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Cultivating Connections

Deeper Roots Coffee brings excellence and community to Cincinnati from the heart of Central America

By Keith Bowers · June 5th, 2013 · Cover Story
cover-deeperroots-photo-keithbowersPhoto: Keith Bowers
Pick up a pre-ground and quickly staling canister of Folgers or Nescafé from your average grocery store, throw it into the coffee pot and you get a burnt-tasting cup of joe that needs a hefty cut of cream and sugar. It’s the same low-grade caffeine delivery system being consumed with repetitive drudgery in workplaces and chain shops everywhere. 

But anyone sipping a slow pour over or expertly pulled shot of single-origin espresso knows of an entirely different experience. The complex flavor profiles and purity of the bean make the experience uplifting and, empirically, it simply makes you feel good. 

The difference between drab and delicious mirrors the product’s potential path to your mug — a journey that some are working to make shorter. By building lasting relationships with producers, local coffee roasters are able to secure a high quality product straight from the source, which helps both sides avoid the economic problems that come with global distribution. In the early 2000s, these problems reached a critical stage.  

A report delivered at a 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa revealed a global coffee trade plagued by systemic inequity. Retail values for the beverage consumed in industrialized states brought in nearly a $65 billion profit margin over what developing countries were receiving, which had grown from an $18 billion gap 10 years earlier. 

Nations like Vietnam and Brazil had been overproducing their crops starting in the 1980s to fulfill an International Coffee Organization quota system that aimed to mitigate crisis-inducing shortages, but simply ended up creating nearly 170 million bags of coffee that didn’t have a proportionate demand. Farmers performing the backbreaking labor were essentially getting pennies for something that they now couldn’t even sell.

Widely known organizations like Fair Trade International and a growing number of companies in the United States such as Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C., and Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee have forged a way to bypass the inherent injustice of the system over the years with what’s commonly referred to as direct trade.

Les Stoneham is the owner and director at Deeper Roots Coffee in Mount Healthy as well as the separate social justice organization, Deeper Roots Development. Stoneham works with friends within this framework to combat the crippling volatility exemplified in 2002. They travel multiple times a year from their Elizabeth Street farmhouse headquarters off Adams Road to their coffee’s country of origin to see what producers need and to put cash in the hands of the individuals growing it. 

It’s a business relationship that mirrors what people do locally in Cincinnati, like buying tomatoes from Findlay Market or a pair of custom jeans at Noble Denim. Quality reigns supreme, and each party gets what they are due. It’s where demand ensures its supply, and supply fills its demand at the most basic level possible.

Craft-minded coffee shops in Cincinnati like Rohs Street Café near the University of Cincinnati or Collective Espresso in Over-the-Rhine are catching on, showing their solidarity with the movement by selling Deeper Roots’ beans front and center. Brewed with excellence and savored by connoisseurs, some people find this profound quality worth pursuing to the ends of the earth.

Adam Shaw, roaster at Deeper Roots Coffee, checks bean flow into the roast hopper.
Photo: Keith Bowers


Getting global

A woman sells goods in the market of Santa Maria de Jesus.
Photo: Jonathan Miano

Ten years ago, right around the time of the damning report out of Johannesburg, Stoneham traveled to a small village in Guatemala called Santa Maria de Jesus, an indigenous Mayan town located on the picturesque Volcan de Agua about six miles outside of the city of Antigua. It’s considered by Arabica fruit hunters to be one of the prime growing terrains in all of Central America. 

Stoneham, 32, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s Communications program who lives just up the hill from Over-the-Rhine, found a village with an impressively intact culture where inhabitants have slowly purchased the surrounding land from failed colonial plantations over the past century — a rarity for Central America’s native populations. Albeit impoverished, close-knit families have been able to pass down farmland through the generations. 

“There’s a pride to be a Santa Marian,” Stoneham says.

Instead of going in and identifying a host of problems that a foreigner would have little skill (or the right) to fix, Stoneham took an asset-based developmental approach, taking the integrity of this community and using its abundant social and agricultural resources wisely. 

Stoneham’s a born leader. His tall frame and bearded smile adorn a spirit who has found purpose in discovering the talents of those he meets and fostering relationships where each person becomes more actualized. 

He implemented this skill during a follow up trip to the area in 2006 when he met Julio Cuy, whose steadfast vision quickly became apparent. Undereducated, lacking access to basic healthcare and physical capital, Cuy still had the potential to be a leader in the community. He’s retained the passion and foresight needed to go against the grain of unsustainable practices and to look beyond the many economic hurdles marring the area’s inherent treasure of coffee farming.

“Julio is doing the hard work of vision casting with the other farmers,” Stoneham says, “getting them to risk and try something new. He organizes each year the flow of coffee and involvement of the farmers.

“Julio and I have learned a ton about coffee, community work and ourselves over these years that have seen some great times and some very hard times in our own families and in the project.”

Mutual respect — something that has been missing in North-South economic “partnerships” for most of history — is what binds this movement. It isn’t some theoretical feel-good marketing strategy, nor is it dependent upon an ulterior motive. It is what Deeper Roots does naturally, both in Guatemala and here in Cincinnati.

Stepping into the offices at Deeper Roots involves experiencing all the same aromas and scenes one would find in a local coffee shop: the smoke of roasting beans, the sound of the grinder and long wooden tables full of people talking cheerfully — mostly about what they’re drinking at the moment. Ryan Doan, the face of customer relations, is there to heartily offer a drink of your choosing and exudes an eagerness to hear any constructive ideas visitors can think of. 

Clients and friends filter into the office throughout the day to place orders and pick up beans roasted every Monday and Thursday. While they visit they talk about their business, ask questions and get the latest scoop on the current crop. Deliveries are made throughout the week directly to the shops proudly serving their wares.

The crew gets orders on their iPhones constantly. It’s a hustle, to be sure, but they love what they do.

It’s a place of smiles, with Adam Shaw, lead roaster at Deeper Roots, getting “geeky” on new techniques and hot-rodded La Marzocco espresso machines waiting to dish out cups of coffee that staff members can all expertly craft. It’s 24/7 immersion.

This enthusiasm and abundance of discussion has led the company into their areas of expertise. It’s the source of their direct trade wisdom.

Connections Abound

“I’m a connective person,” Stoneham says. “The chain of coffee is just a plethora of different connections you could be making, and that goes all the way from the hands that touch it along the way, all the way down to the physical spaces it’s served in and the connections that occur there.” 

It’s the physical spaces that drive the entire mission. Deeper Roots wouldn’t be here today if not for their gradual meeting over the past decade at University Christian Church and Rohs Street Café. Shaw used Rohs Street as a study spot during his undergrad years as an engineering student and eventually started volunteering and then working as a barista. After getting a job upon graduation, Stoneham convinced him to join Deeper Roots full time. Their quest for spiritual success and their love for the communal spirit of the coffee house drove them to pursue those concepts to Santa Maria de Jesus.

“When the Guatemalan is in season, it is our only single-origin coffee that never comes off the menu,” says Dustin Miller, co-owner and operator of Collective Espresso in Over-the-Rhine. “We know what we are getting with Deeper Roots: high quality, consistent roasts that allow us to complete the coffee journey from the farm to the cup.”

Collective Espresso is the newest addition to the city’s growing scene of craft coffee joints. Simply decorated with reclaimed Ohio barn wood and parallel facing bars around the barista station, Collective understands the pleasure and importance of the public space in which coffee is taken. 

“Everyday a person or two gets into a conversation with someone they don’t know, and when that happens I think that the ritual of drinking coffee goes beyond just enjoying a craft — it creates community,” Miller says.

The same hard work and planning that it takes to develop farms, quality coffee plants and successful work environments in Central America has to go on behind the scenes in the places it’s served. From 2006 to 2011 Stoneham worked with the Espresso Guild, a consulting team that helped open shops such as Bloc Coffee in East Price Hill, Un Mundo in Springfield and a shop in Philadelphia called Leotah’s Place. The group has continued to go beyond the city, supplying green beans to numerous shops and roasters around the Tristate like Sunergos Coffee and Hardin Coffee in Louisville, Ky. The goal has always been growth.

“Not only do we want these [spaces] to be sustainable for our own business good — because we invest a lot in those relationships and want them to be successful in the long term and that’s how we got hooked on this whole thing — but we want to see more of these environments to be successful themselves,” Stoneham says.

With successful selling environments and annual profit margin growth in the double digits come more funds to put into supplier communities. Getting top dollar for each superior cup with the skill and excellence to back up the price reflects on people like Cuy and the many farmers working toward their own success. Whether or not consumers care about the ethical trading practices of Deeper Roots (which they do), the product speaks for itsself.

Shaw helped Cuy build a cistern for his family to have access to drinking water long before helping him improve his coffee. He did this as a mission before a business. 

“Someone doesn’t have to believe in what I’m doing on the morality side, they can just have a really great cup of coffee,” Shaw says. “At the end of the day they’re helping to drive quality and culture forward.” 

Making a fair trade, directly

* Scroll to the end of the story for details on what differentiates direct trade from fair trade.

Understanding how and where connections in the chain take place is how a producer, seller or consumer first takes control of the process. 

The crisis at the turn of the millennium was caused by a lack of control by reactionary regulation of supply side economies facing collapse. The perennial nature of the coffee plant, the labor-intensive cultivation of the raw product and the dependency of fragile third-world economies were neglected.

Importers and purchasers wanted a steady supply of product without an exit strategy for suppliers when things went downhill. Throwing money at a foreign importer and hoping that farmers get a livable wage via the trickle down of capital is antithetical to direct trade. 

“For us, we’ve always chosen up to this point — because we want financing to go all the way back to the fruit — to self-finance it all and not go through an importer,” Stoneham says. 

This form of doing business directly with the farmer is a stream — or style — within the larger and more storied system known as fair trade. Born out of the Dutch Catholic activist movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the international consortium Fair Trade International (FLO) applies a minimum floor price to the point where in-country producer organizations sell to an exporter or importer. Although the going price of coffee-per-pound on the global commodity exchange has been well above it, the minimum price makes sure that producers can stay afloat until the next year during seasons of surplus and price slumps.

Dealing in this trade requires a lot of money changing a lot of hands no matter what, so certifying that everyone is coming out on top is quite the feat, but the primary benefit of this constant monitoring is the knowledge that those involved are forming secure, long-term trading relations. FLO has a tiered system of paid premiums to incentivize growers toward domestic development in education, equipment and production capabilities. But this only goes so far; it’s good, but not always good enough.

Deeper Roots sees no difference between paying for water purifiers and improving equipment in their own office, for instance, and spending capital on processing stations or machinery in Guatemala. Only about 40 percent of the exported point-of-sale price goes into the farmers’ hands, with another 40 going to the processing mill. The remaining 20 percent is paid out to administrative personnel and middlemen. 

“Looking at this kind of data, we need to build a mill in Santa Maria, because there’s a lot of profit loss,” Stoneham says. “In terms of money staying the community, that’s a big deal.”

However, developing Santa Maria de Jesus’s infrastructure is a labor of love that doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate benefits for the farmers. It’s a charitable premium that goes into this side of the operation, with more meaning to Deeper Roots Development and Cuy’s eyes to future. 

This is the stuff that builds relationships and connections, but is also a type of retroactive compensation for a village that has operated in a system of exploitation for a very long time. The end goal is not some sort of neo-colonial enterprise where poor farmers are indebted to the affluent consumers of the world; the goal is sustained independence.

“We never want to be the link in the chain that keeps progress from happening,” Stoneham says.

Cash talks. Period. If in good years global markets can pay upwards of a 200- to 400-percent premium on beans per pound, to whom are they going to sell their product? The reality is that tons of growers will simply give their freshly grown fruit to the local “coyotes” — the guys who stand by the side of the road with quetzals in hand and, in the short, run save Stoneham’s farmer friends a lot of work. In a way it’s good. The laissez-faire market gives these guys a good deal and they can put food on their tables, but in the end direct traders find their supply method undermined. 

Paying top dollar is part of the massive operation that ensures that this quality product continues to come to the city and remains sustainable. The complex 10-year relationship with Santa Maria de Jesus has tallied 18 separate trips to the region and countless hours of interpersonal and infrastructural development. The result is Deeper Roots’ flagship brand of coffees and single origin espressos: La Armonia Hermosa — “The Beautiful Harmony.” It has the complex tonality of a fruit grown in rich volcanic soil, tilled organically under the shade of tropical trees. 

Every connection made between hand and plow, heart and mind is evident in this one cup anyone can purchase off the streets of Cincinnati.

DeeperRootsCoffee from CityBeat Editorial on Vimeo.

The product

La Armonia Hermosa was recently featured as one of eight coffees at TED2013, and one of their Ecuadorian imports garnered a Top 10 spot in the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s roaster’s choice competition. Add those accolades to a competitive selection as one of Craft Coffee’s elite list of roasters in their monthly curated coffee boxes and one can see the tremendous recognition building for the small local enterprise. 

Jackie Slone and her husband, Russ Slone, had dreamed of opening a coffee shop for more than 30 years, and the folks at Deeper Roots helped them accomplish their goal with last month’s opening of Left Bank Coffeehouse in Covington. The Slones travelled to Mount Healthy to do a tasting and were sold on the loving support they found. From there, Courtney Robinson, head of training at Deeper Roots, offered six hours of personal cupping instruction. They even helped the Slones calibrate their machine. Deeper Roots Coffee’s “Community Roast” is currently front and center, and their hands-on approach with Left Bank illustrates how they ensure the quality of the beans is expressed while strengthening bonds between baristas. 

“They’ve just been very encouraging and helpful and kind. They’re really nice people,” says Jackie. “That’s important to me because it’s not just business to them. … It’s what they care about.” 

Deeper Roots Coffee’s plan for 2013 is to double the amount of growth in 2012 which, according to Shaw, is well within reach. Left Bank Coffeehouse is only one of many new independent cafes opening in Northern Kentucky, adding to a slew of shops, importers and roasters that are working to make the Tristate a locus of coffee activity. 

Coffee Emporium, a veteran of the Cincinnati scene, relies largely on fair trade-certified coffees for the high volume of coffee it serves at its five local locations. Coffee Emporium roasts its beans downtown and has been establishing closer relationships with its farmers over the years, including securing some direct trade varieties.

La Terza Coffee Roasters in Corryville serve their beans in many of the same cafe’s as Deeper Roots as well as in grocery stores (and Christian Moerlein Brewhouse with their coffee-infused Baltic Porter). They share direct traders’ vision for creating new coffee routes from places such as Nicaragua or Peru. Newcomers Carabello Coffee in Florence, Ky., (eventually moving to Newport) work at varying levels with sources in the third world. 

The future

Through all the time spent together and communicating abroad, Stoneham and company have become extremely close to Cuy, who has moved his family of four out of a single room in his sister’s home to his own property, where he’ll build a more permanent house. Forty years old and with only a 6th grade education, Cuy graduated from high school equivalency classes and is now taking college entry exams to study agronomy. He’s planning to visit the U.S. for the first time later this year to meet the fans of his work. 

As far as long-term sustainability is concerned, funds are being used to set up a land trust for the children and grandchildren of Santa Maria de Jesus. It’s necessary to keep children from moving to larger cities where higher-wage positions are available. Farming is difficult, and although many improvements have been made, there’s still a lot of room for revenue increases.

While more rustic milling technologies and facilities are being put in place in Santa Maria de Jesus, Shaw is here installing roasting analytics to monitor roast profiles, bean density and moisture levels. It’s some technical stuff that’s solely aimed at bringing out the best flavors and accents from the some of the best beans in the world. 

Sitting with new friends in the quiet farm atmosphere and delving into a public cupping session puts it all into perspective. Friends from around the city gather around a table, sticking their noses into freshly ground samples of coffee. Some varieties hail from Guatemala, but others have traveled from Rwanda, Ethiopia or Ecuador. In the end, the sensuous and technical, intimate and faraway coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts. ©

* Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade
Fair trade and direct trade don’t necessarily work against each other, since the difference is essentially a matter of scale. Fair trade is a method for large-scale importers to certify that their interactions with co-operatives and coffee farms, which are often an entire supply chain in themselves, are done according to what workers need. It’s been set up to combat predatory and/or under-involved importation practices.

Direct trade does all of this, but it deals with many of the smaller farmers and landowners who cannot compete or operate on such a massive scale. Traders like Deeper Roots Coffee go directly to these impoverished and hard-to-reach areas to get them the cash they need to grow, pick, process and export their beans regardless of whether they have access to fair trade regulators or not.

Pillars of Direct Trade

  • Personal and direct communication with farmers to encourage environmentally and socially responsible practices
  • Quality-based incentives
  • 100-percent financial transparency
  • Fair prices, usually 19- to 25-percent above the fair trade-certified minimum


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