meant as a label to signify the coffee was
bought from a farm with better standards
and labor practices. Eventually though,
in many cases it became nothing more
than a feel-good label. In fact, a four-year
study published in 2014 by the University
of London showed that all “Fair Trade”
accomplished was higher incomes for
farm owners, who often didn’t pass the
money down to workers.
Now, it’s all about “Direct Trade,” and
JBC is at the forefront of that shift.
Instead of imposing a label certification
process, JBC works directly with the
coffee farms and simply pays bigger
bucks for the more labor-intensive beans.
By having these direct relationships,
Michael says they can see the labor
practices on the farm and how the higher
income boosts employment for longer
periods of time.
In El Salvador in particular, where
Michael travels several times a year, this
work not only means employment, it’s
also a source of legal income.
While flipping through pictures of the
farms JBC works with, Michael gestures
to a photo of a young lady picking
cherries in El Salvador and says he can
tell her gang affiliation by what clothes
“Right now violence in El Salvador is at
its worst,” Michael explains.
In fact, Michael says his closest brush
with danger came during a trip to a farm
in El Salvador. The incident started when
a farmer JBC was working with picked
Michael up from the airport in a car
riddled with bullet holes and threw a gun
in his lap, indicating he might need it for
protection. Then, once they reached the
secluded road leading to the farm, they
passed several men on the side of the
road in ski masks holding high-powered
rifles — a moment Michael admits got his
heart beating faster.
Michael said he never found out why
the men were on the road but speculated
they could have been protecting a drug
shipment coming down the hill.
“I don’t want to make it sound like
these places are horrible to go to, because
I love the people,” he says. “But this is
why they need us. Especially right now.”
A few moments later he circles back
to his tale from El Salvador to emphasize
that the business they do in the country
is to support a model of true economic
sustainability for local communities.
“That’s the bottom line: Once you’ve
been in the industry long enough and
you’ve seen what goes down, you want
to sleep at night and feel like we’re doing
something that’s helping,” he explains.
Tastes Like Success
JBC doesn’t release its sales numbers,
but Michael disclosed that sales have
grown 100 percent in the last year. The
company sells to a devoted e-commerce
crowd from all around the U.S. and has
shipped to coffee drinkers as far away
as Dubai. They also have a significant
number of wholesale customers.
To ensure the best quality for their
customers, JBC relies on Michael’s talent
for sniffing out the best beans.
In the 90s, Michael got his start with
a humble coffee cart he set up each
week near Madison’s bustling Farmers’
Market. Eventually, he decided to ditch his
corporate desk job and entrench himself
in the coffee industry. Within a few years,
he realized that selling high-quality beans
would help him land larger accounts, so
he began learning everything about what
it takes to make the perfect cup. Before
long he was invited to Ethiopia as a judge
in a coffee competition and has since
become a Q Grader — a high distinction
in the industry.
When the company’s suppliers send
in beans to sample, Michael roasts and
brews the beans in JBC’s lab so they can
be tested for quality. If all tastes good,
larger shipments of the beans are then
handed to the company’s roast master,
Adam Walsh, who handles duties such as
roasting, brewing research and packaging.
Afterward, Walsh feeds the beans
into a machine that roasts at about 400
degrees Fahrenheit. JBC’s main machine
was made by Probat — one of the most
well-established roasting machine brands
in the industry. But it has been outfitted
with the latest monitoring technology that
cranks out data about the beans the entire
time they roast.
Because of the heat, Michael says
contamination worries are minimal. But
keeping the roasting machines cleaned is
JBC roast master Adam Walsh