Relationship coffee is a way for coffee buyers and sellers — more specifically, roasters and farmers — to trade coffee directly with each other. Its success relies on establishing a long-term partnership, with pricing based on real operating costs instead of market speculation. The relationship model insulates from volatility in the coffee futures market by eliminating middlemen. Most importantly, the trading process is transparent; farmers gain bargaining power through knowledge and receive a price that is both fair and consistent. Many of us look for the “Fair Trade” label on our packages. Direct trade has the exact same goals without the need for outside (and expensive) certification.
To put it simply, relationship coffee is no different than an interpersonal relationship! And knowing what makes it successful can help all of us achieve our own #relationshipgoals.
Coffee supply chains are long and complex, so building trust between direct trade partners takes time, and it’s sort of tricky...like dating. Over time, roasters can build enough trust with producer organizations to become business partners with their own direct trade agreements. It’s like a marriage that has to work out the kinks early on to celebrate 50+ years together dancing to the Funky Chicken song.
And like a marriage, the work to build trust and transparency is well worth the investment, creating a better situation for both farmers and roasters than they could achieve on their own.
Our head roaster describes the fundamentals of making
your marriage relationship coffee work:
- Open communication channels. Roasters and producers should freely communicate about the coffee and its quality requirements. Roasters use sensory evaluation (namely, tasting and smelling) to create coffees their customers will love. Having a direct line of feedback helps the producer understand the coffee properties that are acceptable or unacceptable. Both parties need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly to have a prosperous relationship.
- Clear expectations. Amid the volatility that can affect a farm's bottom line, having a reliable buyer is a wonderful thing. Roasters must be able to honor a long-term purchase commitment, which allows the producer to make farming decisions in the roaster's interest without fear of the roaster abandoning them. A secure and committed relationship even opens possibilities for experimentation, like testing new varieties and growing methods that don't have other market outlets.
- Teamwork. When the unforeseen happens, both partners need to have each other's backs. A case in point is the logistical and economic impact of Hurricanes ETA and IOTA on the coffee-growing regions of Central America. Many farms impacted by these devastating storms received financial assistance directly from their trade partners without engaging an NGO. When your partner needs your help, you don't pass the call along to someone else. You're there for them when they need you most.
One of our favorite benefits of relationship coffee is the ability to share stories. Storytelling is what the White Tale brand is all about! Most coffee drinkers are unable to have the experience of visiting a coffee farm. When coffee roasters and coffee producers create a direct relationship based on shared values, they can tell a unified story from farm to cup. Roasters in turn share valuable market and consumer information to help producers understand the market challenges and reinforce those common values.
According to a recent study by researchers at Appalachian State University, direct trade coffee has three characteristics that differentiate it from standard coffee: (1) price premiums are paid directly to farmers, (2) harvesting practices are sustainable, and (3) the quality of the product is higher. Long-term relationships are also long-term investments, and direct trade relationships put faces on both ends of what would normally be a cold business relationship.
Relationship coffee is not for everyone. As with any partnership, success takes work. And without middlemen, it takes extra time, effort, and honesty from both parties to achieve their shared goals. Most importantly, you have to be in it for love...of coffee!
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