Students educate palates and minds at coffee event

Friday, February 29, 2008

Students and community members sipped exotic beverages from paper cups in the lobby of Macmillan Hall Thursday evening, debating the relative merits of each variety. The atmosphere suggested a wine tasting, but they were sampling fine coffees from around the developing world.

Six thermoses of fair-trade coffee from Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Sumatra, Ethiopia and Papa New Guinea lined a table in the front of the lobby beside a bowl of dark chocolate-coated java beans, all brought to Brown by the owner of an organic coffee company who spoke after the tasting.

Becca Coleman ’10 tasted the Papa New Guinea blend. She said she had “never really noticed the difference in coffee” varieties before the night’s tasting, but identified the Guatemala brew as “less bitter” and better tasting.

Nick Herrmann ’09, who tried four coffees, said the Sumatra was his favorite.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a connoisseur,” said Herrmann, who used the words “smooth” and “smoky” in describing the different brews. “I do love coffee, but I drink it more for the taste. I don’t need the caffeine.”

As the tasting began to pick up steam, a separate event in Macmillan 117 concluded and throngs of attendees followed their noses to the savory aromas. Dean Cycon, the owner of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee, raised his voice above the caffeine-fueled conversations to announce the start of his lecture about the coffee.

Cycon, who has an advanced law degree from Yale with a focus on international indigenous rights and environmental justice, spoke about the social implications of the world’s coffee trade. While discussing the importance of purchasing fair-trade beans, images from his travels to coffee-growing regions worldwide flashed on the screen behind him.

“Coffee is a really wonderful microcosm of all possible social justice issues,” Cycon said. “Every major struggle of globalization is being enacted right in that cup of coffee, and yet there’s not a lot of information available about that.”

Cycon’s 2007 book, “Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee,” emphasizes the implications of the coffee trade for women’s rights, indigenous populations, the environment and the global economy, he said.

Most coffee farmers are “a great distance both from majority culture and the world” both geographically and ideologically, he said, and therefore “are not really active participants in world trade.” He added that in the coffee industry, growers often receive low prices for their product because many middlemen come between them and the final buyers of the beans. His company purchases beans directly from growers to bring higher profits to the farmers, he said.

Under the certified fair trade model, farmers must organize into “democratic and transparent cooperatives” and “actively participate in the management of their own affairs,” Cycon said. Among the notable features of the fair trade model is a rule that women must be allowed to “join into decision- making on economic and political matters” in regions where their voices are generally suppressed, he added.

Fair trade-certified importers must pay a minimum price for coffee in any given region, Cycon said, noting that the system helps protect farmers against price fluctuations of coffee in a sometimes-volatile world market. He said many companies including Dean’s Beans pay “way more than is required” and added that his company gives 6 percent of its profit share to the farmers who sell them the beans.

“I’m in it to make a living, not make a killing,” Cycon said.

His company also invests in the third-world villages from which they directly import coffee.

“Paying people money is good, but it’s not enough … We take a deeper involvement in the communities we work in,” Cycon said.

Dean’s Beans helps coffee farmers identify “developmental priorities” and then assists in the effort “to design a project to address one of those priorities that the farmers can manage and run themselves,” Cycon said.

His company has helped implement programs of conflict resolution, reforestation and clean-water access and also helped set up “the first cafe-roasting operation in Nicaragua” with proceeds that support a local clinic.

“Social justice is not about formulas and it’s not about labels.” Cycon said, noting that a number of organizations adopt the fair- trade label largely for marketing purposes.

“Social justice is a process that can be effectuated and manifested in any form. I just chose business because … it’s the largest engine of activity in this planet. It’s the nastiest, and if businesses don’t change the fundamental way that they behave, we’re down the tube,” he said.

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