How Peterborough’s Masteroast is a hidden force behind the UK’s Fairtrade movement

Around one in seven cups of roast and ground coffee consumed outside the home in the UK is produced in Peterborough, a fact few will know.
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Masteroast in Fengate produces more than 4,000 tonnes of coffee a year for major brands and coffee distributors, with its customers including the children of legendary singer Bob Marley.
But despite being largely hidden to the wider public, the independently owned coffee roasting and packing facility is also a leading force behind the Fairtrade movement.

“We are probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest, producers of Fairtrade coffee in the UK now,” managing director Andy Fawkes told the Peterborough Telegraph ahead of Fairtrade Fortnight, which runs from February 22 to March 7.

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“Masteroast has always been at the centre of the Fairtrade movement since the mid-1990s.

Masteroast's coffee production lineMasteroast's coffee production line
Masteroast's coffee production line

“It was an international phenomena in the coffee industry as a reaction to global coffee prices which crashed dramatically in the late 80s, early 90s.”

The drop in prices was related to an increase in supply as new producing countries came on stream, offering larger volumes of lower quality coffee. This drove prices below production costs for many small coffee farmers.

Andy, who joined the company in 1997, continued: “The Fairtrade movement was to engineer a fair price for them - it guarantees a minimum price for their coffee enabling them to invest and grow with confidence.

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Masteroast, under its founder Les Mills, was hugely influential in enabling Fairtrade coffee to be introduced in cafés and restaurants in the mid-1990s, Andy said, and not long after the movement began to flourish.

“We were a much smaller, specialist roaster packer at the time, the principle being that you’re best to be famous for something, so we gave it some focus.

“We approached the Fairtrade Foundation, which is the UK governing body for Fairtrade, with the proposal of how we could add it to lots of smaller brands and coffee distributors we were already supplying in the out of home market.

“At the time Fairtrade was largely happening in retail but nowhere else.

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“Through Les’ approach we agreed a transparent, audited licensing system which enabled our expanding customer base to get behind it and feed growing consumer demand.

“We made it accessible to a whole new network of channels, not just the supermarket branded coffee.”

Masteroast currently employs 120 staff, with operations running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

More than a quarter of the coffee it manufactures is Fairtrade, delivering the equivalent of more than £4 million a year for small farmers in areas including central America, Africa and India.

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“The Fairtrade scheme offers the consumer an audited guarantee that the farmer has been treated fairly. I would, however, stress that a common misunderstanding is that if something isn’t certified Fairtrade it must be unfairly traded which isn’t always true,” Andy explained. 

Masteroast has big plans going forward which includes construction of a new 2,500 pallet logistics building at its base in Newark Road which will focus on the delivery of its customer’s orders to business-to-business networks, retail and, increasingly, online shoppers.

But despite this, it plans to stay very much behind the scenes for years to come.

“We are well known for being unknown within the coffee industry,” Andy added. “Whether you go to the supermarket, go online, or take your coffee on a train, plane or in a café, there’s a very high chance it will come from here. You just won’t know it.”