Fresh Coffee, Fair Trade, Green Business

It all started with the search for better coffee. A little over three years ago, I moved to Toronto’s Riverside neighbourhood. Before my bags were even unpacked, I ventured to find my new local coffee house. I sure had my priorities straight. Merchants of Green Coffee was one of only two in the immediate area, hidden on the side street of a side street. When I walked in and looked around, I knew immediately that I had found a home.

The first thing I saw was a display of neatly lined-up brown bags containing green beans for at-home roasting - something that never occurred to me. To my left, the room opened into a beautiful, rustic, sunlit space with an odd collection of old mismatched furniture. A row of big, clear glass jars filled with roasted beans sat against the wall next to the bar; a self-serve counter for customers to pick and weigh beans for purchase. Each jar was labelled by hand with the name of a country followed by tasting notes. That meant little to me at the time; I was but a longtime novice with a caffeine addiction.

All I knew is that coffee made me happy. I didn’t grind my own beans so didn’t buy them whole, nor did I brew my own coffee. That quickly changed when Nick moved in - and with him, various coffee-making paraphernalia.

whole coffee beans

Choosing beans soon became one of my favourite weekly rituals; it was like taking an olfactory tour of the World. Like a kid in a candy store, I would go through each country’s beans, lift the glass lid and deeply inhale the bouquet of aromas, allowing my nose to make the final selection. It was the first time I was exposed to such an experience, and more importantly, to choice. Every week, I learned a little more about the characteristics of each country’s beans and its effects on my palate. I came to Merchants for great coffee; what I found was an education on what makes coffee great.

As I sat down to talk to CEO and co-founder, Derek Zavislake, it became evident that curiosity was a cornerstone of this small coffee company. Our interview began a little differently than usual; he asked the questions first. He took detailed notes about who we are, our hopes and dreams for The 3 Spoons, and what else we did in life. He wanted to learn as much about us as possible and it, frankly, made me a little nervous. As the conversation went on, I understood more and more that everything Derek did was perpetuated by this curiosity - questions to be answered, an urge to continue learning no matter how small or significant the subjects.

“I’D SAY THE EASIER WAY OF DESCRIBING IT WAS A BETTER CUP OF COFFEE INTERFERED WITH MY PLANS TO TRAVEL.”

Our story begins over 20 years ago. Derek, having recently finished university, wanted to see the world. More specifically, he always had an interest in seeing Asia. Derek elected to teach English in Japan as a gateway for his explorations, a common plan for wanderlusting new graduates.

Derek Zavislake. Photo courtesy of Merchants of Green Coffee.

Derek Zavislake. Photo courtesy of Merchants of Green Coffee.

His travels led him to a life-changing revelation: Asians were drinking significantly better coffee than North Americans. How could cultures with a deeply-ingrained tea drinking tradition have a better understanding of quality coffee than America - a market that had long claimed ownership of the brew?

“The key right there was about freshness,” Derek learned. “The freshness component really applied to coffee (there) in a way that we don’t apply it. [...] It really opened up that question: is it possible that coffee just goes stale, and then goes so terrible tasting? [...] The truthful part of it is that if you source a quality bean and you have it freshly roasted, and you just brew it in a variety of different ways, it’s just going to be a better cup. [...] Once I landed back here, I’ll say, you realize that the freshness policy doesn’t apply to the World market of coffee and that’s what allowed those multinationals to become the size that they are, is if you get rid of freshness.”

Derek confirmed his theory with another trip back to Japan, where he took along beans bought in Toronto. Over months of drinking his home brew and comparing it with the local offering, Derek fell out of love with his coffee. Instead, he had become infatuated with the coffee he found on the streets of Japan.

Upon returning to Toronto, Derek rallied a core group of eight like-minded individuals to found Merchants of Green Coffee. All were driven by the idea that people could drink a fresher, better cup. The question then was: what constitutes a better cup?

Better beans, of course.

They would soon find out, though, that their mission to provide better beans would translate to an uphill battle with important and devastating socio-economic issues that would stretch over decades.

“The things that are going on right now have to be addressed because they’re destructive.”

cafe solar honduras coffee

Fair Trade is not a new concept, but it’s importance is sadly often ignored. While we line up for our morning fix every day, still groggy and not much for conversation, too little of us question where our coffee comes from. Chances are that, unless you are deliberate in choosing the freshest ethically produced coffee, yours is likely not only stale, but coming from a farmer that is barely paid a subsistence wage. For Merchants of Green Coffee, part of providing better beans was to address the unethical shortfalls of a traditional production method. Their vision was to build their own ideal supply chain.

First and foremost, the company is fully committed to Fair Trade. “It has to start with paying the proper business price for coffee and if coffee farmers are a business, which they are, they have to make some profit,” says Derek. While a number of coffee companies like Merchants of Green Coffee pay Fair Trade prices, Derek warns that, in most cases, only a fraction of a farmer’s coffee sales are in fact sold at Fair Trade prices, with the majority still being sold below the cost of production.

“Right now there really is no incentive for the farmer to grow quality. So I like the idea that you can take this social need out there, but really turn it into a business solution and say by paying them a fair price, we’re going to get what we want, which is ever-increasing quality, and they’re going to get what they want, which is a life which they can look forward to. [...] But then we’ll add on one other layer that says you can’t tax the environment in doing so. [...] We talked about the social need out there, the environmental need is that you grow coffee in a way that does not deplete the forest reserves and/or the nature reserves as a whole.
And so, you put those two together, you come up with a price, and you basically start selling that to the consumer, and you make sure the consumer is aware this is not just another label. This is an action for their dollar, to do something so much more. And they’re going to spend it anyway, may as well have an impact.”

It would take two decades to bring the Merchants of Green Coffee’s supply chain to life, culminating in the birth of their crowning achievement: Cafe Solar. This single-origin Honduran coffee is Derek’s answer to better coffee in every sense of the word. Cafe Solar is organically grown using clean, renewable energy through an innovative agricultural approach called Integrated Open Canopy. This thoroughly studied and tested approach, designed by Honduran agronomist Victor Arce, is credited with increasing the diversity of tropical bird species and restoring the rain forest. The coffee is then solar-dried 100% off-grid (instead of the more common practice of drying beans with firewood), preventing the destruction of thousands of hectares of tropical forest every year. The off-grid, solar-powered drying technology was constructed by non-profit Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI). This entire operation is managed by a farmer co-op called the Co-operativa COMISUYL in Honduras, run entirely by women, supporting sustainable farming and trading practices, while promoting gender equality.

cafe solar coffee shop

Cafe Solar is traded directly through Merchants of Green Coffee, using a simplified supply chain linking the grower with the consumer. The product has a guaranteed freshness policy that is shared with all of its partner roasters who stamp each bag with the roasting date; a practice that began with Merchants since its very beginning.

Derek is adamant that, at the end of the day, what he’s created is not a charity. The Merchants of Green Coffee business model is still focused on the bottom line. From a true commercial perspective, equitable trading gives Merchants a competitive advantage - a superior supply chain and product - in addition to doing good.  It’s a practice that Derek hopes will enjoy a more widespread adoption.

“[W]hat we’re trying to do is equally understand the world has to function. There has to be a common way of trading, and trading can’t be in such an exploitative way. [...] Our supply just happens to be helping and tasting better. So, the thing is we want everybody to be out there chasing that.”

Despite these accomplishments, Merchants of Green Coffee still considers itself a work-in-progress. They continue to invest in coffee programs - saving the world, one coffee bean at a time. In late 2015, Merchants of Green Coffee took to a new task: the Rwanda Coffee Project. True to their mission, the Rwanda Coffee Project endeavours to help create a supply chain that will produce high-quality, Fair Trade beans, all while investing in sustainable farming.

“There is no better cup of coffee than the one that you make with your hands.”

While Merchants of Green Coffee continues to make a huge impact in the World, they are still very much about enriching their community. The company strongly believes in empowering consumers by regularly offering educational workshops at the cafe, and encouraging them to roast their own beans with the Green Bean Program. I mentioned to Derek that I was always intrigued, but reluctant to try roasting my own beans. To that, he answered:

merchants of green coffee shop

“There is no better cup of coffee than the one that you make with your hands. It’s as simple as that. And so, as a consumer now, one of the things we’re doing is we’re giving you access to something that you thought was kind of like secret. But it shouldn’t really be a secret. There’s no secret to roasting coffee. What it is is it’s special. And so what we see is that you should have access to this because then it gives you freedom. The freedom is that you can make a consumer decision at different stages in the supply chain. You can choose to buy it in its non-perishable form - green coffee - and then play with it. And I like that idea of playing with it because nobody should tell you how to toast your toast, and so the best way to do it is if you have full control.”

Our discussion with Derek was the most eye-opening talk I’ve had in a very long time. It made me re-evaluate everything I thought and knew about coffee. I left Merchants of Green Coffee that day with more questions than I arrived with, but rather than feeling perplexed by them, I was grateful for them. “We all have the responsibility of learning,” said Derek. “ I think one of the things that probably differentiates this company is that we actually put ourselves in that true role of the consumer. We are the consumer that wants a better cup and we are no different. We came from that same consumer space of not knowing.”

If I learned anything from our conversation it’s that asking questions not only makes us better consumers, but also better people. Lots of words come to mind when thinking of Merchants of Green Coffee: heroes, pioneers, innovators, champions. But the truth is that they shouldn’t be any of these things; what Merchants has done for the world is what we should expect from all businesses. As consumers, we need to demand better, and it all starts with asking more questions.

I began my search for better coffee three years ago and, unbeknownst to me, Derek's journey began with the same intention. While our curiosity has led us to drastically different paths - with mine still in its humble beginning - I realize that the essence of our questions and the truths that we seek are ultimately driven by the same desire: to bring good food to the people. "Better tasting food will win," says Derek. And it is no coincidence that better tasting food leads to better for you, better for the environment, and better for the world. So while The 3 Spoons invites you on our explorations every week, we hope that you embark on your own. 

Keep asking questions; the answers are out there, waiting to give you a better cup.  

merchants of green coffee shop

Written by Kimberley Kwo.  Photography by Abhishek Dekate.