Direct Trade Coffee Part I: Specialty Grade Coffee

Mandy Wright was recently introduced to the fascinating world of specialty coffee by the wonderful Lisa Cathro at Zest St Andrews. If you’re interested in sustainability, ethical sourcing, or if you just like your caffeine, Mandy shares her new discoveries of Direct Trade and specialty grade coffee in this first installment of her two-part series.


A few weeks ago, I attended a coffee tasting at Zest St Andrews that included a discussion of what it means for coffee to be ‘Direct Trade’. One evening was not enough; it would quite literally take years to learn everything there is to know about coffee and coffee farming, its trade, and Direct Trade in particular. While we’re all probably familiar with the Fairtrade label, Direct Trade is an even higher level of ethical sourcing and small farm support.

What Direct Trade coffee means

While the Fairtrade label focuses on coffee growers that work in co-operatives, smaller, individual farmers are left to the side. This is where Direct Trade comes in: with Direct Trade, roasters foster more personal relationships with their growers and know exactly where their beans are coming from, often taking trips to work and engage directly with these growers on their farms. It’s about roasters seeing potential in the beans of small coffee farms around the world, and then investing money in these businesses to help them learn, grow, and produce an even higher quality product. While Fair and Direct Trade both focus on sustainability and ethical business practices, it comes down to quantity versus quality, respectively.

Interestingly, higher-priced coffee in cafés can actually be a very good thing: in specialty coffee shops, higher prices simply reflect the quality of the coffee and the strength of the respect and personal relationships between roasters and growers, which is what Direct Trade is all about.

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Things to look out for if you want high-quality coffee

I won’t deny that I used to treasure a strong dark roast and its rich, nutty flavour. ‘Dark roast’ coffee, however, tends to be synonymous with beans that are of low quality; that’s why roasters roast the life out of them, to mask beans’ natural shortcomings. Light and medium roasts allow you to better taste the natural flavours of the coffee beans - and trust me, when you start trying specialty coffees, you’ll never want to go back to store brand beans!

When buying coffee beans or grounds from the store, you should check to see if the packaging has ventilation. Roasted coffee beans release carbon dioxide, so if there’s no ventilation in the packaging, the beans are likely not fresh (if they were, the bag would explode!).

Higher-grade or specialty coffees can often tell you specific information about its growing conditions, such as the altitude of the farm from which the beans came. Pay attention to this; as with most food products, the more detailed the information on the packaging, the higher the quality.

Oftentimes, consumers associate products that are certified organic with being healthier or superior. Just because certain coffees are not labelled ‘organic’, however, does not mean that they aren’t. First of all, high-altitude coffee farms don’t need or simply can’t transport in pesticides. Furthermore, small coffee farms don’t necessarily have the funds to pay officials to come and measure their soil in order to certify their coffee product as ‘organic’.

As a parting tip, I strongly encourage everyone to start trying specialty coffees (you’ll definitely taste the difference), and to trust me when I say that you don’t need to add milk or sugar! Ethiopian coffee is a personal favorite of mine, and however you like to brew it, it tastes light, fruity, and is even better as it cools.

Next week, we’ll take a more in-depth look at a pioneer company of Direct Trade, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee!