Coffee in the Media

Seals of Approval…

Being a news-addict, I have a hard time reconciling what I hear about coffee through my favorite news outlets. I don’t expect much from cable or network news and my low expectations are usually exceeded with quantum leaps of glib, idiotic “gee-whiz” credulity on the part of reporters who seem to accept, prima facie, whatever the most readily available “coffee expert” (sometimes it has been ME) tells them,* but I expect a lot more from NPR and the BBC (and the CBC’s news in Canada, when I am privileged to hear it).  At least that’s my sentiment UNTIL I hear something, yet again, from a reporter whose utterances, on any other topic, I accept as oracular and infallible.


That said, as they say these days, I encourage the coffee-obsessed to listen to ALL of the episodes comprising the series that NPR offered last month during the week of April 22nd 2013. There is certainly a lot more there of value than not.


A couple things bugged me, though. (“ONLY two?” you ask?) The first was that during one of the broadcasts (I can’t find it in the transcripts) the narrator disparagingly referring to “middlemen” and since I AM one, I was of course, beside myself with indignity and frustration. I would guess that in at least HALF of the reporting on coffee that I’ve heard on NPR/BBC/CBC  there has been the obligatory, vilifying swipe at the nefarious “coffee middleman/(person),:” to such an extent that it is a miracle that we can still walk about, freely, without being torn limb from limb by nuns and starving children…(much LESS that none of us, yet, has been targeted for drone strike).


Since I AM a “coffee middleperson,” and have been one for over 30 years, I choose to assert that we DO serve a purpose, add some shred of value, and are compensated not nearly well-enough for what we do (this last conviction, I heard on the BBC recently, is held by nearly EVERYONE who has to work for a living).


The other thing, though, that seized the gristle-striped chambers of my curmudgeonly heart was that the reporter in the episode “Coffee For A Cause: What Do Those Feel-Good Labels Deliver?” claimed that, “You may be glad to know that the program has teeth,” referring to one certification program (and it doesn’t matter which one). The point is that, in my experience, these certification programs DON’T have teeth because the folks certifying the farms are hired by the farmers they’re certifying. They have a built in conflict of interest. I posted a comment about this on NPR’s web site in relation to this article and they have, thus far, left it up: it is struggling, vote-less, near the bottom of the heap…(what should a Curmudgeon expect?). Rather than try to link you to a future of endless downward scrolling, I paste my comment below:


I heard this a week ago: “You may be glad to know that the program has teeth.” and I was disheartened that NPR could not do better. In my experience, almost all (I qualify that, but I cannot think of any) certifications are paid for by the farm or co-op desiring to be certified TO the “certifier.” In almost every case of “certification,” without picking on any single program (and I am NOT, at all, singling out any program or entity mentioned in THIS piece), there is a built-in conflict of interest. If a “certifier” doesn’t “certify” a farm or group he or she is out of a job the following year (or for whatever the period of “certification” applies). Sorry for all the “quotation marks” but the credulity of this piece was astounding. As someone involved in the much derided (by NPR) class of “middle[persons]” in the coffee business, I am constantly hearing complaints from farmers and exporters with regard to the corruption and abuse of power by “certifiers.” Recently, one former employee of an organization I will not name was asked, essentially, “how, in God’s Name, did [your former organization] obtain [the certification in question] given the obvious and blatant violations?” Basically, the former employee could not stop laughing long enough to answer.

I am an ardent listener and committed supporter of NPR, in any event, but every time I hear reportage on coffee, I am troubled and wonder if EVERYTHING upon which NPR reports is so thinly researched.” 


Buried even deeper than my comment, was this one, with which I whole-heartedly agree (in as much as my aforementioned afflicted heart can), yummy, great tasting coffee, is the ultimate certification of a healthy supply chain, all the way to the source — a healthy, happy, coffee tree:


“Just buy coffee from a local roaster you trust, and buy a coffee that they purchased via Direct Trade. Good micro roasters will be happy to talk to you about it, and explain the coffees in detail, as well as the direct trade program. Our local roaster, [The commenter’s Local Roaster], has a direct trade program with several Central American estates. More money for the farmers, and a great product on our end!


Even if the programs discussed in the article are implemented, it really doesn’t say much for the quality of the finished product. Most high quality coffees purchased from a reputable 3rd wave roaster will be relatively sustainably grown, whether “certified” or not, just as eggs laid on a Tyson lot are not likely to taste comparable to those from a hen roaming around in a yard somewhere. Whether the latter is “certified” as sustainable or free range, or just purchased from the guy with hens down the street: the difference can be easily tasted. Coffee farmers can’t cut corners and put out a good coffee. Many of these coffee certification programs are little more than feel-good marketing ideas; it is much better to speak to a roaster and find out the details of their particular direct trade program.  – Scott Gray


We’re all told, from a young age, not to believe everything we hear or read. It is even more true today; especially if we are to be thoughtful consumers (caveat emptor) and, more importantly, well-informed citizens. Since so much of what we do today as consumers has also proven to be tantamount to “voting” on many levels of social and economic policy, we need to get it right, if we care at all about what is going on around us in the world.


Further, as I get to this end of this very specific rant on coffee I pause to appreciate the work that reporters have to do, in an age of shrinking budgets for publicly funded news and crowd-sourced reportage while, if anyone is reading or watching at all, hoards of “gotcha” fact-checkers wait for them to slip up and start typing away (that would be your humble Curmudgeon in the case outlined above). To paraphrase an observation made in a much more serious vein, those reporters have to get it right all the time (which is impossible) while their readers/watchers get to choose, and be right only when they “know” they are (which is much easier).


This isn’t to say that one should not speak up when one knows better but I want to remind myself here that it should be done with some respect and humility. At the same time, though, reporters, in choosing to do what they do, by definition proclaim that they are looking out for us, most of them know this and also what to know when they’ve missed something. Perfect protection cannot be provided or obtained…we can only try and hope, for ourselves and each other.



*Boston’s local CBS outlet disappointed me with this far-better-than-average-coverage of a friend’s coffee business. I don’t agree with all of it, but it would be scary for me and scarier for my friend, if I did: “Back to the Grind: “High Priest” of Coffee Searches for the Perfect Cup.” I applaud this outlet for providing a platform for an informed and very particular point of view.

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