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Coffee City

Melissa Allison follows the world's biggest coffee-shop chain and other Seattle caffeine purveyors.

September 2, 2010 at 9:46 PM

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Direct trade coffee gains ground; Fair Trade exec calls it 'doomed to be small'

Posted by Melissa Allison

MarkBarany.jpgAbout half of the green coffee that spins and pops in Mark Barany's roaster in Bellevue comes from farms he knows. Barany (in photo by Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman) has not visited them yet. His roastery and Seattle cafe, Kuma Coffee, are just a few years old and do not throw off lots of cash and free time for trips abroad.

He meets farmers online, and if their coffee sounds like a fit, they send samples. Then he draws up contracts to pay them and finds an importer who charges another 30 to 50 cents a pound to move the beans from Central America to Puget Sound.

It takes time and work, but Barany considers the effort worthwhile, because he is paying farmers what their coffee is worth and cutting out the middlemen.

If that sounds like Fair Trade, think again.

Barany and a growing group of coffee roasters have become disenchanted with the Fair Trade model and think they can do better. Known as direct trade, their movement is small and does not having uniform definitions or guidelines. Customers often have to take the roaster's word for it that growers were paid fairly.

They crave greater legitimacy, and for that reason a handful - including Barany - have publicly disclosed the prices they pay for coffee.

Check out the highlights of a brewing battle between Fair Trade and direct trade in a story I wrote for Friday's paper. I didn't include a lot of details and arguments from both sides, so please voice your opinion, set me straight, whatever needs to be done to keep this discussion going.

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