The Coffee Collective opened its doors in 2007 by launching a direct trade model which aimed to be one thing above all: transparent. Their mission: to create an exceptional coffee experience which would provide better living conditions for coffee farmers across the globe. Today, The Coffee Collective is one of the most influential companies in the third wave coffee movement and is made up of an international team of experienced baristas and coffee enthusiasts. We met up with Klaus Thomsen, one of the company’s founders, to talk about the beginnings and what the name The Coffee Collective is all about.
"When I bought my first home espresso machine a year later, things quickly escalated and coffee became my great passion.
I literally got obsessed with coffee and continuously
brewed espresso in my kitchen."
What makes a good cup of coffee for you?
Klaus: Good coffee needs to have something unique, something that excites me. That can be a special sweetness or a high level of acidity. But a truly great coffee goes far beyond that. I need to know that it was traded well and that the farmer benefited from the transaction.
How did this all start? Where does your passion for coffee come from?
Klaus: I’ve enjoyed coffee for many years and developed an interest in searching for good quality coffee. But my entry into the professional coffee world was quite random. I moved to London and needed a job, when a friend told me about Starbucks and said they were looking for new people. So I started working there and I learned how complex coffee actually was. When I bought my first home espresso machine a year later, things quickly escalated and coffee became my great passion. I literally got obsessed with coffee and continuously brewed espresso in my kitchen. I read every book I could get my hands on and eventually started competing. After some successful years and winning the Barista World Championship in 2006, I dropped out of college and committed myself to coffee only. I started working for a company called Estate Coffee, where I finally met Peter, Casper and Linus. Together, we wanted to develop a more holistic way of selling coffee, so in Spring 2007, we founded The Coffee Collective.
"We actually don’t think it’s fair to ask anything of the farmers until western society fulfills their duty of paying
a proper price for coffee."
Tell us about your basic principles.
Klaus: Instead of seeing ourselves as just the roastery in the middle, which buys a raw product and basically sells it on, we wanted to be closely linked to the farmers and to the consumers. We visit the farmers a minimum of once a year, to listen to their stories and to give them feedback. Imagine you’re a barista and you’re doing your best to make a great cappuccino, but instead of serving it directly to your customer, you have to hand it over through a hole in a wall without getting any response. That’s the reality for the farmers. Often, they just sell their coffee to a middle man and the only response they get is the price. A successful bond between the farmer, roaster, barista and consumer is the foundation of our work.
How does your direct trade model function?
Klaus: Direct trade is not a global standard, which is problematic in itself, because it can be interpreted in different ways. For us, it was important that we connect our direct trade model to two promises that are easy to understand. One is that we always pay at least 25% above the market price, and are transparent about how much we pay. And the other promise is to visit the farmers every year. Both to document their work, and to be present on the ground, to give them the chance to ask us questions, and to give them an inside look into where their coffee actually ends up. They’re two simple promises. Many of the official certifications are connected with high demands that the farmers have to live up to. We actually don’t think it’s fair to ask anything of the farmers until western society fulfills their duty of paying a proper price for coffee.
How important is organic farming to you when looking for coffee plantations?
Klaus: Some of the most amazing tasting coffees that we find are not necessarily organic. But we want to present them as well, in order to build up financial stability that over time will allow farmers to follow organic principles. For a farmer, it’s twice as expensive to produce organically than to produce in a conventional way. No doubt, we’d love to see everything become organic, but that requires a lot of knowledge, investment and time. This year, we found one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted, and it’s organic by default. That’s of course an amazing experience. When we buy coffee from non-organic farmers, we have certain things that we look out for. Which types of pesticides and fungicides do they spray, do they teach responsible use of them, and what happens with the waste water, for example.
What experiences have you had so far with child labor, which is a widespread problem in coffee cultivation?
Klaus: It’s a tough question and incredibly difficult to talk about, because everybody can agree that child labor is horrible. No child should be forced to work and be denied access to education. But then there’s also the other side of it, something we see when we visit smallholders in Ethiopia, Kenya and Guatemala. Families stick together, and when it’s picking season and the kids are off from school, they help out in the fields. But none of these kids are employed, none of them are working around machines. When the picking season is over, they all go back to school.
"You can say that the farmer is incredibly important
because we’re all dependent on what he produces,
but the farmer is also completely dependent
on how the coffee is transferred to the consumer."
There are two species of coffee, Robusta and Arabica, with hundreds of varieties each. What else has an influence on the coffee aroma?
Klaus: Every variety of course has certain characteristics. But it’s also a lot about the soil and weather conditions, like sunlight, rainfall and wind, the biodiversity and the birdlife on the farm. Aromatic coffee is often really good because of its sweetness. And a high sweetness indicates that only the ripest cherries have been picked. But the aroma is also very much influenced by the different processing methods that are used to get to the seeds of the cherries. Applying the natural process, where the cherries are dried and then crushed, often creates a more unconventional taste that a lot of people don’t like. But if it’s done well, it can enrich the coffee with a great sweetness and an aroma of dried fruit. In the washing process, the seeds undergo fermentation and washing, which changes the aroma and creates a cleaner, more vibrant and acidic taste, with perhaps less body. In between those two processes, you have something called the pulp natural or honey process. These coffees normally have the body of a natural coffee and the acidity of a washed coffee.
What role does the roasting process play?
Klaus: We make a cupping of each coffee in a very light roast, to identify the natural characteristics. Based on that, we create an individual roast profile that brings out the natural aromas of each coffee in the best way possible. It’s all about how we apply heat and how long we stretch it. We only roast small batches of coffee and have a roast master for each. We make a cupping of every single batch, even if it’s ten batches of the same coffee, to be able to react to every small deviation.
Tell us about the importance of a skilled barista.
Klaus: You can buy the best coffee from the farmer and roast it magnificently, but it also needs to be ground and brewed in the best possible manner so the full flavor can be experienced. You can say that the farmer is incredibly important because we’re all dependent on what he produces, but the farmer is also completely dependent on how the coffee is transferred to the consumer. If you have a grumpy barista, who doesn’t want to tell you anything about the coffee, all the famer’s work is basically lost. And if you have a barista who’s a good spokesperson for the coffee, tells the story of the farmer and brews the coffee very well, a really enjoyable coffee experience is created.
For more info visit the Coffee Collective website or Coffee Collective´s Instagram .
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Photos: THE FRANK STORY, Coffee Collective