The Mill coffee

A cup is filled with espresso at The Mill Coffee & Tea on Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

As the fifth-most consumed beverage in America, coffee has a unique place in the cultural conscious. The head of the Specialty Coffee Association Kim Elena Ionescu noted coffee brings people together and helps people be more productive. More ultimately, though, every spritely sip is a pleasurable experience which is non-essential. 

The way the coffee-sourcing system normally works is that individual coffee growers sell their product to an importer, who then sells those beans to a roaster who sends those beans to either a more centralized distributor for local coffeehouses or a large company.

This system has become susceptible to exploitation. A wholesale pound of coffee is worth less than one dollar on New York’s International Exchange, according to the Wall Street Journal. Part of this is due to Brazil’s currency collapse and the increased production of competitive coffee across the world, Vox reported in April.

As a result, smaller farms are more at risk than ever. The Los Angeles Times reported farmers are leaving their farms because they can no longer break even on the investment of growing coffee. While this may not necessarily be a threat to America’s coffee, as large farms or conglomerate co-ops now dominate the U.S. market, smaller farms are being squeezed out of the system, according to the Los Angeles Times.

There are also concerns about the environmental impact of coffee sourcing. As The Guardian notes, the traditional method of growing coffee was done under a dense, sun-reflecting forest, but as the demands of the coffee industry grew, trees were cut down in order to cultivate beans under the sun.

Utilizing vast agricultural resources and using a large amount of plastic, paper cups and straws, coffeehouses are placed in a precarious position in environmental friendliness. However, some organizations have attempted to incorporate more sustainable methods of growing coffee.

Local coffeehouses present an appealing option for those wishing to be conscious of the plight of smaller coffee farmers and the environment, because larger coffee conglomerates are the ones fueling these ethical concerns, according to the Los Angeles Times. Though large companies like Nestle or coffee traders like Neumann Kaffee Gruppe dominate the market, smaller neighborhood coffee shops offer a route around these bigger coffee conglomerates. 

The Daily Nebraskan reviewed three different Lincoln-area coffeehouses in how they source coffee and what they do to be environmentally sustainable. 

The Mill

The Mill, a popular coffee spot among Lincoln locals, does well in the ethical sourcing of coffee in the Lincoln area and helping the environment. Though The Mill’s owner, Daniel Sloan, said that while this is not the mission of the business, The Mill is still cognizant of these issues.

Across its four locations, The Mill uses fully compostable cups, which helps decrease the amount of waste loading landfills. The Mill also provides a sizeable discount for anyone who brings their own cups. It also generally uses glass instead of plastic for its packaging, which helps to decrease overall waste.

“We try and be as responsible as we can be,” Sloan said. “It’s not our prime function, but it’s an important part of what we do. We encourage reusable cups. It never goes in the landfill unless you break it.”

The Mill also has its own in-house roaster, a decision which Sloan said not only gives it greater control over its coffee, but also cuts out the middleman. By doing this, The Mill has a tighter chain of custody over its coffee and utilizes less middlemen in the process.

“It’s vital [having an in-house roaster],” Sloan said, “for freshness and the supply structure, cost structure and the freshness of the beans.”

The Mill sources the vast majority of its coffee from Royal Coffee, an importer of specialty green coffee beans. In this case, green coffee doesn’t mean environmentally friendly, per se, but rather coffee beans yet to be roasted.

Royal Coffee engages in the direct trade of specialty coffees. This refers to a process where Royal connects buyers of coffee, either roasters or otherwise, with the farmers.  

Freelance journalist Dan Nosowitz said the direct trade system is not closely regulated and therefore companies should not be taken at face value when they say they engage in direct trade. However, Sloan is confident in Royal Coffee’s ethics.

“From the procurement side, buying the coffee from a broker that I know, Royal [Coffee] is big enough where they’re buying directly from co-ops or growers themselves,” Sloan said. “They go in country, they know who they’re dealing with. By proxy, I’m able to have a lot of confidence in the integrity of what they’re doing.”

Crescent Moon

Unlike The Mill, Crescent Moon doesn’t have its own in-house roaster. Rather, it uses a number of local roasters to supply its coffee. Crescent Moon sources its non-flavored coffees from The Coffee Roaster in Lincoln and its flavored coffees from A Hill of Beans in Omaha.

One of The Coffee Roaster’s importers is Anthem Coffee Imports headquartered in Kansas City, which also imports coffee to The Mill, though not at the same volume as Royal Coffee does. Anthem Coffee is a smaller coffee importer, and though it doesn’t have the economic backing of Royal Coffee, it also doesn’t have the monetary power to influence smaller farms.

Anthem Coffee also works closely with the farmers themselves, growing relationships and engaging in a sharing of ideas across different farms. This has economic incentive and can improve the quality of the coffee, Brian Phillips of sourcing and sales at Anthem Coffee Imports said.

“Our biggest goal is to minimize how many hands touch the coffee,” Phillips said. “Every time someone touches the coffee, they want a cut.”

Phillips said shade-grown coffee doesn’t work in all parts of the world. Though it’s important to be environmentally friendly, shade-grown coffee shouldn’t be a requirement because it doesn’t work in every climate. While shade-grown coffee was a tradition in Brazil or Central America, that’s not the case in Indonesia or Eastern Africa, both prominent coffee-growing regions.

Crescent Moon also encourages the use of reusable cups and recycles 100% of all waste. While Crescent Moon’s cups are not compostable, they are recyclable.

“Everyone should try to be as environmentally friendly as possible, not just local coffee shops,” Crescent Moon store manager Amanda Martinson said. “I certainly think it can be more expensive for smaller businesses to be more environmentally friendly, but our customer base expects us to take those steps and typically doesn't mind paying a little extra for us to do so.”

The Foundry 

Opened in the spring of 2018, The Foundry Coffee Bar was designed to give The Foundry employees a space to do work with co-workers and clients of the nonprofit. Operating as a fully functioning coffee house with Kombucha, craft beer, wine and more, the downtown space has become a place for local college kids to study and do homework.

Though they do not have the means for in-house roasting, Store manager Kaitlyn Winchell said they make sure to get their coffee from a reputable local roaster who ensures the ethical sourcing of the product. 

“I trust our roaster to make sure everything is ethical,” Winchell said. “He sends me a list of the coffee he gets and then he sends me records with the stories behind it and how it’s all sourced. It documents what kind of process the coffee goes through and how the proceeds help the country it comes from.” 

The roaster that supplies The Foundry with their coffee is Meta Coffee, which is owned and co-founded by Michael Bratty. Bratty said when it comes to ethical sourcing and sustainability, a roaster or a coffee shop must rely on close-knit relationships with the supplier of the coffee crop, whether it be directly with the farmer or the importer who acquires the coffee. 

‘’I think it’s definitely based on relationships and fostering a good relationship with whomever you’re buying from, whether it be cafe from roaster, or roaster from farmer or from an importer,” Bratty said. “Maybe I have a different perspective of the industry but sustainability, and talking about sustainability and pushing that makes people ask these questions about where their coffee comes from.”

Bratty said it is important to be cognizant of the fact that every coffee bean comes from a small, cherry-like fruit grown near the tropical regions of the globe. Bratty gets the majority of his coffee from an importer called Cafe Imports, and said he ensures the ethical sourcing of the coffee through researching his suppliers and only working with companies that meet his ethical standards. 

“I can only trust what’s happening from what my importer tells me, and they provide certificates on their coffee so I don’t have concerns in that regard.” Bratty said. “Cafe Imports has requirements on where their coffee comes from. It has to be sustainable, or at least as sustainable as possible.”

As far as other sustainability efforts made by The Foundry, Winchell said the relatively new cafe only uses biodegradable to-go cups and aims to move toward a zero-waste approach in the coffee shop.