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.

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2014: Ethiopia

By 2014, our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop had done two turns in the United States and visits to Brasil, Colombia and El Salvador.  It was time for the primal return to the place where it all started: Ethiopia.

The ECW format by then had settled comfortably into a format it mostly maintains today, including exploration of the host country’s culture, joint sensory exercises, field visits and conversations about quality.

Cultural Anthropology

ECW provides participants an opportunity to explore the culture of coffee’s origins, including its art, dance, food and drink.  These cultural markers do not affect coffee’s intrinsic quality, but they are symbols we draw on, consciously or unconsciously, when we enjoy coffees from a specific place.  Ethiopia’s cultural markers are so distinctive and ancient that they weigh heavily on our minds as we enjoy its exceptionally sweet and complex coffees.

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ECW also explicitly considers each host country’s coffee culture, and the contributions it has made to global coffee culture.  And there can be little argument with the idea that no country has given more to global coffee culture than Ethiopia, which gave us Arabica coffee itself, as well as the most ancient and elegant of all coffee ceremonies.  The country’s forests are the source of coffee’s greatest genetic diversity, a source of inestimable flavor and wealth; it coffee ceremony is captivating and rich, even when led by a Bolivian.

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Cupping

When you work through three dozen Direct Trade partners scattered across more than one dozen countries, the opportunity for chainwide sensory calibration doesn’t come around very often.  That’s why we seize the opportunity at ECW to cup, and cup and cup some more together with our partners.  Cupping in Ethiopia, with easy access to its unrivaled diversity of varieties, refracted through the lenses of varied post-harvest processes to create a dizzying array of flavors, was too good to be true.

 

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Field visits

And of course, there is no better place to be with a collection of some of the world’s most accomplished coffee farms than on coffee farms.  Something magical happens when growers from different countries get together in a coffee field.  The distances between their own farms somehow evaporate and they are transported to some strange interstitial space bound by their knowledge of and passion for coffee.  A former colleague used to tease me about the use of the term “origin” to describe the universe of places where coffee is grown.  He said it sounds a little like “Narnia.”  In this respect, maybe he was right: when ECW participants step onto a farm together, it is as if we had passed through the back of a supernatural wardrobe into a place where only coffee matters.  Adrenaline surges, attention is focused and conversations flow naturally about how things are done at home, how they are done in Ethiopia and the merits of each approach.   The same goes for the mill, where we buyers layer in our own perspectives on green coffee and processing practices to enrich the conversation even further. The experience was especially surreal in Ethiopia, where the coffee plants, unkempt, old and downright decrepit in comparison to the manicured farms of Brasil and Colombia, incongruously produced flavors sweeter and more floral than anything people produced back home.  Adding to the mystique were the outsized distanced participants traveled together to get there.

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Communications

Communications are something it is easy to talk about but exceedingly hard to do well.  In a business like ours, which is centered on a commitment to continue to push the outer bounds of innovation and flavor in coffee to redefine the concept of quality, it is especially hard.  When you further consider that we source coffee from more than a dozen countries on three continents, communications become precarious indeed.  I like to think how many times communications break down in a parlor game of telephone among as few as six or eight family members or friends.  Now imagine communicating around elusive concepts of coffee quality across time zones, borders, cultural differences and language barriers.  Yikes!  Just as we do with our cupping exercises during ECW, we use the event to communicate as clearly as possible to achieve alignment around a shared definition of quality and other items relevant to our business and our trading relationships.  So we spend lots of time talking and listening, teaching and inspiring one another around an evolving concept of quality.  Ethiopia was unique in the diversity of ECW presenters and arguably had more content driven by members of our Direct Trade network than any other ECW event.

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Also, THIS happened at ECW 2014 in Ethiopia.

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For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2013: Brasil

I find the photos from our fourth annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop in Brasil so beautiful, I don’t want to detract from them with words.

Behold, ECW 2013:

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For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2012: Farm Friday in Chicago

In 2011, we hosted our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop in Los Angeles.  It was the first time we had convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world in the United States, and we wanted to seize the opportunity to flip the script: instead of Intelligentsia buyers walking their farms asking them lots of questions about how they grow and process their coffee, we turned our roasters over to them and let them ask us lots of questions about how we roast their coffee as they got their hands on the controls.

In 2012, when ECW returned to the United States, we decided to take it one step further.  We wanted to close the circle and bring both ends of our supply chain together, so we put our Direct Trade partners behind the bar to brew coffee and pull shots in our coffeebars in Chicago for our retail guests.  We called it Farm Friday, and Intelli staff who were part of it tell me today, five years later, that it was still one of the greatest experiences they have had in coffee.  As the photo suggests, the growers were kind of into it, too.

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This was quintessential ECW: illuminate coffee by helping growers see it from different perspectives.  Catalyze big leaps forward in how growers understand coffee by taking them out of the contexts they know and thrusting them into new environments.  Usually this means temporarily relocating them to the origin countries that host our ECW events.  That is perhaps only mildly disorienting.   There are big differences between how coffee is grown, processed and brought to market in Ethiopia and El Salvador, of course, but it is still coffee, after all.  In this case, it meant growers moved for a day from one end of the supply chain to the other — maximum disorientation.  These deliberate shocks are meant to help growers understand how what they do fits into the whole and to experience how we bring their coffees to market.

And sometimes we move beyond coffee altogether, seeking insight from industries that bear some similarities to coffee, or from companies in industries that have nothing to do with coffee but share the values and commitment to quality that we share with our Direct Trade partners.  In Chicago, that meant visiting with our neighbor and collaborator Goose Island Beer and tasting teas with our colleagues from Kilogram Tea.

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Sometimes, our partners emerge from experiences like these reaffirmed in the way they go about their business.  On other occasions, they come to see their way of doing coffee as constrained by tradition, and pursue innovations inspired by ECW.

That’s another important aspect of ECW: inspiration.  We believe our Direct Trade partners are some of the most talented coffee growers in the world.  And we aren’t the only ones: there are many Cup of Excellence winners in their ranks, as well as Good Food Award winners and growers who have fetched astronomical prices at auction.  Bringing together growers of this caliber is a big part of the draw of ECW: participants come in large measure to interact with and learn from other participants.  The inspire one another to do more and to continue to innovate in the name of quality, and we are all better off because of it.

For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2011: Food and Family in Los Angeles

Each year over the past eight years, we have convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world for our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.

During those events, we have shot tens of thousands of photos, most of which are still in our digital archives.  There are action shots that illustrate the agronomic or post-harvest practices we have found to contribute to improvements in cup quality: harvesting only bright red cherry, immaculate sorting, shaded raised-bed drying, etc.  There are stirring coffee landscapes.  Striking portraits of farmers, alone or in unlikely groups of people drawn together by ECW from countries that lie half a planet apart.  And of course, plenty of the kinds of silly photos we take when we are with good friends and lower our guard.  Of all the amazing ECW images in our files, this may be my favorite one of all.  I love it because it embodies the essence of ECW and of our trading model more broadly, while also hinting at one of the dominant themes of the 2011 ECW in Los Angeles.

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WE ARE FAMILY

We recently concluded our Northern Hemisphere buying season.  More than 70 percent of all the Northern Hemisphere coffee we purchased was sourced through relationships that are five years old or older.  More than 60 percent from relationships that are 10 years old or older.  And a handful of our longest-standing Direct Trade relationships turned 15 over the past year.  That’s a long time.

Think about the people in your life you have seen at least once (and usually two or three times) a year for a period of 15 years.  People with whom you have shared intimate moments, set goals, taken risks, celebrated successes and coped with failures.  We have seen each other’s businesses and families grow.  We consider the growers in our Direct Trade network more than merely commercial partners, and ECW more than just a business meeting.  They are family, and ECW is an annual family reunion.  This photo of everyone in our Direct Trade family breaking bread together during ECW in Los Angeles may be more illustrative of the spirit of our Direct Trade model and ECW than all the coffee photos we have.

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COFFEE IS CULINARY

From its origins, Intelligentsia has advanced the idea that coffee is a culinary product, just as complex as wine and just as worthy of wine’s position in the culinary landscape.  Over the past 20 years, as we have worked to position coffee that way, we have learned more and more about where great coffee comes from, and we have invested all along the supply chain in the people who make it great, from the farms where our Direct Trade coffees are grown to the coffeebars where they are brewed to order.  Our goal isn’t just to unlock all the latent potential for sweetness and flavor in our coffees, but to elevate them by giving them the presentation they deserve and changing the way consumers think about coffee.  At ECW 3 in Los Angeles, we partnered with chefs — the rock stars in our food systems — to make that point for us through a six-course tasting menu that featured a fresh-crop single-origin coffee from our menu with each dish.  This shot for me is a nod to our aspiration to elevate the way our coffee is sourced, served and perceived in a marketplace that values terroir, traceability and flavor.

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ECW 2011 @ SPRUDGE

For more on our 2011 Extraordinary Coffee Workshop in Los Angeles, read the Sprudge event recap here.  Still want more detail?  Click on the titles below to read all the stories Sprudge filed during its wall-to-wall coverage of the event:

  • IntelliLA: Extraordinary Coffee Workshop
    The Sprudge introduction to ECW, with this summary conclusion: “We’ve been doing this for a long time, so please, believe us when we say that this event is utterly unique and special.”
  • IntelliLA: ECW International Roast-Off
    We wanted to use the first ECW ever held in the United States to give our Direct Trade partners a better sense of what we do at our end of the supply chain, so we handed them the keys to our roasters as the Sprudge scribes looked on.

For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2010: Exploring El Salvador

When I was in graduate school, I attended a lecture by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders.  He told the audience that all his films have the same protagonist: the place in which they are shot.   I have only seen a few of his movies, but every one of them was a nuanced, alluring and affectionate study of the places where they are set, whether it was Cold War Berlin, the ancient streets of Lisbon, Castro’s Cuba or Paris, Texas.  The locations are not mere backdrops, they are characters unto themselves; the context of his films is at least as important as the content. It’s kind of like that with our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop: exploring the coffee culture of the countries where we convene ECW each year is an important part of the experience.

When ECW migrated north from Colombia to El Salvador in 2010, our exploration of the country’s coffee culture was in good hands.  It turns out that some of our earliest Direct Trade partners in the world are from Salvadoran families with impeccable coffee pedigrees: Eduardo Álvarez of El Borbollón, Epe Álvarez of Malacara and Vickie Díaz Dalton of Finca Matalapa.

 

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Malacara and Matalapa are both more than a century old.  Santa Ana has long been the epicenter of El Salvador’s coffee sector, and Malacara, established in 1888, is one of its oldest and most emblematic estates.

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The Malacara brand was registered in Germany, a destination for its exports, in 1929. Here are the original documents to prove it.
The Malacara brand was registered in Germany, a destination for its exports, in 1929. Here are the original documents to prove it.

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Finca Matalapa is an institution in nearby La Libertad, and dates back to the early days of El Salvador’s coffee sector.  Its owner, Vickie Díaz Dalton, is an antique collector with a good eye and a reverence for the country’s coffee traditions.  She and her husband Francisco keep an impressive collection of antiques on the farm, including much of the working equipment at its century-old mill, Beneficio Paraíso.

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The El Borbollón mill bridges the generation gap and blends respect for El Salvador’s coffee traditions with a progressive experimental streak.  Its owner, Eduardo Álvarez, is a contemporary and cousin of Epe’s; both come from the same long line of coffee growers.  Eduardo’s son and namesake has taken the reins on recent innovations, including shaded raised-bed drying, that update traditional practices.

In fact, Epe and Eduardo have collaborated over the past five years on a process of innovation that was catalyzed by ECW’s commitment to put the host country and its coffee culture on center stage.  Over the past four harvests, we have purchased single-variety SL-28 lots grown by Epe at Malacara and processed by Eduardo at El Borbollón, where they were dried on raised beds: a Kenyan variety grown in El Salvador and dried at a Salvadoran mill using Kenyan technology.  Our commitment to elevate the best practices of every country ECW visits was conceived with precisely this type of transfer in mind.

For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

ECW 2009: Woodstock for Coffee

The first Intelligentsia Extraordinary Coffee Workshop was held in 2009 in Cauca, Colombia, on Camilo Merizalde’s Finca Santuario. It was something like an intimate version of Woodstock for coffee: a spontaneous gathering on a remote farm, lacking in foresight, infrastructure and creature comforts, but exuberant, inspirational and unforgettable.

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The host, Camilo Merizalde, recalls that he casually mentioned to his wife that he was planning to have some friends over to the farm for a few days. When she asked how many, he did a quick mental calculation, and suggested it would be between 40 and 50!

The inspiration for that original gathering came from our Vice President of Coffee Geoff Watts, who by then had spent more than five years tirelessly traveling the globe, visiting each of our Direct Trade partners as many as three or four times a year. He was using his camera and laptop to capture images and descriptions of things that informed him, inspired him, or both, with a special focus on things that seemed to be unique to a specific place. Using the images and notes on his laptop as pollen, Geoff became a kind of coffee bee who carried ingenious ideas and promising practices from one place to another: effective agronomic practices, creative approaches to harvesting, innovations in post-harvest infrastructure and processing, and much more. Over time, his wings started to tire, and he wondered whether there was a better approach to cross-pollinization, a more effective way to foster the exchange of ideas and practices across the sprawling Direct Trade network he was building. The answer was ECW.

Since that first gathering on Camilo’s farm in Colombia back in 2009, ECW has traveled to El Salvador (2010), Los Angeles (2011), Chicago (2012), Brazil (2013),  Ethiopia (2014), Guatemala (2015) and Costa Rica (2016).

Over the coming days, I will post images and reflections from past ECW events as we count down to the start of ECW 2017, which be held 25-29 September at our Roasting Works in San Francisco.

For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia podcast.

Buyers Notebook: Los Delirios Nicaragua

As I write this, a collection of coffee giants is stalking the halls of our Chicago Roasting Works: George Howell, Susie Spindler, Paul Songer, Darrin Daniel and members of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence Board of Directors.  The folks who bring you the Cup of Excellence are squirreled away here for a strategic planning retreat: after staging more than 100 competitions and generating over $50 million in farmer revenues from the auction of nearly 3,000 winning lots since 1999, they are taking stock and looking ahead at the next stage in the life of the organization.  As they do, it is hard to imagine a case more emblematic of the COE’s success than that of the Canales family of Nicaragua.

The ideas of lot separation and financial incentives for quality-based differentiation that drive the specialty market today were still in their infancy when the first official COE was held in Nicaragua in 2002.  That inaugural COE event provided a powerful validation of those two concepts and delivered a message that every COE in the intervening 15 years has amplified: while investment in quality may involve some risk, it also carries the possibility of significant reward.  In fact, in a market characterized by chronically volatile and often-low prices, a quality-first strategy may be the only one that makes sense for all but the most efficient and industrialized production models.

Consider the backdrop of that first COE event.  In 2001, the coffee-market free-fall hit rock bottom: futures contracts were trading at as little as 43 cents per pound.

Less than a year later, the top-scoring lot at the 2002 COE in Nicaragua fetched $11.75 per pound at auction.  (We paid $3.65/lb. for the lot that finished third that year.)

These outcomes were exciting, worthy of celebration and important landmarks on the long march toward coffee quality.  But for us at Intelligentsia, it was in 2004 when the COE in Nicaragua delivered on its real promise to challenge conventional wisdom on the issue of coffee quality and to catalyze lasting relationships rooted in mutual commitment to coffee quality.

That year the winning lot came from a farm in Esteli called Los Delirios that belongs to Daniel Canales.  It earned an average score of 91.4 and the highest price ever earned at auction in Nicaragua: $12.50 a pound.  But that wasn’t the big news out of the 2004 COE.  The big news was that the winning lot was, wait for it: certified organic.  It was the first time top honors at the COE had ever been awarded to an organic coffee.  It quieted a rising chorus of naysaying and challenged the widely held belief that organic coffee couldn’t be great.

We split that winning lot with our friends at Stumptown and have never looked back.  We are now in our 14th season of collaboration with the Canales family and still working together every year to improve quality and deliver more value to one another.  (Along the way, the Canales family has also done plenty for the planet, reinvesting again and again to expand the coffee farm by turning cow pastures into coffee forests.)

Too often, it seems auctions like the COE and countless others that it has inspired are seen by growers as lotteries and by buyers as novelties: growers looking for a one-time windfall that will erase a fistful of tough years seek buyers looking to build their quality bona fides through one-off purchases of unique coffees at sumptuous prices, with a general tendency toward the fetishization of coffee.  In Nicaragua, Intelligentsia and the Canales family have seen the COE as something a little less Tinder and a little more Match.com: a mechanism to can help growers and roasters with shared values seeking long-term relationships find each other in a marketplace that is crowded and noisy.

The most recent episode of our Buyers Notebook podcast features perspectives on Los Delirios from our Vice President of Coffee Geoff Watts, who used COE to jump-start Intelligentsia’s relationship with the Canales family back in 2004.  Since then, Daniel has passed the Los Delirios torch to his sons Milton, Norman and Donald, and Geoff has shared the green coffee buying duties for Nicaragua.  I contribute to the conversation a few thoughts of my own based on my experience this year pinch-hitting as Intelli’s green coffee buyer for Nicaragua, including a lengthy reflection on the family’s extraordinary record of environmental achievement: for more than three decades, the Canales clan has been reinvesting its coffee earnings in expanding its coffee operations, turning cow pastures into thriving agroforestry systems, as the before-and-after pictures below show.

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Listen to the Los Delirios Buyers Notebook podcast here.

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia Buyer’s Notebook: the stories behind our coffees in the words of the buyers themselves.

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Download the 2017 Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua coffee biography here.

Purchase Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua here.

 

Buyer’s Notebook: La Tortuga Honduras

Our La Tortuga Honduras takes its name and inspiration from the moral of Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.

In Central America, the hares are easy to spot.  The great estates of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala got a generational jump on their neighbors, planting their first seeds during the middle decades of the 19th century.  In some cases, those estates are still running strong today under the leadership of fifth and sixth-generation growers.  But this episode of the Intelligentsia Buyer’s Notebook celebrates the discreet charms of the tortoise.  Any lingering doubts about how Honduras stacks up to its fleeter-footed neighbors today were put to rest pretty definitively last year when Marysabel Caballero took top honors at the Honduras Cup of Excellence with a lot from Finca El Puente that set a COE record when it earned over $120 a pound.

Vice President of Coffee and Green Coffee Buyer for Honduras Geoff Watts tells the story of our La Tortuga Honduras and the extraordinary growers behind it, who made their way to the front of the pack through discipline, persistence and unwavering attention to detail: Don Fabio Caballero, his daughter Marysabel and her husband Moisés Herrera.

Listen to my conversation with Geoff about our La Tortuga Honduras here.

Subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud and never miss another Intelligentsia Buyer’s Notebook: the stories behind our coffees in the words of the buyers themselves.

 

Buyer’s Notebook: Flecha Roja Costa Rica

The Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast is back, and just in time: last week marked the start of a month-long run of delicious releases from our Northern Hemisphere partners in Mexico, Central America and East Africa.

Today we resume our Buyer’s Notebook series — conversations about our coffees with the buyers who sourced them — starting with J Mlodzinski, logistics manager and green coffee buyer for Costa Rica. In that role, J’s primary responsibility is buying lots for our Flecha Roja Costa Rica offering, a perennial favorite and an anchor of our Central America lineup. Since the inception of  the Flecha Roja I-mark, we have sourced it from our friends at Coopedota, a cooperative whose meticulous and progressive approach to everything it does make it, in the estimation of my colleagues here at Intelligentsia, the best in the world. After my inaugural visit with Coopedota last fall as part of our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, I found little reason to disagree with that assessment.

J and I discuss what makes Coopedota so special, which is only partly the specific practices it applies in the field, at the mill and in the way it runs its organization. The real secret of Coopedota’s success lies in something altogether less quantifiable — a culture that actively encourages members to pursue and achieve extraordinary outcomes at the individual, family and community levels. This commitment is revealed in many ways: engagement with visitors that is generous and spirited, coffee fields that are orderly and vigorous, a mill that hums with precision and efficiency, a spirit of experimentation and continuous improvement applied to everything the organization does, and, not least of all, the quality of its coffee.

Listen to my conversation with J here, or subscribe to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast on iTunes or Soundcloud to have each new episode delivered to your feed.

Either way, keep this page open on your browser as you listen to put some visuals with the audio.

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The sign.

Hand-painted by a worker in Coopedota’s mill, this gem now lives with us here in our Chicago Roasting Works: “A machine can do the work of 50 men, but no machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”

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The RueDota.

Coopedota’s solar-powered coffee Ferris Wheel: dries 4-6 times as much coffee as patio drying in its footprint, slows drying, boosts quality, looks cool.

RueDota

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Don Roberto Mata.

A natural born leader who helped instill a relentless pursuit of excellence at Coopedota over a period of more than 20 years.  We will miss you, friend!

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An Ethiopian Sensory Expedition

Last week, Gesha Village Coffee Estate in Ethiopia auctioned off 21 nanolots from its 2016/17 harvest.  Average scores for the best-scoring lots topped 91 points and prices were as high as $85 a pound.

Today we offer you the first two of four lots from the Gesha Village auction that we will release over the next few weeks.  One is washed and the other is natural, but both are Gesha 1931 varietals, both are from the Oma block of the farm and both are truly extraordinary.

The Variety: Gesha 1931

Varietal diversification in coffee is a thing.  Growers and roasters alike have come to understand that coffee genetics represent, together with environmental and management variables, a key determinant of flavor.  But it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, it is easy to forget that just 20 years ago, varietal diversification really wasn’t a thing in coffee.  Arguably no single moment was as pivotal in coffee’s understanding of the importance of variety than the emergence of Panamanian Geisha in 2004.

When Price, Rachel and Daniel Peterson stumbled onto a small stand of spindly coffee plants on their La Esmeralda estate that looked like nothing else on their farm (and tasted like nothing else on Earth), they rediscovered an ancient flavor set that traveled through time and space, with the help of some plant researchers, from Ethiopia to Panama.  The flavors in that coffee weren’t new, but the circumstances into which they were thrust were—a vibrant specialty coffee sector desperately seeking to push on the outer bounds of flavor.

The Geisha revolution set off a frenzied search for Geisha among coffee buyers and a primal pilgrimage to Ethiopia to find the source of that flavor.  The roads those buyers traveled converged in a wood in far western Ethiopia near a small town called Gesha in the forests where coffee was born and still grows wild.  Gesha 1931 is from this hallowed place.  Its name reflects the place and year it was collected by scientists who fanned out on a research expedition in Ethiopia to catalogue its coffee varieties.  It is the genetic forebear of Panamanian Geisha—the seed that started it all.

The Coffees: Washed and Natural

Both the washed and natural Gesha 1931 coffees are luminous, but the light they radiate is refracted differently through the prisms of two different post-harvest processes.

Washing coffee highlights the intrinsic flavor qualities of coffee with an emphasis on clarity and detail.  It is a process that allows coffee’s inner beauty to be experienced in high-definition, where the nuances and delicate taste attributes of the individual coffees are presented transparently.  

Our Gesha Village Washed Gesha 1931 Special Selection delivers exciting flavors that remind us of peach and sweet melon and complement the delicate floral notes that are a hallmark of the Gesha variety.

Natural coffees offer a much different character than their washed twins—they tend to taste more overtly fruity and sweet, in ways that we often associate with port wines.  Often the perceived acidity is diminished because the delicate organic acid tastes are overpowered by more dominant flavors that suggest red wines and dried cherries.  The aromatics are distinctly fruit-like and can be very intense.  Compared with washed coffees, naturals are like photographs that have been layered over with a vivid color filter, obscuring some detail while elevating the dramatic impact.

Our Gesha Village Natural Gesha 1931 Special Selection is more dramatic: mouthwatering berry and stone fruit flavors overflow in a juicy cocktail of a coffee that comes with a side of dried flowers. 

A Sensory Expedition

Back in 1931, intrepid researchers had to set off on a coffee expedition across the rugged highlands of Ethiopia to get their hands on Gesha.  Today, it is a little easier.  We have collaborated with our friends at Gesha Village to do most of the work for you.  In fact, you don’t have to leave your kitchen to go on a sensory expedition of your own.

When you brew these two coffees together, you taste the dazzling array of flavors created by an Ethiopian heirloom variety and two different, but equally meticulous, post-harvest processes. We want you to taste these coffees together so much that we are offering a screaming package deal: buy either one and get a $5 discount on the other.  Click here to buy these very special Gesha Village lots.  They won’t last long.

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About Gesha Village

By now, you probably know all about our friends Rachel Samuel and Adam Overton and their ambitious undertaking at Gesha Village, a coffee farm in the western highlands of Ethiopia near the forests were coffee was born that applying modern precision agriculture practices with a revival of ancient heirloom coffee varieties and traditional processing methods.  If not, you’re in luck — we recorded two podcasts last year that can get you up to speed quickly:

  • Our Vice President of Coffee and Ethiopia Green Coffee Buyer Geoff Watts explains here why Gesha Village is unlike any other place he has seen during more than 20 years in coffee.
  • Gesha Village owner Rachel Samuel explains here the circumstances that surrounded her return to her native Ethiopia and led her to put her work as a storyteller on hold to start a coffee farm.