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Bridgeport Roaster Pushes For 'Relationship Coffee'

NEAR NORTH SIDE — Midwestern roasters mingled with El Salvadoran coffee farmers Saturday, as they sampled specialty beans at Bridgeport Coffee’s “Meet the Farmers” event in River North.

“We really need to build a bridge with the producers in other countries so we can build relationships,” said Mike Pilkington, president of Bridgeport Coffee Company.

Buying coffee directly from a farmer — instead of through large distributers — can guarantee better quality and fair pricing, Pilkington said.

“The world coffee market is volatile,” he explained. “It is controlled by the commodities exchange, and the farmers are at its mercy. If the prices are really low, then they struggle to survive.”

Coffee farmer Carlos Brizuela said the current commodities price for a 100-pound bag of coffee is low — about $140. By building a relationship with coffee shop owners like Pilkington, Brizuela said, he can earn $300 or more for that same bag.

Pilkington said he’s willing to pay more because “we have a social responsibility to make sure we do business the right way.”

Plus, he said, when farmers are guaranteed a consistent price year after year “regardless of where the market is,” it helps them grow better crops.

“It’s not like a wheat farmer or corn farmer, where they can rotate their crops,” Pilkington said. “When coffee framers plant a tree, they wait five years for a return. They need to know they’ll be making money in five years.”

Representatives from about 30 coffee sellers — including Beans and Bagels, Gaslight, BJava and Open Produce — gathered for the free Saturday morning event, which was co-hosted by Dark Matter Coffee at the downtown Marriot, 540 N. Michigan Ave.

“The more you get involved in coffee beyond being an everyday drinker, the more you learn about the social aspects,” said Zaida Dedolph of Halfwit Coffee Roasters, which stocks The Wormhole Coffee in Wicker Park.

“It is a social justice issue,” Dedolph said, adding she was shocked to learn “how little [farmers] earn for a cup that we charge $4 for in Starbucks."

Farmer Ernesto Lima, who has been selling his coffee in Chicago for about six years, said he’s seen a steady increase in demand.

“When we first came here, we said: 'Why is it that no companies from Chicago import directly?'” Lima said. “Customers want to know what they’re drinking and where it comes from.”

Chris Hoose, a roaster and barista at Ipsento, said the Logan Square shop currently stocks coffee from Guatemala, Brazil and Panama. He and another roaster took home six coffee samples hoping to add El Salvador to the mix.

“It’s cool to see so many different people in Chicago who love coffee as much as we do,” Hoose said.