The quality of certified coffees is soaring, and buyers no longer have to trade taste for ethical benefits, but do customers want to hear the fair trade story behind their brew? Iain Boughton reports
Some artisan roasters still decline to use Fairtrade coffee, arguing that quality programmes such as the Cup of Excellence auctions produce improved coffee and return far higher prices to the farmers. On the other hand, Fairtrade claims a great deal of public recognition and now extremely high quality - six Fairtrade coffees won Great Taste awards this year.
And yet, according to United Coffee, consumers don't know what the different ethical marks and badges mean - only 28% of consumers believe certification means good coffee, and just 31% actually look for the certification.
"This suggests a shift in perception of what constitutes a good cup of coffee," says United. "Eight out of ten say quality and taste are the most important drivers, with price coming second. Customers are unlikely to seek out certificated coffee when out of home."
In spite of this, over 80 of United's coffees carries certification, and other brands continue to believe in them. In tea, Tetley proposes that all its products will be Rainforest Alliance certified within two years.
This autumn, within three weeks, there are two awareness projects: Fairtrade's 'the power of you' is its first coffee-themed promotion to the public, and the Rainforest Alliance will repeat its 'follow the frog' week.
But for the hospitality trade, the major question is - do the customers care?
Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and Drury Coffee
At Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, the choice is of Rainforest Alliance coffee, supplied by Drury of London.
"Their entire brief was: 'a certified sustainable coffee of fantastic quality'â¦. that was it," says Drury's managing director Marco Olmi.
"We had a Fairtrade coffee, but it didn't meet the 'fantastic' requirement in the flavour profile. It is a known problem - and we are very open about this - that the standard of Fairtrade coffee in general has not always matched the quality in Rainforest Alliance coffees - there are some great Fairtrade coffees, but in general the Alliance is more geared to quality at farm level first, and ethical marketing second. Fairtrade is much better at the marketing, which can be very frustrating.
"We sell our Caffe Cuidado to a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants. I suspect some of them picked it on quality alone and don't know it's certified."
In the case of the Manoir, the Rainforest Alliance was a deliberate choice, says deputy general manager Gurval Durand.
"We chose the Rainforest Alliance because we understood it had one of the most ethical and sustainable systems in place, which we felt best represented our values. We wanted to find a coffee capable of carrying the best taste and flavour, as well having the best ethical values.
"It is rare for a guest to ask about ethical sourcing, even though we mention the Rainforest Alliance on our menu.
However, today's customers do take notice of what they eat and drink, so we are regularly asked: 'where is your coffee from?' which gives us a great opportunity to inform them of the story behind our selection."
Crucially, staff know the story and can tell it. "This has always been close to Raymond Blanc's heart. If we can't answer a question about the origin of our
products, then what trust will our guests have in us? We would lose our integrity and value."
Clink Restaurants and Cafedirect
The Fairtrade Mark, as used by Cafédirect, its best-known dedicated brand, is the choice of the Clink restaurant. This unusual establishment aims to reduce
re-offending rates by training prisoners towards careers in the hospitality trade, and gives practical experience in its restaurants at HMP High Down and HMP Cardiff - these were the first such public facilities to open inside a prison.
Chief executive Chris Moore chose two Cafédirect coffees: an espresso and a filter.
"We were looking for a Fairtrade coffee and we sampled several. I think that five years ago, Fairtrade coffees were more expensive, and were not too good - now, some of the best coffees are Fairtrade.
"The majority of our coffee business is after lunch, so we wanted a strong bean for a lot of espressos and Americanos. We are not a business putting out hundreds of cappuccinos into the high street, so we need a good-quality dark roast. We also have a bulk brewer for our filter coffee, with a policy of a new brew every half-hour for freshness. The filter coffee is Cafédirect's Machu Picchu - although we have found that it also works as an espresso."
His team have taken enthusiastically to barista training and learning about certifications.
"We have 56 prisoners working here, who are still serving their time, and they do 18 months of NVQs in catering. They are used to training, because that's what they do every day, so learning about coffee was a normal procedure for them.
"Our team is very able to talk to customers about coffee and Fairtrade - knowledgeable staff are vital to a sustainable business."
Matt Lord, business development manager at Cafédirect, was impressed by the attitude of Clink's team.
"Previously, Clink's coffee wasn't Fairtrade-certified - it tasted OK, but they were not really sure of the provenance and there was no 'wow factor'. The Clink had won awards for being a sustainable restaurant and charity, but their coffee didn't mirror that.
"We set up a tasting with Chris, the founder and the general manager, and the prisoners who were working that morning. We presented three espresso options and what came out top was our Original blend (very intense with dark chocolate notes and a spice finish). For filter, they chose the Peruvian Machu Picchu, which is full bodied and chocolatey.
"In the training sessions, the prisoners have been the most engaging staff I have seen from any client - they are keen to learn and you can see that these guys really want a future. They can now tell their customers the coffee they serve is Fairtrade, and exactly where it comes from."
Certification matters to certain kinds of customer, says Cafédirect. "Taste and quality is definitely the most important aspect. A small percentage of customers will come because the coffee offer is certified, whereas a much higher percentage return if the coffee tastes great. Organic certification doesn't really sway the client's decision now, whereas it did some years ago.
"Certification is far more important to business and industry customers than to independent cafés and restaurants, and certifications are at last being recognised by consumers - those that buy Fairtrade coffee from the supermarket are looking out for it at their place of work.
"My experience of chatting with consumers at food festivals is that they are interested in where it comes from, and the difference we make through the supply chain. Many consumers really respond to this, so we do now have more clients who want to highlight that their coffee is Fairtrade."
Milsom Hotels and Paddy & Scott's Coffee
At Milsom Hotels, the choice is for a little-known certification, UTZ, which is better known elsewhere in Europe. This is a set of criteria for "socially and environmentally appropriate coffee-growing practices", and for featuring a traceability path right back to source. Milsom's coffee is from Paddy & Scott's of Suffolk.
"Where the offer is of a 'first-class experience all round', the quality of the coffee has to match that of the food and service," remarks Paddy Bishopp. "Milsom always made it clear that the coffee must be ethically-sourced and of the highest quality.
"We work with all three certifications (Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ) and can discuss all of them to give the client a choice. We talk a lot about how we support certifications that work towards environmentally-efficient production and a fair price paid to the workers. UTZ is a relative newcomer, so it does not have the love-hate relationship that the consumer may have with other certifications!"
At Milsom, operations director Stas Anastasiades says that while his decision was based on quality first and the badge second, it was important that a potential supplier could show a credible certification.
Customers do not often ask about the ethical credentials of his coffee, he says - but when they do, his staff are ready, even though it is still remarkably rare for waiting staff to be able to discuss the UTZ label.
"Somewhat surprisingly, it is rarely asked about, but many of our staff have been on Paddy & Scott's amazing barista training programme, and all those who have attended feel equipped to talk about Fairtrade and UTZ to our customers. They feel really confident in explaining about our choice of coffee and what makes it right for us."