Geography of Coffee -- Coffee Companies, Importers, and Roasters
Geography of Coffee Companies
Roasters that make a difference!
James Hayes-Bohanan , Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College Geography
UPDATED February 18, 2013

Historically, U.S. coffee companies have competed primarily on the basis of cost -- treating coffee as a vehicle for caffeine to be delivered as economically as possible. Most of those that have paid any attention at all to quality have focused on consistency -- becoming expert at the blending of coffee so that it would taste the same year after year. As I have studied the geography of coffee, I have found these companies particularly valuable and interesting.

For the past several years, I have been reading, traveling, and tasting a lot of coffee. In the process, I have found a number of companies that are different. They are small-to-medium roasters that are trying to forge a more positive connection between the field and the cup. Indeed, most of the companies listed on this page were established specifically to improve the lives of coffee farmers. I have had the privilege of meeting quite a few people from these companies while traveling in Matagalpa.

I have expanded this site's information about coffee shops, coffee roasters, coffee tours, health effects,
and coffee preparation, and have moved that information to other pages. Please explore!

Cafezinho - Brazil
Cafezinho in Florianópolis

Equal Exchange is a worker-owned cooperative dedicated to Fair Trade with grower-owned, small-scale cooperatives in the developing world, mostly in Latin America. Equal Exchange was among the first to bring the Fair Trade movement to the U.S. coffee trade, and has been a leader in expanding the movement. Before Fair Trade coffee was widely available in stores, Equal Exchange was making it available through churches, synagogues, and other channels. This allowed the company to grow rapidly, so that it is now a substantial importer and roaster.

Equal Exchange continues to be a source not only of coffee, but of information about coffee cooperatives. I am very fortunate that EE is located near my home and campus, which has been a big help in my educational efforts.

                        TradeAll Equal Exchange coffee is fair-trade coffee, but the reverse is not true. A number of other fine companies now provide fair-trade coffee. In fact, encouraging other coffee importer to trade fairly was a major reason for starting the company. If you want fair-trade coffee ad see the Equal Exchange brand, you know you have found it. But it is better just to look for the fair-trade label from Transfair, which applies to coffee (and other products) from many companies. Most of the companies listed on this page offer fair-trade coffee.
                        Beans If I am up early on a Sunday morning, I enjoy listening to Living on Earth , a radio program that tells an amazing array of stories about the environment and human connections. In October 2007, the show featured Dean Cycon a humanitarian, a successful business person, and a terrific story teller. His book Javetrekker is required reading for students in my coffee classes. In fact, every time I speak with the owner of a fair-trade coffee shop, I suggest that the book would make a great sale item for the shop, because it explains the need for fair trade better than anything else I've read.

Javatrekker on YouTubeDean is also the founder of Dean's Beans -- a Massachusetts-based roaster that is a pioneer in fair trade coffee and a strong supporter of public libraries! Not only is Dean the model of respectful relationships with the farmers, but he helps libraries -- including Bridgewater Public -- to create private-label coffee for fundraising.

Check out Dean's YouTube channel for stories that bring the viewer directly to the farmers!
Pachamama coffee
In Grounds for Agreement, his comprehensive analysis of the coffee commodity chain, sociologist John Talbot describes the process of forward integration:

Forward inegration is a strategy of extending one's control from a given point on the commodity chain to processing stages located further along the chain, toward the final consumption end.

To the extent that fair-trade cooperatives can capture such stages -- such as washing, transporting, and drying -- they can increase the share of profits that accrue to the producers themselves. The Pachamama Coffee Co-op is a collaboration of coffee cooperatives in five countries (including one I have visited in Nicaragua) that pushes this model farther than I have seen elsewhere. In addition to the transportation and processing facilities that member cooperatives own in the producing countries, they have jointly invested in roasting and retail capacity at the consumer end in the United States, thus controlling the entire supply chain.
Jim's Organic Coffee
We are fortunate to live in a region with so many leaders in the ethical treatment of coffee farmers and the coffeelands. This commitment sometimes takes very different forms. For example, Jim's Organic Coffee in Wareham emphasizes high quality and organic growing, but does not follow the cooperative-based, fair-trade model. The web site explains how the company sees this as working for the benefit of farming communities.
Counter Culture

I learned about Counter Culture Coffee from one of the farmers we visited in Matagalpa. I turn to this company (or Java Vino - see below) when I am giving a major presentation, because I know that its "San Ramon" is a blend of coffees come from the immediate vicinity of my field-based course. I can really taste the difference! Some of the managers are among the foremost baristas in the United States, and they have a strong commitment to quality and fairness in the entire supply chain, from the field to the local coffee shop. In fact, they produced a video of a barista competition that brought a tear to my eye!
Sweet Marias
Sweet Maria's is a California importer that sells roasted coffee, but its real mission is to provide roasters -- including individuals roasting at home -- with a wide variety of coffees from around the world, and sufficiently detailed information to design blends. The company also sells small-scale roasting equipment!

As with Counter Culture, Sweet Maria's provides travel notes for every coffee source the company visits. The notes are, however, much more detailed than anything I've seen from any coffee company. The company is also very careful about what it will sell and for how long, considering even unroasted coffee to be past its selling date after six months. Even after the coffee is no longer for sale, however, the tasting notes remain. In many cases, return visits to the same source are posted, so that the range of flavors and other conditions can be understood.

Simply put, no other coffee site provides as much geographic detail as Sweet Maria's.
Lake Atitlan
 Until late 2007, all I knew about Guatemalan coffee I learned from the documentary I mention above, which describes the struggle of coffee growers during and following Guatemala's long civil war. Recently, however, I have started to make a number of connections with Guatemala, and I will be going there for some research in the summer of 2008. When I go, I hope to meet some of the people in the region who have been working with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Heifer Hope Blend, a coffee from my friends at Green Mountain that includes coffee from the Cooperativa La Voz que Clama en el Desierto (The Voice that Calls Out in the Desert Cooperative).  The coffee is fair trade, so the farmers get a fair price. It is organic, so the customer gets a healthier cup and the soil in Guatemala is not contaminated. And it is a Heifer partnership, so GMCR donates part of the proceeds to Heifer's global projects to combat hunger. That is what people call win-win-win!

Green Mountain Coffee is an imporant roaster for all of New England, making good coffee available throughout the region. Fair trade is not a majority of its business, but it is an important and growing part, aided, oddly enough, by a large contract to provide fair-trade, organic coffee to McDonald's under the Newman's Own brand.
                        and drying racks in front of the main house at
                        Selva Negra
                          VinoDuring my first visit to Matagalpa, we had a dinner at Selva Negra, a hotel in the middle of a coffee farm, and had a wonderful conversation with Mausi Kühl, one of the owners. Then I realized that we kept driving past Selva Negra on our way to other places. The second year, we spent a night there, and were able to see Mausi again and her husband Eddy, who has literally written the book on the history of coffee in Nicaragua. Both of the Kühls come from German families that were among the first to bring coffee to Nicaragua. During both visits, I learned about the sustainable practices of the farm, including renewable energy production and organic food for the restaurant and the farm employees. The children of the farm employees go to school and the farm makes college scholarships available.

During our second visit I met the Kühl's daughter Heddy, who sells the coffee through her Java Vino shop in Atlanta. The next time I am visiting relatives in Atlanta, I will be there. Meanwhile, I sometimes order beans (green or roasted) from her to serve when I am giving lectures on coffee, so that my audience can have a taste -- literally -- of what we experienced in Matagalpa. Coffee from an estate of this size with a single owner cannot be considered fair-trade.
Paul Katzeff - God's Gift to Coffee
Thanksgiving Coffee -- Not Just a Cup + But
                        a Just CupIn Mark Pendergrast's book, Uncommon Grounds, an entire section is devoted to Paul Katzeff, the founder of Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Mark calls that section "God's Gift to Coffee." I had the great privilege of meeting Mr. Katzeff during my first trip to Nicaragua. We visited SolCafe, a worker-owned processing plant in Matagalpa, where we were scheduled to observe a coffee cupping. It so happened that Paul Katzeff and three of his employees had just arrived as part of a buying trip, so we watched actual buyers doing the cupping to evaluate potential purchases.

Between slurps of coffee and comments about its flavor and aroma, Mr. Katzeff recounted his involvement in the efforts to thwart the Reagan Administration's illegal efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, and how this related to the early days of exporting fair-trade coffee.
Alta Gracia

A great thing about my life these days is that people - including my wonderful wife -- bring me interesting coffees. A great thing about the coffee business in general is that it has room for all kinds of interesting coffee companies. When my wife and daughter were traveling in Vermont recently, they found the Tres Mariposas (Three Butterflies) variety of Café Alta Gracia, a fair-trade, shade-grown coffee from the Dominican Republic. The coffee is grown at Finca Alta Gracia, a 60-acre farm in the Dominican Republic on the slopes of Pico Duarte, the highest (3087 meters) mountain in the Caribbean.

I like the connections being made with organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee. Vermont Coffee Roasters in Middlebury roasts the coffee and nearby Dakin Farms sells it. A foundation in the Dominican Republic promotes literacy, the brand name celebrates the religious heritage of the region, and the packaging features the work of an important Dominican artist. One of the owners, author Julia Alvarez has written a delightful book, A Cafecito Story. (Spanish and bilingual editions are sometimes also available.) She is also the author of the very important work of historic fiction, In the Time of the Butterflies, which is the One Book - One Community read for fall 2010 in the town of Bridgewater, and a film starring Salma Hayek. This book describes the brutality of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic, and along with the Pulitzer-winning Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it is required reading for my geography of Latin America students.
George Howell Terroir Coffee
George Howell is a coffee pioneer known for his blends, his light roasts, and his brewing expertise. When he sold his Coffee Connection to Starbucks, he had to leave the business for a few years, but he is back with Terroir Coffee, in Acton, Massachusetts. Now he focuses on single-origin coffees, roasted and prepared with care, and treated like fine wines (hence the new name). Corby Kummer has written "The Magic Brewing Machine" about Howell's introduction of a new coffee machine and his new company. "A Magical Cup" a video conversation between author and roaster.
Coffee Hell
Usually if I have nothing good to say, I say nothing at all. But the biggest coffee chain in our region has pushed me beyond politeness. Visit my Coffee Hell page to learn why I think this fast-growing and ubiquitous company is not only bad for coffee farmers, but also bad for the United States.

Pamela Hayes-Bohanan has a nice page about our small role in coffee marketing history,
in research conducted by a conventional company whose coffee we can no longer drink!

The Bean

Sambazon has nothing to do with coffee,
 but it is has applied the fair-trade model to one of my other passions: tropical fruit!

Dr. James Hayes-Bohanan
Chair, Department of Geography -- Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, Massachusetts USA / EEUU / EUA