'Third wave' coffee emerges as newest socially responsible bean

April 4, 2013 | 11 a.m.

Many students may view organic and Fair Trade as designer distinctions, but the social benefits may be profound

News | Matt Kelley

'Third wave' coffee emerges as newest socially responsible bean

Students guzzle a remarkable amount of coffee--but is it the right kind?

College students consume an incredible amount of coffee, but it can often be easy to overlook the implications of which kind of “Joe” fills those mugs.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Coffee Association, nearly half of 18- to 24-year-old Americans drink coffee on a daily basis. Whether due to oppressively busy schedules or confusing labeling systems, terms like “Fair Trade” and “organic” are sometimes overlooked. Scholars have found, however, that buying more socially responsible coffees can have a profound impact on the life experiences of the coffee bean farmers.

Coffee grows almost exclusively in the equatorial regions of Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia – traditionally impoverished areas.

The economic conditions in these regions often make it hard for farmers to make ends meet. Additionally, experts estimate that about 70 percent of coffee comes from small, family-owned farms, which are particularly vulnerable to even small fluctuations in the market.

This was the original purpose of the Fair Trade label – to ensure farmers were able to sustain themselves in a supply chain with multiple middlemen.

But studies in recent years have revealed that the regulation of the Fair Trade label also helps improve working conditions and promote social justice. Anthropologist Sarah Lyon found in 2007 that the simple act of investigating farms during the certification process requires “producer groups to be democratic, transparent and accountable.” But according to Fair Trade USA, a non-profit that is the world’s leading Fair Trade certifier, the trickle-down effects can be even more beneficial.

In addition to bolstering otherwise struggling economies and decreasing the environmental impact of growing coffee, Fair Trade can also aid in areas of social justice, according to Fair Trade USA. Proponents of Fair Trade say the certification process creates better working conditions for women by equalizing pay, promotes education by reducing the economic need for child labor and increases health in communities by requiring access to medical care.

Perhaps the most relevant social good of Fair Trade certification is a crackdown on slave labor, and thus the human trafficking industry. Coffee – along with chocolate – is one of the goods most commonly produced by using slave labor, and the presence of outside certifiers, whether for Fair Trade or organic, makes it more difficult for farms to hide faulty labor practices.

The problem with Fair Trade and organic certifications, however, is that they both typically require dues paid to the certifying agency. That’s where “third wave” coffee makes its mark, even if by accident.

The original intent of third wave coffee was to treat coffee with the same intricate palate as connoisseurs of wine – to identify and celebrate flavor details of specific regions. Third wave coffee is also typically roasted much less, meaning the bean tastes more like the region it came from and less like char.

One prerequisite for this type of roasting, however, is developing a relationship with individual farms. This means that the roaster can ensure the coffee is both organic and Fair Trade – as well as socially responsible – without the farm having to pay for official certification. This allows smaller farms to benefit from the growing trends of gourmet coffee.

These socially responsible beans are becoming increasingly popular and are now available to students from a variety of sources. The Caribou coffees served by Royal Grounds are not typically Fair Trade, but Caribou beans from Peru, Mexico and Rwanda are. The CityKid Java served at the 3900 Grill is always organic and Fair Trade.

Off campus, the closest option is the third wave coffee served at J. Arthur’s Coffee on Rice Street in Roseville. J. Arthur’s uses beans from Dogwood Coffee, a Minneapolis-based roaster that finds, buys and roasts in the third wave tradition.


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