As an artisan speciality coffee roaster, primarily we seek very high-quality coffee from reliable and consistent producers sourced according to our code of conduct for ethical sourcing. This encompasses working conditions that achieve International Labour Organization standards and evidence that environmental pollution on the farm is minimized. In return, the farmers who produce our green coffee need regular and reliable orders and prompt payment for their coffee.

The Fairtrade programme definitely set the tone for socially sustainable coffee. The theory behind Fairtrade is that producers are provided with a safety net, a guaranteed minimum price for their coffee.

The one thing that is never really mentioned by Fairtrade is quality, which is completely at odds with what the discerning coffee drinker wants – a great tasting cup.

At Union Hand-Roasted Coffee we have developed an initiative, which we call ‘Union Direct Trade’ that is based on excellence and ethical trade. Crucially, the model recognizes quality as the key to commercial success and we inspire farmers to focus on increasing quality for a better price, not quantity for a minimum price.

Why does our Union Direct Trade Model matter?

In 2012, 430,000 metric tons of Fairtrade certified coffee was produced, but only 30% was sold under Fairtrade conditions. Despite investment in certification, farmers would only receive the baseline commodity prices for the remaining 70% of their crop.

World markets will always limit positive social impact from a coffee value-chain that is founded on the basis of Fairtrade certification. In 2013 the average world market price for Colombian Mild Arabica was USD$1.48/lb. which is 8cents/lb greater than the Fairtrade minimum price, not including the optional 20c social premium.

Union is a roaster and importer and we paid at least double the Fairtrade base during 2013 as the farm gate price to producers. For some of our coffees we pay prices achieving ten times above the Fairtrade price. If it tastes delicious, we want that coffee.

In consuming countries, Fairtrade justifies a minimum price standard by persuading consumers that they are helping poor producers. This is achieved through marketing campaigns which requires significant investment.

We believe that a more sustainable approach, which benefits both the coffee farmer and coffee drinker, would be to develop a model based on quality, accessible to all farmers and not limited to the Fairtrade model which only operates with Co-operatives. Such an approach would encourage innovation, growth and economic progress by rewarding excellence.

Why is there a need for a focus on quality?

A farmer who produces high quality coffee and has the capacity to evaluate the quality he has produced will know how to assess what a buyer like Union is looking for and that farmer will have a stronger negotiation position compared to a farmer who trades on “ethical value added” alone.

Paying farmers more money for their coffee should not be about charity – it should be a way to reward and ensure the quality of the coffee and the circumstances under which it is produced and processed. Paying for high quality and ethics, instead of ethics alone is a way to ensure sustainable prosperity for farmers.

Union Direct Trade

Graciano-still-300x165Graciano Cruz, explains why he benefits from our Union Direct Trade approach

‘Union Direct Trade’ is based on coffee excellence and ethical trade, allowing farmers to trace their coffee as it moves upstream in the value chain. We encourage farmers to think about, and ask, questions like: ‘Who roasts my coffee? Who drinks my coffee? What price is my coffee sold in the UK?’ Many farmers in the world would not even know what country their coffee is sold to, let alone who roasts and drinks it. Likewise, many roasters in the world do not know where their specialty coffee comes from; which country or region, let alone which farm.

Looking at it from a farmers’ point of view, do you want people to buy your coffee because you are labeled as someone who is poor? Or because they enjoy drinking it and they appreciate the delicious flavours?

Even though the concern for ethical practices is as important as quality, the selling point of coffee should be centered on high quality. Consumers might buy a cause-related product once, but if it doesn’t taste great, in the long run, they will return to what they actually want to drink or eat.

Our Union Direct Trade model, with a focus on traceable and delicious tasting coffees brings responsibility for consumer, roaster and farmer. This approach is certainly not an easy way for us to source our coffee, as it requires our presence in the field almost throughout the year working with farmers. And it also introduces complexities trying to explain our trading approach to consumers.

The goal of Union Direct Trade is to maintain our engagement in long-term sustainable relationships with producers. Farmers and roasters should be friends and collaborate. And to achieve this we must share goals and visions. If not, the relationship becomes co-ordination, or co-operation which is driven by one party. Driven by one party it will most likely serve the needs of just one party.

Huehuetenango, Guatemala – an example of a successful non-Fairtrade certified Co-operative

Mountain-view-0843Todos Santos mountain view


Iliana Martinez has been the driving force behind many of the positive developments we’ve observed with the coffee producers we source from in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Iliana oversees the production, quality and exportation of the coffee produced by 216 small coffee producers of Esquipulas, located in the highlands of Huehuetenango. We have seen this cooperative strengthen, and increase yields of higher quality coffee over the past few years.

For us, this cooperative is a good example of a non-Fairtrade Co-operative that invests significantly in its community. If we take Coffee Leaf Rust disease as an example; this disease causes coffee trees to lose their leaves, resulting in fewer beans and inferior quality. It is estimated that 70% of the coffee crop in Guatemala has been blighted. However, Esquipulas has been able to reinvest profits in its farmers and in 2013 created a Coffee Rust plan to mitigate from the effects of the disease. The cooperative provided members with agricultural tools such as fertilizer and protective equipment for the farmer. The results are highly noticeable when comparing their healthy farms against their disease stricken neighbours who are not members of the Co-operative.

Besides investing in quality and good agricultural practices, the cooperative has worked on improving the socio-economic circumstances of its family members. When we started working with this cooperative in 2009, they were trying to extricate from an unhealthy trading relationship with other buyers. Today, they can proudly say that export volumes have increased 2.5 times since 2009, and they have established sustainable prices for their coffee – at an average of double the Fairtrade minimum price.

Understanding our trading initiative will require extra effort from consumers compared with buying a pack of coffee with a succinct logo; but we think it’s more effective for the farmer and more pleasurable for the customer.

Pascale Schuit
Union Sustainable Relationship Manager

With the chance of crisp, chilly days still a threat, grab your last chance to enjoy our Winter blend. This medium to full-bodied, harmoniously layered blend is the perfect solution to melt away the last of the winter blues with aromas of plum and candied orange peel, and a lingering vanilla and butterscotch finish.

The elegant sweetness of Liberación from Guatemala is underpinned by the sparkling, citrus acidity provided by Ethiopian Homacho Waeno and complimented by essences of candied fruit from Sumatra’s Gajah Mountain. To finish there’s a creamy butterscotch toffee aftertaste, courtesy of the Bello Horizonte Natural from El Salvador.

How to serve

As an espresso: it’s full and rich and this brewing method will show off the fruity plumlike notes, sweet zesty orange with a nice vanilla butterscotch finish.

With milk: as a flat white or latte, it’s at its best as a small serve of 6-8 ounces to retain the notes.


Enjoy it with


orange gingerbread with cream cheese frosting

Discover the beans

Bello Horizonte, El Salvador

Papaya lemon herbal apple and wine sweet toffee

Varietal – bourbon

Process – natural, sun-dried


Gajah Mountain, Sumatra

Plum, blackberry and sweet candied fruits and a deep rich body

Varietal – typica, bourbon, tim tim

Process – sun-dried


Liberación, Guatemala

refreshingly fruity with notes of floral jasmine

Varietal – bourbon, pache, typica, catuai

Process – washed, sun-dried


Homacho Waeno, Ethiopia

sparkling sweet citrus acidity medium body with a lingering honeyed aftertaste

Varietal – mixed heirloom

Process – washed, sun-dried


Winter Birdhouse photo from Tom Bee’s photostream under a Creative Commons licence

Once coffee cherries are picked, pulped and washed, the drying is a very important part of the post harvest process. The way moisture content is controlled affects the quality and ultimately the price that the producer receives for their crop. Pascale met Jose, one of our producers in Guatemala who has been innovative in coming up with solutions to improve his coffee.

Jose Fernando Lopez Lopez, member and vice president of the coffee department in Esquipulas Cooperative, Huehuetenango Guatemala who produce our “Liberacion“,  is very proud of his wet mill equipment.  The way he speaks about coffee is inspiring and in recent years he has invested a lot of time in his coffee and the cooperative organization.

He has many ideas and aspirations. Last year, he upgraded his wet mill because it was too small, and restricted the speed and volume he could pulp his coffee. Now he plans to hitch his old depulper onto his pick-up truck so that he can go out to the fields with his wet mill and depulp the coffee there. Depulping on site will mean less coffee to transport, and fewer trips to the parcels overall. Instead of transporting the cherries to the dry mill he can now transport parchment, and save time and money  Very innovative! He should also discover that by pulping cherries almost immediately after picking his quality will improve even further. 

Jose also owns a pharmacy. He employs day labourers who take care of his coffee up in the mountains, day to day. He needs to visit his pacels of land regularly to keep guiding the day labourers in washing, fermenting and drying the coffee. Below he is checking the progress of beans as they dry.

The wet parchment coffee contains greater than 50% moisture, which must be carefully dried to reduce the water content down to 12%. To dry this parchment coffee, the beans are arranged in a thin layer on large concrete patios to dry naturally in the sun. The beans are raked regularly throughout the day to ensure even drying throughout the parchment layer.

An alternative approach is to create raised “African Beds” where the beans are spread on open-mesh netting suspended above the ground on tables, that allows the air to circulate above and below. Whichever approach is  taken, drying time must be controlled and is dependent upon weather conditions and relative humidity. Rapid drying can cause the parchment to split which is detrimental to the coffee, and slow drying with poor air circulation will contribute to mould growth.

Although sun-drying is the favoured technique because it is considered to contribute towards enhanced cup quality, mechanical drying is also used in some circumstances. Here beans are rotated in drums that are blown through with hot air. This can be an effective technique to “predry” before finishing with sun-drying, or if weather conditions are just too wet. Complete mechanical drying is not always well regarded for specialty coffee and may contribute towards lower cup quality.

At some co-operatives, they have built covered patios (parabolic driers) to protect the raised “African” drying beds.  This is a tent-like structure- the top and walls are made from plastic, protecting the coffee from rain, and sometimes mesh is used which facilitates air flow which helps to avoid condensation which could cause mould to grow.  

Maize is a most important crop in Guatemala as the ground flour is used to make tortillas which are part of every meal here. At the end of the season when all the coffee is dried, the terraces are used for drying maize too.

We try to share examples of best practice from all the countries we source our coffee with other famers around the world. Every situation is slightly different but we find that it improves our relationships and deepens their trust in us if we speak together regularly to update them about a range of subjects from agronomy techniques to labour rights, and to learn from them too. Pascale is researching socio-economic conditions for us and regularly conducts surveys and runs workshops with farmers to exchange feedback. It’s been interesting to see how certain aspects have changed. For instance, the increased role played by women in the coffee economy has developed greatly since the coffee crisis in the late 90s.

Labour conditions and equality

It is always difficult to gather producers together and give workshops, especially during the harvest. I am getting used to “the hora chapin”, the Guatemalan hour, and now realise workshops always start late. But they’re worth it – here we welcomed 62 producers, 45% women and 55% male. It is inspiring to see that level of female participation as Guatemalan culture is dominated by gender issues including so-called “machismo”.  It is culturally defined that the woman’s role is in the house taking care for her husband and kids. Historically it has been rare for women to get involved in events like ours, especially events related to education. The workshop deals with labour standards, but also briefly discusses women’s right to equal payment and their right to participate in events. Discussing these issues is very important in a mainly male dominated society.

Some women are working with their husbands, or sometimes in place of them. Many men from this area migrated to the United States for work.  Some remain loyal to their families and send money home, however unfortunately many of them disappear or start a new family in the States abandoning their families in Guatemala.

In Tuiboch Todos Santos, 23 producers participated in our workshop about costs of production and labour standards. I presented the results of my previous study on cost of production. To gain and keep producers’ trust it is important that we dont just come to do our study and disappear, but we also need to return and share our results.

Besides the workshop on the costs of production, I also discuss labour standards. Union Hand Roasted Coffee is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative which works to protect poor and vulnerable workers, particularly children and day labourers. We discuss these standards with our producers. Producers often tell us that because of their economic situation children sometimes need to help on the farm, but say that these activities generally do not interfere with schoolwork. We explain that it is also important for children to play and rest – they can help on the farm but need time for themselves too.

Coffee training

We believe it is essential to equip producers with the knowledge that helps them to grade and cup their own coffee, and have done so for almost a decade now.

Esquipulas has two trained cuppers, Adriel Alfaro and Iliana Martinez. For any group of producers selling coffee having cupping experts is very important. Not long ago, growers would take a sample of their harvest to a local buyer, who offered the producers a price after cupping their coffee. If they were told that quality was poor, producers had no clue whether or not this was true – as I’d heard in Costa Rica, the cupping often took place behind closed doors and was surrounded with mystery and secrecy.

By training local staff, and making cupping sessions open to all growers and communicating cupping results to producers, things change. If a producer has doubts, he can try and taste his own coffee (one does not need to be a super experienced cupper to distinguish common quality issues such as heavily fermented coffee). Cupping results are shared with the producers and recommendations are made. This way the cupping process is very transparent and accessible to all producers. Cupping is done within eight days of delivery of the coffee, and if the coffee passes acceptance, the co-operative makes a pre-payment against the full selling price.

Knowing how to evaluate quality is especially relevant for the co-operative when they are considering applications from new producers who wish to join. In the past, some less scrupulous growers have wanted the benefits that the co-operative offers, particularly around price guarantees in difficult seasons, but they are not reliable or don’t produce beans of sufficient quality. Cupping expertise also protects the co-operative when they are selling their crops as they can judge which beans are premium and should fetch the highest price.

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