Traceability Q&A: Ben Corey-Moran Thanksgiving Coffee Company

Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s Ben Corey-Moran, a member of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), looks at traceability in the global coffee market. Corey-Moran is the president and director of coffee at Thanksgiving Coffee, based in Fort Bragg, Calif., and a past member of SCAA’s Sustainability Committee. The Chronicle chats with Corey-Moran to learn more.

Interview by Aaron Kiel

Question: How does Thanksgiving Coffee Company define its commitment to traceability?

Answer: We’re committed to building the most direct relationship possible between the farmers who produce our coffee and our customers who serve it in their restaurants, cafes or on their kitchen tables. This means sourcing directly from the producers—family farmers and their cooperatives—but it also means dismantling this idea that a producer’s coffee should be piled up in a big container and sent to the port. Depending on the realities of a particular origin we separate coffees by micro-region, farmer, varietal, process, pick date, even lunar phase. We’re constantly pushing further and further down the supply chain so that six months later, when we’re pulling a shot of espresso or brewing an airpot, we know everything we can about the coffee in front of us.

Question: What are the business challenges of traceability?

Answer: Logistics are an obvious challenge, especially when you start to drill way down and separate coffee into smaller and smaller lots. You have to be creative and you have to find partners who are willing to be creative on the logistical front. The deeper challenge is the time required to explore all of the possibilities within a certain farm or cooperative. Each harvest is a chance to experiment with a few different separations, but there are dozens of significant variables and probably infinite combinations so the process of defining best practices is ongoing. Traceability in itself doesn’t guarantee anything; creating traceable systems allows you to experiment in a controlled way, and that is a long-term process.

Question: What are the benefits of traceability?

Answer: The ability to experiment, discover and then replicate over time is invaluable. In a nutshell, that’s why we do what we do. Of course, the other side of this is that we’re able to tell the whole story of these great coffees. Traceability enables transparency in a big way, so marketing loses its tendency to propagandize and becomes a chance to tell authentic stories. That’s one of the really exciting things about our present moment in the market: People are actively searching for authentic experiences, and that includes the flavor of the coffee itself but also its story.

Question: How does Thanksgiving Coffee communicate with its customers about its relationships with coffee farmers?

Answer: We try to tell the story of the farmers as people, taking our lead as much as possible from the kind of experience you’d expect from your local farmers market. Real photographs of farmers, their names, their voices captured in quotes lead the charge. Of course, certification matters too, but we don’t sell certified coffee. We sell great coffee from farmers who are close and long-time partners, and the coffee is certified because without third-party certification it’s all about what you say you do and, unfortunately, our industry doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to trusting that we do the right thing by the farmers and their communities.

Question: How do consumers react to learning about these relationships and traceability?

Answer: People get really excited about great coffee, and they get even more excited about great coffee with a sense of place. Coffee becomes and emotional experience. New doors open and all of a sudden people are excited about seasonality, next year’s crop, what’s happening at origin, and the world of coffee gets a little more intimate, a little more personal.

To learn more about Thanksgiving Coffee Company, visit Photo credit: Menno Simmons, Ethiopia, 2009.