When I first started in coffee in 1994, we were buying plain-wrapped coffee and just percolating it.
I wasn't happy with it at all, so I found a roaster who sold specialty coffees. After a while, the quality started to slip. I then tried to order a coffee type known as peaberry. However, when I first opened the package, that's not what was in there. They were flat beans as opposed to peaberry's rounded beans. The company I purchased it from apologized and sent another batch, and it still wasn't the right coffee. They were substituting less-expensive coffee for the good stuff without telling people in order to keep prices low, and I didn't like that.
That was the moment when I realized that the only way to truly find out if the coffee that I was buying was the stuff that the label promised was to buy green beans and roast it myself and at some point, travel to the farm and see the coffee with my own eyes.
Before I was in coffee, Starbucks was just entering the Los Angeles market and I would come in for my morning cup of joe on the way to school. I'll never forget the day when I thought to myself, Hmm, this coffee doesn't taste anything like its advertised description at all. Shortly after that, I decided that I needed to learn how to roast coffee. I proceeded to throw some green coffee beans into a wok to roast and started my first coffee fire. (When you're a brand-new coffee roaster, the easiest thing to do is a dark roast. Though, making it taste sweet without still tasting charcoal-y is a challenge that takes years to master.)
A lot of smaller coffee roasters talk really big about their direct trade credentials, but they don't have the volume to necessarily have an impact on the coffee farmers that they deal with. It was only in 2009 where our volumes started to get meaningful enough where I actually had the resources to travel and be more involved with our farmers.
I've traveled primarily to Central and South America: Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. When you start to get involved at this level, you start to really form a relationship with the farmer and the coffee. For example, we look to work with farmers that are what I like to call "passively organic." This means that even though they may not use agrotoxins and rely on natural methods to grow their coffee, they are not certified organic. I offer to help these kinds of guys get certified so that we can buy coffee from them. Since many of the farms produce the high-quality levels of coffee we look for are small, a lot of the time, we eventually can end up buying half or more of their entire crop.
For whatever reason, the countries that grow coffee tend to be a little politically and socially unstable. It gets a more dangerous still, because the best coffee grows at high elevations, meaning that one has to travel to some very remote parts of these countries to get to the good stuff. However, with all due respect to Todd Carmichael, the television show Dangerous Grounds slightly exaggerated the experience of the coffee buyer.
I've never written out a contract on a napkin, nor have I traveled with thousands of dollars in my backpack but I've been to remote regions of Colombia that many people are afraid to go to because they've been at the center of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia activity—just to verify whether the coffee that I'm purchasing is organic or not. My last trip to Colombia was just prior to the signing of the peace deal between the government and aforementioned FARQ rebel group. I was in South Tolima, which has been a stronghold of the FARQ.
It was difficult finding any Colombians who wanted to travel into that area with us, but the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) found some of their local people to guide me and several other buyers I was with to farms in the area. We had to pass through lots of military checkpoints. Apparently, someone who knew somebody got word to another person who mentioned to the Colombian government that there was this small group of foreign coffee buyers that were going to be in the area. We were the only foreigners in that area during this uncertain time so the government dropped in some military units to "secure" the area and to make sure that we were safe.
Coincidentally, the next day, FARQ and the Colombian Government signed a final peace agreement.
That said, my wife hasn't been exactly happy with me going on these little trips. She didn't speak to me for a month after I got back from my trips to Burundi and Rwanda. First, because Burundi was extremely unstable politically, having recently experienced a failed military coup. The day I flew there to be a judge for a coffee competition, the brief period of peace was beginning to fall apart. While I was there, things were moving towards what everyone thought would be a civil war. The people of Burundi were not happy with the president finding a loophole in their constitution and staying in office for longer than his term. Supporters and the president's family members were being targeted.
One day, nearby the hotel where we were judging, there were several bursts of an automatic weapon and everyone hit the floor. It turned out one of the president's cousins—an army colonel—was driving on a scooter and was killed. When I called the American embassy, I got a voicemail. They had apparently already left the country, so they weren't of much help.
On the lighter side, while on a gorilla trek in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, I tumbled down a hill…only to slam into a the beta male Silverback gorilla of a family we were observing. My guide told me, when he could stop laughing, that I should have been dead. Luckily I didn't make any eye contact with the gorilla. I took what I thought was a posture of submission and somehow nothing happened. The gorilla just stared at me like I was an idiot. At the time, I agreed with him.
Life isn't easy for the people working in this industry. An agronomist I know was shot and paralyzed below the waist between farm visits in Western Honduras. I know someone who has been kidnapped on one occasion and then held up at gunpoint on another and then pulled from his truck and beaten senseless at yet another time as he was driving a truck full of green coffee up to a port. Yet, he is still in the coffee business. You have to remember, green coffee is as good as cash in coffee-producing countries.
Why do I keep going back and putting myself into these situations?
I go back because of the people. Every cup of coffee has a story, and I want to be able to tell it to other people on the other side of the world. I return so that the farmers understand that there is a real person buying their coffee because many farmers never get to meet their buyers. I go back to find the next great coffee before it gets sent to the regional mill and becomes homogenized as part of a regional blend. While I am careful not to present myself as an agronomist or expert on farming, because I am not, I share relevant stories about what other farmers in other parts of the world are doing to solve problems that are common everywhere.
Lastly, I just think the coffee community is populated by great and passionate people. Who wouldn't like hanging out with folks like that?
As told to Javier Cabral
Jeff Chean is the Chief Coffee Guy for Groundwork, a coffee roaster based in Los Angeles that has been making third-wave coffee since before the term even existed. For more information, check out their website.