A symbol of coffee’s promise

I began working in coffee nearly 15 years ago.  During that time I have been on more farms than I can remember and taken more photos than I can count.  But I can’t recall a farm photo that means more to me the one of the old friends above.  The content may seem unremarkable.  But the improbable backstory of this photo validates everything I have come to believe over the past 15 years about specialty coffee: that quality-based differentiation is the most reliable source of value for smallholders; that long-term relationships are the most viable approach for sustained smallholder participation; that varietal diversification is an effective strategy for mitigating risk in the field and seizing opportunities in the marketplace; that there are still, even in coffee origins as established as Colombia, growers producing exceptional coffee in relative obscurity without direct access to markets willing to pay premiums for quality; and most of all, that specialty coffee can be an engine of inclusive economic growth in the communities where it is grown.

I first met Corona Zambrano nearly five years ago when I was working for CRS leading the Borderlands project in southern Colombia. Our project design was based in part on the belief that the areas where we were working in Nariño were capable of producing exceptional coffees, even though few growers there were accessing significant premiums for quality.  So in 2012, we collected green coffee samples from roughly 80 farms from more than 1,500 participating in the project to test our hypothesis. Doña Corona’s was one of them.  When I first took notice of Doña Corona, she was a name on a spreadsheet, the grower of one of the randomly selected coffees that scored over 87 points and delivered a powerful validation of our hypothesis.  

The following year, Doña Corona came to my attention again, thanks to our friends at the exporter Caravela who were helping us get Corona’s coffees into the hands of roasters willing to pay premium prices for them.  While they were processing samples from her farm, they noticed a big discrepancy between the sizes of the seeds we sent.  They sent us a photo with the seeds from the sample grouped into two separate piles, one with average-sized Castillo, Caturra and Colombia seed, and the other with large, oval seed Caravela believed to be Maragogipe.

It was just the pretext I needed to arrange a visit with Doña Corona, one of a handful of women throughout Nariño whose coffees seemed to be continually outperforming all the rest.  To be honest, her farm was underwhelming.  It was not significantly different from the other countless farms I had visited in the region.  In fact, she had less shade cover than many of those farms. Less vigorous plants.  Less active soil conservation practices.  Less evidence of an overall organization plan for the farm.  And it was small, under four hectares.  But her coffees were delicious.  And sure enough, she did have a small grove of Yellow Maragogipe plants near the ridge at the top of her farm.  

When she showed them to me, she told me she was planning to tear them out and replace them with disease-resistant Castillo plants.  I had seen many farms ravaged by coffee leaf rust, so I understood the impulse.  But I had also tasted Maragogipe varietal lots and seen them command high prices in the U.S. market.  I didn’t try to talk Corona out of renovating with Castillo, but I did convince her to wait just a few weeks.  I proposed bringing in some of my roaster friends to visit the farm, cup the coffee and contribute their perspectives to Corona’s decision-making process.  That group of roasters included Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s Vice President of Coffee and Colombia Green Coffee Buyer.  I took the photo below during that visit, just as Geoff was cupping Corona’s coffee.  

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Geoff cups Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe for the first time in 2014 during a visit to Colombia.
Geoff cups Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe for the first time in 2014 during a visit to Colombia.

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As our release of this coffee suggests, Corona’s coffee turned heads that day.  Every year since then, it has commanded the highest price of any coffee in her community: not just enough for her to keep it in the ground, but enough for her to plant new Maragogipe seed in her nursery and share it with her neighbors so they can plant some, too

It is hard to overestimate how long the odds were five years ago against Corona becoming a celebrated coffee grower.

Five years ago, Corona was a price-taker: she delivered her coffee every year to the plaza in Linares, where she had little choice but to accept the prices posted at the buying stations there, earning narrow margins in the best years.  This year, she sold her coffee directly to a U.S. roaster for the fifth year in a row, and negotiated a price for this lot that was more than three times the local market price.  

Five years ago, Corona was an anonymous participant in supply chains designed to source and blend large volumes of homogenized coffee.  Today, her coffee is being separated and offered as a single-farm varietal lot to some of the most discriminating consumers in the United States in a bag that bears her name.  

Five years ago, Corona had never met a coffee buyer.  Now Geoff visits her farm every year so we can review the previous harvest, plan for the next one and put in place the kinds of guarantees that help to mitigate the risks she takes on the farm on our behalf.

If her farm hadn’t been randomly drawn from a hat, we may never have met her. But it was, and we did.

If the folks in Caravela’s lab hadn’t spotted the Maragogipe seed in Corona’s sample and called out attention to it, we might not have made the special effort to visit her farm until it was too late for this coffee.  But they did, and we did.

If Corona hadn’t been willing to take a risk on a low-yielding variety susceptible to coffee leaf rust or a quality-first strategy, or if we hadn’t provided appropriate incentives for her to do so, this coffee might never have found its way to market.  But she was, and we did.

The result, more than five years after we started on this journey together, is this tiny, beautiful and altogether unlikely lot of Yellow Maragogipe, one of the finest coffees from the Southern Hemisphere we will release this year.

And it’s not just Corona’s Yellow Maragogipe that stands out on the cupping table.  Her mixed-variety lot is always one of the top coffees we get from her region.  And it’s not just Corona: her neighbors have followed her example and cast their lot with a quality-first approach, as well, becoming part of our annual Tres Santos Colombia single-origin offering.

None of that context is visible in the photo, of course, but everything in the photo reminds me of it.  The most telling detail in the photo, the one that speaks best to the depth of the quality focus Corona has developed over the past five years, may be the coffee cup in Geoff’s hands.  

Smallholder coffee growers commonly serve you their own coffee when you visit them on their farms.  But even the ones who routinely produce exceptional coffees rarely drink great coffee at home, usually roasting defects and rejects, and so doing poorly over open flames in their kitchens.  It makes the ritual a painful one for visitors, who compliment their hosts more out of courtesy than genuine pleasure. But on this visit, Geoff didn’t merely oblige Corona by taking a few brave sips.  He liked the first cup so much he asked for seconds.

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Order our Corona Zambrano Colombia Yellow Maragogipe Special Selection HERE, but hurry: it won’t last long.

How do you spell flavor at Finca Takesi? G-E-M.

Today we begin taking pre-orders for three coffees that are extraordinary by design:

They are the surest validation imaginable that the three letters that matter most for cup quality are G, E and M: genotype, environment and management.

G: Panamanian Geisha

Panamanian Geisha is descended from an ancient variety of coffee that first grew wild in the highlands of Western Ethiopia.  It migrated to the Americas in the satchels of researchers more than a half-century ago, where it idled in obscurity for decades and seemed destined for anonymity.  But in the early 2000s, a farmer in Panama was observant enough to notice a group of coffee plants in his fields looked different from all the rest, curious enough to process and taste that coffee separately, and kind enough to share it with the rest of the world.  

G: Typica

Typica is the ancient coffee variety from which most of the world’s commercially traded traditional Arabica varieties are descended.  Like all coffee, it was born in Ethiopia, but eventually made the narrow voyage on a trade route between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where that Typica took root and fueled the rise of the world’s first commercial coffee sector.  Since Yemen’s seaports linked it to global trade routes, it dominated the global coffee trade for centuries.

Typica slowly found ways out of Yemen, smuggled by mystics and merchants, and made its way to Asia and the Americas and repatriated to Africa.  Along the way, it mutated, first and most importantly, into Bourbon, whose various selections (from Laurina and Mokha to Pacas and SL-28) and mutations (Caturra) are in wide circulation around the world.  Later Typica’s own selections (think Kent, Pache and Pluma Hidalgo) and mutations (Maragogype) have become important cultivars in their own right. Through it all, the noble Typica has endured and retained its trademark sweetness and complexity.

G: Catuai

Catuai is a cross between Mundo Novo (a spontaneuous cross between Typica and Bourbon) and Caturra (a dwarf mutation of Bourbon) that is generally known more for its productivity than its cup quality.

But WHAT farmers grow is only a part of what determines cup quality.  WHERE they grow it is at least important.

And these coffees were all grown at Finca Takesi, and there is no place anywhere in the world quite like Finca Takesi.

E: Finca Takesi

It should come as no surprise that every aspect of the physical environment in which a coffee is grown affects its flavor and quality.  These factors, often referred to collectively as terroir, include location, temperature, rainfall, orientation, soil composition and quality, shade density and diversity, and more.

Every one of these variables is important, but arguably none has a greater influence on a coffee’s quality frontier than elevation.  From a quality perspective, the higher a farm lies, the better.  As elevations rise, temperatures drop and the maturation process of coffee slows, creating a sweeter and more complex profile.  We don’t know of any farm that sits quite as high as Finca Takesi.

It is perched precariously in a narrow fold in the Bolivian Andes, clinging to a steep hillside above a deep ravine cut over centuries by the rushing waters of the Takesi River below.  The majestic snow-capped peak of Mururata, pictured above, looms above the farm, soaring to an elevation of more than 5,800 m.  The farm stretches upward from the Takesi River bed at 1,700 m to a height of more than 3,100 m, with coffee planted over 35 hectares between 1,800 m – 2,500 m.  But it’s not just the elevation that makes Finca Takesi’s coffee extraordinary, it’s also the latitude.  There is plenty of coffee grown on farms over 2,000 m in southern Colombia, but those farms lie less than three degrees north of the Equator, where temperatures are higher.  Finca Takesi lies high in the Andes where the sun burns brightly during the day, but more than 16 clicks south of the Equator, where nights are cool: a climate that translates directly into complexity and sweetness.  Throw in volcanic soils with a full meter of soil organic matter in the topsoil for good measure, and Takesi’s environment seems custom-built for quality.

M: Experimental Agronomy

There is no handbook for an environment like Finca Takesi’s, where coffee production is pushing the boundaries of what we thought was viable, standard assumptions don’t hold and the rules of coffee farming need to be rewritten.  

The flowering that marks the start of the cherry maturation process takes place over a period of four months, a staggering fact when you consider that flowering generally peaks during a single month, or perhaps two.  As a consequence, coffee cherry matures over a period of 10 months or more and workers on Finca Takesi routinely harvest coffee for parts of six months or more.  Carlos and Mariana Iturralde, the indomitable father-and-daughter team behind Finca Takesi, have taken these wrinkles in stride, adopting a flexible and experimental approach to farm management and applying what they learn as they go.  If should come as no surprise that they were not daunted by these challenges, since the farm itself is an audacious and unlikely enterprise: there were no coffee farms in Yanacachi when they started laying plans for Finca Takesi more than a decade ago, and there are still none today.  The physical isolation of Finca Takesi in a rugged and remote stretch of the Bolivian Andes seems appropriate of its position vis-a-vis most other farms in the world: it sits head-and-shoulders above them.

We are proud to be the exclusive U.S. partners of Finca Takesi and the Iturralde family, and we are delighted to offer this year’s Finca Takesi Bolivia Special Selection varietal lots in time for the holidays.  They will elevate your celebration, and they are only available at Intelligentsia.

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Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Geisha Special Selection here.

Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Typica Special Selection here.

Pre-order our Finca Takesi Bolivia Catuai Special Selection here.

Or better yet, order all three (a $92 value) for $75 and taste the difference variety can make.

This coffee is available for PRE-ORDER now.  Orders received by Tuesday, November 28 by 3 pm will be roasted and shipped on Wednesday, November 29.  This schedule will repeat itself weekly while supplies last, with orders accepted from Tuesday at 3:01 pm until the following Tuesday at 3:00 pm, with coffees roasting and shipping every Wednesday until this coffee is sold out.

Introducing Axioma

Our Direct Trade model has been more than 15 years in the making, and it continues to evolve.

We love to tell the story of Intelligentsia Direct Trade: why we built a Direct Trade program to begin with, how it has evolved over time, who has driven it forward, what it looks like today and where we see it going into the future.  It is a sprawling story of continuous innovation that covers a long period of time, involves a large and ever-expanding cast of coffee characters and is always adding new and exciting plotlines.  Axioma is part of that effort.  It strips away the narrative and presents a small set of carefully selected data points that taken together tell a compelling story about our Direct Trade model.

The first edition of the Intelligentsia Axioma takes a look back at the Northern Hemisphere season as we transition into our first Southern Hemisphere releases next week.

To begin with, we will publish Axioma three times a year: to mark the conclusion of our Northern Hemisphere buying season, again when our Southern Hemisphere buying season comes to an end, and once more in connection with our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.

Enjoy!

The changing of the seasons

The seasons are changing here at Intelligentsia.  Yes, the cold has descended on our home city of Chicago and the winter solstice looms, but that is not the kind of season I am talking about.  Next week, we will start updating our single-origin menus to include coffees from the Southern Hemisphere.  Over the next few months, our Northern Hemisphere coffees from Central America and East Africa will gradually give way to coffees from Central Africa and South America.  This is the concept of seasonality in coffee and the promise of Intelligentsia In-Season: our rotating menu of fresh-crop single-origin coffees is designed to for flavor and ensures drinking the right coffees at the right time of the year.

As we make the transition, we look back at our 2017 Northern Hemisphere single-origin releases before they start sharing the menu with our Southern Hemisphere offerings.

View our 2017 Northern Hemisphere Sourcing Map HERE.

 

 

Credit where credit is due

I have been in coffee nearly 15 years.  For most of that time, I lived at origin, where I worked extensively with and on behalf of smallholder growers and farmworkers.  And frequently during those 15 years, I have been frustrated by how often the people who make our coffee delicious remain anonymous.  By how many people remain in the shadows, even in the most transparent supply chains.  Fortunately for me,  I am now in a position to do something about that.   

Today I am pleased to announce the Intelligentsia Coffee Credits, designed to give credit for our single-origin offerings where credit is due.  Just like the names that scroll up the screen after every film, our coffee credits are designed to be exhaustive, including the names of every smallholder grower whose coffee has found its way into our single-origin lineup, whether they dropped it in ripe cherry form at washing stations in Central Africa or delivered it as parchment to the organizations they belong to in Central America.  Every farmworker who harvested cherry at peak ripeness to optimize the sweetness and flavor of the best coffees on our menu.  

This measure is entirely consistent with long-standing commitment to supply-chain transparency that we share with our Direct Trade partners around the world.

The first iteration of our Coffee Credits comes from the Sierra Mixteca of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico, the source of our current La Perla de Oaxaca Organic Mexico offering.   Peruse the names of every grower who contributed to that lot — more than 100 in all — here.

Look for Coffee Credits on select releases in our Southern Hemisphere lineup beginning next week.  By the time the next Northern Hemisphere buying season rolls around, we expect to publish these credits with every single-origin coffee we release.  For everything these growers and farmworkers do to deliver us the cleanest and sweetest coffees in the world, it is the least we can do.

The Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition: Best in Inventory

Last month, we gathered our entire supply chain in San Francisco for the annual Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Workshop. The event itself is nothing new: this is the ninth year in a row we have convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world for ECW, a week of talking and tasting coffee together with the growers, millers and exporters in our supply chain. What was new for 2017 was this: the Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition.

A Coffee Battle Royale

We invited all our Direct Trade partners to send us just two kilos of the very best coffee they could produce. We received plenty of special submissions just for the occasion. Since many growers in our supply chain had already sent us their best coffees of the season, we put all the special submissions we received up against every one of the single-origin coffees already in our inventory. The end result was something like a coffee battle royale: nearly 60 coffees from 13 countries in the ring, all competing for the title Best in Show.

There were lots of other prizes based on different criteria, including geography (Best of the Americas, Best of Africa, Best Northern Hemisphere, Best Southern Hemisphere), farm size (Best Smallholder Coffee) and cup profile (Fruit Basket Award, Sugar Cane Award and Clarity Award). And we created a Best in Inventory Award so we could celebrate the most extraordinary coffee on our menu.

The Rules

The coffees were randomly assigned three-digit numerical codes and then randomly reassigned three-letter alphabetical codes as part of a double-blind procedure that kept nearly everyone involved in the process from unlocking the identities of the coffees until scoring was completed. The action progressed through multiple rounds, with competitors gradually eliminated along the way. The opening round took place at the cupping lab in our Chicago Roasting Works with a core Quality Control team that evaluated every sample using the Intelligentsia cupping form and narrowed the field of nearly 60 entries to 10 finalists based on overall score. Each entrant was eligible to send only one lot to the finals to maximize the diversity of the profiles on the 10-top table that would be cupped at ECW. Samples of each of those 10 coffees were transported to San Francisco by our Vice President Geoff Watts in advance of ECW in a locked briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist. For real.

There, the panel for the finals consisted of our entire Direct Trade supply chain: growers, millers, exporters, importers, green coffee buyers, roasters and baristas. In keeping with the event’s focus on technology, the finals were scored on smartphones using the Cropster Cup app and a customized form specifically developed for the event by our friends at Cropster. That form included just four categories: sweetness, acidity, clarity and overall score. The three subcategories were selected as a kind of calibration and part of the joint sensory exercises that are an important part of every ECW event. These are the categories that carry the most weight as we evaluate coffees for purchase, and we wanted to underscore the relationship between these specific categories and our perception of overall quality. The results of that exercise were unambiguous: the coffee that had the highest overall score also had the highest score in each of these subcategories.  To determine a winner, the overall scores from both the Chicago cuppings and the finals at ECW in San Francisco were combined and averaged.

Best (and Second-Best) in Show

Best in Show was a stunning and beautiful Gesha varietal from the Gesha Village Estate in southwestern Ethiopia. It was a lot carefully assembled for purposes of the competition and not available for purchase. A close second, and Best in Show runner-up, was a coffee from our inventory:, a complex, crisp, clean coffee from Kenya that had been waiting patiently in the wings for its turn to fly on our menu under the Kunga Maitu banner.

We are delighted to make that coffee available to you as a special release: the ECW Best in Inventory Award Kunga Maitu Kenya. This outsized coffee represents the best of Intelligentsia. With huge flavors of candied grapefruit, chamomile and clove, we think you will understand why.  The ECW Best in Inventory Award Kunga Maitu Kenya is available now for purchase HERE, nd we are featuring it on the menus of all of our Coffeebars nationwide from Saturday, October 14 to Saturday, October 21.

The full list of winners from the inaugural Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Competition follows:

 

Best in Show
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Original Gesha

Best in Inventory
Intelligentsia Kunga Maitu Kenya
Kainamui lot
washed SL-28, SL-34, Riuru 11

Best of Africa
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Best of the Americas
Cielo y Nilson López
Fincal El Gallineral, Colombia
honey Geisha

Best Northern Hemisphere
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Best Southern Hemisphere
Mariana and Carlos Iturralde
Finca Takesi, Bolivia
washed Geisha (coming soon to the Intelligentsia menu!)

Best Smallholder Coffee
Mary Maina Manyeki
Manyeki Estates, Kenya
washed SL-28, SL-34

Fruit Basket Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Sugar Cane Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

Clarity Award
Rachel Samuel Overton and Adam Overton
Gesha Village Coffee Estate, Ethiopia
washed Gesha

 

ECW 2017: Technology Tuesday

Today our ECW agenda is devoted entirely to the topic of technological innovation, mostly, but not exclusively, in the coffee sector.

Geoff Watts, our Vice President of Coffee, Intelligentsia’s first employee 22 years ago and one of the chief intellectual and material authors of the Direct Trade model, will open the day by officially inaugurating the annual party he started back in 2009: the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.

He is followed by three guest speakers whose technological innovations are poised to reshape the coffee trade, and one whose paradigm-shifting technology is poised to change the world. IKAWA Business Development Manager for the United States O.M. Miles, Cropster Founder and CEO Norbert Niederhauser and Cafe X Founder and CEO Henry Hu tell the origin stories of their respective companies, and demonstrate how their technologies are accelerating the evolution of the specialty coffee supply chain: an electric sample roaster with infinitely customizable and endlessly repeatable roast profiles that is managed from a smartphone app, a web-based end-to-end supply chain data management platform that emerged from a research project and became an industry standard for specialty coffee in less than 10 years and a robotic café kiosk that delivers precision extraction, consistency and efficiency and represents a bid to evolve the role of service in the coffeebar. A fourth special guest will speak to innovations in energy storage that represent the promise of true sustainability in an era of accelerated climate change.

In the afternoon, we put the entire event on wheels for a field trip to the flagship U.S. location of Cafe X, where this week is Intelligentsia Week: all the coffees on its four-item espresso-only menu are Intelligentsia offerings: a sparkling Tikur Anbessa Organic Ethiopia single-origin espresso, our Sapsucker seasonal espresso blend, our Analog blend, a year-round favorite, and a decaf Black Cat. For more on the Cafe X origin story, listen to my recent conversation with its founder and CEO Henry Hu on the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast here.

ECW 2017 is closed to the public Monday-Thursday.

But please join us Friday, September 29th for Public Day when we open the doors of our San Francisco Roasting Works (1125 Mariposa in Potrero Hill) from 10 am – 3 pm for coffee tastings, a coffee competition with a People’s Choice award (come, taste, vote and be counted!), a panel discussion with members of our Direct Trade network, food and live music by the Broun Fellinis.

ECW 2017 opens in San Francisco tonight

Tonight our ninth annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop gets underway in San Francisco with when we welcome representatives over 30 supply chain partners – growers, millers, exporters, traders, non-profits and tech companies – from 15 countries to our San Francisco Roasting Works for a reception and guided wine tasting.

Every year we convene our supply chain partners from all over the world for a careful consideration of coffee: the coffee they grow, mill, export and trade and we source, roast and serve to our customers.  We discuss it in depth, taste it together, analyze how it performed last season and agree on plans to make it better next season.  But ECW is not all about coffee.  We also pause to explore and celebrate the culture of our host city and country.  In San Francisco, that means making room on the agenda for food and wine made from ingredients that are grown, sourced, prepared and served with as much intentionality and focus on quality and flavor as we take with our coffees.

Our welcome reception was designed in that spirit.  The gathering will feature food from Bi-Rite Catering and a tasting of natural wines curated by Diego Roig and Shaunt Oungoulian of the Living Wine Collective.

Bi-Rite

Bi-Rite Market opened in 1940 in San Francisco’s Mission District and has become an institution in a city celebrated for its ingredient-driven restaurants. Its focus on flavor and intrinsic quality, its belief in seasonality and commitment to freshness, its direct sourcing model, its commitment to long-term relationships and its faith in the power of food to create community make it a natural partner for our first meal together at the 2017 Extraordinary Coffee Workshop. Bi-Rite Catering and Events is part of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses, which includes Bi-Rite Market, Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop, Bi-Rite Farms and 18 Reasons, a community education center.

Living Wine Collective

The Living Wine Collective was formed by four friends who met studying in the celebrated viticulture and enology program at UCDavis.  After they graduated, they went to work for some of the world’s most decorated winemakers then reconvened in California to create the Living Wine Collective.  The co-op combines the best of old-world approaches to wine with a relentless spirit of innovation and experimentation that elevates terroir and natural winemaking techniques.  They source only organic grapes, they make all their wines in the basement of Shaun’s parents home in San Francisco and they are committed to producing affordable everyday wines.  But don’t mistake the start-up vibe for a lack of seriousness: the four pals behind Living Wine Collective has emerged as a leader in the recent movement in California to “lower-intervention” wines.

ECW 2017 is closed to the public Monday-Thursday.

But please join us Friday, September 29th for Public Day when we open the doors of our San Francisco Roasting Works (1125 Mariposa in Potrero Hill) from 10 am – 3 pm for coffee tastings, a coffee competition with a People’s Choice award (come, taste, vote and be counted!), a panel discussion with members of our Direct Trade network, food and live music by the Broun Fellinis.

 

ECW 2017 Preview: San Francisco

Tomorrow we welcome supply chain partners, friends and special guests from around the world to our ninth annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop in San Francisco. The event’s content will be shaped in important ways by its setting, and that is by design.

ECW is a moveable feast that takes place in a different location every year. So far, it has traveled to seven different countries on three continents. ECW participants explore the coffee culture of its host countries to better understand the unique contributions each one makes to global coffee culture.   Most ECW events have been held in coffee-growing countries and have focused on production and post-harvest exploration. ECW 2017 will be held in San Francisco and will seek insight and inspiration from engagement with leaders from three sectors that make San Francisco a world-class city: food, wine and technology. While the focus of this cultural exploration varies from year to year, the engagement with local traditions and tastemakers is a pillar of ECW.

ECW is also part coffee seminar, part sensory exercise, part Direct Trade supply chain summit and part family reunion.

Coffee seminar

ECW features provocative presentations on coffee agronomy, processing and quality by leading coffee researchers, coffee scientists and coffee innovators who present cutting-edge data, analysis and actionable insight to our team and growers in our Direct Trade network. In 2017, ECW will pick up where we left off in 2016, with a discussion of experimental approaches to fermentation, including the use of commercial yeasts in coffee processing.  But ECW isn’t just about information.  It is about actionable information that our Direct Trade partners can put to use when they return to their countries of origin.

Sensory experience

ECW creates a unique opportunity for chain-wide sensory calibration: we cup and taste a diverse array of coffees together with our Direct Trade partners from around the world to more tightly align our understanding of quality throughout our supply chains. In 2017, Vice President of Coffee Geoff Watts and QC Director Sam Sabori will lead a chain-wide calibration exercise focused on the links between post-harvest processing and cup quality.

Direct Trade supply chain summit

ECW is an exercise in supply chain transparency during which we bring our collaborators from around the world together to confer with one another and participate actively in conversations about the future of Intelligentsia. President James McLaughlin will assess the State of Intelligentsia and lay out our vision for 2018, Vice President of Coffee Geoff Watts will give a sensory State of the Union, QC and Roasting Director Sam Sabori will lay out a new set of quality protocols, Cold Coffee R+D Director Bailey Manson will update the group on our cold coffee project and Director of Sourcing Michael Sheridan will present innovations in our sourcing program.

Family reunion

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ECW is a coffee family reunion for the Intelligentsia team and the quality-focused growers and progressive traders we partner with from around the world. In many cases, we have been working with our current supply chain partners for more than a decade. Over the past year, we have worked with 36 Direct Trade partners in 14 countries around the world, all of which will be represented at ECW 2017 in San Francisco. Our Direct Trade partners are not just trading partners, but true partners in our business and dear friends. We cherish these opportunities to gather them in one place, and celebrate the fact that ECW has created a global network of growers that has taken on a life of its own: the ECW Champions group has become a mutual support network comprised of some of the world’s most accomplished and committed farmers whose shared commitment to coffee quality inspires us all.

Look for daily updates on ECW 2017 activities and follow our social media feeds for live coverage of the event on our Instagram feeds at @IntelligentsiaCoffee and @IntelliSourcing, and on our Twitter accounts at @Intelligentsia and @IntelliSourcing.  Use the hashtag #IntelliECW for both feeds.

And mark your calendars now for Public Day on Friday, September 29th, when we open the doors of our San Francisco Roasting Works (1125 Mariposa in Potrero Hill) from 10 am – 3 pm for coffee tastings, a coffee competition with a People’s Choice award (come, taste, vote and be counted!), a panel discussion with members of our Direct Trade network, food and live music by the Broun Fellinis.

Cafe X: This is not a joke

Henry Hu is the Founder and CEO of Cafe X, the robotic café that opened to curious customers in San Francisco in January.  It has earned rave reviews from publications in the tech and finance sectors, and raised concern in coffee circles of a future without baristas.

Today, we publish a conversation with Henry Hu on technology and the future of coffee in the latest episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast.

“Is this a joke?”

When Hu pitched the idea of a robot barista to celebrity angel investor Jason Calacanis via email, it was a good news-bad news scenario.  The good news?  Calacanis responded immediately.  The bad news?  The response was a one-line email that read, “Is this a joke?”

Hu sent video of a working prototype to assure Calacanis it was not, and soon Hu found himself on stage at the 2016 Launch Festival, a forum for matchmaking between venture capitalists and entrepreneurs founded and hosted by Calacanis, pitching the Cafe X concept before a panel of investors and an audience of thousands.

Cafe X won, and went on to raise more than $5 million in capital to build out the concept.  The San Francisco kiosk is the second, but the first in the United States.  The original is located in Hu’s native Hong Kong, and there are more on the way.  What the format may lack in human warmth it looks to make up in hyper-efficiency: most customers order their coffee on the Cafe X app as they approach the store, and it is ready when they arrive.

“The end of hipster baristas?”

If you have been to the Launch Festival or seen videos on YouTube, you know Calacanis is a hands-on host: he introduces the pitches, facilitates the question-and-answer sessions that follow, and sometimes delivers tips in real-time to the entrepreneurs he brings on stage.  When Hu and his partner finished their pitch for the Cafe X concept, Calacanis proclaimed it “the end of hipster baristas.”

That is a hard pill to swallow for a company like ours, which invests mightily in barista training and has produced more competition champions than any other roaster in the world.

To be sure, when I invited my barista colleagues at Intelligentsia to submit questions for my interview with Henry, they all related in one way or another to the value baristas add to the coffee experience.  In my conversations with Henry, both on the air and off, I don’t think he sees his robotic format and our analog one as incompatible.

The inspiration for Cafe X, as Hu describes in our interview, was the realization he had during a frustrating café experience that the baristas were mostly “moving cups around and pressing buttons,” adding little discernible value to a process that, as far as he could tell, was already almost entirely automated without being particularly efficient.

That is not, of course, the case in coffeebars like ours, where service is efficient, attentive and decidedly analog.  Our baristas perform the full range of back-of-house functions, including blend development, menu-setting, dialing in grind and extraction, and of course, manually brewing coffee to order, while also discreetly curating all aspects of the front-of-house experience.  On both sides of the divide, their expertise and discretion are vital to our ability to consistently deliver an elevated experience for our guests.  But Hu hasn’t positioned Cafe X to compete with this kind of fully realized retail service.  He understands that most people buy their coffee from retail shops where baristas don’t add that kind of value but simply operate automated platforms.  He is betting that the fully automated Cafe X format can deliver more value to those customers by trading human interaction for the promise of a coffee you barely need to break stride to build into your daily routine.

Productivity and quality

The other thing that distinguishes Cafe X from other automated platforms is its commitment to coffee quality.  Unlike other delivery systems that make a strong convenience play and relegate quality to a lower priority tier, Hu’s says the “Big Idea” of Cafe X is to improve on current standards of productivity in the café without compromising on cup quality.  He has built roasters with a reputation for quality into the four-item espresso-only Cafe X menu.

ECW and Intelligentsia Week at Cafe X

Next week, when we convene our Direct Trade partners from around the world in San Francisco for our ninth annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, Henry and members of his team will be our guests, sharing with our supply chain partners their vision for Cafe X and the future of service in the coffee industry.  Then we will be their guests at the Cafe X kiosk at Metreon in SoMa, where it is Intelligentsia Week: from 25-29 September, every coffee on the menu will be from Intelligentsia.  Our year-round Analog blend anchors the lineup, with a sparkling Tikur Anbessa Organic Ethiopia single-origin offering, a seasonal Sapsucker Blend whose sweetness is worthy of the name and a decaffeinated version of our popular Black Cat in the decaf slot.  If you are in San Francisco next week, stop by and try an Intelligentsia espresso drink from Henry’s Cafe X kiosk.

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Listen to my conversation with Cafe X Founder and CEO Henry Hu here.

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