Coffee Snob Chooses Starbucks over Artisanal Blue Bottle!

stirring the siphon

OK, I must admit, I’m not a coffee snob. If it’s thick as tar and wakes me up, it’s coffee. However, I know others who are. Especially here in San Francisco. I heard a lot of buzz about this “Blue Bottle” place, and although I haven’t yet tasted the elixir myself, I have a heartwarming story to tell. My sister-in-law told me about a recent experience she had at Blue Bottle at the Ferry Building. She asked the barista “Do you have fair trade coffee?” to which the barista reportedly replied in the negatory. So she and two others in line behind her left and went to the nearby national chain that happens to be the world’s largest buyer of fair trade coffee.

Image credit: Banky177 at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

But I Want to Support the Indie Coffee Shop

Because I enjoy living in a diverse and entrepreneurial economy, I try to support independently owned businesses where possible. So it bothered me that this company which seems to be extremely particular about the beans they roast would not take the next logical step and choose fair trade coffee. So I asked them why. And here’s the heartwarming part. I got the following response from Blue Bottle’s Head Roaster:

Hi Susanna,

Sorry it’s taken us a couple of days to get your email. This is, as you can imagine, a concern that comes up from time to time. The long answer is fairly complicated, so I’m going to start with a short reply, and invite you to give me a call during normal business hours at the number below, and I will be happy to engage in a fuller conversation about the Fair Trade issue.

The basic answer for us is that we favor FT coffees to coffees that are not certified as such. However, FT coffees are not always available, especially in our blends where we might require, say, a Ugandan coffee. In this instance, we will indeed buy a coffee that is not certified Fair Trade. It should be said, however, that our importers visit our various coops and farmers almost yearly, and have first-hand experience of the conditions of the farming communities, ensuring that we are not engaging in any exploitative practices.

Coops, in general, who organize the the processing, sale, and exportation of coffees, take very good care of their farmers, and adding yet another layer of protection for the farmers. A good coop will function a little bit like a union looking out for its members. We love our Mesa de Los Santos coffee from Colombia; this coffee is not Fair Trade certified, but the coop is one of the most reputable in the world and sets a very high standard for the rest of us in the coffee community.

The last point I’d like to make is that the trend, as we perceive it, is toward the microlot. Purchasing a microlot is done through a direct relationship with the farmer (either a roaster’s or an importer’s), and the lots are purchased in whole. As this might be done without additional financial aid (say, from a coop), the certification process becomes expensive and production gets halted until somebody can pay for the paperwork. We have established just such a relationship ourselves, through SlowFood USA, with a farm in Huehuetenengo, Guatemala. This is also the motivation behind “Relationship Coffee” and “Direct Trade” work.

We are revamping the structure of our coffee descriptions currently, and in the future you will see all certifications listed for the single-origins, including any FT/O certifciations, Bird-Friendly, along with any other number of possible listings. It is unlikely that you will see this from the blends, which evolve constantly due to the availability and quality of current crop coffee, though the blends generally vary between 70%-90% Fair Trade, whether we market them as such or not.

I hope this clears up some of our purchasing philosophy for you, and again, please give me a call if you seek deeper answers.


Thomas Doyle
Head Roaster
Roastery Manager
Blue Bottle Coffee

Real Customer Service

Needless to say, I’m profoundly impressed with Mr. Doyle’s commitment to addressing customer concerns, a trait that’s missing from so many businesses these days, especially ones that think their popularity enables them to “afford” to ignore customer complaints. In case you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, this blog post seems to discuss the Blue Bottle method in great detail.