Why I'm Willing to Risk My Life to Make Sure You're Drinking Good Coffee
I was recently a judge for the Cup of Excellence competition in Rwanda when the country was falling into a civil war. A military coup was happening and there were tanks on the street. We heard an automatic rifle and one of the president's cousins was...
All photos courtesy of Jeff Chean
I've been to regions of Colombia that most people are afraid to go to because they've been the centre of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia activity—just to verify whether the coffee that I'm purchasing is organic or not.
This will age me, but when I first started Groundwork in 1991, we were buying plain-wrapped coffee and just percolating it. I wasn't happy with it at all, so I ordered the more expensive stuff at the time, which was known as "peabody coffee." When I opened the package, it wasn't even peabody—it was something inferior. The company I purchased it from apologised and sent another batch, and it still wasn't the right coffee. They were substituting less-expensive coffee with the good stuff without telling people, and I didn't like that.
That was the moment when I realised that the only way to truly find out if the coffee that I was buying was the stuff that the label promised was to travel to the farm and see the coffee with my own eyes. 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 threw 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 tasting charcoal-y is still a challenge.)
A lot of smaller coffee roasters talk really big, 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 we got big 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. However, 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 work with some 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 help these kinds of guys get certified, since a lot of the time, we're buying half or more of their entire crop.
For whatever reason, the countries that grow the best 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 into 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 exaggerated the experience of the coffee buyer more than just a little bit.
I've never written out a contract on a napkin, nor have I traveled with thousands of dollars in my backpack. That said, my wife wasn't exactly happy with me going on these little trips. She didn't speak to me for a month after I got back from my coffee-buying trip to the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda once I told her I tumbled down a hill ... only to slam into a beta male Silverback gorilla to break my fall. My guide told me that I should have been dead, but luckily I didn't make any eye contact with the ape and somehow nothing happened.
Recently, a coffee buyer friend of mine got kidnapped in Guatemala, was held up at gunpoint, and was beaten senseless as he was driving a truck full of green coffee up to the port. You have to remember, green coffee is as good as cash in some parts of the world.
I was recently a judge for the Cup of Excellence competition happening in Rwanda when the country was falling into a civil war. When I was there, a military coup was happening and there were tanks on the street. The people of Rwanda were not happy and somebody started killing the president's relatives and close supporters while I was there, close by where I was working. One day, out in front of our hotel, there were several bursts of an automatic weapon and everyone hit the floor. Turned out one of the president's cousins—an army colonel—was driving on a scooter and was killed in front of our building. When I called the American embassy, I got a voicemail, too, so they weren't of much help.
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 was a stronghold of the FARQ. It was difficult finding any Colombians who wanted to travel into that area with me, 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. Driving through the area, we had to pass through lots of military checkpoints. Apparently, someone who knew somebody who knew somebody else 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. The government dropped in some military units to "secure" the area and to make sure that nothing bad happened to us, like getting robbed, killed, or kidnapped.
The next day, FARQ and the Colombian Government signed a final peace agreement.
Why do I keep on 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 usually, farmers never get to meet their buyers. I just need to find the next great coffee of the world before it gets sent to the mill and becomes homogenised in a blend.
Lastly, I just want to find great coffee.
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 existed.