In dog years, Just Coffee Cooperative of Madison, Wis., is 98. In human years, the company is 14. In coffee years, it’s probably somewhere in between.
Fourteen years is a relatively long run for any company, let alone a coffee roasting company, and these past two have been especially big for Just Coffee. Since moving into a new production and office headquarters on Madison’s East side in 2013, the staff has approximately doubled to 26 people; wholesale accounts have increased locally, nationally and regionally; and the company has generally upped its coffee game, in part through the addition of head roaster Casey Blanche.
With these changes and others in mind, JCC recently completed a complete rebranding, its most comprehensive to date and one designed to shape the company’s course over the next 14 years. (Full disclosure, having spent a significant chunk of my life in Madison, I have become friends with multiple JCC staffers, and even collaborated with them on personal and professional projects. Some level of editorial objectivity has undoubtedly been lost here).
One thing about JCC has importantly not changed over the years: The company and its worker-cooperative leadership remain unabashedly political, unafraid to speak out against coffee institutions and industry practices that they believe exploit or marginalize producers for the benefit of for-profit operations in consuming countries. While this may not be a trendy selling point in today’s quality-obsessed specialty market, it was something the JCC team did not want to shy away from during the rebranding process.
“We didn’t start as a coffee company,” Just Coffee Cooperative Co-Founder Matt Earley recently told Daily Coffee News. “We came into the coffee market because we wanted to work more closely with growers and make connections between them and the people in our community. Where people often start in this business working in apprenticeships roasting coffee or importing, we came in almost at the opposite end.”
The idea of justice is apparent in JCC’s new packaging, some elements of which were designed in collaboration with local creative firm Planet Propaganda. Specifically, the logo shines a brighter light on the double entendre of the company’s name, something that was getting lost on many consumers in the previous logo. The word “Just” is emphasized and placed prominently atop the bags. JCC’s custom artwork for each single-origin or blend remains, but with a more understated treatment.
While putting forth a new justice-centric mission statement, the bags have significantly less copy related to specific trade practices than previous JCC bags, instead pointing consumers to the redesigned website for additional information. The bags also, for the first time, include brewing tips, while including flavor and mouthfeel notes for each product.
“About four years ago, we started to identify the fact that you could look on our website and not actually see anything about how our coffee tastes,” Earley says. “We became aware of that and we started working on it.”
That work involved not only talking about coffee, but diversifying sourcing efforts, and improving roasting operations and quality controls. “We’ve never been interested in following trends, but to some degree, the emphasis on talking about quality is due to the market,” Earley says. “It’s not enough just to talk about farmers anymore. There are so many roasters out there now and the conversation has moved a little bit. We realized that we had to develop cup quality to stay in the conversation. We waited until now because we didn’t want to talk about something that we were not.”
Blanche has been a big part of that quality push, working on a Diedrich drum roaster, as well as a relatively new Loring unit. He and Earley represent a two-headed sourcing team, working with farmer groups in the Cooperative Coffees network and more recently, connecting directly with other individual farmer groups.
“Something unique we have going here is a kind of healthy tension,” Earley says. “Casey provides a really great counterweight to how we have sourced coffee. In the past, we’ve worked with specific grower groups who, honestly, if their coffee cupped out at 80 or higher, we were going to buy their coffee. We’re still working with a lot of those groups, and a lot of them have improved, but we’re also working with new groups that Casey is identifying because of the quality of their coffee.
“For us, it’s a really healthy conversation about how to maintain relationships and continue to use the coffee that our long-term farmer partners are producing, but also to enter into new relationships because their coffee is so great.”
Again, according to Earley, great coffee is not the JCC end goal. It is part of a broader company goal to contribute positively to its producer partners, and help shake up existing trade systems to promote more equity and social justice throughout the supply chain. The company has been busy over the past year working on several initiatives with On the Ground, a nonprofit social enterprise doing work in numerous coffee communities, including the upcoming “Run Across Congo” and “Project Nica,” which is helping to rebuild roya-ravaged farms associated with the Las Diosas women’s cooperative in Northern Nicaragua, from which Just Coffee has sourced coffee for years.
These projects are closer to the heart of JCC than, say, “having an Aeropress champ,” says JCC Director of Sales Nate Tredinnick.
Adds Earley, “But we do need to have our coffees be able to sit on the table alongside all these other roasters who have a cup-quality angle as their selling point, and we need to be able to confidently say, we’re right there with them, and look at the rest of this stuff that we do. We have learned over the years that we are actually a coffee company.”
As Just Coffee enters its dog sunset years, it seems it is just entering its coffee prime, competing with more roasters throughout Wisconsin, Chicago and the Upper Midwest. “More roasters is good,” says Tredinnick. “How do you grow your business? You either grow your own percentage of the existing share, or you raise the profile of the entire market.”
Earley says JCC is cautiously exploring the idea of a branded retail cafe in the Madison market, although he said it would have to be a perfect arrangement so as not to cannibalize existing wholesale accounts.
“What do we want to be? That’s always kind of a living conversation,” Earley says. “In terms of business, this has always been kind of an experiment.”