Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we spoke to Girls Who Grind Coffee, an all-female roastery that’s helping to empower women throughout the coffee industry.
A few years ago, the coffee sector had a problem.
Consumer-facing businesses, such as cafés and roasteries, were setting a narrative which all too often failed to acknowledge the people who had grown, harvested, and processed the coffees.
The farmers and producers, who arguably contributed the most to the value chain, were being ignored, while the rest of the industry hogged the limelight.
Although the situation began to improve and coffee farmers gradually gained greater recognition for their work, the revelation highlighted a number of other ongoing issues around the production side of the supply chain, many of which had never been addressed.
Leading the conversation about the role of women in coffee production is UK roastery Girls Who Grind Coffee.
Launched in 2017 by Fi O’Brien and Casey Lalonde, GWGC is an all-female operation whose aim is not only to provide a platform for female coffee producers, but also to drive gender equality at every stage of the journey from seed to cup.
“Coffee, like a lot of industries, is very male dominated,” Casey tells me. “Everyone who works in coffee knows that most of the work on the producing side is actually done by women, yet they’re not given the same opportunities, the same education, the same training, or the access to decision making that men are offered.
“We wanted to really highlight the stories of women, because visibility is power. When more women see themselves in a situation, they’re more likely to be in that situation.”
At first, Fi and Casey wanted to buy as much coffee as they could from female producers.
But as they delved deeper, they realised that they didn’t want to have just a few “token” coffees from all-female farms. If they were going to do it, they were going to all in. They committed to buying 100% of their coffees from female producers – and didn’t look back.
“When we first started out, so many people said it wasn’t going to be possible, that there was no way we could buy exclusively from women,” Fi explains. “But it’s actually been the complete opposite. We want to be able to buy from so many more, but there’s only so much coffee you can buy.”
When entering an industry with a strong brand message, one of the risks is that consumers will take the company’s products less seriously. In the highly strung world of specialty coffee, this risk is often even greater.
GWGC has tackled this in two ways. First, they’ve made sure that while their cause remains the driving force of the business, they place equal emphasis on sourcing specialty-grade coffees and finding the perfect roast profile for each one.
Both Fi and Casey have backgrounds in coffee and understand the importance of giving customers something that’s different to their local high-street coffee, yet still broadly accessible.
The second approach involves telling the story of the coffee without intruding on the producers or seeking to romanticise the process.
“Romanticisation of coffee producing is a real problem in the industry,” Casey explains. “We don’t call the producers our friends or family, we want to treat everyone like our business partners, because that’s what they are. This is a business transaction and it should be treated that way. It’s why we don’t use photography of producers – we feel it’s too invasive.”
Instead, GWGC’s packaging features illustrations (by Fi’s husband) of fictional coffee farmers, which represent the women and “the spirit of the coffee”, rather than the producers themselves. Meanwhile, the various colours and shapes for each box are used as indicators of the coffee’s characteristics.
Together with a written story on the back of the boxes, this helps give customers a sense of what the coffee is about, from its origins to its flavour notes and acidity.
Fi says that the response has been incredible. “It’s been fantastic and quite emotional really. We find that our message and visual identity makes our coffee accessible, so that people who are drinking things like Starbucks or Costa see a way in.
“From there, we can talk about specialty and how important it is to pay the right price for coffee by utilising brand and accessibility.”
This approach has resonated with people all over the world – and not just among women, either.
“Obviously, the talk about feminism and ‘bringing down the patriarchy’ doesn’t only speak to women,” Fi says. “We’ve received equal appreciation from men who also want to see a change.”
Paying producers for their stories
Casey is keen to point out that although GWGC has a social cause at its centre, it’s by no means a charity.
Everything they do is in light of building a more equitable coffee industry in a way that empowers women and brings greater recognition to their role in the journey from seed to cup.
This mentality is evident in Cheek To Cheek, GWGC’s profit-sharing initiative, which puts 10% of all profits from retail coffees back in the pockets of producers. However, unlike some initiatives, there are no requirements as to what they do with the money once they receive it.
“We wanted to highlight the fact that producers add so much value to their coffee beyond the actual production of it,” Casey explains.
“As an industry, we’re selling their stories, putting their names on the boxes – we ask a lot of producers these days and everyone is using that as marketing. We’re basically benefitting from these stories, so we wanted to acknowledge that by making a payment.”
They’ve also recently partnered with Mió, a coffee farm in Monte Santo de Minas, Brazil that exports, imports, stores, and sells coffee. Mió has launched a farm-level project to educate female coffee producers, teaching them about all aspects of the supply chain – and GWGC has been enrolled to provide lessons on the roasting stage.
The idea is to develop on-the-ground training to improve transparency and help these producers understand what happens to their coffee once it leaves the farm.
“Too often, producers don’t know about roasting or what the differences are between an espresso and a filter coffee,” Casey says. “So this project is going to arm these women with all the tools they need to sell their coffee. It’s amazing and we’re really excited about it.”
This all plays into GWGC’s overarching strategy to use their platform as a way of instilling genuine change and giving agency to women working in coffee. But there’s also a simpler motive, which Casey says is to inspire.
“If we hadn’t done this, I’d be working for a roastery owned by a man – I know I would be,” she says. “I think giving women the inspiration to go off and do something themselves is great. We’re lucky to have had the opportunity to do that.”
Did you enjoy this edition of Roaster of the Week? You can read all 12 of our roaster stories and more by visiting the MTPak Coffee Education Centre.
Photo credits: Girls Who Grind Coffee