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New Brew: Cambio Coffee

Having a soothing, hot cup of social responsibility at this new specialty cafe out in Jing'an. Introducing Cambio Coffee.
2014-12-11 13:53:37

Most of us can't get out of bed with out a cup of coffee. For Sebastian Martin, coffee is why he gets out of bed every morning. The Washington DC native came to coffee in a roundabout way. It was the focus of the Masters thesis: An Assessment of the Social Impact of the Coffee Industry in Bolivia. Amid all of that dry academic research he saw an opportunity to make a profit, make quality coffee, and help to improve the lives of some South American farmers.

After graduation, he hit the pavement in DC, seeking a job as barista in a specialty coffee roaster and cafe. While taking orders for skinny double mocha lattes, he soaked up coffee culture like a sponge. Meanwhile, the booming Chinese market beckoned, and by 2012 he got the ball rolling with Cambio Coffee. Two years, dozens of trips to and from Bolivia and Yunnan, and several reams of government paperwork, and Cambio is finally open in Jing'an.

Cambio's big sell is that all of its coffees are "direct trade." It's a fairly new term in the world of coffee, and Martin is quick to differentiate this from a term you're probably more familiar with: Fairtrade. Both are big buzzwords in the world of sustainable, socially conscious food production. In a nutshell, here is the difference:

Fairtrade is an international organization that works with farmer cooperatives in developing countries to establish guaranteed price minimums that protect farmers from price fluctuations. When product is sold at higher prices, cooperatives set aside a portion of the earnings and use the funds for community projects, like building schools or parks. Part and parcel of Fairtrade is a range of criteria that farmers must meet when it comes to GMO products, pesticides and herbicides, labor practices, wages, etc.

It's a good system, and the life of many a third world farmer is probably less brutish and tough because of it. It does, however, have its disadvantages. For starters, certification isn't free. Fairtrade levies an initial certification fee of over 15,000rmb, and then an annual maintenance fee of almost 4000rmb. That's perhaps doable for a cooperative, but it's exponentially more difficult for an individual farmer, which brings us to another point. Fairtrade only deals with cooperatives. As a result, lots of small-time producers slip through the cracks.

"Direct trade" emerged as a response to some of these shortcomings. Unlike Fairtrade, it's not a global certification body. It's simply a business practice. Basically, coffee purveyors engaged in "direct trade" deal directly with the farmers. That's it, really. Rather than getting some vague—yet "certified"—assurance that their suppliers aren't spraying their coffee beans with DDT and forcing eight-year-olds to pick them, direct traders are visiting the plantations, seeing the conditions themselves, and setting the terms of the commercial relationship with the farmers themselves. It's a lot more labor intensive, but at least you know what's going into your cup of coffee.

Martin sources directly from several small producers in Bolivia and one in Yunnan. If he were going the Fairtrade route, he would never have had access to their beans.

So how does his coffee taste? Pretty damn good. One of the advantages of having this kind of a relationship with a grower is the degree of quality control you get. This translates directly into how the coffee is roasted. Ever wonder why that piping hot venti you get at Starbucks always tastes bitter and burnt? That's nothing inherent in coffee. Big coffee companies use beans from so many sources, that the only way to get a consistent product is by burning it beyond recognition. But quality beans carefully roasted can yield a cup that is every bit as complex and alluring as a fine wine.

Roasts at Cambio tend to be on the lighter side. If you're used to seeing black beans glazed in their own essentialoils, you might even wonder if their beans are roasted at all. But the difference is huge. A lighter roast produces a coffee with more finesse, more nuance. There's none of that astringent bitterness so many of us are accustomed to. Coffees here tend to be crisp, acidic, sweet. You'll hear terms like "floral" and "fruity" thrown around quite a bit too. The flavors are distinctive enough, Martin tells me, that a lot of their clientele, brainwashed by Starbucks, can't quite wrap their brain around it. It takes a few sips, even a few cups before they start to appreciate it.

All drip coffees here are poured by hand, using filtration devices like this.

These are becoming increasingly popular in specialty coffee shops around town. If you want to drink your coffee to appreciate it, this is the preferred brewing method, supposedly. Naturally, they also do espresso, cappuccino, and latte as well, and they've got quite a latte artist on the premises...

And then there is Cafechi, the reason I sought out Cambio in the first place. It's a unique, energizing concoction made from an extract of green, unroasted coffee beans blended with fruits from Yunnan, like passion fruit and lime. It's coffee for people who don't like coffee. I didn't try it. They were sold out of the stuff on my visit. I suppose that's a testament to its popularity.

Another point in Cambio's favor: Prices. Sustainability is often an excuse to charge exorbitant prices. Granted, you've still got to pay for quality, and Cambio's not cheap, but it's reasonable. You'll pay 18rmb for an espresso. The rest of the coffee prices peak at around 30rmb. Also, in the coming weeks, they've got a food menu in the works, featuring simple sandwiches and salads with Latin roots.

For a listing of Cambio, click here.