Thursday, 5 June 2014

All about Origin at Monmouth Coffee

Finca El Guamal, Huila, Colombia
Farmed by Guillermo Libardo Ome

Two cups of coffee a day is my limit.  One filter and one double espresso.  Modest by the standards of most coffee drinkers, positively wimpish to many.  What I drink has to be good and I'm happy to pay for it.  Not that I'll hand over my hard-earned money to just anyone with a shiny La Marzocco - not twice anyway.  Call me what you will - connoisseur; addict; coffee snob; or worse - but it's taken me a while to arrive at this place and I'm happy to be here.  So where is "here"?  It's appreciating the work that has gone into a carefully sourced coffee, the growing, the exporting, the roasting and the serving, whether it's beans to take home or a shot on the go.  Most of all it's a thoughtfulness about what I'm buying because I now understand why coffee 'origin' really matters.

ORIGIN: beginning, foundation, root, starting point

Our thirst for coffee is growing.  Certainly in London there seems to be an endless stream of new coffee shop openings, both chain and independents.  But the cultivation of the Coffea plant is suffering a three pronged attack: climatic oscillations, disease and low pricing.  Most of the coffee industry is still based on purchasing at the lowest price, even in the speciality coffee market.

I asked AJ Kinnell, head of quality assurance at London's Monmouth Coffee, to explain to me the effect of farm-gate pricing.  She told me "If you're a farmer you have to sell 100% of your coffee. You'll have a speciality coffee and you need a market for your lower grade as well.  If the lower quality doesn't go somewhere the good quality can't be grown and the farms go out of business, so big buyers have a role" in taking that coffee.  In the speciality market, however, she feels "buyers could be doing so much more to help growers" just by paying a little bit more.

"The speciality coffee business is about real people...... 
Real product in a cup, the fruit of real effort somewhere 
at the end of a remote track in Guatemala or Rwanda 
or Somalia."
Mercanta, The Coffee Hunters

The impact of low prices on producers and the benefits from paying a premium for top quality have been brought home to Monmouth by their direct sourcing in Colombia.  Practically and financially it has taken many years for them to be able to source in this way.  AJ told me they'd been having difficulty finding good quality Colombian beans over a period of time so decided to step it up a bit.  Instead of going in and buying a predetermined amount of beans, they spread the word to small farmers that they were to hold a competition. There were lots of entrants and they selected 22 small lots of coffee"One of the coffees was only 2 bags because the farm it came from only produced 2 bags of top grade beans that season.  The farmer still had to find a buyer for the lesser grade of beans he produced but he earned a lot of money for those 2 bags and he got to sell his coffee for the first time with his own farm name on it.  For a long time it had just been put into a generic blend."

Monmouth's Chief Buyer, Flori Marin, told me how emotional the competitions are.  "The farmers know we are going to pay a premium.  It's a massive thing for them.  If the grower simply sells to the market they are paid what people think the coffee's worth.  Sometimes it's bought even without tasting.  The coffees we tasted and selected in Colombia the first time were amazing".  There were 86 entries for their first competition and by the second, 6 months later, 360 entries.  "We were able to pay a significant premium over the market rate and people were talking of using the money to pay off their mortgage or move their home down the hill so their children could get to school more easily". Paying a premium price for top quality beans improves the lives of the farmers and enables them to invest in their farms and families to secure viability for the next generation.  Seeing directly the effect of their actions has only made Monmouth more determined to play the long game and work with the farmers to improve coffee origin.

Monmouth don't often talk about themselves.  They've been around for more than 30 years and are focused on sourcing and roasting rather than serving cups of coffee.  The shops are there so that customers have the opportunity to taste the coffees before buying a bag to take home - though that doesn't stop Monmouth being a regular pit-stop for many London coffee lovers.  Their passion is for improving the quality of coffee and the lives of the coffee growers.  Anita Le Roy explains, "The area I wanted to develop focused on origin and quality.  We don't publish vision and mission statements, but we do know what we want to achieve.  The aim of the company is to have a positive impact on quality and price at origin and a positive impact on service and quality for the consumer."  Having only three direct London outlets is a deliberate policy to retain focus on what's important to them.

"The growing number of good independent coffee shops is 
welcome but it's an increase in the number of independent 
roasters that will really raise the bar for good coffee and 
give a better deal to the growers".
Anita Le Roy
Monmouth Coffee

A market for quality coffee has to exist and I asked Anita what she thought was needed to raise customers' expectations for their daily drink.  She told me that although the growing number of independent coffee shops is welcome, "It's an increase in the number of independent roasters that will really raise the bar for good coffee and give a better deal to the growers.  In the 1980's when things were very difficult for us to buy better coffee, with more traceability, I knew what would change things was if there were more roasters asking for high quality.  That would have changed what the suppliers were offering.  Whenever I asked for different coffees I was told no, there was no demand for it".  Throughout the 1980s and 90s "there were so many times when we would show interested people what we were doing.  Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia came to see us in the mid-90's before they started supplying the Seattle Coffee Co (they later went on to set up Union Coffee).  It was only about 6-7 years ago that the floodgates opened.  We're really happy about it but I think we still need more roasters."

Coffee Facts:
2009/10 coffee exports US$15.4 billion (est)
2nd most traded commodity after oil
25+ major species of Coffea
60%+ of world production is arabica and canephora (robusta)
26 million workers employed in 52 producing countries

More often than not these days it's beans from one of those Monmouth Colombian coffees that go into my burr grinder.  Currently it's Finca El Guamal grown by Guillermo Libardo Ome at Huila but the coffees come in small lots, so whats on the counter changes regularly.  It's not entirely altruistic on my part as the Colombian coffees Monmouth source are exceptional. Buying better coffee can make a huge difference to the farmers allowing them to invest in the future.  It's what Monmouth Coffee see as "sustainable, fair and equal trade" and it's why these days I'm more thoughtful in my coffee buying habits.

Monmouth Coffee Company

Sources and further reading:
Kew Royal Botanic Gardens
A Coffee Crop Withers by Elisabeth Malkin - The New York Times May 5, 2014