Q&A with Kevin Sinnott, Author of ‘The Art and Craft of Coffee’ and Producer of the Mission Coffee Can Web Series

I recently had a chance to chat with premier coffee brewing expert, author and producer of the Mission Coffee Can Web series, Kevin Sinnott.  He is a firm backer of direct trade coffee, which is when roasters buy directly from growers, and explains why it is so much better for the grower and the consumer.

Mission Coffee Can isa thought-provoking web series that follows a group of college students on their year-long journey to learn about the coffee industry,” according to missioncoffeecan.com.

In the Web series, Sinnott and students from North Central College go to San Lucas Mission farms and document “healthy environmental practices.” 

How did the idea for this project come to be?

Kevin Sinnott:  My son is actually a student at North Central College, and I am a coffee brewing expert. I have a book The Art and Craft of Coffee that’s out, and my son mentioned me to one of his professors because they had this trip coming up to the coffee growing fields in Guatemala. Coincidentally, a coffee roasting company in town here mentioned me too, to the same professor.

He said, “Well I’ve had two people mention this guy, I better meet with him.” So he called me up and asked if I wanted to meet with him, and he mentioned this project that they had in Guatemala.

Then Pat, my wife, said, “You know, it would be interesting to videotape the students learning about and helping with all this coffee stuff.”

I’ve been trying to think up a way for years to do a documentary on coffee growing that was interesting. There are a number of coffee growing documentaries that the industry itself has produced, and they are, without a doubt, the most boring videos. They’re the typical style of documentary with a deep voice narrator saying, “Look at the coffee plant and this is a cherry.” It makes it real academic. Really coffee, growing coffee, everything about coffee is exciting and the one thing coffee should not do is put people to sleep!

So, my son introduced me to this professor. I pitched him the idea and said I would be willing to go along, just with a camera and my other son who works with me and we would videotape. We own a video production company. We said we’ll videotape and see what happens.

We literally just ran the camera almost the entire time we were there in San Lucas. We went through about 40 tapes. We had all the aspects of the students learning about the terminology, learning about the quality of life for coffee growers, we had a chance to interview coffee growers and farmers and find out what they really felt.

I went down there with all of these romantic consumer attitudes that all the farmers probably have some sort of real connectedness to the product, and I really found out that they have some mixed feelings about it, because they were virtual slaves a hundred years ago or less and coffee was something that they had to do. They had to farm coffee. They didn’t really have a good job. It would be like someone who’s worked on, I don’t know if you ever had a summer job, working in menial labor during college. I have, and I can tell you that I do not have great memories of some of those jobs. They were pretty tough and the bosses were pretty brutal. That’s somewhat how the coffee growers tended to view coffee and their memories of it.

It wasn’t really a sentimental journey. It was very interesting to find out, but I also found out a lot of things about how coffee is grown, insights to how some of the ecological, economic concerns are both improving the product and making the product not as good, or sometimes actually hindering the farmers. So, I got a mixed bag about that.

The students added such a dimension to it as they were discovering about coffee and about the farming and getting to participate. Really, it was hands on. They had to go pick coffee, dig holes, there’s a reforestation project there, a lot of real interesting information about it. They got the chance to really sample a completely different type of life. We were staying at a mission. Even though that hotel we were staying in was really nice, the day to day existence was not. We were eating institutional food. We were staying in a really small town, not a resort. It’s a different kind of life.

Then we came back together and said “You know, this would be a great web series.” We’ve been trying to come up with a web series concept.  We’ve been cable producers and we really enjoyed coming up with the episodes. Then following through, they had a student competition they were involved with. We got back here and we followed them through that.

How do you feel that the project has evolved over time from the idea stage to where it is now?

Sinnott:  Well, the project itself, I think, started with a labor of love for coffee. I know I’ve changed.  I think of people that are into rock-n-roll music. First you like songs and then you like the albums and then you’re interested in the musicians who produced the albums. That’s where I am. It’s changed me. I’m interested now in farms, in what they’re doing, and the product. I said they have mixed feelings about the product, but they don’t have mixed feelings about farming. Farming is in their blood.

The students were a lot more wide-eyed and idealistic at the beginning. Then by the end I think they realized some realities of the coffee business. They learned more about the coffee business too when they came back. They went to a specialty coffee association conference. The point where we left off, where the series ends, the competition comes to a head. Now the next episodes we’ll be working on in the future.  I’m also trying to pitch the coffee to individuals like Starbucks or Allegro or one of the other large coffee roasters. I think that because they have this continuing plan to help the coffee farmers and to maybe be a big advocate of direct trade. The concept of direct trade is very important.

Can you explain the difference between direct trade and fair trade coffee?

Sinnott:  Sure. Fair trade is an improvement over no trade, meaning there’s just the standard way of doing business. Fair trades adds the dimension of the third party observer to it that says, “Hey I want to make sure you get a good deal, and you get a good deal.” So as any artist knows, it’s the advantage of having a manager involved in the negotiation. Someone who will overlook the deal, say a lawyer, someone who says, “Yeah this is a good deal, you should do it.”

Now, here’s the down side. The down side is that there’s a fair amount of cost to that. That also takes away. As everyone knows who ever sold a manuscript or anything like that, the manager takes a big piece of it. Sometimes you feel like the manager made more money than you did. At any rate, especially for their work. That’s the case in fair trade as well. The other thing is, a farmer that’s an individual small farmer really has no opportunity to get into a fair trade deal by themselves. They have to collectivize with other famers and throw their beans in. So it takes some of the quality of the product out of it.

Direct trade is simple: the person who is going to roast the coffee in the U.S. goes directly to the farmer, or the farmers in this case, who are still a group of farms, and pays them directly. They make all of the money. To give you an idea of how much of a difference that is, the difference in Guatemala is that the farmer who works in fair trade coffee and does fair trade business makes a certain amount. The farmer who works in Mission San Lucas, where we worked, makes two and a half times what a fair trade farmer makes. So, that’s not a small upgrade in salary.

That is why direct trade is so popular, and I’m not even getting into municipal problems with fair trade, which sometimes fair trade farmers report they aren’t even , this is true in developing worlds sadly more so than ours.  The third party sometimes doesn’t even deliver. I don’t want to make that part of the story, because I don’t want to be unkind to the fair trade business, it’s probably not true in the majority of cases, but direct trade is really becoming the answer.

It takes out the middle person and transportation is getting better as communication is getting better. Roasters are literally going to and buying their coffee beans directly from the farmers, and that’s really the ideal model. From a consumer to understand, it’s like going to a farmer’s market. You know I go to farmer’s markets a lot, and I like to talk to the farmers. I get a better sense of what the product is. I learn which farmers can really convince me they have the best product. I know whose apples are the best, who grows the best potatoes, and I also know they are getting all the money from it. That kind of trade.

Is there more of a scalability challenge with the direct trade coffee model?

Sinnott:  Yes, there is. In fact what you have in the U.S. are small businesses working together on a group buy and sending maybe one representative. It’s done in a more formal way, but it still involves the farmers. It happens to be a benevolent situation because the mission in San Lucas allows the farmer to take the profit. In other words, they don’t ask for a piece of it. That’s unusual, but the concept of direct trade could allow several farms to man together, but it also means that the farms with the best coffee that are family farms, have a chance to sell directly.

It’s becoming more and more common. There’s now a number of programs, like Cup of Excellence, that really allow an individual farm. There is this trend among coffee roasters, this is where I’ve got the hat on of being a coffee expert, that are now seeking out individual farms’ coffees because it makes quite a difference.

People are thinking of coffee in terms of, “Oh, Guatemalan coffee tastes like this, Columbian coffee tastes like this.”  That’s not so true. There are individual farms. People think that because the coffee used to tend to be blended together from those countries, but really an individual farm in Guatemala can have quite a unique coffee from a farm just down the road. There are lots of reasons for that, but the concept for getting that coffee to someone who likes the taste of coffee, is really a wonderful opportunity. That is growing, too. So it’s not just the social justice aspect of it, there’s an improved economic aspect of it, but there’s also a real opportunity for taste to be better too.

I’m sorry, but there’s no specialty coffee business if the taste isn’t better. People aren’t just drinking for caffeine. They can take caffeine in the form of a pill after all and have whatever they want to drink, and sometimes, certainly sports drinks that are out that have more caffeine than coffee. So really it has got to be about taste. It allows people to get the best tasting product, it allows them to buy and support family farms, and it allows them to have the family farms really realize the profit from their labors.

What would you say is the biggest lesson that the you learned and that the students learned during this whole project?

Sinnott:  I thought it was an environmental one. I’ll tell you the story: One of the areas that we visited had a mudslide. They had planted shade trees to appease the American market, the quest for shade in growing coffee, instead of planting Cypress trees, because cypress trees don’t have much shade. Cypress trees turn out to have another value; they tend to hold the land together. So the idea is that if they had planted more cypress trees instead of shade trees they might not have had the mudslide.

It also taught us to be careful as consumers and not to get carried away with demanding things and telling the farmers how they should run their operations, because in some ways the world might have been better off. I always think that the world is better off with one fewer disaster, but surely this region would have been better off if they had done what was right, they knew what was right to protect themselves and not just looking for a label.

When you talk about organic certification, most of these famers are organic anyway. They simply can’t afford chemicals, but they also simply can’t afford to hire U.S. certifiers to come down and certify their coffees. The thing I guess I learned is that there are a lot more complicated issues than simply putting patches on packages saying their certified organic or fair trade or bird friendly.

Are there any laws or any government rules that make direct trade easier or more difficult?

Sinnott:  The government seems to be cooperating with it. I’m sure this varies from one country to another quite a bit, depending upon how involved the government is. The best I think the U.S. roasters hope for is to have very little government intervention and be able to just deal with the growers themselves directly. Because, again, anytime you have third party intervention, you also have the potential that the third party is going to want a piece of the action.

I think that most coffee roasters who are presumably honest in paying for their delivery, what they generally do right now is offer a bonus to farmers that over deliver, that deliver the best tasting coffee. Using those methods seems to be the most effective in getting better conditions for the farmers, better life for the farmers, and better coffee for the consumers. Win, win.

What’s next?

Sinnott:  Well what’s next is that now that we have this wonderful coffee, and we have these wonderful energized students who really have gotten alert and know as much about the coffee business as many people in the coffee business. I think their goal is to get this coffee out to the market place.

They have made small steps. They have certainly got some sales and got some small roasters buying their coffee and distributing it. They actually distributed their own at this web site, missioncoffeecan.com.  They would love to be able to buy the crop of various farms’ coffees and really create a product, a brand product for U.S. consumers that consumers know is a direct trade product. They want consumers to know it benefits the farmers and is grown in a way that respects the land, respects the farmers, and respects the consumers.

Anything else you want to convey about what’s happened, what’s happening, what’s going to happen?

Sinnott:  The most important thing as a consumer you can learn to do is brew your coffee properly. Because unlike wine, for instance, that comes pre-bottled and the vineyards have done all the work, it’s inconceivable that a wine vendor would not have tasted his product.

Believe it or not, we visited coffee farms that never tasted their product, because they don’t roast the coffee.  They do in Mission San Lucas, but not all farms do, and they don’t brew the same way typically.  One of the goals we have with the web series, is to bring some back after it’s roasted and brewed properly and have the farmers taste their own coffee as we do in the U.S. I think that would be a real kick for me.

Again, I was shocked to find this out. I’m trying to imagine one of the great wine guys in California saying, “What do you think of our latest vintage of chardonnay,” and him then saying, “You know I haven’t tasted it.” I can’t imagine that.

Can you give me a short overview of your book, The Art and Craft of Coffee?

Sinnott:  My book is about everything you want to know about roasting and brewing coffee.  Really, about brewing. I just finished a presentation in Houston last week and they all wanted to know which coffee maker is the best, what’s the difference between a French press and a drip maker, how do you make coffee? Most people have never been shown how to make coffee, how to use the machine, how to grind it, does the grinder really matter? Do you have to grind it right beforehand? What’s the real advantage to that? Then how do you store it.

Everyone needs to read this. People in the coffee business, believe it or not, do not know how to brew coffee. They toss in some grounds. I’m trying to think of anyone who would make a cake, or if you buy the tollhouse chips for cookies, you always read the directions and go , ‘Ok it’s one stick of butter, and then this much flour.” People measure that. A lot of the same people don’t even measure when they brew coffee, and they wonder what happens.  They brew the coffee and it’s bitter because they ground it too fine or something and then their off on the formula, that’s the wrong thing to do. What they end up doing is ending up with very bitter, weak coffee instead of what they really want, which is a really strong, strong cup of totally flavorful coffee that has no bitterness. I get that every time I brew, but that’s because I’ve spent the last 15 years playing with the systems. It’s not easy, but its’ not hard either. It’s something you have to actively learn to do, it’s not intuitive.

My wife is very spoiled; she gets the best cup of coffee. The biggest problem we have in the morning is that more people show up here, just accidentally (I know it’s not accidentally) for fresh coffee. Even my UPS driver wants some.

Everybody starts their day off with a cup of coffee and there’s no reason that the person who grows it shouldn’t have a decent livelihood.

For more information:

To learn more about Mission Coffee Can and direct trade coffee, visit missioncoffeecan.com.

To learn more about Kevin Sinnott and The Art and Craft of Coffee, visit coffeecompanion.com.