Feral Trade Coffee: A New Media For Social Networks

Feral Trade Coffee is imported by Kate Rich from Sociedad Cooperative de Cafecultores Nonualcos R.L. in high altitude El Salvador and traded along social networks. Whilst never actually calling itself art, this project reveals the social-context, texture and aesthetics of this venture in ‘new international trade relations’, with coffee as its medium.

I drank my first cup of Feral Trade coffee at the Risk Academy media lab at the CCA in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago. Every morning it cheered and revived academicians recovering from the previous nights’ excesses of Balvenie and Laphroaig. We’re told that this third shipment is a milder roast than the previous batches and having purchased a bag to drink at home, I can still taste the green in the bean at the top of my palate in this young, light bodied coffee,

Usually coffee farmers ship green coffee beans by the thousands of kilos to be roasted in factories in the Netherlands. Feral Trade coffee is roasted to order, on-site by the co-op in batches as tiny as 150 kilos. The flavour of every batch is unique, determined by the price and availability of the chosen size and variety of bean, (Borbón or Pacamara in this part of the world) as well as by the particulars of the roasting process. A long, low-temperature roast leads to a milder, deeper flavour and in this case, what connoisseurs call a ‘buttery mouth-feel’. My guess is that this would be your average Supermarket’s branding nightmare, a coffee that tastes different from one batch to the next.

Kate who works as bar manager at Cube Microplex and radio-engineer with the Bureau of Inverse Technology presented her import business with anecdotes and a demonstration of the coffee-tracking database from the Feral Trade website. And it’s ‘feral’ as in pigeon rather than wolf. This is an important distinction, suggesting street-wise survival tactics in hostile urban environments as opposed to essentialist, romantic notions of untamed nature.

The coffee co-op has shown enthusiasm from the beginning about the potential of supplying coffee to be traded personally, between friends, along slow-networks, across great distances. The Feral Trade logo is reminiscent of old mercantile signage from a time when things moved more slowly. Kate draws the comparison between the days when freight shipped at largo along the canals. It would take weeks to travel from one end of the country to the other so what mattered was frequency; frequency rather than speed. As long as they were moving along at regular intervals, folk would continue to have their daily essentials delivered.

In the spirit of open source programming, the website also displays documentary photographs of a Heathrow Arrivals timetable, scribbled-on-roadmaps from Bristol to the airport, a fork lift truck loading a hatch-back car with coffee. Together these are intended to serve as a “how to” should you wish to employ the “new trade relations” methodology yourself.

There is excitement and nervousness at the opening of every new consignment. Each batch represents a considerable investment, paid up-front. The agreement is that whatever is sent from El Salvadore is then traded as Feral Trade coffee. This expression of trust and flexibility between the trader and the co-op flies in the face of fast and large distributors who according to Kate typically pay only an extra 7p per kilo to the co-op for “Fair Trade” coffee. And how much more do we consumers pay for it in our supermarkets?

Export information is also supplied on the DIY, photocopy-and-sellotape packaging. Read around the packet while the kettle boils for the particular shipping details of the current consignment: departures and arrivals, delays and ‘remarks’. The slogan promises a coffee “smooth and smoky without the bitter aftertaste of global trade exploitation”.

This really does raise the arguably cooky question about what part conscience, plays in the sensual experience of flavour. But Feral Trade also seems to be about reattaching the stories of the life and land of the farmers to the taste of the coffee along with the stories of exporters and distributors. Feral Trade coffee certainly seems to stimulate the imaginations and tickle the taste buds of the extended social network of which I am a part and it may even have made me some new friends. While we drink we wonder whether Feral Trade could take root and start to crack the concrete of big business approaches to the global export and distribution of consumables? Are we witnessing the start of a new age in distributed distribution.

This article is also featured on Furtherfield.org

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