“This matters,” I remember thinking, scrambling for a pen and my journal. “Catch the moment John, give it the significance it deserves. Our team is a part of this and they need to know.”
I have always believed that our business in life is to add meaning to each moment. If the course of life can be plotted horizontally, the quality of life is the vertical axis measuring depth of experience, richness and color, fullness and meaning. Take gratitude for instance: being aware of the weightiness of a gesture or a moment in time, something easily overlooked if you aren’t present to it. Being grateful is extracting more juice from the same lemon, enough to make lemonade. In organizations, this core belief has motivated me to seek roles that are pregnant with meaningful work, ripe for impact, laden with opportunity to make more of what can easily be missed.
In many ways, our vertical sourcing philosophy is the reason I’m here at Coffeebar; I believe in the legitimacy of the program, the heart behind it, the expression of a collective desire to make a difference, and for the work to count.
In all my years on both sides of coffee, living at “origin” for eight years and slinging joe over the counter for fourteen, I’ve not seen a more direct and tangible link between the hand-off of beverage from barista to guest and the cultivation of coffee communities abroad.
Every beverage you drink, every bag of our beans you buy, every roast we put through the San Franciscan, and every jute bag of green coffee we contract matters. It’s so palpable to me that, in my mind’s eye, I can see farmer Leonardo from La Suiza picking cherries and dropping them directly into your mug. I just want to grab everyone, baristas and guests alike, their face between my palms, and say, “you are a part of this.”
Vertical sourcing’s not something cool your favorite coffee shop does, it’s something you do. You are contributing, you are participating. You are the cast, not the audience. “Come as you are” is all that’s needed to earn the part. At the end of the show, we’ll all take hands and bow to the world around us, Leonardo, Coffeebar, and you. I hope you remember this, more importantly— feel this— next time you walk in our door.
Back to November 17, 2019. Abandoning a fruitless search for pen and paper, I grabbed my laptop before the moment passed untold. In this case, I was a momentary prop on the stage, a witness to a story unfolding around me at a feverish, impassioned pace. Frantic clicking, email open, hand gestures encouraging the loading wheel’s performance…
To: “All Staff”
“Hey guys, something special is shaping up over here. Sending it to you now, with a few pics, nothing fancy, it’s gritty and real.” Open Word, here goes. I need the team to know why their work is so important…
Hey CB Family,
I’m sitting on the cool tile floor of our rustic hotel room, sweat running down my arms and back in this low-elevation Guatemalan humidity. Something special is happening around me and I saw an opportunity to wrap you into it from a distance. As I write these words, David, Kc, and Lorna are spitting roast temps at each other, calculating the ideal bell curve for the sample roasts we plan to do tomorrow in the rural community of La Suiza. It’s been going on for about an hour and I don’t think they’ve realized the daylight has waned. The darkness is split only by the flickering of exposed ceiling bulbs that seem to flash out in cadence with their mathematical chatter.
Team, some quick facts about La Suiza & Coffeebar’s partnership: The community is made up of 112 families who resettled in the interior of the country after the civil war with the specific purpose of growing coffee. They bought a large plot of land (an old coffee plantation) and divided it equally among the families. Coffee is the only real income generator this far away from the capital or industrialized areas. We became connected to this community through our relationship with a non-profit coffee importer/exporter called ‘De La Gente’ (Of the People), whom David worked for in Guatemala prior to coming to Coffeebar. Through this partnership we’ve helped La Suiza evolve from their first harvest of 10 sacks of coffee (150 lb./ea.) to 90 this year [in 2019]. We feature it primarily through our Zephyr and our Feliz, an excellent example of how our roast profile and blend style allows us to champion a young producer who is developing coffee quality. We walk beside them, through a financial commitment and an in-person partnership, to a self-sustaining future. Our work – CB’s partnership with De La Gente and David’s labor of love over the past 4 years— has been to help our farmers understand (1) how the taste of good quality coffee is reflected in a cupper’s score, and (2) how to add financial value to their coffee by learning each of the processing steps that increase its quality. The end result of both is quite simple: the ability to sell coffee at a higher price per pound.
Well, as if it weren’t sweltering hot enough here, Kc has set up a sample roaster loaned by our partners in San Miguel Escobar (De La Gente). They’re now testing their spit-balled, journal-scribbled, Bluetooth-enabled roast profiles, in our hotel room. Yes, we are roasting coffee in a 12x20 yellow cinder block hotel room, raising the temp to an almost unbearable level. It smells AMAZING. We’re about 3 roasts in, 2 to go. Our hope tonight is to burn the midnight oil and get as close as possible to the ideal roast profile for tomorrow, a day that brings a few firsts for everyone.
See, the farmers in La Suiza have never been able to taste their own coffee, the coffee that is grown exclusively in each farmer’s small plot. Up to last year’s harvest, La Suiza lacked the technology and equipment to process their coffee start to finish. Many farmers in Guatemala sell their coffee in the fruit form (unprocessed cherries), garnering a minimal $0.18/pound on the street. Although they meticulously hand pulped the cherries and patio dried the coffee, they lacked the equipment necessary to remove the parchment and sort the beans into appropriate grading scales. They have been relying on (and paying) other partners in the co-op six hours away to do this final step. So, practically speaking, they would combine all the farms’ harvest into one lot and send it to San Miguel. Electric power has also been a challenge for equipment since the town only has a small hydro-electric generator that’s flipped on for a few hours each night. However, through a connection David made on a recent trip to Antigua, a non-profit has offered to fund a solar initiative, hoping to bolster industry in the community, and has bought them the ever-important dry mill (which removes parchment) as a demonstrable investment in their socio-economic goal.
Okay, okay, back to the good stuff. If all goes according to plan tomorrow— the combination of (a) the start of the harvest season in La Suiza, (b) the introduction of the new dry mill (allowing each farmer to process their own coffee), and (c) our small sample roaster and back-of-the-napkin roast profiling— should result in us being able to roast and cup each individual farmer’s coffee with them. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but let’s go back to the two goals in our vertical sourcing and direct partnerships: to help our farmers understand (1) what good quality coffee tastes like reflected in a cupper’s score, and (2) how to add value to their coffee by learning each of the processing steps that add financial value to their coffee.
THE day arrived, and it was sacred. There’s no other word for it. Deep in the Guatemalan mountains, farmers and zip lock bags of proprietary green coffee filed into a community room and surrounded the cupping table. It was beautiful to watch KC and Lorna taking each baggie in exchange for a “gracias” and run it though the tiny sample roaster.
Wide eyes and childlike giggles snuck out of grown men and women - watching, smelling, communing. My heart soared as David taught a very polite culture to loudly slurp the spoonful of coffee, the proper aerating technique we teach our staff. I’m so accustomed to see this happening with our new hires in the Coffee 101 workshop, I just burst into laughter as the room exploded into a cacophony of slurping & coughing through our first sips. I can’t and won’t give words to the moment each farmer tasted the fruit of the labor for the first time – sacred is all I can offer you. If our business in this life is really to add meaning to each moment – it was a transcendent human moment, and you were a part of it with us.