Daniel Ehrlich knows coffee.

Get him talking java, and he’ll take you on a journey around the globe to small-time farms in Central America and coffee conglomerates in Africa, returning to roasters right here in Winston-Salem. Ehrlich is president of The Coffee Co-Mission, an outfit based in Winston-Salem that connects coffee bean farmers around the world with roasters in the United States with the mission of supporting small farms and creating a transparent import process.

Ehrlich and his Co-Mission supply coffee beans to several local roasters like Foothills Brewing’s Footnote Coffee & Cocktails, Moji Coffee + More, and Twin City Hive, which recently relocated to Gibsonville but still sells wholesale coffee in Winston-Salem. Ehrlich has tapped into a movement of small coffee roasters cropping up in competition with ubiquitous chains like Starbucks. These smaller shops often have a greater interest in working with other small businesses, making the connections via Ehrlich to farmers who might not have means to reach them otherwise.

“There’s nobody in the coffee industry doing what I’m doing,” he says. “Most people source coffee by working with export brokers. Typically that’s how the coffee industry works — you have an import broker purchasing from an export worker, and many times they’re purchasing from a large co-op. But in coffee, that word is misunderstood.”

Ehrlich explains that with second-tier co-ops, farmers usually lose sight of their beans once they enter the washing station, reducing their control and thus, profit margins. Whereas first-tier co-ops can easily identify which beans came from which farmer, creating a transparent supply chain that benefits both the farmers and the roasters receiving the beans.

That transparency is important to roasters like Jamie Bartholomaus.

Co-owner of Foothills Brewing, Bartholomaus’ first passion is beer, but coffee ranks a close second. He and his wife purchased a coffee roaster nearly six years ago, but didn’t put it into use until a few years later when Foothills partnered with new neighbor Bookmarks to create Footnote Coffee & Cocktails.

Bartholomaus says local coffee shops like his can provide java lovers not only great tasting brew, but also the story that goes behind their drink.

“There’s freshness, but also the origin and quality of the roast,” he says. “If a customer came to us and said they like their coffee like this Mexican coffee or a little lighter, we can brew coffee like that for them. In the local setting, there’s a more personal relationship with the roaster. The personal connection provides the story and the ability to just touch and feel it close-up.”

And those relationships go the other way, too.

Ehrlich says that while it might be cheaper for a coffee drinker to simply pick up a bag of inexpensive coffee at the store to brew at home, chances are little to none of that purchase actually makes it back to the farmer. When the end consumer chooses to pay a little more for either bagged coffee or java roasted and/or brewed by a local shop, there’s a higher likelihood that purchase will benefit the farmer.

“We build a relationship between a coffee roaster and a coffee farmer that will, over time, allow us to help the farmer bring his farm back to life and become profitable, because most of the money in the supply chain is taken by so many different people at different levels,” Ehrlich says. “What Foothills is paying for coffee, farmers can make a profit on that.”

Since coffee beans are only grown in two U.S. states — Hawaii and California, along with Puerto Rico — most beans are sourced globally from countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. And while some coffee shops have their own roasting operation, many depend on others to procure their roasted blends, adding another layer of relationship to the journey of coffee to cup.

For shops like Tart Sweets, building relationships with roasters who share their values is important. They’ve partnered with small, family-owned Case Coffee Roasters in Oregon, as well as Fortuna, a wholesale roaster in Greensboro. Owner Chelsea Tart says working with small businesses like these not only gives them control of the product they receive, but it also helps them stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

“As a locally owned coffee shop with a sea of competition, both corporate and locally owned, it’s important to differentiate yourself from other businesses, and one way we do that is with our beans,” says Tart. “We are proud of the beans we source and brew, both from N.C. roasters and from roasters in other parts of the USA. Fortuna is based in Greensboro and they roast most of our drip coffee beans, as well as provide the majority of our paper products, syrups, etc.”

Having close relationships with suppliers and roasters allows local coffee shops to be more flexible and innovative in the drinks they offer. For Footnote, having their own operation — which is housed in the beer-brewing facility — lets them experiment. Bartholomaus says they recently purchased a cold brewing unit that produces 300 gallons. Prior to COVID-19, they were serving it in Footnote and had plans to slowly release it on draft at other locations, but now are working on distributing it in cans to help build interest.

Above all, consumers should remember that by supporting local or smaller coffee businesses, they’re not only benefiting the ones brewing their coffee, but everyone behind the scenes who made that cup possible.

“The most important thing consumers can do for the industry is spend more money,” Ehrlich says. “If you’re a Folgers drinker, keep drinking your Folgers, but once a month buy a more expensive specialty bag of coffee, or support a local coffeehouse. By doing that, you’re telling the coffee roaster he has a market, and when he sees he can sell this coffee, he sticks his toe in a little bit deeper, and that lets us step our toe in a little bit deeper. It’s all connected.”

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