee does consistently travel to origin, visiting their co-ops at least once every two years, they do not have the same influence on cup quality because they are working with a larger number of growers.

Jena Modin / Heavy Table

Roasters such as Bull Run Roasting Company, Paradise Roasters, Black Sheep Coffee Cafe, and Reality Roasters work directly with importers or as importers to source coffee not only from co-ops, but also from specific farms. These companies have paid farmers prices that are not only above fair trade and Peace Coffee prices, but also reflective of the quality of the coffee and needs of the farmers. This is a roaster and farmer relationship that the industry has started to recognize as “direct trade.”

Peace Coffee says that they are doing the best that they can at origin with the size that they are. Peace Coffee is a macro roaster (roasting 500,000 pounds of coffee a year), compared to a micro roaster like Paradise Roasters, which roasts less than 100,000 pounds a year. “We focus our relationships on smaller organizations within larger co-ops so that we’re talking to both the people growing the coffee, and the cooperative managers who have the means to deliver the beans,” says Meegan.

In the roasting room Peace Coffee is working with a CR70 Diedrich, a roaster than can do 70 kilos (about 150 pounds) at full capacity per batch. “There is a sweet spot for every roaster and on this machine it is around 120 pounds,” says De La Paz. Coffees are roasted to different levels of darkness ranging from a light roast applied to some of their Ethiopian coffee to a full city roast which is lighter than a French roast. The Peruvian coffee from the CENFROCAFE co-op is a “very nutty coffee, with pecan and sweet walnut scents,” says De La Paz, who is a Specialty Coffee Association of America certified coffee cupper. One of Peace Coffee’s newest coffees (it’s not yet available), from the Poco Fundo Coop in Brazil, has a bright acidity with prominent fruit notes. This co-op is one of the smallest of the 16 farmer co-ops that Peace Coffee purchases from.

Like any business that balances customer satisfaction, profit, ecology, and ethics, Peace Coffee faces a complicated future — the company exists as a balancing act that must keep its footing in particularly uncertain times. But in many ways, the company is already ahead of some of its more conventional competitors; by making environmental and social impact integral to its mission, it anticipates a number of the trends that are shaping the future of coffee.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

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12 Comments

  1. Eric,
    Thanks for the great piece! You raise many of the topics that are currently being hotly debated in the coffee industry and we’re happy that they’re being raised amongst a broader audience who choose to eat and drink thoughtfully.

    There are just a few of points that we’d like to raise:
    First, our relationship with Cooperative Coffees brings us closer to the farmers who grow our coffee, not further away. It’s an unconventional business model; we’re choosing our coffees at origin, not in a lab here in the U.S. Our Head Roaster is directly involved in deciding which coffees leave the port at origin, not just choosing a lot off an importer’s cupping table. On the scale of importers, we’re small, tiny really, hence the contract with Coffee Labs to provide us independent verification that the standards we set and the profile we established at origin is being met both before the coffee leaves port and that the coffee that arrives at port is what left.

    We know a lot of the farmers we buy from by name, but it’s true, we don’t buy from individual farmers. We buy from some of the smallest farmers in the world, often those with fewer than 2 hectares of land. The yield of a single coffee tree isn’t great enough for that size of plot to produce enough for it to be feasible for those individuals to export their own coffee, that’s why they’ve banded together in cooperative associations to get their product to market. We whole-heartedly support their efforts and recognize that a variety of factors cause small-scale farmers to band together into organizations large and small to best suit their needs.

    In our opinion, direct traders and fair traders are pursuing similar ends. We applaud the hard work of those engaged in various forms of direct trade, and we know many good people who source their coffee in this way. At the same time, we think that it’s important that consumers are provided with verifiable claims–as coffee drinkers have become progressively more interested in what that they’re drinking, we’ve seen a proliferation of trading models, seals, and slogans. Change in the coffee industry was long overdue and we applaud the growing consciousness among roasters, importers and consumers. That’s why we think that independent 3rd party verification of any company’s claims is of paramount importance.

    In an environment lacking complete transparency and a degree of nerdiness on behalf of the beholder, quoting pricing for green coffee is difficult. When we talk about pricing, we’re always talking about pricing paid directly to the farmer co-op (that’s what the fair trade minimum is also talking about). Our experience is that other roasters are often talking about a price that includes some of their other costs, including importers and brokers fees, and transportation to the U.S. We’d love to see more people following our example, having their claims independently verified, and putting their contracts online for everyone to see.

    These are exciting debates to see developing in our industry and in the end, if we’re all arguing about how best to get more money to coffee farmers who have historically gotten the short end of the stick, that’s meeting our mission!

    Cheers,
    Lee Wallace
    Director, Peace Coffee

  2. Another excellent article, folks. This is a fascinating issue, which includes all sorts of themes, including:

    Fair trade – all of the companies mentioned in the article are praised for paying prices above fair trade requirements (although only in the case of Peace Coffee are numbers cited).

    Right-sized companies – has Peace Coffee become “the man”? Is our goal only to support businesses that have not yet achieved a sustainable business model?

    Knowing where our food comes from – is this feasible at a large scale? How good a job can we do when we become a large company?

    Artisan producers – does a company lose the right to be called artisan at a certain scale?

    I think it’s interesting that the article focuses on Peace Coffee’s size (there’s “no hiding” it), in an industry where companies like Starbucks, Caribou, and others dwarf event the largest regional producers. I’m super interested in companies like Peace Coffee because I think Agriculture of the Middle might be our best bet for producing quality foods and drinks in scalable ways, achieving economies of scale, broad distribution, and sustainability without sacrificing broader fair trade and environmental goals.

    Thanks again for the excellent, thought provoking article.

    -Lee

  3. Wow, what an insightful article! Thank you. I have some questions.

    1. Do the companies actually make sure that the farmers get the fair price or do they pay the main company or person who handles the dealings with the farmers? In developing nations, the middle man can take away most of the share thus leaving the farmers with nothing.

    2. My uncle in Nepal is devoting his life into Coffee farming for the past ten years and has donated a lot of plants to farmers who have been helping in the cultivation. He is looking for avenues to export coffee directly. Do you know how I could help him get such exposure here in the Twin cities market? Himalayan Java would be awesome!

  4. Hi Rashmi,
    Your first question gets at part of why we value transparency so much as fair traders. Under the rules of fair trade, the farmers are the ones who own the co-ops that we are writing contracts with so they decide how much each individual farmer will get for his coffee when he brings it in. Fair trade co-ops are required to open their books to auditors to show how the money is spent and where it goes. Some money goes to processing, administration, and exporting fees. Those numbers are also something that we spend a lot of time discussing with farmers at origin so that we feel confident in the integrity of the organizations that we partner with.
    That’s not to say that there’s not potential for corruption in any system, but in general, the controls placed on fair trade co-ops are far more stringent than those imposed on fair traders here in the U.S.

    Regarding your uncle’s Himalayan Java, that sounds like a really interesting project. Small-scale farmers looking to export their own coffee face huge hurdles! We have successfully partnered with some organizations on exporting their first containers and if you contact us directly, we’d be happy to share the laundry-list of considerations we’ve learned.

    Cheers–
    Lee (the Peace Coffee one)

  5. Thank you Lee for the clarification. That’s very impressive of your company efforts. I will definitely contact your company for more info.

    Rashmi

  6. Congratulations Peace Coffee! I have been following the growth of Peace Coffee for years and spreading the word about this company any chance I get. Peace Coffee embodies everything I look for when choosing a business to support. We served complimentary Peace Coffee in our first bookstore until we relocated next to our local food co-op and an independent coffee shop.
    I still dream of having a Peace Coffee Cafe in our next bookstore. Best wishes at the Longfellow location!
    Judith Kissner
    Scout & Morgan Books

  7. Yum, one of my very favorite things tin the world is Italian Sumatra Roast from Peace Coffee. Twin Cities Blend is a runner up. I have been trying to get over to the new coffee shop, it is like my own mecca! I cannot wait to sip fresh roasted and brewed Peace Coffee.

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