While Portland has long been known as a coffee city, it’s not just a place for extravagant pour-over and Instagrammable coffee shops; the city also boasts a strong roster of companies and organizations that are working to improve the landscape of the coffee industry, addressing everything from the low wages of coffee growers to racial inequities within Portland cafes. Some coffee roasters use their passion to address other community causes, fundraising for nonprofits addressing homelessness in Portland and providing work for Portlanders with disabilities who have aged out of special education programs.
There is a certain radical optimism required to tackle ethics in coffee: the lengthy and intricate supply chain makes it a hard commodity to trace, and people’s expectations surrounding how much coffee should cost keep wages low. Many issues of racism and sexism within U.S. roasteries and cafes require major systemic change. Seeing the industry’s failures and implementing the overarching changes the industry really needs may take years, and will probably require more than a few cafes and nonprofits; however, these companies and organizations are doing what they can to shape Portland’s coffee industry into a more equitable place, and they seem to be moving the community as a whole forward.
These are just a few of the coffee companies and nonprofits trying to provide positive change for both the coffee supply chain and Portland as a whole, including coffee businesses that give back and nonprofit trailblazers that are changing how the coffee business operates here.
One of the only B Corp coffee importers, Portland-based Sustainable Harvest strives to create a fair marketplace that positively impacts everyone who works in the coffee supply chain. Sustainable Harvest collaborated with Bellwether Coffee to come up with a new framework for coffee pricing minimums that factors in the cost of living in each growing region, the size of the farm growing beans, expenses such as food and child care, and savings for coffee farmers. Using this framework, Sustainable Harvest pays growers more than the industry standard for their products. It also invests in farmers and producers through partnerships like the Relationship Coffee Institute, which aims to provide greater economic opportunity for women in coffee farming. Sustainable Harvest coffees can be found locally at places like Deadstock, Stumptown, and Upper Left.
Alliance for Coffee Excellence / Cup of Excellence
Based in Northwest Portland, the Alliance for Coffee Excellence is the nonprofit behind the world-famous coffee market Cup of Excellence. This initiative revolutionized the specialty coffee industry by auctioning competition-winning coffees and creating a platform for producers to sell their coffee far above the average market price. By opening up the competition and auction to producers around the world, Cup of Excellence has helped increase demand for high-scoring and thoughtfully produced coffee, bringing more money into some growers’ pockets as a result. Cup of Excellence has had over 4,100 winning farmers and hit an average price of $21.34 per pound in 2020. (The market rate for green coffee beans is generally closer to $1.) Even during the pandemic, Cup of Excellence has hit record-setting prices for the auctions, accruing millions of dollars in gross revenue for the winning Cup of Excellence coffees. Roasters like Proud Mary, Groundwork, and Sisters Coffee regularly purchase Cup of Excellence coffees.
World Coffee Research
Big problems like coffee leaf rust and climate change threaten coffee economies around the planet. As a nonprofit in the coffee science sector, the goal of World Coffee Research is to protect coffee diversity by fostering conservation of coffee varieties and seed exchanges, creating and testing hybrid coffee plants that can adapt and thrive in a variety of climates, and providing free information to farmers to help with the growth and quality control of their crop. Much of the work at World Coffee Research is published in open-access journals or free websites, for the sake of accessibility. Portlanders can donate to the nonprofit directly, and roasters and importers can become members to support the farmers and researchers involved; Sustainable Harvest, for instance, is a member.
Catalyst, a coffee importer that’s majority Ethiopian owned, is looking to change the way coffee is imported and traded. By having some of its stakeholders in Ethiopia, Catalyst is able to ensure not only that the coffee is consistently of high quality, but that everyone in the supply chain is being paid fairly. Catalyst always negotiates set prices at the beginning of harvest to help ensure that the cost of production is covered and producers receive plenty of the profits; it imports coffee from growers who pay day laborers triple the usual daily wage. Coffee from Catalyst Trade can be found locally at shops such as the Arbor Lodge, Loma Coffee Company, and Terrain Coffee Project.
Happy Cup Coffee
Happy Cup is a Portland roaster that works to provide jobs for adults with disabilities. By employing adults who have aged out of special-education programming, Happy Cup is able to pay them competitive wages and provide job training for bagging, weighing, and labeling the roasted coffee. The company recently opened a new coffee bar on NE 6th and Couch, which means customers can stop by and get a latte or a house coffee, too.
Reforma Roasters / La Perlita
Located within the Pearl District Ecotrust building, La Perlita has worked hard to create a community space for Latinx Portlanders. When he first started roasting coffee, owner Angel Medina gave away his beans in exchange for donations to the immigrant rights nonprofit United We Dream; since then he has used his cafe’s media platforms to talk about racism within coffee spaces and Portland at large. La Perlita gives back to the community by offering a free and safe space for people of color looking to launch and grow their pop-ups, while also driving traffic to them through the customers of the coffee shop. Reforma Roasters, the coffee roasting side of La Perlita, ensures that all members of the supply chain — producers as well as the farmers who work for the producers — are being paid a fair wage.
The small Southeast Portland roaster Marigold partnered with local nonprofit Street Roots to create Street Roast, a line of high-quality coffees whose proceeds will support the nonprofit. Street Roots helps people experiencing homelessness by giving them economic opportunities and amplifying their voices through the newspaper it publishes. The $1 paper features writing and content from both professional journalists and unhoused vendors; those vendors keep 75 percent of the paper’s sales. Marigold sells Street Roast via its online store and on grocery shelves around Portland and donates all of the proceeds directly to Street Roots. That money funds the nonprofit’s reporting and sustains its wellness and other services, like its computer lab. These medium or dark roast coffees can be purchased in local grocery stores or on Marigold’s online store here.
Greenbridge, a small Lloyd District coffee shop and roastery, donates 10 percent of its coffee sales to Oregon-based nonprofits. One of these is Stone Soup PDX, which helps people at risk of homelessness learn culinary techniques and skills to help them find jobs in the food industry. While the cafe remains closed due to the pandemic, the company still sells bags of coffee online and provides some of Multnomah County’s temporary homeless shelters with brewed coffee. Greenbridge donates to a number of different organizations throughout the year; at the moment, customers can choose between Stone Soup PDX and Smart Reading Oregon.
Portland Coffee Roasters
Portland Coffee Roasters has been around for more than 25 years, making it one of the oldest coffee companies in Portland. Every year, the company works to help fund a different global coffee project and support coffee communities in need. These projects range from funding a day care in Costa Rica for children of farm families to building clean water infrastructure and septic tanks, sinks, and bathrooms in Florencia, Colombia. Portland Coffee Roasters is gold certified with Portland’s Sustainable at Work, meaning it has reached the highest standard of sustainability as recognized by the City of Portland.
With its sleek cafes and pristine branding, Good Coffee has become well known in Portland. While serving tasty coffee is the main focus, Good Coffee also strives to create a better Portland with its Common Good project. The company donates 20 percent of its namesake coffee blend sales to various organizations and nonprofits in Portland, telling each organization’s story on the packaging. The current organization is Open School, a program that provides an alternative education for students whose needs aren’t met at a traditional school and who require more hands-on learning. Open School helps students succeed through smaller class sizes, individual tutoring, pre-employment training, and personalized curriculums and activities. Open School’s custom blend is a washed process coffee featuring beans that are 75 percent Colombian and 25 percent Guatemalan.
Seiji Nanbu is a barista, coffee writer, and photographer based in Portland.