When Colby Barr and his co-founder Ryan O’Donovan started a coffee company, Verve Roasters, in 2007, there were only two other similar businesses — Blue Bottle and Ritual. “We were the third third wave roaster, at least here in California,” jokes Barr. Today, they’re part of a $35 million global specialty coffee industry that’s expected to grow up to $83 million by 2025 — and one he hopes is deepening its social and environmental impact in the supply chain.
Barr and his colleagues have put resources and money into innovating coffee, by setting up an expansive cafe-meets-innovation lab in LA, developing a better tasting instant coffee, and canning nitro cold brew. In 2019, though, they started to focus on not just the flavors and innovations of coffee, but also the supply chain, something that Barr says he had been doing all along but never truly formalized at Verve. The Famlevel Initiative (a play on words with their Streetlevel Coffee blend, aims to connect Farmlevel to Streetlevel). Though Verve doesn’t subscribe to any of the third-party certifications on the market currently, Barr does note that they pay a higher price for green coffee than commodity pricing and even, Fair Trade. And now, they want to invest in specific projects that support the work of their coffee growers.
The first one is in Colombia, a popular coffee-growing country, which Barr has been traveling to for the past decade. Through the first Farmlevel initiative, Verve has supported the cultivation of an endemic variety of coffee called Caturra Chiroso with about two dozen producers. Given the remote location of these growers, the initial batch of 60,000 new seedlings was distributed locally, and replaced some lower quality hybrid varieties. Barr says they were happy to invest in the idea as it was brought forward to Verve by the producers themselves. “They’re partners in this, and we hope to buy the beans from those trees in three years when they’re harvested. It’s not a give back. We’re working hand-in-hand. They know how to farm, much better than any white, hipster kid.” he jokes.
Growing up in a farming family in northern California, Barr has felt a kinship to farmers globally, he says, and particularly those in the coffee industry whom he visits every year. If it were not for the pandemic, he would spend four months on the road, buying from producer groups.
As coffee prices have plummeted to historic lows with an oversupply of coffee, Barr is acutely aware of the challenges that coffee farmers face: whether it’s disease (he saw the whole rust saga unfold across Latin America, he says) or erratic rainfall that disrupts growing cycles and soil health or shortage of labor at the farm-level with young people leaving the profession for more lucrative opportunities. “For some farmers, it becomes a question of whether or not it’s even worth growing coffee as a livelihood, particularly in countries where their costs are higher.”
Since Verve is buying premium coffee, they’re betting on quality over quantity. That’s why, he notes, Verve has decided to work with importers and exporters of coffee who are high on transparency. “If we put down a dollar for coffee, for example, how is that going to get broken up along the way? And are these folks willing to tell me exactly how much the farmer is getting, or the farm gate price.”
Though the term “direct trade” suggests that the supply chain is completely stripped of all the middlemen, it’s not quite that simple. There are middlemen, but fewer, and what Barr looks for, are those with some ethics. “Not all middlemen are bad. You need a supply chain. Everyone is critical. That connotation of a middleman as someone who takes advantage of the steps in between has been around. But not all middlemen are that.”
So he focuses on transparency. “I need someone who isn’t going to be afraid to answer questions. I don’t want premiums falling into a hole along the way.”
When asked what kind of change he’d like to see in coffee that would actually result in direct impact on coffee farmers, he says:
“It’s not a pity thing. I don’t like that kind of cause marketing, if we put up a picture of a farmer or his family, and then ask for additional funding. Farmers just wanted to be treated fairly and that their hard work is worth it. Just pay them more, it’s that simple.”
Given the world’s newfound obsession with coffee pods, Barr is frustrated. “When you start doing the math, you’re paying something like $50 a pound on coffee [if you’re using pods daily.]” Yet there’s hesitancy to pay farmers just a few cents more per pound, he argues, and that could make a massive difference.
In his travels and relationships with coffee producers, he notes that the one thing farmers ask for is higher pay. Thus, he refuses to frame the marketing around a single farmer, or an image that evokes need. As a result, despite Verve’s renewed interest in social and environmental impact through the Farmlevel Initiative, the brand is unlikely to ever foray down that road, he says: “We just focus on ethics and excellence, instead. The two can go together: ethics in sourcing and excellence in coffee quality and experience.”