QUARTER ONE UPDATE, BY JAKE ELSTER
It’s been quite the harvest season. As you probably know I’m on the road between late October and March, chasing the harvest. This year I spent more time running away from the harvest, actually, coming ahead of the harvest to plan with partners in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mexico. But I’m back now with much to catch you up on, and with even more that I’m looking forward to. If you like lists, read on, this is for you.
But first, however, I want to apologize for not being a better communicator. About a year ago I moved over to focus on the supply-side and have had my head in different time zones ever since.
I’m now working almost exclusively with existing and new possible suppliers, building a bench to solve problems and improve on quality. My baseline is making sure roasters (you) see some improvement in the coffees you’ve been loyal to year-over-year. Improvement in terms of impact, quality and capacity. So, this means my number one responsibility is to help our partners contribute at their very best.
Past that, I am also looking for new suppliers. We must look under every stone, every year, to put coffees in context. The search for new suppliers is healthy, even when you are happy with the ones you have. It increases our access to areas unknown, and helps us to keep tabs on up and coming communities. Year over year we now manage more than thirty supply-chains, connecting us to over fifty communities across 11 countries. In every case we must remain relevant, every year, even if that means sifting through a hundred bad coffees to find a single new supplier.
It’s worth it because this is how we present coffees with confidence as representing the best available of that harvest, and how we earn the trust of roasters whose support we need to grow.
This support deserves a special shout-out because we oftentimes ask for it with the most meager of reciprocity. For example, we may provide a six-word cupping description and ask for a ‘soft commit’ SAS-NANS PSS. Behind the scenes this is because we found a supplier we believe in, but who needs a contract to underwrite the line of credit needed secure the lot, move it to the mill and get more sample – enough sample to share.
All of this just makes the vetting of a coffee all the more important. Coffees only get to our table if we can care about them. They only earn their way off the table if they are get a yes vote from our cupping team. But none of this matters – a coffee can only make its way to export if we find a roaster who believes.
And so the equation is simple – to grow and remain relevant we must (1) find beans we can get behind, and then (2) people who believe. So far this year I’ve been working on the first part of this equation. Hopefully you’ve seen some improvements on our end, with more to come. Next up you will see an effort on our part to be better listeners, to engage you earlier on coffees that might make your menu more tasty and meaningful.
Now that I’ve taken five hundred words to thank you, I will make the rest of my updates as pithy as possible. (But seriously, thank you – we couldn’t do anything if we didn’t partner with the best roasters in the business).
Now, on to the lists!
List #1 – Table of contents
List #2 – Three things to look forward to in Q2 …
List #3 – Newest additions to the Crop to Cup family
List #4 – Top five most improved suppliers
List #5 – Top three new suppliers
List #6 – Five requests we get from suppliers; ‘hey can you help us with’ ….
List #7 – Best values in 2018/2019, aka ‘where the dollar buys the most coffee’
List #8 – Two coffee destinations to bring your significant other
List #9 – Top five top Spanish fails
List #10 – Top ten most played Spotify tracks during my travels
1. SCA Cupping; tasting is believing, but you still won’t believe some of the coffees we are putting on the table this year. Unique lots from Nepal and India, new varietals and processing methods from Mexico, Rift Valley Kenyans and South Sumatrans …just to start you off.
Saturday, April 21st, 4:30 – 5:30 PM, SCA Cupping Exchange, Room 620
2. 2018 – 2019 Travel Calendar; seeing is believing, and you have got to see the trips we’ve put together for the next 12 months. While there are more, I’m particularly excited about:
These are all open to customers until trips fill up, so please contact us if interested.
3. Arrivals Season! Sixty-three percent of our coffees land between May and July, including:
Harvest in these countries started up to six months ago. Our work there started months (if not years) before that. This is to say that we’ve got some real stunners coming in, and reason to be excited.
Many of you have met Erika Vonie who sits with our team in Brooklyn. She brings skills, ideas and an energy to the team that we did not have before. If your paths have yet to cross, let me know and I’ll make an introduction…to her, or anyone on the team. Which has grown to include dedicated representatives in Ethiopia (Moata is now full-time C2C), Sumatra (Septiana, aka Septy is the same), and Mexico (Araceli in Veracruz, Victor Cano in Guerrero and Ramon Ruiz in Oaxaca). Each bring their own unique flavor and capabilities to the team, and will be introduced more separately.
Abdul Wahid gets top of this list for off-season improvements made at Kossa Geshe. Yes, he wins over Martin Gordillo because kindergarten schools are easier to get behind than moisture meters. You can read more about Abdul here, and Martin here.
Nima from Nepal is one of our most active suppliers, fighting the good fight and learning faster than a two-year-old. He just got married last year, but the next day went out to check in on capacity building projects he has going on across the country…and as far away as India.
Kordon is our favorite middle-man ever; he inherited his parent’s warehouse and in his young thirties is maybe one of the youngest tokehs in Sumatra. Last year he helped to organize a women’s group, and this year he started experimenting with natural processing.
Last – but oh not least – is Bukonzo Organics who built their own QC lab in Uganda. This follows on improvements made last year to financing, fermentation, and drying.
Yuki from Aequitas Coffee in Brazil is by far the easiest person we’ve worked with in our twelve years in business. She’s sharp, competent, calibrated, and motivated.
Jackie from Kinini Coffee is on the list as a leader in Rwanda’s IWCA chapter, a cup of excellence competitor, and someone who gives back to her community every year.
Sonny is a supplier I (re)met last November in the best of ways. I had been friends with his father (Jack Bigirwa of Black Gold) who passed away about ten years ago. So I was surprised when I was tracing down a coffee, got a number, called it and his name came up. Then I was pleased to find that his son Sonny has taken over the family business. His operation on Mountain View Coffee Farm is tip-top, and we’re glad to be working with them again.
Every supplier visit includes some form of needs or impact assessment, as well as improvement and harvest plans. The number one ask for assistance was around pre-crop financing. Getting paid earlier is a big deal for farmers everywhere we work.
Next up was the ask for help to invest in quality – mostly in the form of drying beds, but sometimes by assisting with lot planning, cupping training, or programs that recognize quality within groups. All suppliers requested information on the customers who were enjoying their coffee, and communities have some around recognizing women or engaging youth in coffee.
While the dollar goes surprisingly far right now in Mexico, Congo, Nepal and Indonesia – coffee from these countries are still priced up due to a variety of market pressures such as external demand, internal consumption, competing crops, crop failures, cost of production, cost of capital, chronic inflation, mandatory middlemen or other pricey policies. These five aforementioned countries, however, are places where these issues aren’t enough to overcome the benefits of a strong dollar.
But a strong dollar means a weak local currency, which has it’s draw-backs as well. For example, PNG is facing a foreign currency deficit so bad that telecoms and other financial companies have gotten into coffee trading, just to fill their forex account.
Unfortunately, in this and many cases, the dollars are kept at the export level. And an exporters’ willingness to sell at cost or at a loss ultimately drives prices down. This leads to good deals coming out of these countries, and good deals for whoever gets to hold the USDs. A weaker currency can even improve export volumes – but this still isn’t the base case scenario for most smallholders who are paid in the local currency, and who have no real ability to scale volumes up to compensate for lower prices.
But when a farmer from one of these countries can get a farm-gate price based on USD, everyone wins. Roasters get competitively-priced coffees, and farmers earn more per kilo – all because of the magic that is forex.
Northern Tanzania’s coffee industry is based around Mt. Kilimanjaro, one of East Africa’s most beautiful places. Waterfalls galore, incredible sunsets, and tons of activities combine with a robust tourist infrastructure, easy roads, and short trips up to visit farmers. For long-timers and first-timers to Africa alike, Moshi is a comfortable, kind and safe place to land. Also, a quick flight to the island of Zanzibar which just takes Moshi’s hakuna matata vibe up a notch to full ‘ja love’.
Western Mexico, from Colima down to Oaxaca, is one of the world’s most beautiful places. It’s also one of the last places you’d think of taking someone on a trip – this area isn’t exactly getting great press these days. And for good reason – cartel violence continues to spread, knocking west coast cities like Acapulco, Veracruz and Manzanillo off of the list. But in this area, as of this writing, violence is mostly cartel-on-cartel and focused around port cities. Magical little towns dot the countryside; mountain towns like Comala down to chill fishing towns like Zihuatanejo in Guerrero and Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca. In coffee, you always have local friends who can help you find these hidden away places, and avoid those worth avoiding. And, this aside, Mexico has everything else you need for a successful combination of coffee and tourism – great roads, great food, great nature, and access to truly interesting, diverse people.
Discuplame is what you say when you are trying to be polite; ‘excuse me’ is how it translates. Esculpame means ‘I spit on myself’. I was confusing the two and confusing a lot of people for a long time.
Again, an effort at manners ending in a total fail. If you leave a table you are supposed to say ‘with (your) permission’. That’d be con permiso. Instead, I was saying ‘con promiso’, which, apparently, is how you ask someone if they’ll marry you.
Anos means, well, what you would think it means if you pronounced the ‘o’ as a ‘u’. Drop the ‘y’ sound that comes from the ñ and find yourself telling people a little too much about yourself. If you can’t hear the difference think ‘canon’ versus ‘canyon’, that’s the difference a tilde makes. Only in this case more embarrassing.
I do not have a mind for details, and in many cases my ‘fail forward’ attitude really really trips me up with language. The gender of a chicken, apparently should be masculine. Ironically, saying la polla (instead of el pollo) refers to a man’s pene (which, sidenote, is not to be confused with la pena – another mistake I’ve made).
I’ve always thought it interesting that Spanish doesn’t have an easy way to say ‘I’m looking forward to…’, when American English has so many. The closest in Spanish is ‘espero’, which means either ‘I wait’ or ‘I hope’. I kind of like the fatalistic irony in that double-meaning. But I’m an excitable person and in an attempt to express my enthusiasm told everyone that ‘this conversation was making me excited’. Problem -exitado is the sexual-type of excited…
Another false cognate to watch out for is ‘Preservativos’, which means condoms, not preservatives. This is a mistake that can linger as well; no one corrects you when you say that food in Mexico is better than in the US because there are no condoms in it.
Music is a great companion, and the above songs kept my knee bouncing even during the longest of layovers. Disclosure – I had to go through my top thirty songs to find these ten, because I wanted to share songs that were new to my queue. These aren’t my staples (which include Willy Nelson, Allan Toussaint and David Byrne). But they’ve done right by me and are worth a look-up.
That’s all folks. Thanks to those of you who read this far. If you have any lists you’d like to see in my next quarterly update please send your suggestions along by replying to this email.
– Jake Elster
Read more about our producing partners and their quality efforts here.