It started with a surprising observation. Ten years ago, Steven Sutton was working at a Miami-based coffee business. At the time, a small number of companies were starting to market coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, much like fine wines or designer chocolates.
But Sutton also noticed that Colombian coffee beans — long recognized as perhaps the world’s finest — were largely ignored by artisanal operations. Why? “Different bean varieties were mixed together by larger cooperatives prior to being sold,” he notes, explaining that the process washed out the unique flavors of individual bean varietals.
Speed + Freshness
And that planted the seeds of an idea. How could Sutton, a Colombian native, find Colombian beans that would allow him to make the freshest, best-roasted coffee possible?
His answer: Go directly to the source. In 2006, he formed a new operation, Devoción, and returned to Colombia with an eye on sourcing the nation’s finest coffees. Another goal: Adopt a social and environmental focus to help improve the lives of coffee bean growers, many of whom live in some of the country’s remote, hazardous regions.
Devoción contracted with micro-lot bean farmers, paying them above–fair trade prices. In the process, Sutton made another discovery. “We realized that roasting beans while they were still green and fresh made for an amazing cup of coffee,” he recalls.
Within a decade, Sutton and Devoción were looking beyond Colombia. “By 2012, we were in the middle of planning our expansion,” he recalls. “We realized that we were the only company roasting fresh beans. This made us start thinking of a logistics solution on how to maintain that freshness any place in the world. And that’s when we thought of FedEx as an ideal potential vendor to help us accomplish part of our mission.”
To ship the harvested beans, Devoción began using FedEx Express to transport them overnight to the U.S. In the process, it helped make a serious impact on the coffee industry with what has come to be known as the “farm-to-cup” model.
Sutton credits that freshness and his company’s speed to market as key growth factors. And the operation certainly has grown. It continues to expand its wholesale operation; it recently opened Café Devoción, a Brooklyn coffee house; and it now works with more than 400 Colombian farmers. It also continually searches for new farmers and varieties of beans. “We spend a lot of time exploring Colombia’s coffee regions,” he explains. “Once we find bean varieties with special attributes that have the potential for amazing coffee, we work to establish personal relationships with the farmers and their communities.”
And those relationships have made a lasting impact on those farmers’ lives. “Many have small operations, and they pour their hearts out to tend to their crops day in and day out,” he says. “Paying above–fair trade prices helps them tremendously.”
But wages are only one element of the relationship. Devoción has also worked with farmers on recycling programs that promote sustainable farming practices. And, Sutton notes, the company provides ongoing education. “We regularly bring farmers to our lab, roaster and dry mill facility in Bogota,” he says. “Here they see first-hand why having the correct varieties, the correct processing methods and good land management are all important. After leaving our facilities, they have a better understanding of the specialty coffee market, and that helps them to keep pushing the limits for a better coffee. As a result, they can better their returns and share them with their families and communities.”
And as Sutton adds, seeing the results is particularly rewarding. “We initiated a project with ex-guerrillas who had been converted into forest-keepers by the Colombian government,” he says. “They did not know much about specialty coffee. But after two years of our involvement and education, they are now producing it — and charging 45 percent above National Coffee Federation prices. It is helping their communities prosper.”
Tell Us Your Opinion
- Have fair trade practices made an impact on how your business operates?