Since the Port of New Orleans became a top spot for importing coffee in the 19th century, coffee has become just as vital to locals as water is. Local coffee companies cater to this continuing love affair, and residents try to buy local products when possible. Coffee beans aren't grown in New Orleans, but in places like Colombia, Jamaica and Kenya, and about one-third of the beans shipped into the United States go through New Orleans, according to research by Greater New Orleans Inc. Even though you may not be able to buy coffee beans from your own backyard, there are several local companies that roast and package the coffee locally.
As the CEO of Orleans Coffee Exchange in Kenner, the largest specialty coffee roaster in the New Orleans area, Bob Arcenaux is in part responsible for the well-being of the city's coffee-dependent population. "We sell to the majority of independent coffee houses in New Orleans, and we have a large mail-order business," he says.
Not only does the coffee taste good, but it's also organic and fair trade. Organic, meaning the beans were grown without the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers; fair trade, meaning the growing process did not economically marginalize the farmers, who are often very poor.
The organic/free trade movement has grown nationally in recent years, and coffee producers and vendors have increased their focus on integrating fair trade beans. New Orleans only recently caught on to both movements, but coffee producers are becoming increasingly aware of where beans come from and the importance of staying local.
The link between the farmers who harvest the beans and the businesses where you get your coffee are the brokers and importers, who decide where to buy various types of raw beans and sell them to local operations. "One of the unique advantages to us is that there are several brokerage houses that bring in beans because New Orleans is an international port," says Paul Ballard, a partner in PJ's Coffee of New Orleans. Both Bean's Coffee Company, a new operation, and Orleans Coffee Exchange buy their beans from Zephyr Green Coffee Importers, which has an office in New Orleans.
Many local companies have made efforts to encourage agricultural sustainability in the countries where farmers grow the beans and they are focusing on buying organic beans. One of Zephyr's certifying partners is the Organic Crop Improvement Association, a third-party certifier of organic products. Zephyr also uses TransFair USA, the only certifier of Fair Trade Certified coffee. In addition to making sure that farmers get decent wages and have acceptable working conditions, the nonprofit also encourages farmers to convert to organic farming and ensures that they get the prices needed to practice sustainability. Companies that buy Fair Trade beans must pay premiums, which are given to the farmers if they meet the agricultural requirements.
Coffee farms can also be rich in biodiversity, and French Market Coffee protects the best interests of plants and wildlife. "We're shifting into buying more beans from Rainforest Alliance," says Jesyka Bartlett, the company's director of marketing. The certification seal of Rainforest Alliance guarantees that the coffee was produced under strict guidelines protecting the environment and wildlife.
Ballard also knows that roasting locally ensures that consumers get the best quality coffee possible. "With coffee, it starts deteriorating right after it's roasted," he says. "As soon as oxygen gets to it, the freshness decreases." Once coffee is roasted at the company's facility in Bywater, packaged PJ's coffee reaches the shelves of its many franchise locations within three weeks; smaller businesses are able to get their inventories into the hands of consumers even faster.
Michael Daldegan, proprietor of Bean's Coffee Company, roasts the beans only a day or two before he sells them, and he roasts them in small batches. "We only sell at farmers' markets, and I think that one of the reasons for our success is that the people go there because they know that the stuff that they buy is fresh," he says.
French Market Coffee, which does everything at its facility on Magazine Street, uses brokers in most cases, but directly imports chicory. Chicory first came to New Orleans in the mid-18th century by way of Acadians from Nova Scotia. New Orleans is famous for coffee made from this root, which the French developed as a coffee extender when beans were scarce.
Just as chicory is a longstanding tradition in New Orleans, French Market Coffee feels that it has an obligation to remain locally based after 118 years in New Orleans. "This is who we are," Bartlett says. "We can't keep our name and produce somewhere else." Roasting in New Orleans is also important from the business perspective. "Historically and traditionally a port city is pretty great for coffee," he adds.
Local coffee is a New Orleans institution, but going "green" is new; companies that have bought and roasted locally are now buying organic and fair trade beans that are better for both the environment and the farmers. The industry may be changing, but the tradition will always remain the same.