Brewing Benevolence: A Coffee Gift Exchange to Ring in the Holidays
Similar to wine, coffee is rated on a scale of 1-100. Ratings — also known as “cup scores” — for the Vietnam beans in the coffee gift exchange program through Bonfire Coffee in collaboration with nonprofit fi-lan’thro-pe and the Roaring Fork Farmers were submitted by a panel of American roasters, each listing relative scores for taste, aroma, acidity, body, aftertaste, and overall balance. A cup scoring above 80 points is “specialty.” Only 1 percent of all coffee is above 82 points. Panel comments:
“Juicy, floral, jammy, sweet.” (84.75/100)—Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers, Portland, Ore.
“Floral, citrus fruits, sweet.” (86.75/100)—Olam Specialty Coffee Importers, Healdsburg, Calif.
“Sweet, papaya, brown sugar.” (85.75/100)—Blue Bottle Coffee Roaster, San Francisco, Calif.
“Green apple, crisp, sweet, honey. (85.5/100)—Sightglass Coffee Roasters,
San Francisco, Calif.
“Floral, sweet, Ethiopian-esque.” (86.75/100)—The Coffee Circle Roaster, Berlin, Germany
“This is Vietnam? I’d take a ton right now.” (85/100)—Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters, Denver, Colo.
HOW OFTEN do you drink coffee: Daily? On weekends? Every few hours during the hectic holidays? Even if you’re not part of the 59 percent of Americans who drink an estimated 1.85 cups every day, according to the National Coffee Association’s 2016 trends report, think about the many people in your life who do partake — friends, lovers, parents, mentors, offspring, coworkers, and colleagues, not to mention all of the folks in line at your neighborhood café or supermarket.
No doubt, coffee is an American ritual: We make it at home, sip it in restaurants, discuss single-origin coffee beans as if wine varietals, and ponder wide-ranging brewing methods — French press, drip, pour over, cold brew, single-serve, siphon, Cowboy Method — endlessly.
Considering our consumption habits, it might seem tough to reconcile an inconvenient truth: Coffee is one of few products with such widespread following that is not grown in North America. (Well, until some farmers began trying to cultivate coffee in California last year — though the setup required a special irrigation system to combat the local drought, and beans sold for $60 per pound.)
Hoping to bridge the gap between our insatiable thirst for coffee and millions of farmers overseas caught up in unsustainable, shady practices (including enslavement), Bonfire Coffee in Carbondale has launched a holiday fundraising partnership with Colorado-based nonprofit fi-lan’thro-pe and the Roaring Fork Farmers (RFF), to “tell the story of Vietnamese coffee,” says Bonfire Coffee owner Charlie Chacos. “Most coffee from Vietnam is commodity grade,” he explains. “By improving coffee quality the farm will be able to charge more per pound,” and farmers will receive fairer wages.
Through fi-lan’thro-pe — a Denver-based 501c3 focused on sustainable development, indigenous rights, and “leveraging the love of coffee to heal the world” — Bonfire Coffee has received an initial shipment of 1,800 pounds of green coffee beans directly from a farming tribe in Vietnam. Now the company is donating time and resources at its roasting facility in Glenwood Springs; RFF members are volunteering to help roast and bag the beans, which is available at Bonfire Coffee in Carbondale.
For consumers, there’s only one catch: This coffee is not for sale, technically.
“It’s by donation — a gift exchange,” explains fi-lan’thro-pe liaison Natalie Rae Fuller, also RFF communications officer. “You donate for the coffee, then it’s a gift from the community as a thank you.”
Of every $15 donation per 12-ounce bag, Fuller says, $12 goes directly back to the K’Ho Cil Tribe of Lac Duong, Vietnam; $2 to RFF, and $1 to Bonfire. “This is the most sustainable coffee we can get our hands on,” she adds. “If you give your dollars to a corporation, it’s so split up that [the farmers only] get about 90 dollars a year.”
As more than a dozen steps are required to prepare every — tree pruning, fertilizing, harvesting, fermenting, drying, curing, hulling, hand-selecting defective beans, and packing for shipment to the U.S. — coffee is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world, third only to cotton and tobacco. Furthermore, some 100-plus quality-control checkpoints must be met before product hits the port.
In five years of this work, fi-lan’thro-pe has successfully eliminated illegal loan sharks and predatory lending practices in at least one tribal community in Southeast Asia; established two cooperatives comprising 80 families; increased those family earnings by more than 3,000 percent; and launched initiatives related to waste-cycling, composting, clean water access, healthcare, and organic animal raising, all of which fosters long-term economic stability. Fi-lan’thro-pe calls this “the first certifiable specialty coffee hailing from Vietnam since the late-nineteenth century.”
Not only is this coffee for a worthy cause — it makes a fantastic cuppa, boasting notes of blackberry jam, dark chocolate, macadamia nuts, and honey. An independent panel of roasters from Portland, Seattle, Denver, and Berlin rated the beans at an average of 85 on a scale of 1-100. “Anything over 80 is specialty,” Fuller explains. (Read specific flavor comments in “Tasting Notes,” opposite page.)
“This particular coffee appears to have been picked and processed very well, which makes my job look easy,” says Bonfire Coffee production roaster Jane Salee. “The coffee geek in me would say these are some of the most beautiful beans roasted.”
While the coffee gift exchange offers an opportunity for individuals to lower their carbon footprint while becoming more conscious about everyday habits — during Carbondale’s First Friday in December, for example, visitors to the Bonfire café were able to “meet” the Vietnamese farmers via Skype — Fuller notes a sticking point about the donation structure.
“Here in America we’re use to putting money down and getting a product right off the shelf,” she says. “People find it confusing to fill out a slip and not get their coffee until later. We’re trying to get enough donations for a large roast. We’re only roasting what has been donated so far — we don’t want to roast beans [in advance, without donations] because then they’ll go bad.”
Bonfire hopes that larger companies in the Roaring Fork Valley will step up to make substantial donations to take advantage of tax benefits, perhaps under the guise of doling out holiday gifts to employees. (A $500 donation, for example, yields 33 bags of coffee.)
“Just by choosing this bag of coffee for our morning caffeine fix, we are creating positive change directly in these farming communities and for the families involved,” Salee says. “I see this partnership as an important step in creating tangible relationships with the goods we consume — in general, but excessively in the case of coffee, one of the highest traded commodities in the world.”
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