In Search of a Damn Fine Cup of (Fair Trade) Coffee

In Search of a Damn Fine Cup of (Fair Trade) Coffee

In Search of a Damn Fine Cup of (Fair Trade) Coffee


One of the most promising mini-trends is the growing popularity of Fair Trade coffee (now you can even buy it at Wal-Mart!). That label means that the coffee was grown under fair labor conditions, and that the small Third World growers received a decent price for it. I just ordered some through Global Exchange, from the Cloudforest cooperative, which sounds like something dreamed up by a satirical novelist: grown by autonomous cooperatives of Mayan Indians in Chiapas, in the shade (better for the forests and soil), it is organic and bird-friendly. Yes, bird-friendly. (A friend moved away from Berkeley after someone tried to assure her that no birds had been harmed in the production of her coffee. That’s understandable; Berkeley in all its aromatherapized, self-realized, self-righteousness could drive a gal crazy, but…I really like birds.) The Cloudforest coffee sounded just about perfect.

Unfortunately, it sucks.

For coffee lovers, Fair Trade can pose a dilemma, because, sadly, much of it doesn’t taste very good. As someone who falls asleep looking forward to the fresh smell and taste of my morning coffee, I take this problem seriously.The Cloudforest coffee is about as flavorless as any coffee you’ll find; even many gas stations, diners and offices aspire to a higher quality these days. So I’m continuing my search. I’m confident that there are Fair Trade blends out there that could inspire me to get out of bed in the morning. To that end, I’ll be organizing a tasting panel of coffee enthusiasts and will keep you posted on their findings.

I can just hear the objections. “Isn’t this rather trivial? After all, Fair Trade coffee is a human rights issue.” But that’s, of course, exactly why it’s so important that it succeed in the marketplace. To do that, it has to taste good, and appeal to socially conscious bourgeois hedonists like myself. Delicious coffee has become mainstream over the past decade. That’s a positive legacy of companies like Starbucks, and you can’t beat them by selling crap. A politics that overlooks pleasure has no future, and that’s why I will never again — sorry, Chiapas farmers — buy the Cloudforest coffee, a bland blend only the most devotedly burlap-clad politico could love.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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