Why Intelligentsia

This was a big year for me.  After nine years living and working overseas for a non-profit, I moved back to the United States to work for a coffee roaster.  The move prompted lots of questions from friends and colleagues, but three were most common.  I have answered the first two of them here over the past two weeks: Why the private sector? and Why Direct Trade?  Today I answer the third: Why Intelligentsia?

To start with, there is the company itself, which has built one of the very best Direct Trade models in coffee. Its relentless pursuit of quality has driven a series of signature innovations that make it a leader in the specialty sector: think Intelligentsia Direct Trade, In Season and the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.  The restlessness that is baked into the company’s DNA keeps it constantly tinkering and fine-tuning: we will be refreshing our Direct Trade commitments in 2017.  As I have traveled throughout the United States over the past decade, I have visited countless places that speak the language of Direct Trade and seasonality and relationships that Intelli helped introduce to the specialty lexicon.  These places offer delicious coffees with sterling pedigrees and compelling storylines served with intentionality in beautiful spaces.  But after kicking the tires a bit and taking a good look under the hood, I came to find many of them lacking in horsepower.  The gleaming exteriors are seductive, but most of them seem to be built on the same chassis.  Intelligentsia is one of a small number of roasters that stripped the model down and rebuilt it from the cylinder block up.  The engine that drives the business today is uniquely Intelligentsia’s and is powered by relationships that embody what is best and truest about the Direct Trade narrative: long-term relationships based on mutual commitment to quality, transparency, clear incentives, risk-sharing and clear, constant communication.

Then there are the people in the Intelligentsia Direct Trade network, anchored by the inimitable Geoff Watts.  Geoff isn’t just a visionary who was one of the chief intellectual and material authors of the Direct Trade model.  He is also one of the most knowledgeable coffee people in the world. Few of the pioneers who built the Direct Trade model from its origins are still grinding at source the way Geoff is.  For more than 20 years, he has been traveling to established and emerging coffee origins around the world, building lasting relationships, hungrily gathering information and generously spreading the good word when he sees something insightful, inspiring or innovative.  He does for our collective understanding of coffee what bees do for its production — he carries ideas from one coffee field to another the way bees carry pollen, cross-pollinating our origin work, bringing the best available ideas to bear in every situation and catalyzing innovation.  When I was leading the Borderlands project in Colombia, I invited Geoff and other buyers with dog-eared passports to offer their advice precisely because there is so much to learn from road-weary coffee professionals who carry insight from one coffee origin to another.  The other important thing about Geoff is this: he is kind and patient and generous in sharing what he knows, and he has has helped to build a team of coffee buyers and a network of trading partners who work with the same selfless spirit.

Then there is the role itself: Director of Sourcing and Sustainability.  I can count on one hand the number of people I have met at coffee roasting companies who have direct responsibility for both sourcing and sustainability, and I have never met anyone who has led both functions.  Yet that is precisely the mandate for the role — to lead the buying team for one of the industry’s most iconic brands while building out a formal sustainability program.

Finally, there is the timing.  I arrived at the company less than a year after it was purchased by Peet’s.  On-boarding during an acquisition may not seem like a selling point, especially in a specialty coffee sector that embraces punk rock’s fierce anti-establishment creed, elevates all things indie, celebrates the DIY spirit, believes small is beautiful and reacts reflexively against consolidation and growth.  But the Peet’s investment and the mandate to grow one of the pioneering Direct Trade brands read like an opportunity to me — to help Intelli take its model of Direct Trade to a more meaningful scale, to test the limits of growth for a relationship-based approach to the coffee trade and to do so while getting more diligent about measuring inclusion and impact.

It all added up to a formidable challenge and an irresistible opportunity.

What to do about Mr. Potato

Mr. Potato is an infrequent, unwanted but ultimately harmless visitor from Central Africa.  Many of our Coffeebar guests have heard the legend of Mr. Potato, but precious few have ever actually met him, since we have developed and applied a special protocol that has effectively turned him into a ghost.  This primer will acquaint you with Mr. Potato and give you guidance on how to keep him at bay.

Some coffee drinkers who are familiar with the extraordinary coffees from the Great Lakes region of Central Africa have had, at some point in time, an unfortunate encounter with the aptly named “potato” defect. It is very easy to recognize — it has a character that is almost identical to the taste and aroma of a raw spud, and is usually not very subtle.

Huge progress has been made by producers over the last five years to reduce the frequency of this odd little defect, but it has not yet been completely erased. Even the most carefully cultivated and meticulously processed coffees from this region have a potato bean lurking somewhere, and at some point it will make an uninvited cameo appearance in your cup.   But do not despair! It doesn’t happen very often these days, and we have learned to live with rare intrusion of Mr. Potato because we know that the alternative is much worse — denying ourselves of the distinct pleasure of tasting the delightful and uniquely beautiful coffees from Rwanda and Burundi would be a far greater sacrifice.

If Mr. Potato does appear, we usually smell him coming and show him the door before he ever gets into our cup. The distinct odor of a freshly peeled potato wafts up when we grind the coffee, and that’s our cue to dump the grounds and make a new batch.    That’s how we get along — by being present and attentive we can sidestep most encounters with this funny fellow, and by practicing a little tolerance we find that if or when he does cross our path it isn’t a big deal. We smile, make a new cup and are quickly rewarded with a delicious reminder why we have so much love for these coffees in the first place!

Where does he come from?

The defect, called “potato” by locals and PTD (potato taste defect) by researchers, is caused by airborne bacteria that enter the coffee cherry whenever there is a puncture or tear in the outer skin. The most common cause of the puncture is a small sucking insect called Antestiopsis orbitalis (a.k.a. Antestia) that creates holes in the outer cherry skin and creates the pathway by which the bacteria can enter. Cherry skins can also rupture due to excessive rains that cause rapid ripening, and boring insects like the Hypotenemus hampei, or coffee borer beetle, can drill tiny holes into the coffee cherry’s navel.

The compound responsible for the taste is a pyrazine (isopropyl-2-methoxy-3), of which various types are found in some vegetables like fresh bell peppers, peas, and beetroots. The herbaceous and peppery tastes in white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes are also attributed to pyrazines.

The coffee growing communities in these countries are actively working towards reducing the occurrence of potato. There has been a lot of research in recent years by the Borlaug Institute and CIRAD to try to solve the issue, as well as projects led by TechnoServe.

Currently, the best way to control potato is to enact a three-pronged approach consisting of the following preventative measures:

  1. Remove all fruit from the trees at the end of the harvest, leaving nothing for the insects to eat, and thus discouraging their proliferation.
  2. Apply targeted pest control practices during harvest season using pyrethrum, a natural pesticide derived from dried chrysanthemum flowers. This requires walking through coffee-growing areas and scouting for places with a lot of insects.
  3. Implement strict sorting protocols at the washing stations, where farmers are trained to look for any cherries that are not completely intact and to separate them from the rest before de-pulping. Flotation is also an effective method that is used to remove damaged cherries.

Another method to reduce the incidence involves using blacklights in traditional color-sorting machines to identify and remove suspect beans during dry milling. This approach seems to make a difference, and several of the producers we work with have already begun using this technology.

You may be wondering, “Why buy this coffee at all, when I can simply buy coffees from other countries where Mr. Potato is not lurking?”

The answer is simple: Because coffees from Rwanda and Burundi are amazing! They are among the most carefully produced in all of Africa and offer flavor profiles that are unique in the world of coffee.  It would be sad to allow the possibility of an occasional bad cup to stand in the way of enjoying these profoundly delicious coffees.

You might compare it to buying a bottle of wine. Statistically speaking, 1% to 5% of all bottles is likely to be “corked.” While it is no fun to get home with a bottle and find it ruined, the likelihood of a reward in he form of amazing taste is high enough and the probability of lousy taste is low enough, that one can easily justify the risk. And when we get that one bottle in a hundred that is a stinker, the solution is easy enough: just throw that bottle away!  If Mr. Potato does show up, it is easy enough to toss aside a cup and brew a new one that we don’t really mind the occasional hassle. Just like most things in life, you spin the wheel enough times and you will eventually hit a whammy. Sometimes one must accept that things aren’t always going to be perfect, and spend time enjoying the 95% of goodness while ignoring the 5% that is not good.

Beyond this basic pragmatism, our position on potato is an issue of principle. Intelligentsia has a very deep and long-standing commitment to the coffee growers of Rwanda and Burundi. They are among the most underprivileged farmers we know, growing coffee in two of the poorest countries in Africa. They’ve worked extremely hard over the past decade to elevate quality and are now producing some of the most delicious coffee in the world! They achieved enough success to become the first African countries to host a Cup of Excellence event, and are making coffees that stand out even among our best offerings for their tremendous sweetness and flavor complexity. These farmers deserve our support, and the taste profiles of the coffees they are producing merit the attention of every serious coffee connoisseur.

A zero-tolerance policy on potato seems to us to be an unreasonable standard for our partners in Central Africa. We are comfortable rejecting lots for defects due to fermentation or processing that affect entire batches of coffee, lots that weigh thousands of pounds each. But Mr. Potato affects individual coffee cherries. He taints just two seeds at a time. In our most recent arrival of Rwandan coffee, each pound of coffee had almost 3,000 seeds. That’s more than 385,000 per bag. More than 100 million in each container. Each year, we buy hundreds of million of seeds from growers in Rwanda and Burundi. Requiring them to ferret out every last potato-tinged seed seems like crazymaking. But that doesn’t mean we are giving up.

We are pledged to continue working together with Rwandan and Burundian farmers, along with the researchers, agronomists and millers who are actively working on ways to evict Mr. Potato. They’ve already succeeded in transforming an industry that was completely unsustainable and provided little or no chance of economic progress to one with some thrilling successes and a bright future. The emergence of these still-very-young specialty sectors has had an enormous positive impact on hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families. Without our support, the progress they’ve made over the last decade could be jeopardized. If if they are abandoned by the specialty coffee industry because we are not able to tolerate an occasional inconvenience, there is a major risk they could find themselves right back where they started.. That just seems wrong to us. We are not willing to step aside and see hopes crushed among the farmers in these countries, nor are we willing to forego the pleasure we take in savoring the outrageously delicious coffees they can produce.

So take that, Mr. Potato! You are not greater than the power of our collective will. We will find a way to shrink you, and eventually to eliminate you. Meanwhile, we will simply shrug you off, and toss you aside when you appear in our cup, and proceed with enjoying the extraordinarily beautiful coffees that our friends in Rwanda and Burundi have put so much care into producing.


Why Direct Trade

Last week, I answered the first of the three questions I have fielded most frequently since I moved to Intelligentsia over the summer: Why the private sector?

Today I respond to the second: Why Direct Trade?

I was recently asked this question by a reporter, and in my response I borrowed from the wit and wisdom of Winston Churchill, who once famously said of democracy that it is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have ever been tried. Based on more than a decade of experience working with and for smallholder coffee growers in the field and in the marketplace, I feel the same way about Direct Trade: it is the worst approach to the coffee trade, except for all the others that have ever been tried.

Continue reading “Why Direct Trade”

Introducing the Buyer’s Notebook

Today we introduce a new podcast feature we are calling the Buyer’s Notebook — the stories behind our coffees in the words of the buyers who bought ’em.

The first installment is a conversation with our Ethiopia coffee buyer Geoff Watts about Gesha Village, the extraordinary undertaking of Rachel Samuel and Adam Overton in a remote wilderness in southwest Ethiopia near the center of origin of coffea Arabica.  Rachel and Adam were storytellers before they became coffee farmers, and they may have found in Gesha Village their best story yet — it is an incredible-but-true tale of how two filmmakers were seduced by coffee and came to lead an unlikely coffee revival in the forests where coffee was born.

To be honest, it might be an exaggeration to call this episode a “conversation,” since it consists entirely of Geoff’s response to one simple question: “Why are you so excited about Gesha Village?”  As it turns out out, there are lots of reasons to be excited about Gesha Village.  After an eight-minute response, Geoff sums up his excitement for Gesha Village with these words:  “It’s a coffee that is going to provide a lot of delight to a lot of people and it’s a place that I think will make a mark on the world.”

Listen to the Gesha Village 2016 Buyer’s Notebook here.

To add the podcast to your feed, subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud.



Gesha Village has now been implicated in each of our first three podcasts.  For more information on Gesha Village, listen to the first two.

101: An Unnatural Purchase

In 2016, Geoff bought a natural-processed Original Gesha lot from Gesha Village — the first natural Intelligentsia has bought since Geoff’s provocative post to the Intelli blog nearly seven years ago calling for an end to naturals in the specialty market.  In this conversation, Geoff explains the reasons behind the shift and

102: Serendipity and Revival in Ethiopia

Rachel Samuel is a filmmaker-turned-coffee-grower who returned recently to her native Ethiopia to become co-owner and co-creator of the Gesha Village coffee farm, an audacious undertaking in the ancient forests where coffee was born. Rachel speaks with Michael Sheridan about her unlikely path from storyteller to farmer.



The great Isadora Duncan was once asked after a performance to describe the meaning one of her dance sequences.  Her response was one for the annals: “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

What does it have to do with Gesha Village?

Gesha Village is a farm that inspires plenty of superlatives.  Between our blog posts and our podcasts, we have devoted a lot of conversation to Gesha Village.   All our words are important to put the farm, its mission, its setting and its coffees into context.  But if we could tell you everything that is in those coffees, there would be no point in drinking them.  And drinking them, of course, is the whole point.

But if you want to try the coffee to see what all the fuss is about, you will need to hurry.  Geoff bought four different lots from Gesha Village this year, but only one remains: this Special Selection lot, a day lot of washed Original Gesha whose notes of black plum, fig and cardamom made it one of our cupping team’s favorites.

Why the private sector

A few days after I started at Intelligentsia in August, my new colleagues published this post to mark my arrival.  Although the move was one I had been eyeing for a while, the timing and nature of the transition caught some old friends and longtime collaborators by surprise.  Over the coming days, I answer the three questions that have arisen most often in my conversations related to my new role, starting today with the first one: Why would someone who has focused for so long on smallholder welfare go over to the private sector?

Continue reading “Why the private sector”

Gesha Village Day at Intelligentsia

A few months ago, we broke with years of conspicuously public opposition to natural-processed coffees and bought a natural for the first time in a decade — a stunning Original Gesha variety natural from the Gesha Village farm in western Ethiopia.  It was a small purchase by volume — a day lot that weighed in under 100 pounds — but a mighty big step for us.  So big, in fact, that we decided to make it the topic for the inaugural episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions, our occasional podcast exploring coffee’s origins.

When we released that coffee last month, we paired it in a Special Collection with the very best washed Original Gesha day lot that Gesha Village could produce.  The Big Ideas of that collection were to deliver a high-resolution sensory experience, to demonstrate the impact that processing can have on flavor, and to show what is possible when quality-obsessed growers combine pedigreed varieties, ideal growing conditions and experimental post-harvest processing.

The good news?  The coffees were amazing.

The bad news?  The collection sold out online in a matter of days, meaning that very few of our customers had the opportunity to participate in the return of natural-processed coffees to the Intelligentsia lineup.

We did, however, set aside a small amount of the natural for our retail customers.  We will be brewing it this weekend only at Intelligentsia Coffeebars nationwide.

Before you come in to try it, listen to the first two episodes of the Intelli podcast, and stay tuned for the release of a third early next week.

The first is a conversation with Intelli VP for Coffee Geoff Watts that explores naturals, their role in specialty, and their return to the Intelli menu.  The second features a conversation with Rachel Samuel, the Ethopian-born filmmaker who created Gesha Village with her husband Adam Overton.  And the forthcoming third episode is another conversation with Geoff, this one the first installment in our Buyer’s Notebook series — stories about our coffees from the buyers themselves.

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Session at Soundcloud or on iTunes.

ECW Day Four: Expansion and Experimentation

Today is the final day of our 8th annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.

Our hosts–our friends at Coopedota, and everyone we have engaged with in Costa Rica for that matter–have been gracious at every turn, generous to a fault and filled with insight, a big part of the E in this year’s ECW.

Parting is always such sweet sorrow, but we have a few more items on the agenda today before we say goodbye to our friends.

This morning, we visit Coopedota’s sleek, gleaming and newly opened Café Privilegios. If the original location, attached to its mill Santa María de Dota, is quaint middle America, the new one is full-on Nordic.

In the afternoon, we visit the Costa Rican coffee research institute Cicafé to see its work with somatic embryogenesis (a fancy term for in-vitro fertilization) and centrifugal demuciligination visit its varietal garden and biodigestor (which produces energy from coffee pulp), and hear a presentation on its future research directions.

After that we part ways, and our friends begin their journeys back to the 14 different countries from which they came. Stay tuned for an ECW wrap-up in the days ahead–a blog post here and a podcast as part of our new series, the Intelli Sourcing Sessions.

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Follow @IntelliSourcing on Instagram and Twitter for live coverage of Intelligentsia’s 8th annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, taking place this week in Costa Rica.

Subscribe to our Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions podcast on your iTunes feed or Soundcloud.

ECW Day Three: The Lab and The Field

It is Day 3 of ECW 8 in Costa Rica.

Our day begins in the Coopedota lab, where we will spend the morning cupping with our partners. This morning’s exercise will highlight the impact of high moisture content on cup quality to reinforce one of the quality control priorities for the 2017 crop year: dialing in the drying process to achieve low and narrower moisture ranges for our coffees. Besides, you can never do too much calibration with your supply chain partners.

The afternoon takes us back to the field to visit the farms of three Coopedota members. We want to learn more about their farm management practices in general, and showcase some specific practices Coopedota is promoting, including farm design strategies, renovation approaches, coffee leaf rust mitigation plans, varietal experiments and composting practices.

To close the final full day of ECW, the Coopedota Board of Directors hosts the entire ECW gathering for a very special dinner.

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Follow @IntelliSourcing on Instagram and Twitter for live coverage of Intelligentsia’s 8th annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, taking place this week in Costa Rica.