Summer camp out in the Black Hills was something I could always look forward to with that full-on, childlike wonder (don’t worry, this will come back around to coffee). At camp, things could be magic, almost perfect.
When I was old enough, I became a counselor. After training and working the first week with campers, it was apparent that the magic was… well… a hell of a lot of work, and so much of what made that magic possible was just beyond my kid-self’s level of understanding. My experience in the coffee industry is analogous; drinking high-quality, 90+ coffees every day—coffee without compromise—can be a pretty charmed way to start a day. Then I started going to cuppings, learning about sourcing from our green-coffee buyer, and hearing about trips we’ve taken to origin. There’s so much more than I realized that makes my end of the coffee industry as “magically” delicious as it is.
That’s not to say the mystical beauty of coffee, camp, nature, etc.. was slain just because I grew up see a fuller picture. It means that once you’ve seen behind the curtain, there’s opportunity to help grow that experience for campers or the coffee industry.
Ok, those of you still with me, let’s talk business as a form of world-bridging.
Coffea is a growing company and doesn't have the buying power of companies whose mascots are mermaids or cloven-hooved, but we are a perfect size roaster to get in on smaller shares of specialty-lots or for farms that are getting into the specialty coffee game.
So when TG Coffee Labs in Guatemala had bags from a farmer that they’d just started working with, they called us. Once we got our hands on the coffee, we knew it was something we wanted to offer our customers. It had clean, well-rounded sweetness, and depth of flavor—it made great business sense. Little did we know, the farmer —Fernando Diaz—is a coffee-nerd’s coffee nerd.
Our kinda’ guy.
It was only months after Fernando had inherited the family farm when we bought his coffee. After taking over Nando set off with a very specific plan for the farm: to stabilize production, create consistency by separating different kinds of coffee, and then push quality by planting unique, high-quality coffee varieties. This constant and deliberate tinkering drums up questions like, “what if we change the fermentation time… what is the optimal fermentation?” instead of just going with standard practice.
This year will be the fifth time we’ll be offering Fernando’s Honey Processed Finca Idolia(Honey Idolia) in our cafes. Over those four years, we’ve been able to provide input on what we’re tasting while he can inform us about his changes to the cherry in the growing process like the nutrition of what was delivered in the plant. We can also listen to you (dear customer) and hear what you enjoy, so you’re able to fine-tune his process. He’s been such a wealth of knowledge and experience for us, and he’s been gracious enough to let us visit his farm, to learn by being on the ground on the farm.
Think about that for a minute: a group of coffee nerds in upper-midwest America can have shared experience over coffee, and Fernando gets a direct feedback from his customers.
Fernando’s work and pride in his crop can translate into an excited and satisfied customer, on top of the payment from the export-buyer that hasn’t tasted the coffee. We skype about his experiments, we can email about flavors we do or don’t taste in this season's crops so he can make alterations for next season’s harvest. We can be, and choose to be a delivery route of direct, specific feedback. It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.
We also want you to enjoy the full picture of what you’re getting in the cup.
That’s a neat industry to be a part of.
When I asked Andrew Fritz (our Head Roaster and Green-Buyer) and Bryan Kegley (our CEO) why the cost of origin trips benefits our customers, they had a surprising answer:
“We knew that in order to really provide any insight and direction at the farm-level we couldn’t do so from our preconceived ideas of coffee-growing, which means that the beginning of these relationships didn’t change much about our coffees. But as we’ve been able to truly understand the challenges and opportunities these individual farmers have we’ve been able to start partnerships that are hugely beneficial.
“The most surprising thing we learned came when we started to talk about the economics of both sides of the coffee business. Asking our producing friends about economic viability of coffee farming was met with wariness, not of us, but of knowing the challenges of producing coffee.
“What unfolded is one of the more impactful conversations of my life. We learned that while producing high-quality is fun and fulfilling, those coffees alone don’t sustain a farm. The majority of a single farm’s production ends up being sold at market as blended co-op coffees."
…That was a lot to take in. Back in South Dakota, Fritz and Kegley took a good long look at our business model. Something didn't sit right.
About a year later, Fernando was up in Seattle for a coffee convention and so was some of our crew. Kegley and Fernando had a chance to catch up, talking about how families had grown (our CEO had had a new baby since that visit), how Coffea had opened a new store, had some successes and some failures—just like any growing, developing business will have— and Fernando had had some success in his experiments and some failures—just like good science should produce—and we validated each other’s experience for what it is: experience.
It’s not a magic fairy-tale where everything will be perfect at the end of the week at summer-camp. It’s life.
Then Fernando said, “You know these blenders, they take up so much of my day. But you know me, you know I don’t care so much about that...I want to make good coffee... That’s what I like about working with you. We talk about getting out a better coffee.”
So I asked Kegley why he values Fernando as much as the crop he sends us. He said, “It’s energizing to know that I can have a conversation with somebody that’s so excited about producing a good product, but also someone who can say, ‘You know me’ and I feel like I actually do know him. He’s taking his family farm in this new direction that his father didn’t get a chance to, so we’re really partnering with him on his vision of this longer tradition. It’s… it’s fun. It’s fun to be a part of that with him."
When Coffea opened, we took the best knowledge of what was available to us. We had never been to Oriente, Guatemala; Banko Gotiti, Ethiopia; Blue Batak, Sumatra. As Coffea started, we wanted the best product that the best farmers were producing.
Now, eight years down the road, we've grown up and we hear those farmers saying that a part of being able to transition to higher-quality coffees is wrapped up in the sustaining, reliable income that is anchored in blenders--that the transition to growing higher quality coffees is a more gradual process than we thought.
Growing up is strange when we realize the world is so much larger, more complex, more intricate than simply saying “coffee without compromise means…”
Coffea is growing up and we’re doing our best to be something more than “coffee without…”
Coffea is doing our best to be Coffee With Community.