Net Energy Zero: Fair Trade Coffee shipped by Schooner in 2023
WT Interview with Serge Picard, Café William. The transcription below has been edited for clarity and length.
WT: I have with me on the phone, Serge Picard from Café William; he is an importer of coffee beans, thanks for doing this. Can you tell me a bit about Café William?
Picard: We are a Canadian and American US coffee roasting company. We import coffee beans from pretty much all over the world, if they grow it we import it, or have imported it.
We have facilities on the east coast, in Sherbrooke, Quebec, three processing plants and one logistics facility and one additional facility in Detroit, Michigan.
WT: Can you tell my viewers, what exactly is “fair trade” coffee?
Picard: Something we are extremely proud of, we were one of the pioneers to introduce fair trade coffee, some 15 years ago. Actually, we were pressured by some university students to look into it. We thought it was just something different, another schtick, but we got behind it after looking into it and started promoting it. I was told by Fair Trade Canada and Organic Canada that we are the biggest Canadian-owned importer of fair trade and organic coffee. Fair trade is a set of mechanisms, the main central part of which is there is a minimum price for the commodity of coffee that is set by agreeing to it. That price is fixed regardless of whether the price goes up or down on the market, the minimum we are always going to pay is 1.90. That provides living standards, reinvestment in the community, guaranteed schooling for the kids and farmers in the remote regions and a few other standards that really are the core of the fair trade movement. There are a few other products in there, cocoa, tea, but coffee is the biggest.
WT: Do I have to go to a Café William to get your coffee or is this something you sell to other coffee set-ups as well?
Picard: We are, believe it or not, one of the biggest, at least in Eastern Canada, retailers of coffee beans on the shelf. We retail our coffees to Costco, Metro, IGA, almost all of them. We import and sell it under our brand, which is William Café, Café William Coffees.
WT: I am a big fan of all renewable energies, as most viewers of WT would be; I came upon a press release where you are talking about Café William, and then I see that you’ve invested in a sailing ship. Could you tell me how that came to be, and why is a coffee company investing in a sailing ship?
Picard: I, like you, have been a very big fan for many years, on a personal level, of supporting renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels, I have operated like this on a personal level, but that can only make a difference on my part or my family’s part for our footprint. Where we can really make a difference is at the industrial level. I am a co-owner of Café William, so we could do much bigger things there. A quick step back, coffee is the second most consumed beverage on the planet, after tea. In North America, coffee is the number one beverage consumed, it is also the beverage with the highest carbon footprint, highest energy footprint amongst all of them. The reason is, 85% of coffee is exported from point of origin to somewhere else for production, transformation, and consumption. Where, we don’t have that as much with, think of tea: tea grows in Asia, mainly consumed in Asia, same for India.
This is not the case for coffee, we grow it in the coffee belt, tropical areas. Almost all of it gets exported to North America and Europe, and produced, and roasted and packaged, then shipped out for consumption.
So, we have a problem footprint. People love coffee. We don’t expect people to stop loving coffee, to stop drinking coffee. We all drink coffee, or we all know somebody that drinks coffee, and you better make sure they get their coffee when they want it, it's almost religious for a lot of people. We got thinking how we could reduce the footprint, limit everything from CO2 emissions to the energy used.
We were talking about fair trade coffee; we also source a lot of organic coffee. We work with farming communities and cooperatives, so they don’t clear-cut or deforest before replanting, or use chemicals pesticides.
They use a natural way of growing, compost and natural fertilizers as opposed to the latter. Regardless of what we do to find the best ecological, best for the planet coffee source, it will still board the dirtiest form of transportation, which is cargo shipping, which burns bunker fuel. That’s always been a problem. We started looking at it and trying to find alternatives, there aren’t that many. Too much free time during confinement led us to Googling “sailing cargo”, we came across a company called “Sailcargo”, whose mission is to prove zero-emission cargo by maritime shipping. This was almost two years ago, we thought this is something we could put our company behind, could put our business volumes behind to support and see where this could lead, and here we are.
WT: This looks like a Schooner, Canada has a long history with schooners, going back to the Bluenose and the famous Bluenose - Columbia race; when you are talking to shipbuilders, how does that go? Do you call up and say that you import tonnes of coffee beans, we want a smaller ecological footprint, can we buy a ship – how does this process work?
Picard: Yes, sort of like that, we started by email, communicating, not even using our corporate name at first. Doing our part of due diligence, they were looking to raise funds to keep building the ship. All good, nice mission, but we are looking for a real commercial solution to the problem we are trying to solve. So, a few emails, exchanges and then we were coming out and explaining to them who we are, and by coincidence, it turns out that the lead group of people that are building that ship in Costa Rica are also Canadians. Small world, one is from Ontario, Danielle Doggett, the President, and another guy, Lynx Guimond is from Sherbrooke where most of our processing facilities are located.
WT: Did you buy the whole ship? Or is this like a jet-sharing kind of idea? We all put in a certain amount of money in and I can fly in this private jet when needed?
Picard: Something like that, we invested in the corporation. We committed to half a million USD, becoming the biggest investor in the boat. This is our money, by the way, not subsidized government money. We invested dollars but the biggest commitment we made with management over there was to provide commercial business credibility and viability to the early stages of the boat being built. Café William committed to filling 100% of the hull of the ship on every trip from south or central America up north to our drop point.
WT: When I go down into the Port of Montreal, I have often thought the Bluenose would look quite handsome docked there. Where is your docking point in Canada, for the ship from Costa Rica?
Picard: For the first couple of trips, at least the first or second, we will look to sail all the way down to Montreal, stop in Quebec, have a couple of stops along the way. Our trade route is planned to start in Columbia, filling up in three countries, stopping in Guatemala and Mexico and then making our way up the east coast. Now going around to Montreal is quite a detour – you’ve got to circumvent the Gaspe Peninsula, then change captains to go up the St Lawrence River.
So, our plan is to drop in New Jersey, around Atlantic City, or a docking facility there, unload the ten containers, then the ship would turn around and refill with finished goods, and turn around and go deliver, but it would act as a shuttle, a real cargo shuttle ferrying coffee up and other products down.
WT: This is just fascinating! Do you expect to sail on the ship yourself? I mean, I would! Is that something you are considering?
Picard: Yes, I definitely -- have to get permission from my wife, I think -- but I am definitely considering being on one of the trips, just for the adventure of it. They promised me I would have a good bunk bed for the ride, but I am expected to work also on the boat, the ship. so, yes, I would. Actually, it’s very interesting, it’s a short trip, shorter than the dirty alternative, which we, unfortunately, have to use, there is no other solution right now, which is cargo sailing. You don’t have to read a lot of news to see the mega-problems that there are at the ports right now with container ship congestion. The ships being so big, it takes almost a week to unload and then reload. We can do the whole trip that physically takes about a month for a cargo ship, we could do that within three weeks, fully unload and be on our way. It’s a hybrid ship.
WT: Is this electric hybrid or diesel hybrid?
Picard: No, no -- zero fossil fuels, zero emissions, it’s an electric hybrid. So, wind propulsion, think of a Tesla, or any other electric car, where when you brake you recharge the batteries.
The ship will have propellers that will, on a strong windy day, turn the other way and recharge the batteries in the under boat, batteries that will provide propulsion on the non-windy days.
WT: I think most people would be surprised to know that the (new) Bluenose has secondary propulsion too.
Picard: I am told it is a requirement if you want to go to port, to have a secondary power source.
WT: When could one of your customers sit down and have a cup of coffee, delivered by sailing ship to Canada or US ports?
Picard: We are expecting the launch by the end of 2022. We are nearing completion of construction right now, there is quite a bit of finishing touches, expect to put in water end of 2022 testing the components, with test trials beginning 2023, It would be a pleasure to be able to do our first deliveries on our trading routes by the first half of 2023.
WT: I want to congratulate you first on doing quite a different thing, and second on putting your money up and taking a risk on renewable energy. Thanks so much for doing this, I appreciate it.
Picard: Thank you very much.