Why Direct Trade

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

Today I respond to the second: Why Direct Trade?

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

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Introducing the Buyer’s Notebook

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

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

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

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

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



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

101: An Unnatural Purchase

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

102: Serendipity and Revival in Ethiopia

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



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

What does it have to do with Gesha Village?

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

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

Why the private sector

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

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Gesha Village Day at Intelligentsia

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

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

The good news?  The coffees were amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

ECW Day Four: Expansion and Experimentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ECW Day Three: The Lab and The Field

It is Day 3 of ECW 8 in Costa Rica.

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

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

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

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

ECW Day Two: The Mill + The Model

On Day Two of our eighth annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, we will narrow the focus of our agenda to just two items: the mill and the model.

Sure, there will be lots of activity on the fringes of the event. Members of the Intelli team will continue to brew and serve to our Direct Trade partners the amazing coffees they produced. Growers will meet with buyers to discuss plans for the upcoming harvest. And we will interview some of our Direct Trade partners for upcoming episodes of our Intelli Sourcing Sessions podcast. But most of the day will be devoted to what happens at the coffee mill and discussion of our sourcing model.

The host for today’s activities is Coopedota, the cooperative that anchors our Direct Trade program in Costa Rica; the one that my colleagues call one of the most progressive and professional cooperatives in the world; the one that produces the Flecha Roja coffee that is one of the perennial favorites of our customers. We will spend the morning touring the mill and discussing its work in recent seasons to drive increases cup quality through improvements in its separation, sorting, fermentation and drying processes.

In the afternoon, we welcome two special guests who will narrow our focus even further. Lucia Solis is a fermentation expert at Scott Laboratories who is working tirelessly to make an old practice new again: the use of yeasts in the fermentation process has been a standard practice in the wine and beer industries for a century but is still in its infancy in coffee. We will roll up our sleeves with Lucia and our partners at the Coopedota mill to begin to understand what we have been missing out on all these years, and what coffee stands to gain by taking a play from wine’s playbook. Carlos Fernández Morera is the grower behind the famous “cinnamon coffee” that was a Costa Rica Cup of Excellence finalist last year: his “anaerobic fermentation” process has consistently produced unmistakable cinnamon notes in his coffees. He will break down his process for participants in ECW 8. And Coopedota will share the results of its ongoing fermentation experiments.

Between our morning and afternoon sessions at the mill, we will focus on the Intelligentsia model. Our President James McLaughlin will give a “State of Intelli” update: where the company has been over the past year and what we envision for the year ahead. Our VP for Coffee Geoff Watts will facilitate a similar discussion focused on coffee quality and operations that examines our performance over the past year and lays out ambitious targets for 2017. And to close out that portion of the agenda, I will start a conversation with our Direct Trade partners about our trading model that will continue throughout 2017; a conversation that revolves around this question: how do we ensure that the next 15 years of our Direct Trade model are as innovative, influential and impactful as the first 15?

To close, we break bread again with our partners and rest before pushing into the second half of ECW on Day Three.

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

ECW Day One: It’s On

Today our 8th annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop gets underway in Costa Rica.

We aren’t storming into coffee fields, wading into washing tanks or mounting an ambitious cupping exercise to inaugurate this year’s ECW. Instead, we are sharing some great coffee with old friends and settling in for thought-provoking presentations by three experts from World Coffee Research.

In an era of accelerated climate change and declining suitability of some of the world’s most celebrated coffee origins for coffee production, WCR is beacon of hope: an industry-led effort to alleviate constraints on the growth of the specialty market by delivering new coffee varieties, genetic resources and other technologies to coffee growers around the world. Currently, WCR is working throughout Central America with funding from USAID on an ambitious range of activities being led out of the Costa Rica-based research center CATIE. The leaders of three of those initiatives join us to start this year’s ECW.

Sara Bogantes is a coffee grower and researcher who leads WCR’s on-farm demonstration trial. The OFDT involves growers across Central America who have each set aside a half-hectare for varietal research. On these plots, OFDT will determine how leading resistant varieties perform on a range of metrics (productivity, resistance to drought and disease, cup quality, etc.) under different management regimes, in different production systems and across a range of agroecological zones. Sara will explain the OFDT design, advances to date, early insights and future directions, embedding this initiative in the broader context of WCR’s work.

William Solano has worked for more than 20 years as a coffee breeder. He is leading WCR’s breeding program at CATIE, which houses the largest public collection of coffee germplasm in the Americas. In its quest for the Holy Grail of coffee breeding–varieties that simultaneous deliver complex and mouthwateringly delicious coffee to consumers and robust resistance to disease and drought to growers –WCR has identified 100 accessions of coffee from the CATIE collection that represent about 90 percent of the known genetic diversity of the coffea Arabica species. It is crossing these accessions with leading resistant varieties to develop new coffee varieties that help coffee growers confront growing challenges in the field and seize new opportunities in the marketplace for quality coffees.

Jacques Avelino is a senior researcher at the French research institute CIRAD who has been studying coffee leaf rust for longer than many of my colleagues at Intelligentsia have been alive. He will focus on WCR-funded research he is leading in Central America into what he calls “the rust machine.” I first saw Jacques present this concept in Guatemala back in 2013 during the First International Coffee Rust Summit. The rust machine considers the dynamic interactions between 18 different variables that influence the coffee leaf rust life cycle to model the way they impact the incidence and virulence of CLR. These include shade, wind speed, precipitation, fruit load, planting distances, timing and dose of fungicide application, etc. At the time I saw the 2013 presentation, certain relationships embedded in the machine were based on hypotheses; in his current research, Dr. Avelino is testing those hypotheses directly. A moderated discussion involving all three panelists closes the morning session.

Next, we head to Finca Tres Milagros, a Costa Rican farm owned by Camilo Merizalde, a grower whose name will be familiar to Intelligentsia loyalists. His Santuario farm in Colombia, which was planned for more than three years and featured more than a dozen different varieties when it was established, broke new ground in specialty coffee. (The Sanutario Red Bourbon, on our menu now, has been a perennial favorite of Intelligentsia customers.) Camilo produced his two outrageously flavorful Eugenioides lots (one washed, one natural, also on our menu now) on his Inmaculada estate. After being Camilo’s guests for lunch on his farm here in Costa Rica, we will tour Finca Tres Milagros to see Camilo doing more of what he does best: varietal diversification and innovation for quality. The tour will end on a high note: a coffee service in the coffee fields.

We finish the day with meetings between growers and buyers and dinner together before getting some rest in advance of Day Two.

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

ECW Preview: 3 Cs

Beginning this afternoon, my colleagues and I will be receiving friends from all over the world in Costa Rica for the eighth edition of our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.

I have been at Intelligentsia for barely three months, but I have been watching the evolution of ECW with great interest for years and working with growers who have had the exceptional good fortune to participant. So when a colleague asked me recently to summarize ECW, I suggested it could be synthesized into three Cs.


A small group of old friends in the coffeelands helped us build out our Direct Trade model 15 years ago and have been with us ever since. Those pioneers are at the core of our network of partners, but the Intelligentsia family continues to grow, and ECW is the one time every year we can all get together.

In our Coffeebars this holiday season, we are celebrating the spirit of Togetherness. In the afterglow of Thanksgiving, the memory of time spent with loved ones is fresh even as we look ahead to more time with friends and family during the festivities at year’s end. ECW is kind of like that for us–the time of year we can get together with members of the Intelligentsia family to celebrate the year that is ending and to look ahead with excitement to the New Year ahead.


The community we convene every year at ECW is united by a shared passion for coffee and a mutual commitment to surpassing quality. That means every waking moment at ECW is fueled by the best Intelli coffees of the season and driven by thoughtful discussion of what each of us can do in growing, milling, sourcing, roasting and serving coffee to make it, well…even more extraordinary. This year we will visit farms to look at quality-driven agronomic practices, roll up our sleeves together at mills to explore processing innovations that can improve consistency and drive quality gains, and cup coffee together to illustrate key points in our quality conversation. And every year, we bring expert perspectives into the mix to continue to push the frontiers of our understanding of coffee.


The conversations that happen at ECW drive our business forward. The activities of ECW are carefully calibrated to reinforce key messages we want to communicate about our mutual commitment to excellence. Our buyers and our Direct Trade partners meet to carefully review the year that is ending and make commitments for the year ahead. And we recommit to the principles that have gotten us where we are today.

But what happens at ECW stays at ECW. We regard ECW as a safe space for participants in our Direct Trade model–one in which our communications are all focused in uncomplicated ways on building stronger relationships stronger, delivering better coffee better and driving more impact through our model. We haven’t wanted those communications to be distorted by the prying eye of a camera or a live mic.

That holds true this year, but we will be previewing each day’s agenda here on the Intelli blog and covering the event live on social media. Follow @IntelliSourcing on Instagram and Twitter for live coverage of the event.

Serendipity and Revival in Ethiopia

Years ago I heard someone draw a distinction between luck and serendipity. He said that luck is an accident. Dumb luck. Serendipity, on the other hand, is a particular kind of luck, and there is nothing dumb about it. Serendipity, he suggested, is the luck that comes about as the result of careful planning and hard work.

I found the idea appealing, if only because it seemed to take some of the randomness out of life, and I have carried it with me for almost a decade. But I don’t think I have ever found a clearer example of serendipity than the unlikely stories of revival unfolding at Gesha Village in Ethiopia.

Gesha Village is the creation of Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel, first-time coffee growers. It was years in the making. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team got hooked on coffee while shooting a documentary film on Ethiopian coffee. They traveled to Panama to visit farms and learn about coffee with the great Willem Boot. And they spent years searching for just the right spot for their farm.

All that careful planning and hard work seem to have thrust them unexpectedly into the center of three separate-but-related coffee revival stories: the reintroduction heirloom varieties from the Ethiopian forests where coffee was born, the renewal of the traditional Ethiopian natural process with an exacting focus on quality, and the revitalization of coffee culture in ancient communities that have not been directly connected to the specialty trade in the past.

When we suggested to Rachel serendipity made her and Adam unwitting protagonists in three revival stories, she said she thought we were onto something. After careers as storytellers, Rachel and Adam may have their best story yet in the incredible-but-true tale of Gesha Village.

For more on the Gesha Village revival story, listen to my recent conversation with Rachel, the second episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions, on Soundcloud or via iTunes Podcasts.

An Unnatural Purchase

Nearly seven years ago, in early 2010, my colleague Geoff Watts wrote five lines that threw shade at natural-processed coffees and cast a long shadow over years of debate in specialty coffee over the proper role of naturals.

In a blog post titled “The Next Movement,” he looked back at the decade that was ending and ahead at the decade to come and presented two lists: one list of coffee trends he hoped would become “historical footnotes,” and another of things he wanted to see more of in specialty coffee.
The very first item on the list, the coffee trend Geoff most wanted to see disappear, was “the near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees.”
The case against naturals was so self-evident to Geoff that he presented his opposition with all the precision of a mathematical formula: “increased risk for the farmer + significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup + likelihood of current trend reversing itself at some point = probably not the kind of coffee we want to promote.”

The provocative post stimulated a public conversation, mostly on the pages of James Hoffmann’s jimseven blog, which was joined by some of the brightest lights in the specialty coffee firmament. Geoff and James participated, of course. So did Peter Giuliano and Price Peterson and Graciano Cruz and Tom Owen and Kevin Knox, among others. The conversation was civil, constructive and formative for countless young coffee professionals like me trying to make sense of the intense fruit flavors in the natural coffees that were surging in popularity at the time.

Through it all, Geoff stuck to his guns, arguing against naturals.

Then this year, something funny happened. He bought a natural. We release it next week as part of an extraordinary special collection of two lots of Original Gesha from Gesha Village in Ethiopia, one washed, the other natural.

For more on this decidedly unnatural purchase, listen to the inaugural episode of the Intelli Sourcing Sessions, our new podcast about coffee’s origins.

Listen on Soundcloud or via iTunes Podcasts.

Introducing the Intelli Sourcing Sessions

I used to have a coffee blog. Over a period of nearly seven years, I published more than 500 posts related to my work with smallholder coffee growers in Mexico, Central America and South America. The time I spent on the blog was time I didn’t spend in the field, but it was hardly wasted time. I felt that it often made me more effective in the field. The need to put my ideas into writing forced me to structure my thinking more clearly. The act of thoughtful writing involves deliberation over every keystroke, careful construction of ideas from the ground up, and a systematic analysis of the logic behind those ideas. And the conversations the blog posts prompted with peers invariably sharpened my thinking even further, especially when those conversations challenged the ideas I advanced on the blog.

But over time the blog format didn’t just feel confining, it felt antiquated. The more I turned to podcasts as a way to pursue my own interests, the more I found myself wanting to replace, or at least complement, the blog’s asynchronous written-word exchanges with real-time recorded conversations. I understood that would mean trading off some of the deliberation involved in the writing process for the spontaneity and dynamism that only reveal themselves in conversation.

Next week, I will finally get my chance when we launch the Intelli Sourcing Sessions, a podcast to conversations about coffee’s origins that serve the company’s mission of Illuminating Coffee.

As luck would have it, I sit next to two coffee people who were sound engineers in previous lives who are producing and editing the show. I work with a genuine oracle in Geoff Watts, a specialty pioneer and coffee poet who I will lean on to generate lots of conversation. And Intelligentsia has spent 15 years building Direct Trade relationships with growers, millers and farmer organizations whose stories are endlessly compelling. The first episode airs on Tuesday.