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  • Flynn Rodger

You (Probably) Don’t Know What Coffee Is

Carefully Brewed by Flynn Rodger (he/they)

As pretentious as I have been about coffee for most of my ‘career’ as a barista, only recently have I felt confident enough to explain the ethics, origin and composition of that brown bean we hold most dear. Not to dox myself via a Salient issue, but I just started working for the infamous People’s Coffee. After years of working for places like Maccas and Mojo, I’m relieved to contribute to a company with strong ethics. 

In an age of late stage capitalism and globalisation, we have never before been so far removed from the origins of what we eat and drink. It’s common knowledge that coffee is grown around the equator, all across the world, and spread from Ethiopia. Roasteries boast myriads of origins, but rarely explain to you as the consumer how coffee is grown, harvested, and eventually distributed. 

A long history of slave labour, exploitation and colonisation awaits when you delve into the origins of the coffee trade. Today, as always, everywhere is different and has varied levels of government interaction with its trade. 

There is a world of difference between Fair Trade Organic coffee and your bog standard. Typically, coffee distributors are brokered for beans of ambiguous beginnings. In order to get their coffee to port, small lot farmers that grow coffee rely on middle men sometimes referred to as Coyotes (specifically in Central and South America). These middle men notoriously don’t care about quality, or fairly compensating the growers, and often cheat on the scales when they arrive at port. From there, coffee from the whole area is put into shipping containers and sent around the world. 

With all of these degrees of separation, it’s no surprise that ordinary coffee brokers don’t actually know anything more than the area where the coffee they sell was grown. 

Fair Trade co-ops offer these small farmers the ability to organise in a structure that gives them more agency. Co-ops made up of many farms elect boards for their leadership and management, instead of one person or company profiting and making decisions. Putting power back in the hands of the producers means that they can direct their profit to what they know is important to their community, something that would be nigh-impossible otherwise.  

The minimum cost of Fair Trade fluctuates with the market, but is sometimes around 2-3 times the price that non-Fair Trade is bought for. Additionally, Fair Trade coffee comes with a social premium, around 66c per kg of green beans, some of which is allocated for coffee infrastructure. With the money from the social premium, co-ops help their communities by investing in anything from education to water treatment plants. 

Organic growing methods go hand-in-hand with Fair Trade. Because coffee is processed so much, from its beginning inside the fruit to roasted and ready to grind, little or no chemicals used in the growing process end up in your cup. The main concern with non-organic pesticides and fertilisers is that they pollute the land both in their production and use. 

In contrast, organic fertilisation is basically wizard-level composting. Instead of in neat rows in full sun, coffee is grown under the canopy in forests, where it naturally thrives. Organic coffee is far more expensive to produce, because without the artificial fertilisers to beef up the plants their yield is lower. However, the environmental payoff is huge. Monocultures destroy the ground they are grown in, take nutrients away from the soil, and rely on artificial chemicals like pesticides. Coffee producers know the impact of pollutants firsthand, and many want to avoid poisoning their waterways, killing their animals, and making themselves sick from its use. 

Coffee is therefore organic ‘for’ those farming it and the land they live on, not for the benefit of the consumer. It costs another 20c per kg of green (pre-roasted) coffee to buy organic. But, without organic practices, the coffee trade is unsustainable. 

All of these extra costs make fair trade organic coffee a lofty aim for some businesses, but it is a mission they should undertake nonetheless. Now is a difficult time in the coffee world, with climate change and political unrest affecting the growers, and cafes shutting their doors amid ‘post’-covid austerity. Paying more for beans is not exactly top priority for some corporations. This is why we need to pressure companies, as consumers and workers, to work with Fair Trade co-ops and make Fair Trade the standard. Worldwide, coffee growing is threatened by leaf rust, unprofitability, and environmental instability. We need to look beyond just alternative milks when ordering our nice little drinks.

With this is mind, here are some roasters to look out for in Pōneke:

Trade Aid (sells beans, not drinks!)

  • The original gangster of the FTO world here in Aotearoa. Their FT guarantee is reliable, so get those brown nuggets and grind them at your leisure. 

  • Trade aid is staffed by volunteers, so no comment here on the living wage front. 

Good Fortune (fair trade certified, organic certified, roasted locally in Petone, living wage). 

  • You’ll find Good Fortune in cafes all over Pōneke, from out in the Hutt to deep into the CBD. 

  • Where Good Fortune is served good vibes are abound. They have loads of different coffees for you to gulp down and pretend you can taste the notes of. 

Karamu Coffee (FTO, organic, roasted locally in Gracefield)

  • Not super common in Wellington city, but certainly in the Hutt. If you happen to wander north, look out for their light blue house symbol and know you’re in for an ethical treat. 

  • I used to serve Karamu in a wee spot out in Alicetown, and their Deluxe blend would probably still taste good if it was extracted through a drainpipe. It’s super dark and glossy, the exact roast kiwis crave. 

People’s Coffee (fair trade (not certified but… trust), certified B corporation, roasted locally in Newtown, living wage)

  • My bias and the GOAT for co-op realness. Get addicted to our cold brew oat flat whites and never touch Monster energy again (we all know they’re an ethical minefield anyway). 

  • Loads of cafes in Pōneke serve People’s, so look out for our wee beans when you’re out and about!

Thank you to Head Roaster Rene Macaulay at People’s for helping me out with the info for this article, and for being a legend.


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