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Reports From the Road
Let's Talk Coffee
Author: Lois Maffeo
Posted: February 20, 2008
Article rating: 7.3
feedback: (1) comments | read | write

Your favorite coffee roaster is in Topeka, they buy green coffee from a Fair Trade cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico that comes through an importer in Portland. How does this unique group of individuals find common ground to agree on high-impact issues like green coffee quality, cupping calibration and sustainability? How do they create a secure supply chain that reduces risk and builds equity? Fax? Skype? E-mail? Sure, those work. But Sustainable Harvest Specialty Coffee Importers in Portland, Oregon, have created a new business model called Relationship Coffee that brings these issues to the table in face-to-face meetings and onsite partnership building. And each year there is an opportunity for participants in the Relationship Coffee model to gather. Itís an event called Letís Talk Coffee.

Building a new model of communication, success and partnership is the aim of Letís Talk Coffee, which brings together producers and roasters at the invitation of Sustainable Harvest. Their most recent event was held in the Pacific seaside resort town of Puntarenas, Costa Rica from October 5-8 and featured participants from 20 countries. The four-day event provides an opportunity for roasters and growers to meet and discuss harvests, coffee purchases, social initiatives and business development.

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The atmosphere in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.
A walk through Costa Rican coffee farm Finca Los Bobos, a member of the AFAORCA coffee cooperative in Tarrazu, Costa Rica.

Letís Talk Coffee is a private event for Sustainable Harvestís worldwide partners, including growers of Certified Organic coffee, Fair Trade cooperative members, and buyers representing roasters from the US and Canada. Beyond the one-on-one meetings between producers and roasters, Octoberís meeting featured presentations on the quality certification of the Q Grading System, analyzing the impact of water scarcity and climate change, marketing sustainability initiatives, the dynamics of the African specialty coffee supply and creating biofuels in coffee farming communities. With so many talks, seminars and cuppings, there was barely a moment to breathe, let alone get in a game of pool volleyball (although several gung-ho roasters managed).

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L-R: Menno Simons, Director, Trabocca, The Netherlands, Fatima Lopez, cupper, Prodecoop, Nicaragua, Libby Evans, Farmer Development Programs Manager, Sustainable Harvest, Larry T. Challain, President, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters, Jimmy Bonilla Saborio, Quality Control Coordinator, Coocafe, Costa Rica. Cupping calibration exercise brings exporter Simons, cupper Lopez, Sustainable Harvest staffer Evans, company founder Challain and a cooperative's quality control manager together to discuss merits and defects of sample cups.
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L-R: Oscar Magro, IT Systems Director, Sustainable Harvest/Mexico, Jorge Vindas Fernandez, cupper, Coopeldos, Costa Rica, Fatima Lopez, cupper, Prodecoop, Nicaragua. Sustainable Harvest staffer Magro discusses the cupping exercises with representatives from Costa Rican and Nicaraguan cooperatives.

The conference began with a cupping training so that roasters and growers could calibrate their palates and find consensus on the coffee samples. It also provided an opportunity for participants to break the ice and share their insight on coffee characteristics. The flights began with named samples with easily identified traits and graduated to more nuanced exercises that included samples of washed, natural and pulp natural coffees. Ranking fragrance, acidity, flavor, body and finish, points were awarded on a scale of 1-10. After taking points away for defects, an overall score was awarded to the sample. (The presence of a fishy odor at several cupping tables was soon traced to the sample cups that were inadequately rinsed. After this mystery was uncovered ó and thoroughly joked about ó the exercise continued with the cuppers sharing their scores with one another.)

After a day of cupping calibration, the general sessions of Letís Talk Coffee started out with keynote speaker Dan Cox, president of coffee laboratory Coffee Analysts. Cox spoke on industry trends and consumer issues. With slides of recently introduced coffee products, brewers and equipment, Cox addressed the group on the opportunities that everyone in the specialty coffee industry has if they are dedicated to quality and innovation. Cox noted that there are currently more than 21,000 coffeehouses in the U.S. and predicted a rise of 125% by the year 2010. His message was to inhabit this growth cycle and make your coffee, your coffee knowledge and your products part of this success story.

Coxís message was underscored by another coffee legend that addressed the Letís Talk Coffee participants. Noted specialty roaster George Howell shared his lifetime of experience in his in-depth study of coffee quality and its effect on pushing prices upward. Owner of the Terroir Coffee Company and co-founder of the Cup of Excellence, Howell is directly behind the push to make coffee quality a price-driver, creating a luxury coffee market whose prices benefit growers in direct proportion to the higher prices paid by roasters for these ultra-premium green coffees.

Howellís presentation had the highest attendance of the weekend, and with all the digital camera flashes, it looked more like a red carpet at a film premiere than a coffee conference. But Howellís proposal offers benefits at every level of the supply chain ó and to growers who have invested in Organic and Fair Trade certification, his message of higher prices is very encouraging.

After Coxís colorful report on opportunities in the coffee industry and Howellís inspiring message on quality, the conference tone shifted to the concerning issues of climate change and sustainability initiatives. A sobering study on water scarcity conducted in Kigoma, Tanzania was presented by hydrogeologist James Griswold and hydrologist Jim Limbrunner. They analyzed the water supply in this coffee growing region that borders the Gombe National Forest (home to the chimpanzee population that has been studied by Jane Goodall for over 30 years.)

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Pharles Hinyula, cupper, Kanyovu, Tanzania (left) is joined by members of the Tanzanian delegation that attended Let's Talk Coffee to discuss agronomy and water scarcity issues that effect their region near the Gombe Forest Reserve in Tanzania.

The deforestation of Kigoma lies in stark contrast to the lush landscape of the adjacent forest reserve, and Sustainable Harvest has put together a team that includes a Tanzanian agronomist, a program developer in the U.S. and an onsite relationship coffee manager to improve coffee quality, improve export capacity and explore the marketing opportunities that this famed region could provide in an international market.

For all the intriguing and pertinent information that is shared at the sessions of Letís Talk Coffee, no presentation is as valuable as the time spent in one-on-one meetings between roasters and producers. These meetings, although brief, are the cornerstone of the Relationship Coffee model and provide a setting where in-depth questions can be answered and problems can be tackled together.

The producer meeting that took place between AFAORCA (Asociacion de Familias Organicas de los Cerros Caraigres), a small organic cooperative from the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica and U.S. roasters Batdorf & Bronson of Olympia, WA and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham, NC was typical of the meetings that were taking place throughout the room. A group of seven cooperative members included the co-opís General Manager Christian Mora, Production Director Minor Corrales and Sales Manager Pablo Granados. They met with Kim Bullock, Producer Relations Manager from Counter Culture Coffee, Scott Merle, Green Coffee Buyer and Larry Challain, President of Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters. These two noted specialty coffee companies buy the entire export supply of Certified Organic coffee from this cooperative.

At the heart of this discussion between farmers and roasters was the cooperativeís ambitious plans to improve their coffee quality, preserve their forest lands and create innovative opportunities for their community. They have brought a price increase to the table and are taking great care to explain to Bullock and Merle what it represents. The increase in price per pound for their green coffee will help them complete work on an organic fertilizer project that is already helping the farmers improve quality and yield.

This program is far from the only development plan that the coop organizers have in the works. In a somewhat radical move for a Fair-Trade-certified cooperative, AFAORCA has built an organic coffeehouse and roastery to bring the experience of specialty coffee to their region and provide a full understanding of the specialty coffee industry to the young people of the region.

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Organic Coffeehouse (Cafeteria Organica) is a project of the Costan Rican organic coffee cooperative AFAORCA. Their roastery is located in the lower portion of this building.
Interior of Cafeteria Organica near Tarbaca, Costa Rica.

The beautiful Cafeteria Organica sits on the roadside near Tarbaca, Costa Rica and offers a variety of espresso drinks and snacks. The young barista behind their Astoria espresso machine pulls shots of espresso from beans that were grown on the neighboring hillsides and roasted in the warehouse below his feet.

As nearly all of the quality coffee grown in Costa Rica is exported abroad and certified organic coffee comprises only 2% of the total exports, AFAORCA is taking on the pioneering work of developing a market for their coffee within their own region. In Costa Rica (as well as many other coffee-producing countries) it is not common for people to stop in a cafť for a latte or brew coffee at home. But with their persistent work and wide-ranging improvements, the members of AFAORCA are leading a visible advancement of coffee culture.

The hour- long conversation between roasters and farmers brought increased trust and transparency between the groups, and has given the roasters exciting new stories to bring home to their employees and customers. The supply chain is strengthened due entirely to the aims of the Relationship Coffee model that Sustainable Harvest is implementing worldwide. These conversations provide the groundwork for even more improvements and economic opportunities in the future.

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Green Buyer/Roastmaster Scott Merle, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters at the Let's Talk Coffee cupping table.
Green buyer Scott Merle listens to Sustainable Harvest's Director of Trade Operations Jorge Cuevas discuss transparancy issues with Fatima Lopez of Nicaraguan cooperative organization Prodecoop.
Let's Talk Coffee featured speakers George Howell, founder, George Howell Coffee Company and Dan Cox, President, Coffee Analysts are joined by LTC participant Larry T. Challain, President, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters.

Similar meetings took place at ten tables across the conference room, where roasters and producers forged links and built on their successes. This is where the benefits of Letís Talk Coffee are most on display: it is the centerpiece of a weekend that positively impacts the lives of everyone in attendance. It brings everyone closer to their ultimate goals of quality coffee, a healthy environment, financial success and a sustainable future.

When roasters and farmers gather in Colombia this October for the next scheduled Letís Talk Coffee, there will no doubt be new issues to wrestle with and more concerns to address. But as each of these annual gatherings has proven, working together and sharing information gives everyone along the coffee supply chain an opportunity to bring their expertise to the table and create innovative solutions. Everyone benefits from these conversations, especially the consumer that tastes the true fruits of these labors.

Lois Maffeo works with Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters in Olympia, WA. She writes on coffee and sustainability issues for Fresh Cup and other industry publications.

Article rating: 7.3
Author: Lois Maffeo
Posted: February 20, 2008
feedback: (1) comments | read | write
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