Cooperative Coffees

Local Libations Winter 2010 Issue

Cooperative Coffees

By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

How Two Wisconsin Roasters Promote Fair Trade

In an industrial building in downtown Madison in early fall, about 40 of the leading-edge coffee roasters around the United States and Canada gathered to talk about flavors, prices, and methods to make more delicious—and fair—coffee this year. In what’s known as a “cupping,” they stirred, slurped loudly and occasionally spit to taste test the new coffees that might be offered soon. At this cupping, much like a wine tasting, about two dozen small white cups were set out with freshly brewed offerings as tasters circled a long table to sample and debate the beans. The results? Brassy, nutty, fruity, grainy and woody; a few unpleasant, several delightful and some in between.

Roasters came from around the U.S.—Boulder, Louisville, Austin, Minneapolis and many more—as well as Canada—Montreal and the Yukon—for the annual meeting of Cooperative Coffees, a 23-member cooperative that promotes fair trade and is co-owned by the coffee roasters. Through Cooperative Coffees, the roasting businesses collectively choose and purchase “green” unroasted coffee beans from countries around the world (currently they buy from 18 farming groups in nine countries). Members of the group travel to coffee-producing countries to meet farmers and decide what the group should buy. And as equal owners, they promise to adhere to practices of fair trade: doing business in a way that supports small farmers around the world. Working together, the small businesses are stronger as a whole. Because they are pooling their resources, these coffee roasters can have much better buying and selecting power. Though co-op members jointly purchase the unroasted beans, each member has his or her own style of roasting, which is what allows them to engage in this unique partnership among competitors.

Two of southern Wisconsin’s top coffee roasters, Kickapoo Coffee in Viroqua and Just Coffee in Madison, are members of Cooperative Coffees (Just Coffee’s Mike Moon is secretary of the co-op’s board of directors), and they helped host this meeting—the first ever in Madison—from arranging bike rentals for transportation around the city to holding the cupping at Just Coffee’s headquarters. Housed in a former train depot in Viroqua, Kickapoo Coffee has made a name as artisanal roasters since its founding in 2005. They were named Micro Roaster of the Year in 2010 by Roast Magazine, and hold public cuppings at least once a month to let locals test the coffee and check out their vintage 1930s roaster.

“If we were on our own, we couldn’t do it,” says co-owner T.J. Semanchin. “Co-op Coffees provides us with the relationships, and fair trade is all about human relationships.” Semanchin understands this fact first-hand, having lived in Latin America working with sustainable development projects. “Fair trade is the foundation of who we are,” he says.

Kickapoo Coffee’s other co-owner, Caleb Nicholes, has a background as a wine importer and gourmet food expert, and he is credited with maintaining what Semanchin calls “quality with depth” in Kickapoo’s coffee.

“We want to make great coffee,” says Nicholes. “It is vital for us to make coffee that is both fair and good, not always an easy combination.”

Just Coffee is also praised for its product and was named the Best Local Coffee Roaster in 2010 by Madison’s Isthmus. “JC,” as it is known locally, was founded in 2001 by Matt Earley and Mike Moon when Earley was finishing up a graduate degree in Latin American Studies at University of Wisconsin, and Moon was running a CSA farm.

Kickapoo Coffee and Just Coffee practice fair trade in a certain, similar way that is also the method of the rest of the Cooperative Coffees members. But the term “fair trade,” like “organic,” means different things to different people. For those in Cooperative Coffees, it is very much a global vision: At the Madison meeting, members talked about exploring new options in Honduras, El Salvador and Peru. Setting up partnerships with growers in these countries means visiting them, getting to know them, often paying a higher price, as well as encouraging ecologically sound practices and prefinancing—paying ahead of time to help the farmers get the job done, similar to when you purchase a CSA share in spring, only on a larger scale.

The co-op members also talk a lot about “transparency,” that is, making every part of the transaction clear and open—no secrets and no surprises. They suggest if you want to really see how your coffee is made, you can trace the beans from farmer to roaster on www.fairtradeproof.org.

Because Wisconsin is not a coffee bean producer, these businesses are supporting local in a different, expanded way. They still employ locally and sell to local coffee shops, but the roasters’ fair trade business practices also support the rural, agrarian communities of the countries with whom they work. It’s locavore-ism…from a distance. And for those Southern Wisconsinites who enjoy coffee, they can do so knowing that it was fairly traded before making it into their cups.

While much focus is on the sourcing of the coffee, cooperative members know it still won’t sell unless it tastes good—and it will sell better if it’s beautiful. Coffee houses such as Bradbury’s in downtown Madison create barista art, gorgeous decorative swirls and shapes on top of specialty drinks made with Kickapoo Coffee. Along with the artistic foam, diners can also order sweet and savory crepes created from local ingredients. Recent offerings have included a dark chocolate and sea salt crepe and a crepe with heirloom tomatoes, bacon, mixed greens, aioli and fried egg.

One of the great developments of the cooperative is a new coffee lab in Montreal, where members are invited to come taste and make choices for the group (and even sleep on futons in a loft there). The lab is located in a former chocolate factory and overlooks the city. The lab is also expected to become a place where expert roasting is taught and shared through workshops and discussions.

Currently, co-op members are learning how to be expert scorers—to understand what the numbers really mean and what to do when a coffee does not meet an expected score. But they are also leaning more about how to weigh a number score against a description. These are the kinds of lessons that are intensified when the roasters travel to the countries where the beans are grown to personally meet the farmers, study their methods and ask questions about how coffee is grown.

Bill Harris, president of Cooperative Coffees and owner of Café Campesino in Georgia, says he’d like to add more members to the co-op, eventually having at least one roaster representing every U.S. state. Together, they will taste and buy the coffee Americans drink every day, and be dedicated to fair trade not as charity, but as social justice and good business practice. Of Cooperative Coffees’ members, Harris says, “They are equal voices at the table.”

We hope you enjoy the Pumpkin and Hazelnut Biscotti recipe which accompanies this article. 

Read more about the members of Cooperative Coffees in the U.S. and Canada at coopcoffees.com/who/members-ofcc/members and watch for them on your travels.

Roasters in the U.S.A.

Amavida Coffee - Santa Rosa Beach, FL
Bongo Java - Nashville, TN
Café Campesino - Americus, GA
Cloudforest Initiatives - St. Paul, MN
Conscious Coffees - Boulder, CO
Coffee Exchange - Providence, RI
Desert Sun - Durango, CO
Doma Coffee - Post Falls, Idaho
Fonseca Coffee - Philadelphia, PA
Heine Brothers’ Coffee - Louisville, KY
Higher Grounds - Traverse City, MI
Just Coffee - Madison, WI
Kickapoo Coffee - Viroqua, WI
Larry’s Beans - Raleigh, NC
Peace Coffee - Minneapolis, MN
Third Coast Coffee - Austin, TX
Vermont Artisan Coffee - Waterbury, VT

Roasters in Canada

Alternative Grounds - Toronto, ON
Bean North - Whitehorse, YK
Café Cambio - Chicoutimi, QC
Cafe Rico - Montreal, QC
Equator Coffee - Almonte, ON
La Tierra Cooperative - Ottawa, ON

Continue on to the following pages to see more photos.


Caleb Nicholes of Kickapoo Coffee


TJ Semanchin of Kickapoo Coffee


Mike Moon of Just Coffee


Matt Earley of Just Coffee


Shannon Henry Kleiber is a Madison-based writer. Her second book, On My Honor: Real Life Lessons From America’s First Girl Scout, about Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, came out in 2012. She is a former staff writer and columnist for The Washington Post.

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