Being there

The core principles and standard practices of our Direct Trade program contribute to the resilience of our supply chain partners by insulating them from risk.

Our commitment to direct engagement with growers and our investment in the annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop reduce the market risk of our partners by giving them information and skills that help them meet the requirements of the world’s most demanding buyers.

The mutual commitment to quality on which our Direct Trade relationships are built it itself a hedge against both price risk and market risk, and our standard fixed prices and multi-grade contracts help our supply chain partners mitigate those risks even further.

But these principles and practices are most powerful when married to our commitment to long-term trading relationships.

My first few buying trips for Intelligentsia were to countries where I used to live and work.  During one of them, I made a point of meeting up with an old friend, an old codger who happens to also be an award-winning coffee grower.  We were exploring the idea that he might start selling to Intelligentsia, and his son began interjecting excitedly, selling me on the virtues of this special-process lot or that varietal lot.  When he persisted, I suggested he misunderstood. He was trying to sell me a specific fresh-crop coffee, but I wasn’t looking for a coffee from the current harvest. I was looking for a partner with with whom we might build coffees together over many harvests.

It is easy for roasters to get great coffees every year.  That might sound flip, but it is true.  Roasters, that is, who don’t care about relationships, aren’t willing to commit to multi-year purchases, and don’t want to bear any of the risk of agriculture.  What is harder is committing to a grower or a group of growers and sourcing great coffee from them year after year.

Relationships are hard.  Agriculture is harder.  Building and sustaining lasting, mutually beneficial relationships in agriculture is very hard indeed, especially with a crop like coffee.

Achieving and sustaining quality in coffee requires investment.  And it and involves risk. My experience in the international development space and as a coffee buyer has taught me that growers are more likely to take risks and make investments this year if they have commercial partners who can be counted on to show up next year.  And the year after that.  And the year after that.  We made our first purchase of a fully traceable lot from CEPCO in Oaxaca all the way back in 2002, as this blurry, dog-eaten photo from our archive attests, and have been showing up ever since.

But committing to a relationship with a coffee grower means coping with risk, accepting occasional disappointments and even absorbing a flat-out failure now and again.

These are just part of the Direct Trade territory.  Sometimes this means just buying coffees that don’t perform as well as any of us would like.  Other times it means working with growers to structure innovation pilots on a small scale and committing explicitly to purchase the results of joint experimentations — even when those experiments don’t work out.  We have purchased some coffees that were less-than-spectacular as a result of these commitments. While it was never fun to do so, it was always important. Those purchases insulated our partners from risk. They sent a clear signal of our commitment.  And they represented strategic investments in the future of our relationships — the risk capital that generates future returns in the form of steady access to amazing coffee and keeps the Direct Trade engine humming.

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This is the final installment in series of seven posts summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.

ECW: What’s risk got to do with it?

Once a year, we convene all our Direct Trade partners from around the world — more than 50 growers and representatives of farmer associations, washing stations and exporters from 15 countries on four continents — for a week of farm visits, cupping sessions, presentations, meetings, shared meals (and sometimes spontaneous dance parties) that we call the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.  

The ECW program is carefully designed to deliver actionable insights to participants through a variety of formats on a broad array of issues, including agronomy, post-harvest processing, innovations in coffee science and technology, market trends and more. The event is held in a different country every year, celebrating the coffee culture of the host country and exploring unique local practices that might be effectively applied in other countries and contexts.  

Perhaps as valuable as the formal program of the event is the unstructured interaction between the diverse and award-winning participants. Participants in the 2017 ECW event had collectively won honors at the Cup of Excellence, the world’s most rigorous and prestigious coffee quality competition, an astounding 63 times. It is like the All-Star game of coffee, and participants learn from each other as much as they do from us. All of this adds up to a source of real value for our Direct Trade partners.  It also represents another important hedge against market and price risk.

A week of exhaustive joint exploration of quality from seed to cup with your entire supply chain amplifies market signals like nothing else you might imagine.  And the entire affair is designed to ensure our partners have the knowledge and skills they need to execute on their strategy of quality-based differentiation and succeed in the marketplace.

The first issue of our Ad Lucem magazine is an account of the most recent edition of ECW, held in San Francisco.  

ECW 10 is planned for Bolivia in September 2018.

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This post is the sixth in a series of seven posts summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.

Busting the microlot myth

The idea that Direct Trade is all about microlots is pervasive.  And persistent. And, at least in our case, dead wrong.

Michaele Weissman wrote the book on Direct Trade nearly 10 years ago. God in a Cup tells the story of Direct Trade through the work of three of the model’s principal intellectual and material authors: my Intelligentsia colleague Geoff Watts, Peter Giuliano, then of Counter Culture Coffee, and Stumptown’s Duane Sorensen.  But in the sprawling retrospective on Direct Trade she wrote last year for Sprudge, she perpetuates the microlot myth, defining Direct Trade like this:

Direct Trade is a sales practice related to the growing, selling, and buying of microlots — small amounts of coffee grown with an unusual attention to detail on pinpricks of land.

To her credit, she goes on to suggest that Direct Trade isn’t all about microlots.  It includes single-origin lots, too, she says.

The Direct Trade label can also apply to single-origin coffees. Single-origin refers to disaggregated beans grown in somewhat larger areas of a single farm or possibly several farms. A single-origin may produce as much as 50 or even 100 bags of unusually high-quality coffee.

Even this broader definition of Direct Trade is fatally narrow, however.  And if this is the definition offered by someone who has had years of exposure to the chief architects of the model, then there is little hope that casual observers of specialty will understand what Direct Trade is really about.

We believe coffee has a natural pyramidal distribution, with the lowest-quality coffees being most common and occupying the base and the highest-quality lots being rarest and occupying the peak.  This vision is intuitive. Extraordinary quality is hard, after all, and producing low-grade specialty coffees easy by comparison. But the vision is also empirical.

While we draw a higher baseline than most other specialty companies, with purchases beginning closer to 84 points rather than 80 points, our purchases neatly reflect this pyramidal construct.  In other words, our Direct Trade model isn’t just concerned with the small lots of coffee at the peak of the pyramid.  It is the whole pyramid. For us, Direct Trade isn’t a “sales practice” at all.  It’s a sourcing model.  The way we buy coffee.  Period.

To be fair, we contribute to the popular tendency to equate Direct Trade with microlots and single-origin lots.  Call it the Pareto principle of coffee quality: it seems we spend roughly 80 percent of our time and energy breathlessly promoting 20 percent of our coffees.  But who could blame us? Our Special Selection microlots push the frontiers of flavor: their superlative sweetness, crystalline clarity, cultivated complexity and sheer delight, they are unimpeachable evidence for our our conviction that coffee is culinary.  And our single-origin I-marks represent what is best about the countries and regions where they are grown. We can’t blame observers of specialty coffee, even careful, veteran observers like Michaele, if they share our enthusiasm. But in failing to look beyond our headliner coffees, we miss something important, and not just the extraordinary quality of our everyday blends.

If Direct Trade were, in fact, just about microlots and single-origin lots, it would merit the crass derision and casual dismissal of its many critics.  But Direct Trade, at least as we practice it at Intelligentsia, isn’t as easy to dismiss.

We work intentionally to fill the containers we buy from our Direct Trade partners with as many as four or five different quality grades, from single-A all the way to microlots, with graduated premiums.  Our purchase of A-grade and AA-grade coffees along with the single-origin AAA lots and microlots represents an extraordinary source of value for our partners, who struggle to find reliable markets and meaningful premiums for their larger volumes of lower-grade coffees.  There is enormous opportunity cost for growers in the hustle to find buyers for those coffees, and invariably, real financial losses when they are sold through conventional trading channels.

I suppose there is one way in which Direct Trade is all about microlots: in most cases, it was the pursuit of microlots that helped our partners begin separating their coffees in the first place, making our multi-grade purchases and our entire Direct Trade model possible.

As much as any other single thing we do as part of the Intelligentsia Direct Trade program, this practice of multi-grade contracting creates value and efficiency for growers, and significantly reduces their market risk.  But because the microlot myth has such a firm hold on our collective coffee imagination, it is rarely identified as one of the benefits of the model.

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This post is the fifth in a series of seven summarizing our contribution to the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit, focused on resilience, and is part of a series exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.

Escaping the commodity trap

From the day we opened the doors at our original location on Broadway in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood back in 1995, our business has been built on quality-based differentiation: we have always worked to deliver the best coffee and the most elevated experience in the marketplace.  When we started traveling to origin and building our Direct Trade model a few years later, the same principle applied: we sought out estates, farmer associations and washing stations that shared our obsession with coffee quality and saw it as the most reliable and lasting source of value.  As it turns out, the promise of quality that resonated so clearly to us in the marketplace also resonated at the other end of the coffee chain with growers of all sizes.  Our Direct Trade partner network is filled with them: more than 50 farms, farmer associations and washing stations whose commitment to quality has earned them awards and a privileged place in our supply chain.

Their eager embrace of a quality-first strategy is due in part to the fact that it represents an important hedge: their ability to earn quality premiums insulates them from low prices in the market.

As of this writing, May futures contracts are closing at less than $1.14 per pound, less than production costs in just about every coffee-growing country with the possible exception of Brazil.  Few farmers earning these kinds of prices can turn a profit or continue to grow coffee for long, least of all the smallholder farmers who grow the majority of the world’s coffee.  This is the commodity trap: competition on the basis of price alone in a market that rewards size, scale and efficiency and is agnostic on the issue of quality.

Quality premiums offer an escape from the commodity trap, helping to mitigate the risk of low prices.  But premiums alone do little to protect growers from the extreme price volatility that characterizes coffee futures markets.

The free-hand scribble above roughly tracks coffee futures market prices over the better part of the past half-century.  With so much uncertainty about what coffee prices will be like tomorrow, it is hard for coffee growers to reinvest in their farms with confidence today.  That’s where our fixed-price contracts come in.

Unless we are explicitly asked to do so by our partners, we never contract coffee based on differential pricing.  Our preference for fixed-price contracts is related to our central commitment to quality.  We believe each of the first three tiers of quality in our model — A, AA and AAA, where A is the lowest and AAA is the highest — have an intrinsic value as defined in part by what the market will bear.  We have settled into narrow graduated price bands for each of these tiers that remains stable year-over-year independent of what may be happening in the futures market.

Combined with the price premiums we pay for quality, our fixed-price contracts help to deliver prices that are high enough to ensure growers earn a profit on every pound of coffee they sell us and stable enough for them to be able to accurately predict their coffee earnings over multiple seasons and make business decisions accordingly.

Our approach to pricing and contracting gives coffee growers something that is invaluable in a marketplace characterized by uncertainty: the ability to plan confidently for the future.

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This post is the fourth in a series of seven summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.

 

The signal and the noise

Arguably the most important principle of our Direct Trade model is the one implied in the name: a commitment to direct engagement with the farmers who grow our coffees.

Collectively, the buyers on our sourcing team routinely log a quarter-million miles a year traveling to visit with more than 50 Direct Trade partners in 14 countries.   This commitment to tireless travel grew out one of the company’s early insights: that our influence over quality would always be limited if we were only controlling variables related to the roasting and extraction processes.  We came to understand that the quality frontier of a coffee is determined primarily by the ingredient, the raw agricultural product that we purchase. This insight set us on a collision course with coffee’s origins and direct collaboration with growers as part of our commitment to source, roast and serve the very best coffees in the world.

It is a commitment that amplifies the market signals transmitted to growers and reduces the noise.  With no intermediation of the conversation between growers and buyers, there is no distortion of the complex messages we send growers on issues of quality, volume, price, communications, innovation and more.  

Think of the common salon game Telephone: a simple message is whispered from one person to the next around a dinner table, and the distortions, sometimes radical, are the source of some entertainment.  Now consider that we generally play this game with friends who share the frame of cultural reference and same language, and often a similar social class and education level.  Imagine what happens when that game is stretched across continents, time zones, cultures, languages and social class, and rarely played in real-time.  And now consider what happens when the messages being conveyed are nuanced.  Clearly, the potential for distortion is higher when coffee-related communication is conducted through a network of supply-chain intermediaries, and the likelihood of crisp execution of innovation projects is lower.

In my previous work in the international development space, I felt like this basic commitment to being there, which seems so simple, was everything.  Anything seemed possible when communication was direct and unfiltered. I used to liken it to a professor telling you what questions would be on an exam before it was administered: it was still possible you could fail, but that failure would be a direct result of your preparation and execution, not one of understanding what was expected of you.

Direct engagement is not necessarily sufficient on its own to build a lasting relationship.  A roaster still needs to deliver a compelling value proposition to growers. But it sure helps to build the trust and mutual understanding on which the best and most enduring relationships are based.

As a development professional, I found myself consistently privileging collaboration with roasters, like Intelligentsia, that made this commitment to direct engagement precisely because it delivered so much value to the growers with whom I worked.  That perspective was validated during my first year as Intelligentsia’s Director of Sourcing when I sent a survey to our Direct Trade partners: they identified the regular visits of our buyers as one of the most significant sources of value created by our Direct Trade model.

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This post is the third in a series of seven summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.  Image courtesy wikicommons media.

The Four Horsemen

Beginning about a decade ago, the term resilience began a steady climb to ascendancy in the field of international development.  In that domain, resilience refers to the ability of disadvantaged people to draw on different forms of capital — financial, natural, physical and social — to limit their vulnerability to specific threats in a context fraught with risk.  

Resilience in coffee was an appropriate topic for the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit agenda because coffee growing is a risky business.  The list of risks facing coffee growers is seemingly endless. The four primary ones as we seem them at Intelligentsia — the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, perhaps — are the following:

Market risk | Risk associated with the failure of growers to respond to market trends or requirements, or to deliver coffee that meets market standards.  This category also includes the inefficiency and opportunity costs associated with failure of growers to find ready buyers for some or all of their coffee.

Price risk | Distinct from market risk, price risk is associated with price-discovery mechanisms and secular market conditions that keep coffee prices low, volatile, or both, as well as the implication of market uncertainty on a farmer’s willingness to invest in coffee.

Production risk | Risk associated with environmental shocks, significantly amplified in a period of accelerated climate change, that can include drought, frost, extreme weather events, pests and diseases, etc.

Foreign exchange risk | Risk associated with the appreciation of local currency against the U.S. dollar, in which contracts are generally denominated, which reduces the purchasing power of local currency.

The last of these issues is almost entirely beyond the control of coffee growers, depending in large measure on the monetary policy decisions of central banks that are supposed to be independent,  beyond the influence of domestic politics or the interests of specific sectors of the economy.

And while a grower’s practices, from the cultivars she chooses to plant to the way she manages them on her farm, can mitigate production risks, climate change creates a dynamic threat environment in which yesterday’s best practices may not be sufficient to combat today’s threats or anticipate tomorrow’s.  We participate proudly in the WCR Checkoff Program as an investment in the tools and technologies coffee growers need to adapt to climate change, but given the stickiness of our fossil fuel habit as a species and the collective neglect of research as an industry, we are all playing catch-up.  

If there is any good news here for growers, it is that each of the overarching principles on which our Direct Trade model is built — and some of the specific ways it is implemented at Intelligentsia — go a long way to helping mitigate the first two categories of risk.  I start exploring those principles tomorrow.

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This post is the second of seven in a series summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.

Risk, resilience and Direct Trade

Last month, I was invited by old friends at the Sustainable Food Lab to join its annual Leadership Summit in Mexico.  SFL is an extraordinary Vermont-based non-profit that is so unique it is hard to characterize. For my part, I would call it a membership organization devoted to fostering pre-competitive multi-stakeholder engagement and cross-sector collaboration to make global food systems more sustainable.  The SFL platform supports organizational learning and innovation and convenes “safe spaces” for exploration of key sustainability challenges and opportunities among leaders in food and beverage sector. Its members and collaborators include leading multinationals (think Mars, Pepsico and Unilever), leading global coffee brands (Nespresso, Keurig and Starbucks), research institutions in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research like CIAT and CIMMYT, non-profits and ministries of agriculture.

Every year, SFL convenes its members and special guests to explore a salient topic through a combination field visits and two days to work.  The theme of the 2018 Leadership Summit was Leadership for Resilient Agriculture, with a clear focus on production risk in a period of accelerated climate change.  It emphasized coffee as a sector that is both uniquely vulnerable in Mexico and a priority in the agriculture ministry’s new long-term agriculture development strategy.  The Summit included a field visit to coffee farms and projects in Chiapas and two plenary sessions focused on coffee. I was invited to join one of those plenary sessions devoted to an exploration of business models and the role of private-sector actors in contributing to greater resilience in the coffee sector.

Over the coming days, I will summarize my contribution to the SFL Summit in a series of posts here examining the way our Direct Trade model helps to make coffee growers in our supply chain more resilient by helping mitigate certain risks that most growers face, beginning tomorrow with a taxonomy of what we consider to be the primary sources of risk in coffee farming.

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This post is the first of seven in a series summarizing our participation in the Sustainable Food Lab 2018 Leadership Summit and exploring the ways our Direct Trade model helps to reduce the risks faced by coffee growers.  Follow the links below to the remaining posts in the series.

2 | The Four Horsemen | Introducing the four principal sources of farmer risk, as we see them at Intelligentsia: market risk, price risk, production risk and foreign exchange risk.

3 | The signal and the noise | How the direct part of Direct Trade creates value and mitigates risk by amplifying the signal and reducing the noise the market sends to origin.

4 | Escaping the commodity trap | How the mutual commitment to quality on which our Direct Trade relationships are based, and our commitment to quality incentives and fixed prices, hedge market risk and seize market opportunity.

5 | Busting the microlot myth | Taking on the most pervasive, persistent and pernicious myth about Direct Trade — that it is all about microlots.

6 | ECW: What’s risk got to do with it? | Our annual supply chain gathering is more than an exploration of the sources of extraordinary coffee — it actively hedges market risk for growers.

7 | Being there | Direct engagement, annual visits, quality premiums, fixed prices, multi-grade contracts, ECW — each one of these practices mitigates risk for growers. Together, they represent a source of significant value and contribute to farmer resilience. But they are most powerful in the context of stable, long-term relationships.

Ad Lucem | A Journal of Coffee Illumination

I joined Intelligentsia just over 18 months ago because I thought it had the best sourcing program in the business, and still some room for improvement.  The idea that I might contribute to that process at a company with a pioneering Direct Trade program was too good to be true, but it wasn’t the only thing that attracted me.  I always loved the company’s brand and its commitment to progressive architecture and design.  I had the impression that the place was crawling with artists whose restless creativity found outlets in playfully designed posters and tee-shirts and paper cups and sleeves and just about any surface that could be printed on.  That the company’s merch category was created just to channel the company’s creative energies.  That it delighted in the chance to dazzle with the design of each new store.

Nothing I have seen since I have been here has disabused me of any of the ideas I had when I rolled in.  If anything, my experience as an insider has confirmed the impressions I had as an outsider. So over the past year or so, I have been developing an idea then working with some talented colleagues to create something beautiful at the intersection of these two abiding Intelli passions: sourcing amazing coffee from friends and driving progressive design.

The result is Ad Lucem, our occasional journal of coffee illumination, whose inaugural issue is focused on the 2017 edition of the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.  ECW is our annual gathering of our Direct Trade partners from around the world, and I can’t think of any better way to launch a coffee sourcing magazine than with a full issue devoted to the single event that best embodies the spirit and aspiration of our Direct Trade program.  It tells the story of our signature sourcing program event in few words, many gorgeous photos and a handful of carefully curated data points that convey the essence of our ninth ECW, like the ones in the 2017 ECW Edition of Axioma below.

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There are precious few of these magazines in circulation, as most were reserved for our Direct Trade partners who were in attendance.  Copies will be floating around our Coffeebars soon, however, so be sure to ask to flip through this inaugural issue.  Meantime, have a look at the virtual copy here.

And stay tuned for Ad Lucem No. 2, which will focus on the Southern Hemisphere coffees we sourced this year, featuring field photos and notes taken by our green coffee buyers during their sourcing trips, articles on the culture of coffee’s origins, original infographics, and always killer design.  Ad Lucem No. 2 will be available for purchase and is scheduled for release in May.

Introducing Flor de Março

Today we celebrate the inaugural releases of two single-origin coffees: our Port of Mokha Al-Jabal Yemen Special Selection and our Flor de Março Brazil Limited Release.  The coffees come from origins that could not be less alike.  But they have three things in common.  They are both delicious and represent the best of their respective origins.  They are both fly-crop coffees.  And they are both likely to become permanent fixtures on our expanding single-origin menu.

From our President and Green Coffee Buyer for Brazil James McLaughlin:

Flor de Março, which translates literally to March Flower, is a bit of an environmental freak. The coffee in Espirito Santo region flowers in November. Nine months after the coffee tree flowers, the farmer will have cherries ready to pick.

But in the mountains of Espirito Santo where we sourced this lot of smallholder coffee, there is a second flowering four months later. While it is common for a coffee tree to have multiple flowerings, it is unusual that they are separated by a four-month period. This gap in time means that the coffee from the March flowering matures under very different climatic conditions than the November flowering. For example, the March coffee does not experience the dry conditions from November to April and it is maturing through the rainy season. For reasons we don’t fully understand yet, these environmental differences have a dramatic impact on the coffee’s flavor. We have cupped coffees from the same farm from multiple flowerings—one from the November flowering and another from the March flowering—and the March flowering is almost always better, and not by a small margin.  Coffees from the March flowering routinely outscore their November counterparts by five points or more!

The Flor de Março coffees have some of our favorites from Brazil. Over the past two seasons, we have been working patiently to develop relationships with a small group of family farmers in Espirito Santo who share our commitment to quality.  As we expand our project in Espirito Santo in the years ahead, we will have steadily more coffees from what is probably the most exciting and under-appreciated coffee region in Brazil. In the meantime, enjoy this release and celebrate the impact that Mother Nature has on flavor!

A most improbable coffee

We introduced you a few weeks ago here to the impossible-but-true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali and his Quixotic quest to bring the ancient art of Yemeni coffee into the 21st century.

Dave Eggers tells a longer version of that story over more than 300 spellbinding pages in his bestselling book The Monk of Mokha.

Reading about how Mokhtar chased his dream across continents and cultures and into the upheaval of a civil war may instill some respect for Yemen’s storied coffee history, its ancient culture and the extraordinary work of his company Port of Mokha to bring Yemeni coffee to market against long odds.

But the best way to appreciate Yemeni coffee and Port of Mokha’s heroic work to revive it, of course, is to taste it.  And today we begin taking orders for a stunning lot of coffee that speaks more about Yemen’s coffee than all the words in the world.

It is a natural-process peaberry from the fly crop in Al-Jabal—a small second harvest produced by a modest second flowering of the coffee plants in the region—that tastes to us like cherry, applesauce and blackberry.  The idea that a lot from Yemen like this one—a tiny lot of peaberry seed, harvested at peak ripeness from the country’s second flowering, sorted with meticulous care and traced to its source—could be had at all, let alone delivered while still fresh, would have been laughable even a year or two ago. And yet, here it is.  Grab this unlikely lot of coffee while it lasts: there are fewer than 200 pounds available this year on planet Earth.

Buy our Port of Mokha Al-Jabal Yemen Special Selection HERE.

Buy a copy of The Monk of Mokha signed by Mokhtar and Dave Eggers HERE.

Buy both and save a cool 15% on the total.

 

Musings on The Monk of Mokha

The only real complaint I have about The Monk of Mokha, a new book by the incomparable Dave Eggers, is this: it ended too soon.   I packed it for my recent flight to Nicaragua, and read the whole thing before I landed, leaving myself nothing to read for the rest of the week.

Eggers tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American born into trying circumstances in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, where he learned to hustle but steadfastly refused to learn much else, shirking schoolwork in favor of all the other temptations making claims on the attention of a boy prone to mischief in a city crowded with temptations.  More specifically, it tells the impossible-but-true of how Mokhtar stumbled out of his early-20s ennui into coffee, tumbled down the coffee rabbit hole and chased an audacious dream of ushering the ancient Yemeni coffee sector into the effervescent 21st-century specialty coffee scene.  The tension in the story comes from the formidable obstacles that stood between Mokhtar and his dream.  Trifles, really.  Like, he didn’t know the first thing about coffee.  And he was broke.  Worse than broke, actually, he was in debt.  Oh, and this: Yemen, the place where he was going to source his coffee, was in the grips of a bloody civil war.

Mokhtar emerges as part Quixote, part Magoo, part Bond, chasing a ghost recklessly into the path of car bombings, aerial bombings, rebel uprisings and a popular counter-insurgency, only to talk his way out of trouble again and again like a tested agent.  Sometimes, Eggers suggests, his pursuit of his dream was used by others to advance their own dark ends.  Other times, Mokhtar dragged unknowing accomplices with him into harm’s way, but he never left a man behind.

This is clearly a love story: a breathtaking, heart-pounding, swashbuckling love story, to be sure, but unmistakably a love story.  It is the story of Mokhtar’s love of the idea of Yemeni coffee, and his stubborn refusal to bow to fear or pragmatism as he pursues it.

There are minor points throughout the book related to coffee farming or processing with which a coffee professional may choose to quibble, but not me.  I will take issue here with only one brief passage in the book: the one in which Eggers marvels at the number of coffee growers, which he suggests reaches the “tens of thousands.”

The number of people who grow coffee, of course, is an order of magnitude larger, not tens of thousands but tens of millions. And Eggers doesn’t even consider the tens of millions more who earn a living more precariously as coffee farmworkers.

But if Eggers underreports the scope of participation in the coffee-growing enterprise, he is guilty only of faulty accounting.  It is hard to imagine he would do anything to undercut the heroic efforts of the coffee growers he has come to respect every bit as much as Mokhtar has.

In the end, Mokhtar isn’t the only one in this love story who falls hard for coffee.  In researching and telling Mokhtar’s story, Eggers gets hooked, too.  This remarkable and moving passage is testament to the work behind every cup of coffee we enjoy, and evidence of Eggers’ own conversion.

Everywhere along the line there were people involved.  Farmers who planted and monitored and cared for and pruned and fertilized their trees.  Pickers who walked among the rows of plants, in the mountains’ thin air, taking the cherries, only the red cherries, placing them one by one in their buckets and baskets.  Workers who processed the cherries, most of that work done by hand, too, fingers removing the sticky mucilage from each bean.  There were the humans who dried the beans.  Who turned them on the drying beds to make sure they dried evenly.  Then those who sorted the dried beans, the good beans from the bad.  Then the humans who bagged these sorted beans.  Bagged them in bags that kept them fresh, bags that retained the flavor without adding unwanted tastes and aromas.  The humans who tossed the bagged beans on trucks.  The humans who took the bags off the trucks and put them into containers and onto ships.  The humans who took the beans from the ships and put them on different trucks.  The humans who took the bags from the trucks and brought them into the roasteries in Tokyo and Chicago and Trieste.  The humans who roasted each batch.  The humans who packed smaller batches into smaller bags for purchase by those who might want to grind and brew at home.  Or the humans who did the grinding at the coffee shop and then painstakingly brewed and poured the coffee or espresso or cappuccino.

Any given cup of coffee, then, might have been touched by twenty hands, from farm to cup, yet these cups only cost two or three dollars.  Even a four-dollar cup was miraculous, given how many people were involved, and how much individual human attention and expertise was lavished on the beans dissolved in that four-dollar cup.

The author admits that he was a specialty coffee skeptic when he started his work on the book. One of the not inconsequential number of people who aren’t seduced by the elaborate rituals of specialty or the passion of its adherents, but put off by the fussiness and, perhaps occasionally, repelled by the sanctimony of people who are passionate about the craft of coffee. But Eggers is finally won over, both by Mokhtar, in his single-minded devotion to it, the millions of people who produce it with their hands and by coffee culture itself.

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Purchase copies of The Monk of Mokha signed by the author and Mokhtar Alkhanshali HERE while they last.

A new Yemeni coffee story

THE COFFEE

From our Vice President of Coffee and Green Coffee Buyer for Yemen, Geoff Watts:

Yemen’s coffee culture is the stuff of myth. It appears in the pages of texts of the ancient world as the legendary source of coffee. Yemen may be the most fascinating of all the many coffee-producing countries on Earth, given its ancient culture and its pivotal role in the story of humankind’s relationship with coffee. It holds a sacred place among coffee historians who immerse themselves in the emotional and cultural past of our beloved tree.  But for most of us, Yemeni coffee is relegated to the realm of the imagination.

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If Yemen’s coffee sector is epic, it is also ironic: Yemen is the true birthplace of the global coffee trade, but its coffees remain mostly unknown in a world gone mad for coffee.

The trade ships that docked at Mocha inserted coffee grown and roasted in Yemen into the slipstream of maritime commerce at a time in the Middle Ages when it was unknown beyond a narrow range of latitudes. It became the center of origin for coffee’s diaspora, sending roasted coffee to the world and seed for the first time to many of the more than 70 countries Coffea Arabica now inhabits. Yemen is home to some of the most intriguing heirloom coffee types still in production, yet is almost entirely disconnected from the specialty coffee movement and inaccessible to most consumers.  Truly well-crafted Yemeni coffee is a genuine white whale for even the most dedicated and persistent industry professionals, who routinely go to extreme lengths to track down elusive and unlikely coffees.  

How has such a mythical coffee origin remained on the margins of the marketplace during specialty coffee’s dramatic push into mainstream consumer culture over the past few decades? Political and civil instability, security issues, cultural barriers, language and basic travel logistics play a role: they have stood in the way of the kind of real-time connectivity with growers that has driven advances in specialty coffee elsewhere. The production model itself is also a challenge: farms extremely small in scale, located in especially remote and hard-to-reach mountain communities present significant obstacles to development and outsized risk for anyone looking to engage. Furthermore, most farmers in Yemen are working in relative isolation and have not been exposed to technologies or strategies for managing quality. Most still cultivate and process coffee in a manner that has endured with little change for centuries, and are largely unaware of all the transformations that have taken place in the quality coffee marketplace.  What little coffee makes it off the farms with most of its quality intact gets mixed with dozens of other, less attractive coffees before ever leaving the country. If a lot of fine coffee ever manages to run the gauntlet and make it into the hands of a quality-focused roaster, it usually comes bearing no verifiable connection to those who grew it and so degraded in quality as a result of age and exposure to damaging environmental conditions that whatever made it exciting in the first place is a distant memory: quality lost in an unfortunate vapor trail, with just a trace of quality remaining to tease us with the thought of what it might have been and to keep us chasing the ghost.

For nearly two decades I’ve looked forward to the day that we could roast and serve a Yemeni coffee that met our standards for quality and traceability. The potential is tantalizing. Yemen boasts heirloom coffee types that exist nowhere else on Earth.  They are grown in near desert-like conditions at extreme elevations under improbable conditions, but have somehow manage to survive for centuries against long odds. These ancient trees have adapted and learned to live in an especially inhospitable habitat, and the seed they yield is the product of environmental stressors unlike those anywhere else in the coffeelands.

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Today, Yemen is a stage set for old stories and new: the resumption of the romantic tale of the genesis of the coffee trade born of the collision of cultures, and a new narrative of creation centered on exhilarating and utterly unique flavors. The new Yemeni coffee story bridges a fascinating history with a hopeful future. It is a story of discovery and risk, persistence and extraordinary effort, the story of one man who went looking to reconnect with his own heritage and unlock some of the latent potential he knew existed in the country of his birth.  

Mokhtar Alkhanshali fell in love with an idea: he believed that he could play a role in helping to bring Yemeni coffee back to prominence and, in doing so, create new opportunity for thousands of farmers in his homeland for whom growing coffee was an intensely meaningful part of life, but not a meaningful source of income.   Mokhtar traveled to Yemen and spent years building relationships and laying the groundwork that would allow him to awaken an industry that had drifted into a state of dormancy and reveal the unique quality of Yemeni coffee to a new global market following decades of isolation.

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Not unlike Yemen’s coffee trees, which managed to bear mouthwatering fruit despite exceptionally challenging conditions, Mokhtar himself overcame profound odds to bring delicious coffees from a forgotten origin to a generation of coffee lovers who never had the chance to know them.    

Thanks to Mokhtar’s efforts and those of his dedicated team, great Yemeni coffee is no longer the stuff myth.  Today it is a spectacular, unforgettable experience within our reach that provides a visceral link back to the ancient origins of the coffee industry. Bravo!

This coffee is now available for pre-order HERE.  Orders received by 3 pm on Friday, 2 February will roast and ship on Monday, 5 February.  If we have any coffee left after that, we will fulfill web orders weekly on Wednesdays.

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THE STORY

Geoff alludes to the “profound odds” Mokhtar overcame to get his coffee business off the ground.  That ordinary language obscures an extraordinary ordeal: a harrowing episode during one of Mokhtar’s early sourcing visits in which he found himself trapped by civil war in Yemen’s capital and cut off from his contacts at the U.S. Embassy.  He navigated his way to the coast and arranged a cinematic escape by boat across the Red Sea.  Despite the peril, Mokhtar found time for a selfie as he sped to safety.

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We weren’t the only ones spellbound by Mokhtar’s story.  The award-winning writer Dave Eggers tells Mokhtar’s story in a new book released today and titled Monk of Mokha.

From the publisher:

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We are delighted to offer copies of Monk of Mohka signed by Mokhtar and the author, Dave Eggers, HERE.
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