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.


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 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.










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.”



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.



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!



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.



What’s in a name?

Our single-origin coffees are the very best we have to offer — clearly articulated flavors that deliver on the promise of traditional cultivars, embody the terroir of their source, and reflect the meticulous harvesting, sorting and processing we have come to expect from our Direct Trade partners.  Some of these coffees are named in conventional ways: after the farms on which they are grown, like Finca Takesi in Bolivia or Gesha Village in Ethiopia, or after the farmers who grew them, like Corona Zambrano in Colombia or Gaspard in Rwanda.  But as Intelli regulars know, most of our single-origin offerings fly under banners altogether less prosaic and more evocative.  They are named for gods (Itzamná), angels (Anjilanaka) and saints (Tres Santos).  They conjure Africa’s sprawling animal kingdom (Tikur Anbessa) and its resonant percussive traditions (Karyenda).    They come from children’s literature (La Tortuga), a conversation with growers (Kurimi), a stroll through Buenos Aires (Los Inmortales), botany (Flor Azul), reflections about specialty coffee (Zirikana) and other arcana.

We call these names Intelligentsia marks, or I-marks.  In the latest episode of our buyer’s notebook podcast, I discuss our I-marks with the guy who came up with most of them, our VP of Coffee Geoff Watts.  In our conversation, Geoff tells me what many of the names mean.  He describes the varied and iterative processes through which many of them came to be.  Most importantly, he explains why we started using I-marks to begin with, and how we reconcile our commitment to total supply chain transparency with a system that subordinates the names of the growers behind our coffees to I-marks of our own invention.  Somewhere along the way, I spring a pop quiz on Geoff about Intelligentsia’s I-mark history, and he acquits himself well, naming almost all our I-marks in less than 60 seconds or less.

Listen to the podcast.  Take notes.  Do some internet research.  Correctly pair the 21 I-marks below with the 17 countries of origin for which they were used.  Between now and the end of the month, put your answers on paper, take a legible picture or video of them, and post it to your Instagram account with the hashtag #IntelligentsiaImarks and @IntelliSourcing tag.  If you are one of the first 25 to post a correct entry, I will send you a 12-oz bag of whole bean coffee from our current single-origin lineup.  (While making them pretty, creative and colorful won’t compensate for wrong answers, they will win you style points and get you more likes.)

For full contest rules, click here.

Listen to the I-marks episode here.

Add the podcast to your feed on iTunes or Soundcloud.

Good luck!

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  • Abong Abong
  • Agua Preta
  • Anjilanaka
  • Bosque Nublado
  • Cruz del Sur
  • El Cuervo
  • El Machete
  • Flecha Roja
  • Flor Azul
  • Ikirezi
  • Itzamná
  • Karyenda
  • Kunga Maitu
  • Kurimi
  • La Perla
  • La Tortuga
  • Los Inmortales
  • Ljulu Lipati
  • Tikur Anbessa
  • Tres Santos
  • Zirikana


  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Burundi
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • El Salvador
  • Ethiopia
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Indonesia
  • Kenya
  • Mexico
  • Nicaragua
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Rwanda
  • Zambia

El Boliviazo

Bolivian coffee sits in the long shadows cast by its mighty neighbors.  It is bordered to the east by Brazil, a coffee colossus on whose every twist of fate the market moves.  To the west lies Peru, a sleeping giant that has emerged from its slumber as an organic powerhouse with its sights set on the specialty market.  And a bit further to the northwest is Colombia, the world’s most important specialty origin, where the Andes divide into three cordilleras to create three times the area suitable for coffee growing and seemingly endless possibilities for growers and buyers focused on cup quality.  But Bolivia has commanding heights of its own — rugged Andean mountains producing exquisite coffees that have earned it a small but ferociously loyal group of followers.  We are happy to be in that number, even happier about our sourcing partnerships in Bolivia, and happiest of all to be in the midst of un verdadero Boliviazo — an extraordinary run of releases of nine separate single-origin lots from Bolivia.  As a more-than-casual observer of Bolivia’s specialty coffee sector, I can’t think of another roaster outside of Bolivia that has ever offered more.

Last week we released the first three, starting with the single-origin Anjilanaka organic lot that has long been the anchor of our Direct Trade program in Bolivia.  It is the first of four releases from the Rodriguez family, one of our two Direct Trade partners in Bolivia.  Pedro Rodríguez, together with his children Pedro Pablo and Daniela, operate Agricafé, a quality-obsessed mill based in Caranavi that has expanded into smallholder projects and farming operations in recent years without sacrificing its exacting focus on cup quality.

The Anjilanaka and Colonia Llust’a Bolivia lots are the results of a project called Sol de Mañana that links smallholder growers in the area around the Agricafé mill and buyers who share a commitment to quality.  The other two lots from the Rodríguez clan, both forthcoming special selections, are from farms the family owns and operates: the Finca Don Carlos Bourbon and the Finca La Linda Honey Java.

The third coffee we released last week was a single-variety Typica lot that is the first of five separate varietal lots from our other Direct Trade partner in Bolivia, Finca Takesi.  With coffee in production at over 2,600 meters above sea level, Carlos and Mariana Iturralde call their Finca Takesi the highest coffee farm in the world, and we have seen no evidence to dispute the claim.  We are proud to be the only roaster in the United States to offer Finca Takesi’s coffee, and incredibly excited about this year’s outrageously good lineup.  Next up from Finca Takesi: a Catuaí, a Java and a Typica peaberry.  Anchoring the Finca Takesi lineup is a nanolot of Geisha — the most elegant coffee variety grown at the highest elevation in the world.  If the trial roasts we tasted at our Chicago Roasting Works last week are any indication, it is a coffee that is worthy of superlatives, and an appropriate way to bring El Boliviazo to a close.  Watch out for a presale of the Geisha lot on our website in the days ahead.

The WCR Chekhov Program

We are pleased to announce today that we have joined the World Coffee Research “Chekhov” program and will contribute a half-cent per pound on all our purchases to WCR to support its growing research agenda.

Our support for WCR is nothing new.  Intelligentsia has been actively engaged with WCR since before it was born.  One of my colleagues, Geoff Watts, was part of the “genesis group” of specialty leaders who helped the organization take flight in the days when it was still known as GCQRI, the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative.  Another colleague, James McLaughlin, currently serves on the WCR Board of Directors.  And we have made regular contributions to WCR since its inception.  But until today, we have not been eligible to participate in the WCR check-off program — implemented by importers — since we imported our own coffee.  We continue to source nearly all the coffee we buy directly (I am writing this post during a sourcing trip to Mexico to visit our Direct Trade partners there), but in 2017 will move to bring this coffee in through importers participating in the program.

What difference does it make how we support WCR?  A lot, and the Chekhov pun helps to explain why.

The author’s writing isn’t the only source of his enduring influence — his literary theories still inform young writers today.  One of those theories, known as “Chekhov’s gun,” helps writers to strip their narratives only to their most essential elements.  Chekhov tells them not to hang a gun on the wall of a character’s house in the first act unless that gun will go off in the second or third acts.  If it doesn’t, Chekhov argues, it has no business being on the wall in the first place.

Usually when a company writes a check to a cause it supports, the decision on whether or how much to give is influenced by how that company is performing.  Perhaps it gives a little more in a good year, a little less in an off year.  Under the check-off program, companies don’t deliberate about how much they can afford to give, they check the box because they believe they can’t afford not to give.  They understand that these decisions shouldn’t trail annual profit calculations because the work WCR does is helps to drive profits, and not just ours — anyone in the specialty coffee sector who is growing or buying coffee is benefitting from WCR’s work.  Its Sensory Lexicon, International Multi-Location Varietal Trial, On-Farm Technology Trials, variety catalog, genetic testing and nursery verification, and most of all its breeding program are all helping secure the future of the specialty coffee sector and the futures of the farms and firms that trade in that sector.  Contributing shouldn’t be optional.  Our participation in the check-off program makes our contribution part of the cost of doing business.  Essential, as Chekhov might have liked.

Our amazing in-house artist didn’t include a gun in this Chekhov portrait, but not because this script doesn’t have a gun — because the gun went off long before this script started.  It was the starter’s gun in a race between climate change and coffee breeding.  In lane one is climate change, seeming to accelerate as the race wears on, driving up temperatures, distorting weather patterns and threatening the entire specialty enterprise as it picks up speed.  WCR is in one two, working to develop coffee varieties that marry cup quality with increased resilience production threats before it is too late.



This weekend, Intelligentsia is proud to stand up for the principles of equality, fairness, freedom and human rights.

We believe the ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries enacted last week represents a clear affront to those principles. And the American Civil Liberties Union believes it represents a clear violation of our Constitution and due process. That’s why the ACLU was part of the successful effort to block the implementation of the ban in New York, and why it is suing the administration to overturn the initiative entirely. And that’s why we are contributing a percentage of all sales in our coffeebars this weekend to the ACLU, joining it and hundreds of other coffee companies across the country in defense of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the progressive values we share.

From Friday, February 3 to Sunday, February 5, every purchase you make in our stores in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York will support this effort. And while supplies last, we will donate all profits from sales of our Itty Bitty Askinosie chocolate bars to the cause, because nothing counters the bitter taste of discrimination like a little sweetness. Don’t live near one of our coffeebars? We’ve got you covered: buy any single-origin coffee on our website this weekend and we will contribute a percentage of your purchase to the ACLU.

This weekend’s initiative is only the first action Intelligentsia will take in 2017 as part of a broader campaign to defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights here at home and the causes of economic justice, environmental conservation and equality everywhere. It is a natural commitment for a coffee company that has been at the forefront of celebrating the diversity of coffee, expressed in the flavors it produces, the places where it is grown and the people who make it delicious.

Coffee is an immigrant here in the United States, after all. It was born in Western Ethiopia and the Boma Plateau of South Sudan and made a migrant’s journey through the Middle East, Europe and Latin America before it ever reached our shores. Its flavor is imparted by the places where it is grown and the painstaking work of passionate people — people who are beginning to question whether they are as welcome here as their coffee is. We don’t just believe in our right to visit them on their farms and host them in our coffeebars — our business depends on it. So we are committing to the hard work necessary to ensure our freedom to visit one another, to continue to celebrate coffee’s diversity, and to show them and the entire world that they are more welcome than ever.

This weekend, please help us deliver that message — be our guest us at one of our coffeebars or purchase a single-origin coffee on our website.





Simran Sethi’s love letter to coffee

Simran Sethi is a sustainability celebrity.  She has appeared on Ellen, Martha Stewart and Oprah as a sustainability expert and lectured on environmental issues in classrooms and conferences all over the planet.  The Independent of London named her an “eco-hero,” Vanity Fair called her “The Messenger” in its Green Issue, and her agenda for environmental change was considered by the editors of Variety as worthy of publication as those of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sheryl Crow and Laurie David, among others.

She is a gifted communicator and award-winning journalist who has reported on environmental issues for MTV, NBC, PBS and others.

She is an unrepentant activist who communicates around sustainability issues with the explicit intent of moving readers, viewers and listeners to action.

And she is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, which was named one of the best food books of 2016 by Smithsonian Magazine.  The book is about the decline of agrobiodiversity in our food systems — hardly the sexy stuff of talk shows and glossy magazines.  And it is exhaustively researched and thoroughly footnoted — attributes we generally do not associate with readability, relevance or commercial success.  But this book is all three of those because it applies a lesson Simran learned the hard way over many years as a journalist.

In order to give her reporting on environmental issues the credibility she felt it needed to move people to act, she crammed it with ecological and economic data.  She even earned an MBA to make the business case for sustainability more effectively.  And all that effort failed to move the needle.  Why?  “We were doing it wrong,” she says.

Psychologists and behavioral economists, Simran says, have shown that people have a “finite pool of worry” — we can only care deeply about a limited number of things.  As a journalist, she used data and analysis to try to expand their finite pools of worry to include the issues that were important to her, but it didn’t work.  So with BWC, Simran takes another tack, instead attaching the complex and urgent issue of agrobiodiversity to things already in people’s narrow frames of reference.  Things we may be able to live without, but things without which life would be a little less worth living: bread, wine, chocolate, beer and, yes, coffee.  (Even though coffee doesn’t make the title, it occupies an entire section of Simran’s book, a sacred space in her morning routine and a privileged place in her finite pool of worry about the future of the planet.)

This time, she doesn’t do it wrong.  The book succeeds in bringing issues of agrobiodiversity to a broader audience because it is first and foremost the intimate travelogue of a food pilgrim who visits the places where her favorite foods are produced and celebrates the people who make them delicious.  (More than a few readers have called it Eat, Pray, Love for food.)  It is only secondarily an urgent and convincing warning that those foods are endangered by the accelerated narrowing of the genetic base on which they rest.

In the latest episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions, we talk with Simran about the book and about coffee — what it means to the cultures and ecologies of the countries where it is grown and the societies where it is consumed, what its loss might mean for all of us, whether it is most like wine, beer or chocolate, and how we can communicate around coffee to make more people care more about it.

You can listen to our conversation with Simran Sethi here.

Read an excerpt of the coffee section of her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate here.

For more from Simran, check out The Slow Melt, her new podcast about chocolate.  The first episode doesn’t air on Kansas Public Radio on January 27, but you can subscribe now.

And if you haven’t subscribed yet to the Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast, do it now on iTunes or Soundcloud so you don’t miss more conversations like this one.



Rwanda: Begin at the beginning

I sat down recently with my colleague Geoff Watts in our makeshift studio here in Chicago to record introductions of our two current Rwanda offerings: the single-farm Gaspard lot and the Zirikana lot from Buf Coffee’s Nyarusiza washing station.  Geoff is nothing if not thorough in his communications, and he began the conversation, as he tends to do, at the beginning.  We soon realized that before we tell the stories behind our current crop Rwanda coffees, we need to tell the story of the Rwanda itself, and how a country that didn’t have a specialty coffee sector 20 years ago has come to be such a reliable source of such delicious coffees.

In telling that story, we lean heavily on Geoff.  After all, he was present at the creation, and he did make some mighty contributions to the process over a period of many years.

We also reach out to the guy who started it all, Tim Schilling.  Coffee people of a certain generation may know Tim only as the CEO of World Coffee Research.  What they may not know is that Tim got his start in coffee in Rwanda, leading a project called PEARL that has become a reference point for every other coffee project ever implemented since — a benchmark, an aspiration, an inspiration.  But PEARL wasn’t designed to be a coffee project at all.

When Tim, a Mississippi-born peanut breeder, took the reins of the project, he had never worked in coffee and didn’t plan to start in Rwanda.  His task was simply to devise and implement a rural development project that would benefit as many people in Rwanda’s countryside as possible.  When he and his team fanned out in the field to identify crops with potential to deliver on the project’s mandate, one word echoed louder than all the rest that rose from the country’s thousand hills: coffee.

The Rwanda specialty coffee sector represents one of the industry’s greatest success stories — in little more than a decade, the country didn’t just put itself on the specialty coffee map.  It became a star — a reliable source of distinctive coffees and a seasonal mainstay on the menus of even the most discriminating coffee roasters.

The PEARL project, funded by USAID, joined by industry leaders like Geoff, and led indelibly by Tim, was a catalyst and central player.  Tim was honored in a special ceremony last year by Rwanda’s government for his role in the process.  Tim says he was touched by the gesture, but in the characteristic humility that has made Tim such an effective and beloved leader, he is quick to shift the credit to the Rwandans who have done all the heavy lifting.

Geoff echoes that sentiment in his commentary on our partners in Rwanda and the roles they played in the country’s coffee resurgence.  His account includes a very personal and emotional reflection on what it was like to work in a country shattered by genocide.  It comes in response to a question I ask, reluctantly and gingerly, about his personal motivations in Rwanda.

I am not sorry I asked the question, but I am still not sure it was the right thing to do.

The story of the country’s genocide isn’t really an essential part of the story of the country’s coffee sector.  Rwanda’s coffee is exceptional.  It is worthy to stand on its own without reference to the context out of which the country’s coffee sector emerged — you would buy it again and again just based on how it tastes, without the story of where it came from.  The risk in referencing that context is that it distracts from the coffee’s intrinsic quality.  That by refracting the story through the lens of our own perspectives, we rob Rwandans of the opportunity to tell their own story on their own terms.  Worst of all, there is the risk that the conversation will be seen as trafficking in other people’s suffering for our own purposes.

On the other hand, the story of the country’s genocide really is prelude to the story of the country’s coffee sector.  As Tim explains, the PEARL project was designed precisely to help foster the reconstruction of the rural economy and accelerate the country’s recovery from the unspeakable losses sustained in the genocide.  As Geoff explains, the long shadow the genocide cast over every aspect of life in Rwanda was an explicit source of motivation for him in his work.  While there may be some risk in referring to the genocide in this context, it seems that not acknowledging it is endlessly worse — oblivious to culture and context, insufficient to any appropriate appreciation of the coffees we source from Rwanda, and callous to the painful experiences of our supply chain partners and friends in Rwanda.  I hope you agree.

Listen to the Intelligentsia Buyer’s Notebook for Rwanda here.

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ECW: A ride on the magic bus

The Extraordinary Coffee Workshop is the annual gathering of our Direct Trade network.  It has become the anchor of our sourcing program and the most important event on our calendar every year.  But it wasn’t always that way.

Before 2009, our sprawling Direct Trade network was held together mostly by the heroic efforts and tireless travel of my colleague Geoff Watts, who for many years was the James Brown of specialty coffee — the hardest-working man in the business, on the road 250 nights a year, bringing it day after day.  He still finds the energy to grind at origin like people half his age, but for the last eight years, he has leaned a little on ECW.

Somewhere along the way, Geoff had an epiphany.  More like lots of little epiphanies that led to one Big Idea.  He would travel from country to country, farm to farm, mill to mill furiously snapping photos and scribbling notes that he would drill into his laptop every evening.  At each stop, he would crack open the laptop and try, with varying degrees of success, to use the images and words he had stored there to transfer insights and promising practices from one grower to another.  At some point, Geoff began to understand intellectually the limitations of the two dimensions of his computer screen as a learning tool.  He understood at a more visceral level the inefficiency of a retail approach to knowledge transfer that relied so much on his travel.  And he also appreciated the limitations of his own perspective as a coffee buyer — for all his understanding, he didn’t see things at origin the way growers did, which limited his ability to turn insights from one origin into action in another.  He started imagining, naturally, a magic bus that would carry all the growers he visited to one another’s farms so they could see what he did with their own eyes.  And ECW was born.

Today’s episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions is devoted to ECW. Geoff explains in more detail where the ECW idea came from and how it has evolved.  Camilo Merizalde, the enterprising Colombian grower who now operates coffee farms in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, has participated in all eight events and hosted the inaugural ECW on his Santuario farm in Cauca.  He explains how that first event came together — and almost didn’t.  And participants in the most recent ECW in Costa Rica share their perspectives on what the event means to them.

Listen to the ECW episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions here.

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