How the nation’s farm-to-fork capital is pushing the envelope on coffee

Sacramento didn’t become the face of the farm-to-fork movement by standing in opposition to something else. Instead, the city took the way it had been interacting with its surrounding 1.5 million acres of farmland for generations and put a name to it.

According to Alan L. Olmstead, research professor of economics at University of California, Davis, the Golden State accounts for over 10% of the United States’ agricultural yield. It is estimated that this is due to a lot of factors like crop diversity, education, technology, and more, but Sacramento’s proximity to a myriad of agricultural options helped shape not only the city’s identity as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital, it has also helped to transform Sacramento’s view on all foods, including coffee.

“I see a genuine respect and adoration for the people that grow our food,” said Jeremiah Frazier, former director of wholesale for Temple Coffee in Sacramento. “Whether that’s coffee, whether that’s rice, it doesn’t matter—hey, thank you for feeding us. Thank you for bringing us together over a short wooden table.”

Coffee, no matter how someone enjoys it, begins as an agricultural product. The brown beans that have become a universal symbol for the beverage grow inside a fruit, much like an almond, that, when processed properly, becomes one of the most widely traded and consumed commodities in the world. Frazier believes that Sacramento’s ties to its local farmers have helped the proliferation of specialty coffee in the region.

According to coffee consultant and journalist Emily McIntire, specialty coffee, which is sometimes called third wave coffee, began growing in popularity in the early 2000s after coffee companies started to turn their focus away from the inexpensive, mass-produced first wave coffee introduced in the late 1800s while also building on second wave coffee pioneers like Peet’s and Starbucks who helped to bring espresso drinks and cafe culture into the mainstream. Third wave coffee hit Sacramento when Sean Kohmescher opened Temple in 2005, and, since then, the city has latched onto the agricultural and human element of coffee in ways that Frazier, who has worked in the coffee industry for over 24 years, has not seen in more prominent coffee meccas, like Seattle or San Francisco.

“Everything from here to Bakersfield is agricultural property, so there’s still that connection to the farmer,” said Frazier. “I think that just the geographical positioning of coffee didn’t change how consumers felt about the product.”

Temple was one of the first coffee companies in the central valley to highlight “farm-to-cup” coffee, which offered their consumers a level of transparency into how, where, why, and through how many hands coffee beans traveled in order to get into peoples’ morning mugs. According to Matthew Bergstrom, account manager for Cropster, a Natomas-based coffee technology company, such information has become the cornerstone of the modern coffee industry, especially in Sacramento.

“Farm-to-fork, I think it’s this moving from just being like, ‘Let’s just eat this’ or ‘Let’s just drink this,’ but instead, ‘Let’s appreciate it and let’s enjoy where it came from,'” said Bergstrom. “Now, in the specialty coffee scene, [we’re] highlighting farmers and focusing on how do we actually meet farmers’ needs.”

Over the last 15 years, the coffee industry’s focus on transparency developed separately but parallel to changes in consumer values. Shoppers in the United States have been making economic choices that support their values for decades, but the establishment of the National Organic Program in 2000, which is the regulatory framework that governs organic food, provided them with a clearer distinction into what was taking place on the farm level. Now, many California farmers and companies focus on terms like “cage-free,” “non-GMO” and “grass-fed” that Sacramento customers find important because they provide a clearer window into the conditions of the livestock and produce they choose to consume.

Unfortunately, a vast majority of United States cannot effectively produce coffee, leaving companies and consumers little choice but to look outside of their borders to source their goods. These countries, like Burundi, El Salvador and Ethiopia, often do not have the same regulations or oversight for farmers that one can find around Sacramento, which can leave customers in the dark. Many in the industry, like Kelly Hill, owner of Sacramento’s Bellflower Coffee, have an understanding of the conditions of coffee-producing countries and the plight that coffee farmers must undergo to eke out a living.

“Learning about the supply chain is really important,” Hill said. “But it is a sticky subject and I think that there’s a lot there that can get pretty depressing.”

Many of those at the base of the coffee supply chain are fighting poverty and civil war. Pioneers in Sacramento’s coffee industry, like Identity Coffees’ owner Lucky Rodrigues, have worked to help the city understand more of the many hands that coffee must pass through to end up in their cafes, like hosting “A Film About Coffee” at The Crest Theater in 2014, holding seminars about sourcing coffee and focusing on what has been called “direct trade.”

Direct trade became popular around 2005 as coffee professionals began going directly to farms in places like Brazil and Guatemala in order to build relationships with those performing the laborious process of getting coffee from the farm to billions of consumers each year. The intention was to reward farmers and their workers for their hard work, often paying over 25% more than the standard rate, and to help them produce a higher quality and more sustainable product. Soon after, however, direct trade began to lose its meaning.

“Direct trade was the buzz term—eliminating the middle man—but the truth behind that is that there’s always a middle man. There’s always somebody, because you have to have somebody who actually gets that coffee to you,” said Hill. “Anybody could slap a direct trade label on something and say we directly got this from the source. But what does that actually mean? One way or another, aren’t we all doing that?”

Frazier saw that, in larger cities, like New York and Los Angeles, many companies relied on tools intended to promote farmers’ livelihoods, like direct trade, as a marketing gimmick or a means to limit the accessibility for the rest of the country. Baristas and other coffee professionals were simultaneously holding the plight of coffee farmers on a pedestal while also limiting the access of those who wanted to peek behind the veil. When he came to Sacramento in 2011, he saw the city’s developing coffee scene as a breath of fresh air. He didn’t find the same pretentiousness that he felt was keeping other coffee communities from realizing their full potential. Instead, there was an openness and camaraderie that aligned with his values.

“This isn’t all fluff—we didn’t just make this shit up so we can sell it to customers. What I see from the majority of [coffee] buyers in Sacramento is an earnest and true connection,” Frazier said. “I see people working with brokers and importers on a genuine level of concern for the people who are growing their coffee.”

Since then, the global coffee industry has praised Sacramento’s coffee community for its contributions to the farmers and the supply chain, but seasoned coffee professionals like Frazier say that there is still plenty of work to be done to help support an equitable livelihood for coffee producers. Sacramento is taking that challenge head-on. According to Bergstrom, the economic responsibility for bridging the remaining divide between coffee farmers and coffee drinkers rests squarely on the shoulders of those on the front lines. According to him, café owners and baristas have the most effect on the end-consumer to share the story of coffee’s journey.

“As a barista, I get to take all of this hard work that’s been done from the growing to the milling to the shipping to the roasting to the preparation and I get to hand you this beautiful product,” Bergstrom said. “No matter where you come in, you’re participating in this global, world wide community and commodity.”

Hill said that Sacramento is making great strides to help remove the stigma associated with the unapproachable snobbery that she and Frazier both noticed was lending an alienating element to third wave coffee during the movement’s beginnings. She has seen concerted efforts to shift the focus away from the industry’s sordid past that she hopes will provide an increased viability for the industry and, in turn, coffee farmers as well.

“We’re very focused on service and very focused on sustainability. People [were] making it seem like this isn’t for you—this is for us because we know what we’re doing. Now people are realizing, ‘Oh! I actually can make this!’” Hill said. “Make coffee however you want, and if you like it, that’s fine. There’s not a right or wrong way to do it.”

Frazier’s many years in the coffee industry, both inside and outside of Sacramento, have given him a macroscopic view of the potential that the city has. He has witnessed third wave coffee blossom, and he witnessed Sacramento transform into its own culinary ecosystem defined separately from its proximity to the Bay Area or Lake Tahoe. He said that Sacramento is on the right track to help the coffee industry continue to flourish because of the city’s ties to the farm-to-fork and farm-to-cup movements.

“Maybe third wave is about the people. Maybe it’s about a certain group of people that have taken the burden of making the world a better place any way that they can in any position they occupy. Maybe it’s not anything exclusive to coffee—maybe it’s this huge, huge swatch of consciousness and people finally paying attention in every aspect of their lives,” Frazier said. “It’s us—it’s the people that make the industry—we’re the third wave. We’re the people who did it different than the people before us and we stand on their shoulders and that’s what makes us great.”


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