Cold Brew as a catalyst for change

Chameleon Cold-Brew has been deeply rooted in sustainable practices since its founding a decade ago. The company believes that beyond selling high quality, sustainably sourced cold brew coffee, it can truly be a catalyst for change in the communities in which it works. By Anne-Marie Hardie

All images courtesy of Chameleon Cold-Brew

Driven with a mission to make a difference, Chameleon Cold-Brew is not just another cold brew company. The Austin, Texas-based company began in 2010 when founders Chris Campbell and Steve Williams took on the challenge of developing a high quality, consistent cup of cold brew coffee. The two delved into the research process for several months experimenting with different formulas and brewing processes until they finally arrived at the process that produced a bold, smooth, cold brew. “This was before cold brew was actually a thing, and the process to create it was unrefined and relatively unknown,” said Matt Swenson, chief product officer, Chameleon Cold-Brew.

Satisfied with the results from the research, Campbell and Williams began sharing their beverage with others. Fortunately, Whole Foods Market was practically in its backyard, presenting a perfect opportunity to launch its products in the retail space.

From its onset, the founders had a clear vision of both the product and the type of company that they wanted to be in the marketplace. This included consistently providing a quality beverage to their consumer base while also ensuring that they made a positive impact on the communities that produced their beans.

Sustainability Initiatives are Centred on the Needs of Each Community

Initially, Chameleon had partnered with a local roaster who sourced the green coffee beans on their behalf. However, the company had a desire to become actively involved with their supply chain, including having ownership of the investments that they were making. Swenson joined the company in 2016 and immediately started to develop its supply chain, setting growth targets for the brand while ensuring that the supply chain developed was rooted in sustainability.

“Ultimately, I wanted to foster strong relationships in origin that would allow the initial values of the company to shine through with the purchasing practices,” he said. “Everything we buy is organic. However, we look for more than just organic coffee when seeking new partners.”

The company wanted to become a catalyst for change within the communities that it worked. “It was about finding the right people,” Swenson shared. “We wanted to make sure that we were connecting with the change-makers. People who had the social initiative at origin and could help to co-direct with the community of producers.”

This is not an area that Chameleon Cold-Brew takes lightly. Town halls are held in each community to listen to the concerns/challenges that the producers are facing and determine the initiatives that would have the most direct impact. “We don’t believe in top-down sustainability,” said Swenson. “Instead, we aim to partner with each of the individuals at a grass roots level, co-developing projects with the community.”

The projects are broken down into multiple phases and segments and monitored by a sustainability consultant (hired by Chameleon) to ensure that the various projects remain on track. “We are a business first and foremost and need to make reasonable business decisions,” said Swenson. “This is part of our business model – we can’t change everything over one year.”

Chameleon is committed to launching projects that directly respond to the challenges within the community. This includes putting their preconceived notions aside and investing the time to listen to the concerns of the producers. “When I went down to Peru, I had an idea of what they would ask for – what I thought would be the issue – but that topic only received two votes,” said Swenson.

Image courtesy of Chameleon Cold-Brew

The town hall revealed several challenges that included struggling with the drying process, retaining the youth in the business, and lack of tools and resources to determine the quality of the beans. To respond to these concerns, Chameleon built a coffee quality lab that featured specialised equipment and a trained Q-grader. This project not only helped improve the quality of the beans, but also helped re-engage the youth into the world of coffee.

“The youth of the producers were leaving the community for better paying jobs, but we’ve found that they are taking to cupping,” said Swenson. “The Coffee Quality Lab has helped make coffee cool again, with the youth in the community suddenly showing interest in their family’s company.” Phase 2 of the project in Peru will include investing in the drying process including installing dryers.

Colombia was another region that shared its struggles with quality coffee, resulting in Chameleon establishing a Coffee Quality Lab including sensory training to provide the producers with the tools that they needed. The post-conflict war zone of Colombia has resulted in several producers struggling to retain their family coffee businesses. Recognising these challenges, Chameleon invested the time in a town hall to reconnect with these producers and discover the areas where they needed the most support. “Recently, in a town hall in Colombia, one of the coffee producers stood up and said, ‘the world has forgotten about us, but somehow, your company is still buying our coffee and wants to invest in us, thank you,’” said Swenson proudly.

However, Chameleon quickly discovered that the challenges within coffee communities were not all centred around quality.

Working to Improve Gender Equality

Chameleon’s journey into Myanmar revealed a community that understood how to produce quality coffee, but several barriers restricted the producers from getting fair market value for their product, including the inability to invest in the organic certification process and the extreme gender inequity in the community. “The women are producing beautiful, outstanding coffee in their community, yet the men would still go up and receive the reward,” shared Swenson. Chameleon wanted to help change this and allow both the women’s skills and the coffee that they produced to take centre stage. The company launched the Myanmar Organic Agriculture Initiative which included co-funding the organic certification fees for two women-led co-ops and committing to purchase their first-year harvest.

Chameleon is also supporting a newly formed women-led organic cooperative in Sumatra, Indonesia, by committing to purchase its initial export of 42,000 lbs of coffee. In Indonesia, Swenson discovered a community of women who were proud of their work and their ability to produce a quality container of coffee without the support of any males in their community.

“Although we recognise that in the United States there is still a gender equity issue, it pales in comparison to these underdeveloped countries,” said Swenson. “Initiatives like these are so crucial for catalysing a greater change.”

In 2019, 89 percent of the companies that Chameleon worked with were direct trade, enabling the company to invest in them directly. When direct trade is not possible, they strive to work with companies that hold sustainable certifications, such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance. Today, the company sources most of its coffee from five growing regions: Colombia, Peru, Myanmar, Indonesia and Guatemala.

Setting a Standard on Pricing

But to make a truly long-term impact, the company realised that consumers need to become aware of the value of coffee. Chameleon created the Chameleon Sourcing Standard, which not only specifies the factors that they are seeking from a producer, but also puts a premium on all pricing. Chameleon Cold-Brew prices its product well above that of its competitors. Its belief is that the industry will not get better if companies, such as its own, don’t begin to act. This includes sharing the story behind the products and increasing awareness to their consumers of the importance of paying fair prices.

Social media and the company’s website are both used as a tool to connect with customers, sharing the story of the company, the initiatives that it is taking, and connecting consumers to both the product and the producers. Chameleon takes calculated risks, investing in regions in which it foresees potential and sharing with its community the importance of valuing coffee.

Chameleon is equally rooted in quality and compassion, unwilling to comprise one for the other, but instead demonstrating the need to create a partnership between the two. “We have to have the best quality product, but we also need to ensure that each bottle is filled with coffee that was sourced socially responsibly and ethically,” said Swenson.

Ten years after its founding, Chameleon remains committed to producing the coffee in the same manner that it was created in the beginning. “We still maintain the very old school way of brewing cold brew, steeping big buckets for approximately 12 hours,” said Swenson. “Despite our growth, we refuse to compromise our process.”

To date, Chameleon has produced over 25 million servings of cold brew coffee across the USA, without compromising on price, process or quality. “We’ve managed our growth over the years by creating strategic partnerships with individuals who share our values and commitment,” he shared.

Chameleon Cold-Brew’s success (boasting a six-year CAGR of 86 percent) and corporate social responsibility caught the eye of leading CPG company – Nestlé USA – which acquired it in November 2017. As the company continues to move forward, Chameleon is committed to maintaining its standards, including engaging the consumer in the story behind the bottle.

Chameleon currently offers 20 SKUs of cold brew coffee in multi-serve concentrate and single-serve RTD forms (including dairy and oat milk options). Consumer demand has also resulted in the launch of three whole bean coffee SKUs, each with a different flavour profile with the intent of providing a coffee that appeals to everyone.

When asked about future growth, Swenson stated that the company is committed to delivering the highest quality cold brew across North America while refusing to compromise their sourcing standards and sustainability initiatives. “Something that seems like a simple coffee purchase to us, can have a monumental impact for years to come in a small community,” said Swenson. “Making a difference – even just a small one – is what continues to drive our company.”

  • Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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