The sun was rising with equatorial brilliance from the valley floor, casting it’s tingling rays upon my face. The cool, moist tropical breeze tickled my face with fern frond delicacy soothed away the lie of “roosters rise at dawn” still fresh in my mind after the damn rooster who stood righteously outside my little cabin door and started cock-a-doodling starting at about 3am; and never stopped. Sipping fresh made coffee from the very coffee farm I stood upon, gazing across the mountains of Huehuetenango, Guatemala I sighed contentedly. It was spring 2005 and I had arrived on my first origin trip, well after midnight the night before in the highlands of Guatemala after a 13 hour bus and taxi journey that was more precarious and adrenaline filled than I imagined.
As I stood on the drying patio at 1550 MASL surrounded by coffee in parchment in varying stages of drying, sorting and quality I asked about each of the various lots of parchment coffee surrounding us. The farmer patiently explained them to me and gave a brief overview of the coffee washing process.
I then turned to see a very large pile of dank coffee cherries, leaves and trash in a steaming mound. And upon that mound I saw a dog urinating. I shouted uh-oh! look that dog is pissing on the coffee! The farmer glanced nonchalantly and said that’s OK, that might make that coffee better. I stared at him slack-jawed and incredulous.
But I thought this was a specialty coffee farm?!
He turned a more experienced eye to me and said:
“Every coffee has a home. I just don’t want all of it in my home.”
He smiled knowingly and said that a large truck from a certain multi-national instant coffee company would be by later in the week to scoop up the entire sogging, stinking mess and that they paid for weight not quality and paid him a very handsome price for what he considered trash. He then went on to explain throughout the rest of the week I spent on the farm how coffee farms work, even specialty coffee farms. He patiently explained to my coffee farming virgin mind the ins and outs of coffee farming. We went on to pick, process, sort and touch every grade of coffee on the farm from COE wining lots to the “basura instanteneo” the mega instant coffee company would scoop up, process and sell at excruciatingly high margins.
I learned the realities and economics of specialty coffee farming first hand. At this farm they pick only red-ripe coffee cherries at the peak of ripeness. They pick each lot and each tree 3-6 times per harvest to only get the best coffee quality. Impeccable hand sorting of cherry followed by a multi-step process to separate even further the different grades of coffee. From near perfect high Specialty grade coffee to mid quality SHG grade coffees down to segundas and tercereros and every where in between. Every coffee had a home and a market and a place. Certainly at a quality focused, high elevation farm like, the majority was High Specialty Coffee (84pts & above cupping, free of defects, great flavor, clean) but there are always coffees that either didn’t get picked perfectly due to weather, pests etc., or got damaged in the processing (like the lot that got rained on in the drying phase) or were pretty good but maybe not great lots that were clean but not exceptional.
But every coffee has a home
I returned from that trip with a new understanding of the trials, tribulations and difficulty of getting truly great coffee to our roastery. In fact I came away from that trip, and every trip since then, with a feeling of awe and consider it absolutely miraculous that we ever get any great coffee out of any country. It is nearly magic.
That was the origin trip where I truly learned the truth that:
Coffee is too damn cheap.
At the coffee company I founded we at that time only bought and sold super high scoring, super specialty coffee of 85pts and up. At that time we were young and naive and bravely optimistic. I guess I still am. However I focused all of our purchases on only buying those perfect miracle lots of coffee. We paid as much as we could for them and it worked out that our plan of paying more every single year for the coffee we bought came to fruition and we were able to reward our Direct Trade farmers with high prices and higher volume every year for 6 years. I felt good about it.
But the lesson I learned on my first origin trip kept getting reinforced upon every subsequent visit. As we grew our relationship with each farmer we began to better understand the complexities of trading internationally on an agricultural crop that was highly challenged by environmental impacts outside of the farmer’s control and highly subjective since it was based on flavor. Even on meticulously managed and cared for farms with the best varietals, exceptionally smart pruning and feeding regimens, excellent shade and soil management and obsessive ripe cherry picking and sorting there is always a range of coffee qualities. There were always coffees that were good but not great. These were high elevation coffees, picked and processed well but that because of weather changes, lack of rainfall or just because they were nice and clean but not mind blowing. These were the good but not great coffees.
And we did NOT have a home for them. They were abandoned orphan coffees.
Although these were not the majority of coffees produced by our specialty coffee farm partners, they represented a significant chunk of their revenue and could easily mean the difference between a profitable year or not depending on the price they were able to sell them at. But we had not developed a plan that enabled us to use these coffees therefore we did not buy them. Often they ended up selling them to the mills for blending into other lots at commercial market prices to get some revenue from them.
One of my regrets about how we built our coffee program was that we did not build in a way to use more of our coffee partners coffees. We had the super high end micro-lots but not their mid range lots. We cherry picked the best of the best, paid a big premium and went on our merry way. Leaving the good but not great lots to fend for themselves.
What I now realize we should have done is build our coffee program from the beginning to be able to have two types of coffees from each coffee partner:
- Super Specialty micro-lots – premium coffees, premium price paid, high price to market
- Specialty -Good but not great lots – solid price paid well over market, medium high price to market.
Not just in order to “meet the needs of the market” but to build a coffee ecosystem that was truly sustainable. One that took the reality of coffee farming and worked to make it better rather than ignoring it in some fashion. I am not talking about buying super low quality crappy coffees, blending them into a blend and lying about what they are to game the market. I mean finding a home for more than just the tip top perfect coffees from our coffee partners. Finding a home for a wider range of those coffees would have enabled me to deliver more money into the hands of the farmers we liked and respected and counted as family. It also would have had the added benefit of giving us a gateway range of coffees. Coffees with less intensity, not quite as freaky acidity and crazy flavors and at a lower price point. Coffees that are still super good, tasty, clean and quality. Coffees that are far above the normal coffee experience of most customers yet still remain a bit more approachable.
In short I would have married my realization that “every coffee has a home.” with my realization that “not every home has a coffee, yet.”
I could have delivered some super solid coffees to new homes and changed even more lives for the better. That’s why I am so excited about my new role with IPCoffees. We have a wide range of coffees from commercial to mid-range to blenders to Specialty Grade. In short we have a coffee for every home. Even our lower end more commercial lots we paid higher prices to the producers to get better quality. And I am enjoying working with so many specialty coffee roasters to help find new homes for both the great specialty coffees and the good but not great blender coffees. And coming next harvest those roasters who partner with us will be able to build even stronger relationships with the producers and develop long-term relationships throughout the whole coffee chain. Hopefully I can pass on some my hard earned coffee wisdom I learned the painful way over the last 13 years. Here’s to the next 13 years of awesomeness.