Scott Conary needs you to know something: He has been to the farms where much of what his company, Carrboro Coffee Roasters, sells, actually grows. He has sat with the farmers in the high reaches of Guatemala and Rwanda and negotiated long-term deals that ensure he gets the beans he needs and that they get the money they’re owed. And he has committed to bringing that product back home, to Carrboro, roasting it and then serving as the direct link between the coffee farmer and the coffee drinker. That is, he thinks, the best work American coffee companies can do.

“‘Local’ can mean fabricated or artisan-created, which is what we are doing when we roast coffee, but it also meansfor meknowing how you are connected to your source,” says Conary. “We go to these communities where growing coffee is an important part of life and connect it back to our community. We’re the conduit, that view back to a place. It’s local here, and it’s local there.”

Truly American coffee, of course, is a rarity. There is the Kona coffee of Hawaii, but that’s the extent of it. Instead, most of the world’s coffee comes from the so-called Bean Belt, a ring of one hundred or so countries between the northern Tropic of Cancer and the southern Tropic of Capricorn. Within that zone, places like Brazil and Colombia, Uganda and Kenya fuel the world’s need for coffee’s caffeine. In that sense, “local coffee” in North Carolina would seem to be a logical fallacy.

“It’s a tough term, because we can’t grow it here. It’s something we’re physically unable to do,” agrees A.J. Viola, who rotates beans roasted throughout the Southeast at his two area coffee shops, Brew. “That immediately takes us a step backward. But the beauty of roasting coffee near us is that it gives us the opportunity to have a local impact on a global product.”

Indeed, for Conary and a growing number of local roasters, from the massive and rightly acclaimed Counter Culture to relative upstarts like Raleigh Coffee Company (Brew’s primary partner) and Garner’s Full Bloom, the goal is to overcome those agricultural limitations with worldwide relationships. On the supply side, it means knowing the farmer and knowing the beans; on the consumer side, it means being transparent about the source of what you are selling.

Not all roasters can do this. It’s expensive, and there are other logistical challenges, from travel time to importer relationships. To wit, only 70 percent of all the beans Carrboro Coffee roasts and deals these days stems from such connections, but the ultimate goal, confirms Conary, is for all of it to arrive that way. Counter Culture, which processed 2.5 million pounds of coffee last year compared to Carrboro’s 80 thousand pounds, is able to build these relationships on a much larger scale and with a broader impact because of its high volume.

“While we’re small and we’re only able to have a certain effective sphere, we also like to consider ourselves an example,” Conary says. “We’re showing people what’s possible.”

More than a decade ago, Conary began volunteering for the United States Agency for International Development. He explored on-the-ground ways to make the coffee supply chain between South America and North America more equitable. He’s since been able to implement many of his own recommendations at Carrboro Coffee, which he launched in 2004.

The coffee industry is often riddled with black boxes within the supply chain and marketing gimmicks that obscure coffee’s origin and true measures of sustainability. For Conary, one-to-one links with coffee farmers are a powerful way to combat that, to show companies and customers alike that there is another way that honors the sense of community upon which local food depends.

“It’s never an easy choice to make, because it’s not a good business decision to make. I’m spending money to do it,” says Conary. “You don’t have to do it this way, but, really, I wouldn’t do it any other way.” •

This article appeared in print with the headline “Out of Grounds”