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Feature Thu Mar 27 2008
If Jacob Elster has his way, when you think of Uganda, you won't even dare think of Idi Amin. Instead, you'll conjure up the heady aroma of fresh-brewed coffee made from Arabica beans. Or, better yet, you'll think of your recent exchange with the farmer who grew your cup of joe.
The 26-year-old Ukrainian Village resident is a partner in Crop to Cup, a for-profit company that processes, exports, roasts and markets family-farmed Ugandan coffee to consumers and restaurateurs. This two-year-old start-up is part of a growing trend of organizations that blend entrepreneurial instinct with benevolent goals.
After college, Elster found himself working in various non-profits abroad, frustrated by his relative inability to make a measurable impact. But while in Uganda, he devised a way to truly make a difference. The sole cash crop in the region, coffee, was (and still is) mostly grown by small-scale family farmers instead of large estates. Unlike more well-known coffee-growing regions such as Central America or Ethiopia, Uganda's terroir had yet to make a substantive impact on the Western palate. So he solicited advice and funding from friendly contacts, and in early 2007, participated in the launch of Crop to Cup.
Uganda's coffee market lacked the stability of other, well-known regions. "For our farmers, supply isn't an issue. Consistent quality is the main concern," says Elster. The company has tapped its network of coffee-growing experts to work with Ugandan family farmers to increase yields via sustainable methods and boost reputation through vigilant quality control. Coffee growers are also expanding their skill set beyond farming to also include coffee processing at Crop to Cup's regional washing and drying establishments. In addition, farmers are paid above-market prices for their beans, enjoy 10% profit sharing and watch even more dollars flow back into their communities in the form of literacy classes, coffee tree replanting and other programs performed on a rotating basis.
But for all these charitable efforts, Crop to Cup is not a non-profit. The company's goal is benefit the community in which they work while producing a product that drinkers look for in cafes and purchase in stores and online. "We're using relationships to add value to coffee," says Elster. Here, he's referring to the consumer's ability to connect with the farmer that produced their morning pick-me-up. Elster, who is also studying for his masters degree in knowledge management at Northwestern University, employs technology to create a vivid bond between Ugandan farmers and American aesthetes. Elster uses GPS, Skype and videoconferencing tools to set up in-store conversations where consumers can talk to the farmers.
This type of interaction helps further a concept that Elster and Crop to Cup wish to advance in the marketplace—"consumer certification." Elster positions this idea as almost a step beyond fair-trade certifications. Some critics claim that the fair-trade label is being diluted by its placement on coffee sold by Wal-Mart and Dunkin Donuts. Elster joins with these critics to add that at times, fair-trade profits never make it to farmers, instead settling in the pockets of moneyed middlemen. Elster believes that some consumers want to do more than look for a label; they want to talk with the farmer, advocate for the brand and feel good while drinking good product. This word-of-mouth exchange almost becomes a label itself, showing that Crop to Cup is a transparent operation and can be held accountable by those who patronize its products.
Chicago coffee drinkers can sip for themselves at a small selection of area cafes. Because Crop to Cup is a start-up, Elster sells to cafes one at a time, using old-fashioned methods of persuasion and charm. He plans to start holding "office hours" at Mercury Cafe on Chicago, an early adopter of Crop to Cup coffee, where consumers can drop in on growers and purchase artistic wares from Uganda. In addition to Mercury Cafe, Crop to Cup's 100% Arabica blends can be found around Chicago at Angel Food Bakery on Montrose, Barista Coffee House on Damen and Candyality on Southport.
But how is the coffee? The beans are intensely fragrant, smelling of rich soil, tobacco and leather. Elster recommends using a French press to steep the freshly ground beans. After pouring (not boiling) water over the grounds, let them steep until the foam is just dry to the touch. After pouring, the overtly masculine aroma of the whole bean settles into a creamy but still earthy cloud. The Uganda Bugisu AA City Roast tastes intense, but without any acidic aftertaste. The price point is $10.99 for a 10 oz. bag, a few dollars less than a bag of direct-trade Intelligentsia or Metropolis beans. And while Elster credits these two premier Chicago roasters for elevating the city's taste for quality coffee, he hopes area drinkers can make room for another brand of beans as well.