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How technology is changing the spice trade

Single-source spices come with tasting notes and the exact location of their farm. They’re part of a new way to do business in the international spice trade.

By Alison Stein

When Ethan Frisch gets a misspelled Instagram message from an overseas account, he always responds. It’s usually not a scam, but a business opportunity.

“Hi,” began one recent conversation. “are u form newYork?” 

“Yes I am,” replied Frisch, 32, from his home office in Jackson Heights, Queens. After a full screen shot worth of pleasantries, the messenger got to the point. His family grows turmeric in India and would like to export to Frisch’s spice company, Burlap & Barrel.  

And little wonder. In just three years, Burlap & Barrel has built a network of 150 spice farmers around the globe. Each of the company’s 30 spices are labeled with tasting notes and the exact location of the farm where the spice was grown. Blue Turmeric, from Nghe An, Vietnam, tastes of baked apple, toasted almond and smoke. New Harvest Turmeric, from Karnataka, India, evokes ginger, jasmine flower, and honey. 

Burlap & Barrel is one of several companies that have pioneered the sale of single-source, ethically-sourced spices — a new way of doing business in one of the world’s oldest and most storied industries. By leveraging technology such as smartphones to flatten its supply chain, the company pays its farmer suppliers five to ten times the going rate. Its customers include famous restaurant kitchens like Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, powerhouse companies such as Brooklyn Brewery, and cooks in their home kitchens. Whether it’s for the taste or the social-justice impact, these customers are willing to pay double or even five times the price of common supermarket brands. Burlap & Barrel’s turmeric is $5.25 an ounce, roughly twice the price of grocery-store turmeric; its black peppercorns will set you back $3.99 an ounce, about five times a typical grocery-shelf price.

The international spice trade dates back to biblical times. Spices, along with silk and silver, drove the beginning of global trade, explains Eric Tagliacozzo, history professor at Cornell University. “Spice tied very remote areas of the world, such as the so-called Spice Islands of Eastern Indonesia, to the rest of the world,” he says.

At its start, the spice trade transformed world history. The world’s major powers converged on areas that grew spice, where they struggled, often violently, over harvests, trade routes, and taxing authority. The people who lived in spice-growing areas experienced exploitation and even genocide. For instance, in 1621, the Dutch East India Trading Company enforced its virtual monopoly on the Indonesian spice trade by killing or deporting almost the entire native population of the Banda Islands and seizing their nutmeg.

Though the spice trade is less violent today, in other ways, it hasn’t changed much over the centuries. The vanilla in your spice cabinet probably grew in Madagascar, the black pepper in Vietnam, the nutmeg in Indonesia, the ginger in China. The world’s favorite spices tend to grow best in places far away from most of their consumers. Black pepper and cardamom are tropical, while cumin prefers the sub-tropics and mustard the temperate zones.

Most spices are still grown on small farms. Some grow best in a field, others in a jungle. Some can be harvested by machines, some only by hand. The flavorful part could be the seed, root, leaf, petals, or even the bark.

Likewise, size and color standards are little-changed since the colonial era. “It didn’t matter that one pepper had floral tones and another smoky tones,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Diaspora Co., a San Francisco-based spice start-up. “It was just about size. They thought: If the seeds are bigger, we’ll get more money.”

That’s starting to change.

“People aren’t used to pepper that has nuance, floral notes, that tastes like that. They assume it’s some mysterious kind of spice.”

Today, consumers often want information about food supply chains — the path food takes from its origins to your kitchen. Labels such as USDA Organic, CarbonFree Certified, or Fairtrade offer information about the environmental and human impact of how foods were farmed. The concept of “terroir” — the natural environment’s impact on wine’s taste and character — now applies to nearly every kind of food.

Yet most spice labels only say where the product was packed, not where it was grown. Few explain how a spice’s origins affect its characteristics.  

This has long rankled food professionals. “We go through this insane effort to source specific meat, fish, and vegetables, because, absolutely, it makes the food taste different,” says Rick Easton, chef-owner at Bread and Salt in Jersey City and a Burlap & Barrel customer. “Why should spices get short shrift?”

Easton cooks with several Burlap & Barrel spices, including its Zanzibar black pepper. “While the social and political aspect to this kind of sourcing is really important and really wonderful, it’s not what drives me,” he says. “If the pepper wasn’t amazing, I wouldn’t buy it.” The higher price doesn’t bother Easton. He says he’s able to use less spice because the flavor is so potent.

Customers often ask Easton what spices he’s used. “It brings me incredible pleasure to say, ‘salt and some black pepper,’” he says. “People aren’t used to pepper that has nuance, floral notes, that tastes like that. They assume it’s some mysterious kind of spice.” 

In 2012, at an open-air market in Fayzabad, Afghanistan, a man sitting on a blue tarp tossed handfuls of cumin into the air, then caught the seeds in a basket. He was using the air as a sieve: stray grass and other botanical debris, mixed in with the cumin, flew away in the wind.

His work caught the eye of Frisch, who was at the market on a day off from his job as a humanitarian aid worker. Frisch had worked in New York restaurant kitchens between college and graduate school. Curious, he bought a scoop of cumin from the seller, took it home to his apartment in Kabul, and made a very memorable roast chicken. “I thought I knew my way around spices,” he says, “but I’d never tasted or seen anything like that cumin — the size, and color, the aroma.” Smaller and darker than cumin he’d cooked with before, it smelled more savory and piney. 

The next time Frisch visited New York, he brought wild cumin and other Afghan spices as gifts. Everyone from his foodie father to his chef friends was wowed.

“Is there a business here?” Frisch asked his friend, Ori Zohar, who’d run an ice cream business with him after college. Zohar is congenitally entrepreneurial. In college, he’d stand outside University of Maryland’s graduation ceremonies with a stack of $20 bills, ready to arbitrage graduation caps and gowns: He’d buy the regalia, dry-clean it, and sell it to the next group of graduates at a tidy profit.

At dinner in San Francisco, Frisch pulled spices out of his backpack to show Zohar. The spices drew the chefs out of the kitchen. “That was part of me seeing that there’s interest here from the professional market,” recalls Zohar, who became Burlap & Barrel’s co-founder.

After dinner, Frisch and Zohar went to a gourmet supermarket. “We looked at their spice rack, and while there were some really small local brands, mostly it was super-large national brands selling commodity spice.” Home cooks looking for unusual, single-source spices were all but out of luck.

Why? Most spice companies import millions of pounds of spice. Brokers, traders, and auctioneers along the supply chain repeatedly mix one small farmer’s spice harvest with others’ spices. So it’s nearly impossible to know exactly where a particular scoop of spice comes from. That’s just fine for commercial and industrial buyers, which purchase 90 percent of the $2 billion in spices sold annually worldwide. They value consistency above regional variation.

This trading system gives small spice farmers access to overseas markets, but each supply chain link takes a cut of the ultimate purchase price. That can add up to meaningful price differences for small spice farmers, whose households are among the most likely in the world to live in poverty, according to the U.N.

This trading system also discourages innovation, argues Kadri of Diaspora Co. For example, a farmer she works with in Kerala, India, has experimented with cardamom growing to create a plant with maximum flavor. But his pods are small and not as green as the competition’s. That devalues his cardamom on the commodity market. “His flavor and aroma are the best,” says Kadri. “You don’t have to open up the pod to smell it. But on the conventional market, he would get nothing for his cardamom.”

Until recently, there was no meaningful alternative. “Intermediaries were critical for doing business even just 10 or 15 years ago,” says Zohar. “Most of the farmers we work with don’t speak English.”

But increasing smartphone penetration has brought internet access to remote places that wired communications never reached. Google Translate, Skype, WhatsApp, and social media now allow an overseas company to find suppliers, dispatch trucks, and otherwise manage a multi-lingual, global business. For the first time in the spice trade’s long history, it’s possible to collapse a long supply chain to just one link: farmer to retailer.

That’s helped Raphael Flury of Pemba Island, Tanzania. He runs 1001 Organic, a cooperative of cinnamon, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, and pepper farms on Pemba, in the Zanzibar Archipelago off the coast of East Africa.

“Every four to five months, a new spice start-up pops up who wants to do business with us directly,” says Flury, who converses with spice customers on WhatsApp. Larger spice companies are also knocking at his door.  

Indeed, “in recent years we have begun to see some companies work more directly with farmers,” says Laura Shumow, executive director of The American Spice Trade Association. Large spice companies mostly deal directly with farmers to acquire organic spices. But the practice is also spreading into the non-organic spice trade, when “companies want to ensure specific farming practices are followed,” Shumow says.

Frisch welcomes the competition. Burlap & Barrel is set up as a public benefit corporation, meaning that its corporate charter includes the requirement to serve the public good as well as turn a profit. In 2018, Burlap & Barrel paid the 1001 Organic coop on Pemba Island an average of $565 per farmer — roughly 60 percent of the average Zanzibari’s annual income. “We’re happy to see other companies embrace our approach,” Frisch says. “The more people there are working on this, the faster we’ll be able to make meaningful changes to the global spice trade.”

Besides, Frisch is pretty busy traveling the world, looking for new spices to buy and sell. During a recent trip to Nicaragua, he cracked open a just-harvested turmeric, revealing an otherworldly glowing orange color inside. “Digging turmeric out of the ground is like opening a treasure chest,” he wrote in an Instagram caption. “Lookit that color!”

Some unusually short and fat vanilla pods also caught his eye. But they weren’t ripe yet, he noted to his 8,000 followers, then asked, “Anyone want to come back in February?”

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Alison Stein is a writer based in New York City.


Illustration by Mar Hernández


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