Año Nuevo

Barquito, Director of Coffee, signing on. I am in Nicaragua with Nicole Buchwald, Jefa de Think Coffee Silver and Think LGBT. This is her first trip to meet our farmers. For me, I have lost count. My passport is running out of pages.

We are here now to work with our two farmers: Jaime Lovo, with whom we have been working on social and environmental projects since May of 2012, and Jorge Lagos, with whom we have been working since 2013. Jaime’s Santa Isabel currently makes up 30% of our blend. Jorge’s Santa Teresa is a highlight of the Single Source menu. It is a new year and we are moving forward with the same relationships, ever stronger, but striving to be even better for the farming communities.

We arrived on New Year's Eve, to try having some low-key family time with our Nicaraguans. Jorge Lagos graciously picked us up from the airport and took us to eat. He then took us the 3 hours to a hotel in his town, Somoto, about 40 minutes away from his farm. We fell asleep but woke up at midnight to see the extravagant display of fireworks all across every street in town. Scarecrows stuffed with fireworks. Kids lighting fireworks. It would be scary if it weren’t so charming. Excitement and cheer in cardboard with a wick. 4th of July x 100.

We spent Friday afternoon with Jorge, who gave Nicole a brief overview on coffee varietals and processing. He showed us his new water-efficient coffee cherry depulper. Then he showed us his newly purchased neighboring farm, Villa Guadalupe, which admittedly needs some TLC but has huge potential. Meanwhile his farm manager Cancho was packing up sacks of dried coffee for us to take to the mill. We arrived at the mill too late for Jorge's coffee to be formally received, but the guard let us in to leave the 11 bags marked "Jorge Lagos" at the receiving station. We spent some time looking at a small batch of Jorge's honey processed coffee drying on the patios, then went off for dinner.

Last night, after a quick swim in the chilly Somoto Canyon, we came to Ocotal, where we had dinner with Jaime Lovo, his son Jaime Jose (whom I last saw just over two years ago as he was graduating from agricultural university Zamorano) and his wife Aldenir. The Lovos were charming and excited to show Nicole Ocotal. They drove us from one side of Ocotal to other to show off how long it is.

After dinner, Jaime was also excited to show Nicole his home (it is a beautiful hacienda). We sat and talked, Jaime showed us the faded and browning bags of retail coffee we brought him cerca 2012 (one in english, one in spanish) and said “you need to use more colors!” I agreed and told him this was something we’re working on.

Today we expected to spend the whole day with Jorge on the farm working. But, it’s a busy time of year, both for coffee and family, so Jorge didn’t get going until afternoon. We drove around with him collecting workers from a distant town on a distant peak, up and down red dirt roads for a little over an hour, people with machetes periodically hopping into the back of the truck.

(Every two weeks, either Jorge or a representative of his drives out here, to one of the region’s poorest towns, to collect workers who then stay on the farm for 13 days, when they are paid and driven home. The process repeats. He has been hiring people from this village for years, and his father before him. Coffee pickers are paid for how much coffee they pick. The government mandates a minimum of 27 cordoba/lata-lata is a uniformly sized can - Jorge pays 40.)

After we dropped the workers off at their quarters on the farm, we went up to the main house on Santa Teresa where Jorge’s mother, siblings, and nieces had been cooking and celebrating the new year. They cooked for us, we tried to impress them with our Spanish, we showed pictures of Think in New York. It was a true family affair and an honor to be invited and to share this celebration with them.

Tomorrow and Tuesday, we’ll spend a lot of time on Santa Isabel with Jaime and Jaime Jose Lovo, sorting out the future of Proyecto Santa Isabel, its little classroom and all. Wednesday, back to Santa Teresa to choose coffees for this year and formulate a project with Jorge, Thursday we’ll pick up District Manager Shaun Morrissey from Managua, then more time with both farmers and some investigative work in cacao.

Closing thought: while these relationships take time - years of sitting and waiting, of long drives then long hours talking, dinners, farms, leisure time - they are honest and natural and real. Real relationships mean spending real time and having real conversations, even if they are uncomfortable and your politics don’t always entirely align. Real relationships mean prices are flexible but fair, projects are constantly evolving. This makes our work sometimes much more personal and complicated, but also that much more interesting. So here’s to the continuation and the improvement of all that is real and honest and transparent. Here’s to the future for the Lovos the Lagos and everyone they support. 

Feliz año nuevo, damas y caballeros.

Noah

PURO ROJO

I write from Tapachula, the bustling border city about an hour down the Tacaná volcano from BellaVista de Cacahoatan, where our 9 partners live and work. It's about 90 degrees here but they are making an ice-skating rink and some "snow"-covered slides for sledding in Tapachula's central park. I can only imagine the energy consumption...

Note that the coffee from Bella Vista currently makes up 10% of our hot blend and 30% of our iced blend. Also note that this is Coffea Canephora aka Robusta, the less sweet, but disease/pest/climate-change resilient, sister species to Coffea Arabica. We've been working with these farmers for about 3 years exactly.

It was a REALLY GOOD thing that I showed up this week. They just started the harvest a few weeks ago. Last year, we promised the then 13 families that we would pay them a higher price for fully ripe fruit, no green cherry, dried on newly paved patios (smooth drying patios eliminate the chance of rocks in the coffee and prevent broken seeds and uneven drying) 

Of last year's 13 socios, 4 detested the idea of spending money to build patios and working harder to pick out unripe fruit. So our shipment from last year was of mixed quality from these 4. None of the 13 socios built a new patio. Because these 4 families didn't want to work under these guidelines (these were mostly the wealthier and younger families, disinterested in working hard because they're already making money elsewhere), in August we went down to 9 obedient families. 

However, obedience and clarity can be different things... Somewhere lost in these conversations was a clarification of what I meant by fully ripe.

When I arrived on Sunday morning, the 9 socios showed me their new! drying patios. They are smooth and clean and awesome. For this coming harvest, we have sent them each about the cost of these patios.

They all showed me the coffee they'd started harvesting, and showed me how they were separating the green cherries. 

I noticed something. They were only picking out the green cherry. They were leaving everything yellow, orangeish, pink, striped. I told them that's not ripe fruit. They said "sure, it's good coffee!! It's ripe! See, it's not green..."

mixed ripeness.

mixed ripeness.

I sat on a patio with a few of the workers sorting fruit the way we want everyone to sort it. Galileo, son of one of our socios, used to work in Paterson, NJ harvesting blueberries, so he really understands the requirements for ripeness. We spent some time picking out EVERYTHING that was not red to create a through sample of we want to show all 9 socios. 

Noah sorts.

Noah sorts.

Epifanio & Galileo sort

Epifanio & Galileo sort

We then held a meeting, all 9 families together, and I showed them the uniformly red and purple coffee fruit that Galileo and I had prepared. I had them taste the difference in the fruit itself. The difference is tremendous. Red is sweet and sticky, everything else is dry and crunchy and bitter - think about tomatoes of varying ripeness. This coffee dries in its skin for 10 days, then sits in this form in sacks in their houses for up to three months before going to the dry mill, so what we drink really takes on the flavor of its cherry's skin. 

Showing the varying stages of RIPENESS

Showing the varying stages of RIPENESS

We argued a little bit. They said it would be difficult. I showed them that Gali & I just did it in a few hours. They told me that some varietals ripen at a lighter color. I showed them samples from the tree they were talking about, and how the ripest fruit is still an even-toned pink. They submitted, something clicked, and each socio began rolling the gears to eliminate everything but red and purple cherry. They talked to their workers. 

Left, our coffee. Right, someone else's coffee.

Left, our coffee. Right, someone else's coffee.

For the next two days, I walked around the various mountainous plots of land, talked with the pickers (each farmer employs 2-4 people, either from the neighborhood or from neighboring Guatemala, where they pay is low to harvest and sort for them) and we told them to avoid picking fruit unless it was red or dark purple. I spent some time at each farmer's house sorting out the un- and under- ripe fruit.  

final product: puro rojo

final product: puro rojo

I gave spur of the moment English lessons to some kids. We ate a lot of chicken-cabbage-watercress-squash soup. I asked to help make tortillas and cleaned up after dinner. It's bizarre how much the women in this community cook and clean without help from their husbands or sons. Only one of our socios is a woman; the rest are men.  Hoping to address this somehow in the future. Machismo is a real thing. 

Epifanio's wife had 25 lbs of their coffee roasted and ground at the market for about 8 dollars. I showed them how to make unsweetened, strong coffee, but that's never really going to stick. Everyone still likes their coffee watery and brimming with sugar. 

It's been raining often, which is a bizarre climatic change for summer in Chiapas - it's supposed to be the dry season. This means that a lot of ripe coffee will fall to the ground, and because they are prohibited by organic standards to sell this coffee, it's going to be lost. The socios ensure me that they are going to have enough coffee for us. If not, we will deal with this come late February.

#1 soup

#1 soup

I interviewed all 9 socios (and a few kids who wanted time in the spotlight) yesterday on video. It was a little on-the-fly, and as I worried, they mostly just wanted to thank you all for your support and encourage that you continue drinking their coffee. It's still a good start to see them in their world, feel a little more connected, and hear their voices. These videos will all be subtitled and ready for you to watch in a few weeks. 

To close: we have a really great group of farmers who actually understand what it means to harvest ripe coffee. It is my goal to make this coffee so good that nobody can scoff at the word "robusta" ever again. I want it on the Single Source menu and I want specialty coffee snobs to shut up about Robusta's inferiority. Please stop trying to compare a green olive to a green grape. By doing so you are making real people suffer.

These families are working HARD and soon we will be able to taste the fruits of their labor. Once quality is secured, we can start working on wilder projects here. And I want these farmers to be so proud of their quality, to teach their kids the same, and to start being able to sell this coffee at a high price to other companies. Robusta is the way of the future; we're going there with these 9 socios...

More photos available here.

As always, if you have questions about this or any of our other coffees, please let me know.

Noah Welch, Director of Coffee & International Projects | noah@thinkcoffee.com

A Sense of Pride

Once again, we’ve made the trip from New York to Hong Kong to Singapore to Medan to Takengon to Gegarang to spend time with our G28 farming friends and the mill that processes their coffee.

This trip, we brought our special friends from Think Korea, Shin and Fun.  It was important to us that our Korean counterparts understood the complexities and challenges involved with having real personal relationships with our farmers.  They experienced first-hand the interminable meetings and repetitive dialogue necessary to maintain real and personal relationships and the highest coffee quality.  They experienced the six flights and grueling 30 hours of mountain road travel required to get one to Gegarang.  They experienced the obsessive tenacity of the Think Coffee purchasing team in getting the relationship right and practicing truly fair commerce.

Our G28 project consists of 28 families in Gegarang.  We are teaching them how to increase quality and develop their own relationship with the mill, PUSKUD, so they can sell their own coffee on the international market and market it as GEGARANG coffee rather than the more general GAYO or SUMATRA.  The farmers are developing a sense of pride in their own coffee. Slowly.

To change from being people who just pick coffee to being people who produce a high-quality export product, the G28 need several important things to change:

-They must pick and deliver to the mill only red, ripe fruit.  They are struggling with this and it is costing them money, but once again we explained the importance of red fruit to quality and profit.  We hope it starts to sink in.  Supratno, the leader of G28, constantly reminds member families of the importance of proper picking, but a generation of poor practices does not change quickly.

-They must constantly refer to their agreement with us and take responsibility for their part.  Again, struggling, but this is a pilot project, designed to act as an educational tool.  Each time we visit, we remind the G28 of this.  They sometimes forget this is not a one-time coffee purchase.  It is a project that can be replicated so all of Gegarang can provide high-quality, high-priced coffee to market.  It was their idea.

-They must follow the recommendations of an agronomist to ensure production and sustainability.  They have hired their own agronomist and are awaiting soil sample laboratory results.

-The mill must greatly increase the quality capacity of their operation.  We have studied their procedures several times and are creating a mill improvement manual with them.  Hendro and Apra, the managers of PUSKUD mill are also new to quality practices. We will be patient with them just as we have been patient with ourselves as we learn how to form long-term relationships with farmers around the world and interact with the complex coffee supply chain that brings Think Coffee to your cup.

Our 28 farmers did not produce as much coffee as we had hoped from this harvest.  This is primarily due to poor picking practices.  This means they are in danger of actually making less money with Think Coffee than they did before we ever formed the relationship.  It can be painful, but we all must learn from our business successes and mistakes.

We will return in April of this year to see how the improvements are going.  If improvement is made, we can bring other international buyers with us who can greatly increase the volume of the Gegarang product.

We would be remiss not to mention that the coffee coming to our New York and Seoul stores is amazing. It’s fruity and earthy, creamy and smooth.  By continuing to educate the farmers they can benefit more and more from their coffee.

We look forward to incorporating this coffee into Think Blend.  We will also offer it as a limited edition Single Source coffee so everyone can share in the unique flavors of Gegarang.