Glamour is a big ingredient in specialty coffee today. You’ve probably seen the names of producers on a bag or Insta posts of farm visits in the misty uplands of faraway places. You’ve heard buzzwords like ‘direct trade’ and ‘relationship coffee’.
When we launched Coffeebar’s Vertical Sourcing program, it wasn’t with the goal of “discovering” amazing producers and introducing their coffee to discerning customers. While stories like that keep the artisan coffee world bubbling, we had something a bit different in mind...something that might well be called “Slow Sourcing”.
If you’ve been following this series (Connecting the Dots from Farmer to Guest, You are A Part of This), you’ve been introduced to a small coffee-producing community in Western Guatemala called La Suiza. It’s far off the beaten path, requiring a day’s travel from Guatemala City to reach, but since the inception of Vertical Sourcing, La Suiza has been fundamental to what we do. And probably not in the way you’d expect.
The back story
First, a little history. In the 1850s, European farmers began growing coffee in the region, establishing some of the area’s coffee estates, or fincas. La Suiza was named for the Swiss immigrants who founded it during the early 20th century.
With its rich volcanic soils and temperate climate, Guatemala is the ideal place to grow coffee, and farms are found at elevations from 2,000 to 7,000 feet. For decades it was the biggest coffee producer in Central America. But throughout its history, the country was plagued by periods of political upheaval. Most recently, Guatemala endured a devastating 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. During the conflict La Suiza was abandoned, and the land was eventually reclaimed by the government.
The Guatemalan government, hoping to restore the agricultural sector and spur economic growth, sold off reclaimed lands, offering long-term, low-interest loans. A group of 112 families from all over Guatemala, many of them from displaced indigenous communities, pooled their resources and bought La Suiza.
My introduction to La Suiza coffee was in 2016, as a member of the team at De la Gente, a non-profit coffee exporter working in Guatemala. My first visit to the community was the following year.
The families who’d gotten together to purchase the finca in the late 90s had drawn straws for their land allotments, and each was responsible for growing and processing their own beans. At the beginning, most of those beans were sold locally, at rock-bottom street prices. One would have been generous to label it “specialty” coffee; it cupped below 80 points, the threshold for that classification.
Yet being there--staying in the family homes, meeting with the export group, traipsing up the mountain with the farmers--revealed the exciting potential of this community. DLG was already investing in quality improvements, including processing equipment and education, and their field trainer Timoteo Minas and I had both seen the initial, very promising results of that.
The most important factor, though, was the extraordinary buy-in from community members. We’d call a meeting for the export group, expecting half a dozen members to show, and instead be met by fifty people, including entire families who gathered outside to hear our presentation. I soon learned that this was part of a culture of respect and inclusion that was inherent to this unique community.
My transactional, learned-in-the-street, coffee-centric Spanish had served me well enough with producers in Central Guatemala, but in La Suiza, I had to learn to more eloquently express my gratitude and respect during the course of those hours-long community meetings. In La Suiza it’s wise to say you’ll be leaving an hour before your intended departure time, to allow everyone the chance to express their agradecimiento (appreciation and indebtedness).
No more the intimate, casual “tu” that had worked just fine with farmers closer to Antigua. In remote La Suiza, I reverted to the formal “usted”. I was Don David, and addressed everyone with appropriate honorifics. I learned to make time for the rituals of hellos and goodbyes. I hadn’t expected such formality in a remote community of coffee farmers. But it was their way of seeing, acknowledging and valuing each other.
The Catch-22 of specialty coffee
When I moved back stateside to begin the roasting program for Coffeebar, that time spent in La Suiza stuck with me. It had revealed an important flaw in my thinking about purchasing coffee at origin: if the goal of a sourcing trip was only to find the best coffee, then the La Suizas of the world would be forever cut out of the model.
It’s a Catch-22. In order to produce the best coffee and thus secure a market, you need the education and up-front capital to do so. But how to gain access to that education and up-front capital without being able to sell your coffee at above-market prices?
During early discussions with Greg about starting a Coffeebar roasting program, I’d told him how excited I was about the potential of working for a company that moved a lot of dark roasts. (That probably came as a shock to him, because our most memorable interaction prior to that had taken place one drunken night at a coffee conference, when we’d ended up in a knock-down, drag-out fight about the merits of dark roast vs. light roast—with me firmly on the side of light roasts.)
No, I hadn’t come over to the Dark Side. Light roasts reveal more of the unique qualities of a coffee, especially its fruit characteristics and terroir. But the darker you go, the more that roast characteristics and caramelization influence the flavor profile. I saw the opportunity to commit to purchasing up-and-coming La Suiza coffee, even if it wasn’t yet at a level to be a highlight single-origin.
It was a long-term vision—a “slow” vision. We could have secured a well-established, higher-grade coffee, and at a lower price, without difficulty. We could have plugged right into the existing supply chain, and voila, we’d have a great roasting program.
And yes, we’d create value through our buying power. Small farmers would certainly benefit from that, and a lot of importers are doing great work on that level. But generally speaking, more opportunities go to the more accessible producers. That’s true both culturally and geographically: opportunity favors producers who speak English, or who don’t require a day (including a final, spine-rattling hour in a 4x4) to reach
These easily accessible farms were already on their way to prosperity. We would have an impact in such communities, but we wouldn’t be maximizing our impact.
And that brings us back to our Catch-22. La Suiza was ready and willing to fulfill their coffee-growing potential, but only if someone gave them the ability to do so, by paying it forward. Was Coffeebar willing to shoulder that risk?
Greg was all in. We contracted 30 bags (4500 pounds of coffee!) from La Suiza that first season. In one fell swoop it quadrupled their export volume compared to the previous year. And we paid a premium--which was our investment in the future.
In an ironic twist, the coffee from La Suiza didn’t end up in our dark roast Giuseppe blend, as I had originally planned. Instead, it’s been amazing as the principal component of our Zephyr espresso. That turned out to be fortuitous, because we roast more than three times the amount of Zephyr as Giuseppe!
So we increased our La Suiza contract to 50 bags the following year, then 75, and with this most recent harvest, 104.
Value: a two-way street
Coffeebar’s Vertical Sourcing program saw huge growth in 2019, with us getting boots on the ground in four countries across three continents. 2020 was set to be even bigger, with the first trip scheduled for mid-March.
We all know how that turned out.
Temporarily losing the ability to travel was probably a blessing in disguise. It gave us time to step back and really question what we gained by making trips to origin. And not just what we gained--but also what kind of value we could provide in return.
Like the rest of the world, the coffee trade has been forced into virtual connectivity. It’s now possible to connect remotely to all corners of the globe. And if coffee samples can be sent from anywhere to everywhere, and the conversations about them can happen remotely, is there a reason for origin trips at all--other than those awesome photo ops?
In January of this year, I made my first trip to Guatemala since the hectic autumn of 2019. And at the forefront of my mind was that question about value. For Vertical Sourcing to really mean anything, value has to be a two-way street.
Through November and December 2020 I’d received nervous calls from members of La Suiza (I hate to think what they were paying in international fees) looking to confirm that we would still be buying from them.
Fortunately, the community hadn’t been touched directly by the pandemic, but they knew it was causing global supply disruptions. I’d already committed to our contract via De la Gente, promising a purchase at least as large as last year’s. But in La Suiza, computers, smart phones, Zoom, and email are non-existent. The community’s culture is built on face-to-face communication and respect. It was difficult to truly reassure them from a distance.
After another nudge—the birthday party invitation from producer-turned-friend Manuel—I knew I had to make the trip.
The work we do on-site at La Suiza goes far beyond tasting coffee and confirming contracts. Because a cornerstone of our Vertical Sourcing is committing to contracts pre-harvest, any coffee I taste while I’m there has no effect on our purchasing (unless I find something so good that I have to increase our order). Instead, everything is done with the next year in mind.
La Suiza is growing alongside Coffeebar, exporting more each year. But for them to be truly successful, our goal is for their coffee to reach a quality level that makes them competitive in the much larger specialty market. That’s the long-term mindset of Vertical Sourcing.
And it’s where we invert the Catch-22. We’ve committed to purchasing from La Suiza for four years, when they haven’t produced enough coffee at a quality level high enough to make them an attractive option for larger importers of specialty coffee. But by guaranteeing them steadily increasing contracts each year, and with the additional revenue generated through those purchases allowing them to re-invest in their product, their quality has steadily improved.
There’s no “I” in coffee
The artisan coffee world loves discovering single-origin rock stars. And as our work with La Suiza progressed, I observed that some farmers’ coffee began to stand out. I thought it would be great to offer one such member the opportunity to showcase his coffee in a single-origin, limited release.
Leonardo’s response probably shouldn’t have surprised me. At the beginning, when La Suiza was divided into parcels, the members all drew straws. Some just happened to receive land with soil or exposure more conducive to better coffee. Some got land on gentler slopes, while others ended up farming the steep sides of the volcano—all literally the luck of the draw. So this particular farmer, who was producing great coffee on his land (and investing to do so), didn’t think it would be appropriate to be singled out for credit. It took awhile to convince him that the opportunity would be offered to others--he was simply the first. (And if all goes well, you’ll be able to taste the results of “Buena Vista”, our first La Suiza micro-lot, in just a few months.)
Our interaction helped me land upon a slightly different approach: to showcase a blend of the community’s higher-cupping coffees. These are the things you learn when you show up. What seems obvious to us is based on our own cultural experiences, and isn’t universal. Vertical Sourcing has had an impact on this community—but the community has also had an impact on us.
Currently, Coffeebar and our guests are the primary beneficiaries of the quality improvements in La Suiza coffee, but the tipping point will come when the community reaches a threshold of quality and begins to sign contracts with customers beyond Coffeebar, increasing their volume export exponentially. That’s impact.
There’s an idea that traveling to origin is partly about “securing” supply. But it would be a beautifully bittersweet moment if one year La Suiza had the opportunity to sell all their coffee to a different roaster, at a higher price, potentially leaving us high and dry. After all, building a market doesn’t mean you automatically get to keep it.
If I know Greg’s competitive spirit, though, we’d just have to win that bidding war.
How can you participate?
- Order any espresso drink! The Zephyr blend is chock-full of La Suiza coffee.
- Buy the Zephyr blend to enjoy at home.
- Get others involved! Share this blog and bring them to your favorite Coffeebar!
- Try our first La Suiza micro lot, 'Buena Vista,' scheduled to launch in May!
- Join July’s Virtual Coffee Tasting with importer De La Gente, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
- Keep an eye out for a special opportunity to help purchase two new depulpers that will help the community at La Suiza get one step closer to their goals. We’ll tell the full story the week of 3/22.