Musings on The Monk of Mokha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new Yemeni coffee story

THE COFFEE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE STORY

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

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

From the publisher:

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

From James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia President and Green Coffee Buyer for Brazil:

Meaningful collaboration between a coffee farmer and a coffee roaster is still a relatively new concept.

Farmers have spent years—sometimes generations—developing farming and post-harvest practices that reflect the climate, geography and traditions of the regions where they live.  Roasters, on the other hand, travel to farms all over the world.   We have the opportunity to see growing practices and processing systems that have been adopted in dramatically different contexts and taste the impacts those differences make on coffee flavor.

Increasingly, we are seeing an interest among the farmers we work with in sharing their own practices and learning from one another.  But this only happens with the kind of deep trust that develops over years of working together and treating each other as partners.  This year’s edition of Agua Preta exemplifies that spirit of collaboration.

Fazenda Progresso has been an Intelligentsia Direct Trade partner for the past five years, and is a familiar name to anyone who enjoys our Black Cat Espresso blend.  Located in the Chapada Diamantina region of Bahia, the 700-hectare farm sits on a plateau 1,150 meters above sea level.  The farm’s infrastructure was meticulously designed and is well cared for, with a robust quality control program led by the experienced cupper Ednaldo Nascimento.  Producer Fabiano Borré embodies the type of forward-thinking, quality-focused entrepreneur leading the specialty coffee revolution in Brazil.

For the last few years, Fabiano and I have talked about the success other farms have had with  micro-lot programs, innovative drying practices and the infrastructure needed to support it.  We’ve shared ideas and pored over countless photos of the post-harvest processing centers we work with around the world.  This year, Fabiano rolled out a micro-lot program that is a worthy model for other farms across Brazil and beyond.

Fabiano’s data-driven approach is based on advanced analysis of environmental data (think rainfall, nutrition, diurnal temperature ranges) from each of the coffee plots on Fazenda Progresso to identify those with the highest quality potential.  Armed with that information, Fabiano deploys a group of trained pickers who select only red cherry.  The crates of red, ripe cherries are not what you commonly see in Brazil and, quite honestly, would be right at home on farms in countries known for the quality of their harvesting like El Salvador or Ethiopia.

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James McLaughlin, Intelligentsia President and Green Coffee Buyer for Brazil (left) and Fabiano Borré of Fazenda Progresso review day lots from this year’s harvest.

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After processing the cherry, the coffee is delivered to raised beds arrayed in a brand new drying greenhouse.  The design of the structure was inspired by photos I shared with Fabiano of a similar installation used by one of our partners in Costa Rica, but he made several upgrades that substantially improve airflow and drying efficiency.  His quality team regularly monitors the temperature and humidity of the raised beds to ensure a slow and uniform drying process.  On average, the coffee dries on the bed for 15 days.

This year, Fabiano went all-in with this incredible drying program.  He also has a team sorting the parchment as it dries, just like you’d find in East African countries.  By removing cracked parchment during the drying process, Fabiano ensures the uniformity of the lots he offers.

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The results of Fabiano’s micro-lot program are plainly evident on the cupping table.  During my visit, I tasted 12 gorgeous samples that had a clarity of flavor and cleanliness that would have been unimaginable just a year earlier.  It would seem that I wasn’t the only cupper impressed by the improvements, as Fazenda Progresso placed 20th in Brazil’s Cup of Excellence competition for pulped naturals this year.

After cupping through numerous samples from Fabiano’s micro-lot program, we purchased the sweetest, cleanest most complex coffee we could find: a 50-bag lot harvested over one week in mid-August on the Manuela parcel of the farm.  We are delighted to present a coffee that represents the very best of Brazil, and we look forward to many more years of collaborating with Fabiano and the Fazenda Progresso team.

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Click here for more detailed information or to purchase this lot, the first in our 2018 Agua Preta Brasil lineup.

Closing the Books on 2017

We have closed the books on 2017.  It was, in our estimation, a very good year for our sourcing program.

This issue of Axioma, the curated data set that tells the story of Intelligentsia Direct Trade in numbers, shows where we went in 2017.  Literally.

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Our seven-strong sourcing team took 19 trips to 14 countries in 2017 and logged nearly a quarter-million miles visiting dozens of our Direct Trade partners to plan for coming seasons, taste current harvests and celebrate past ones.  Our Quality Control team backed all that field work with a feverish year in the lab, where they cupped thousands of lots during hundreds of sessions.  The results of all that work were embodied in the 51 single-origin lots we released in 2017, including three winning Cup of Excellence lots from growers who are part of our Direct Trade network.

We also convened our Direct Trade partners from around the world for the ninth straight year when we brought them to San Francisco in September for our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, where more than three-quarters of a millennium of coffee experience was brought to bear on the four-day event that has become the highlight of our year in sourcing.

The story our 2017 Year-in-Review Axioma tells is a compelling one, but what it does not say is where we are going.  While there is no certainty about what 2018 will bring, we are preparing for an exciting year.

We believe that the best growers are renovating their farms constantly, and the best buyers should be no different.  In almost every country where we sourced coffee in 2017, we are actively engaged in efforts to renovate our sourcing program by reinvigorating existing relationships, actively building exciting new ones, or both.  In 2017, we sourced more than four-fifths of all our coffee from Direct Trade relationships more than five years old and nearly two-fifths from relationships more than 10 years old.  As we look forward, we will build on that solid foundation while folding new partners into the mix to diversify our menu and grow our purchases.

We are redoubling our commitment to quality in ways you will see (deeper engagement with the Cup of Excellence in 2018) and ways you won’t (tightening our QC protocols internally) that will position our sourcing program to bring you the kinds of coffees you won’t forget about easily.

We will expand our efforts to measure the impacts of our sourcing program on social inclusion, economic profitability and environmental conservation, even as we invest in projects to drive positive impacts to smallholder growers: we are proud to partner with Root Capital and USAID to bring our ECW model to smallholders Colombia in 2018.  Our forthcoming ECWx format will be to our annual ECW event what TEDx is to TED.

All of these efforts will position us to grow in 2018 and help us begin to test the limits of the scalability of Direct Trade with one of the oldest and deepest DT programs in the coffee sector.

 

Abagore

From our Green Coffee Buyer for Burundi J Mlodzinski:

Kirundi is the official language of Burundi, and Abagore is Kirundi for women.

Why Abagore?  Because this coffee was grown largely by women.  They are part of a farmer association led by women.  That association participates in a project supported by the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) designed to use coffee as a vehicle to empower women.  And we purchased it from JNP Coffee, a new Intelligentsia Direct Trade partner that is owned and operated by a woman.

The Burundi chapter of IWCA was the first one legalized in Africa, and it has quickly become one of the most successful and recognized in the world, with nearly 1,000 members.  Its short-term goal is to turn the sales of women’s coffee lots like this one into increased income for participating women coffee growers.

The cost of this coffee includes premiums as part of the IWCA project that go directly back to growers in the form of a bonus that help women meet basic household needs.  Other women have reinvested their bonuses in their farms through the purchase of fertilizer, compost and the seedlings that represent the future of coffee in Burundi.  Still others have put this additional payment toward the purchase of bicycles for transportation or savings for school and university fees for their children.

The benefits of the IWCA program go beyond the monetary needs of participating women farmers and include social and political empowerment. When the Burundi chapter of the IWCA was founded, there were national policies which prevented women producers from registering coffee farms in their own name. Reversing that exclusionary policy was among the first items on the IWCA Burundi advocacy agenda.

IWCA Burundi understands that coffee quality can be an engine of economic opportunity and gender equality, so it helps train women in all aspects of the coffee trade, including quality-focused agronomic practices, quality control at the coffee washing stations and in the cupping lab, and negotiation and marketing.

Our Abagore Burundi comes from the Mutumba coffee washing station in Ngozi Province.  It was exported by JNP Coffee, founded, owned, and operated by Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian, who was born in Burundi and educated in the United States.  Jeanine collaborates with the IWCA at Mutumba and other coffee washing stations throughout the country, working tirelessly to ensure that coffee quality drives gender equality and raises the standard of living in Burundi’s coffeelands.

Buy it and meet the growers behind it here.

 

 

Show your commitment

SHOW YOUR COMMITMENT

Zirikana is Kinyarwanda for “show your commitment.”  We can’t think of a better name for our annual single-origin offering from Rwanda.  After all, commitment is what this whole specialty coffee thing is all about, and Rwanda’s coffee sector offers more inspiring examples of commitment than just about anywhere else on Earth.

Rwanda’s push into the specialty coffee sector came in the wake of genocide, a gruesome spasm of violence that set neighbor against neighbor, claimed nearly one million lives in a period of one hundred days and left the country’s economy reeling.  The country’s elegant Bourbon varietals and ideal growing conditions helped, as did some of the most effective development projects ever implemented in the coffee sector.  But Rwanda’s extraordinary emergence as the source of some of the world’s sweetest and cleanest coffees is mostly a story of determination and commitment.  The commitment we made to be present every step of the way, to share everything we have learned over the years about quality and to deliver financial rewards for quality is important.  But the real story is the extraordinary commitment shown by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Rwandans: a commitment to focus meticulously on quality in every step of the process, from the farm to the drying table.

Our Green Coffee Buyer for Rwanda J Mlodzinski tells the story of this year’s Zirikana and the commitment of the remarkable Rwandan coffee family behind it.

A COFFEE EPIPHANIE

We had the honor of being present at the creation of Rwanda’s specialty coffee sector, and collaborating from the beginning with its quality pioneers.  Among them was Epiphanie Mukashyaka, a natural leader and entrepreneur who firmly embraced Rwanda’s quality-first strategy and executed on that strategy like no one else.

Her family-run business is centered in Rwanda’s Southern Province, where it built its first coffee washing station (CWS) in 2003 at Remera.  Just two years later, it  built a second CWS in Nyarusiza, in an area bordering the Nyungwe National Park where the soil is extremely rich and the water supply is plentiful.  Some of the farmers who deliver cherry to the Nyarusiza CWS produce up to three times as much as growers in other parts of Rwanda. These two washing stations and one family have been the anchor of our Zirikana project from the beginning.  Epiphanie has passed the torch to her sons, Sam and Eloys, but Bufcoffee remains one of the brightest lights in Rwanda’s coffee sector.

CONTINUOUS INNOVATION

The advanced quality control systems Bufcoffee has implemented at these washing stations have garnered worldwide recognition, earning a handful of Cup of Excellence awards and consistent quality premiums. These premiums have allowed Bufcoffee to reinvest continuously in its operations.

In 2017, it built a third CWS in the Huye District, purchased a fourth in the Kamonyi District and made plans to continue to grow the family business: Sam recently helped his sister with financing for the purchase of a washing station named Kibingo just a few kilometers from the Burundi border.

In all this growth, Bufcoffee has not lost its focus on quality of the spirit of restless innovation in the name of quality that has been the basis of its success.

At the Remera CWS, Sam has imagined, created, implemented and refined over the past few years something he calls the “Under-Shade Drying System.”  Resembling a giant carport for coffee, this covered structure houses drying beds stacked ten high, providing an arid, shaded area where coffee drying time is slowed down to as much as 30-40 days.  It is a lengthy process, but it is worth the wait: the coffees that this system produces are more vibrant for longer than those dried in direct sunlight.

We are proud to have played a role in Bufcoffee’s growth and excited to collaborate with it continues to grow the family business and expand the opportunities of specialty coffee to more communities in Rwanda.

As you enjoy this year’s Zirikana Rwanda from the Remera CWS, we hope you appreciate how far the commitment to quality we share with Bufcoffee has taken our Zirikana project and the coffee growers who have participated in to date.  (We introduce you below to the growers who contributed to this edition of our Zirikana Rwanda.)  We also hope you understand why, as good as this coffee already is, we believe the best is yet to come.

Buy it and meet the growers behind it here.

Gaspard!

It hardly seems possible that we first tasted coffee from Nshimiyimana Gaspard just three seasons ago. He has become such an integral part of our Rwanda sourcing program, and looms so large in our imagination of what coffee can be, that it seems he has been with us for much, much longer.

Surpassing Quality, Staggering Growth

The story of our relationship with Gaspard began in 2015, when we were introduced to him by our friends and long-time Direct Trade partners at Bufcoffee.  But Gaspard’s coffee story started nearly 20 years earlier.

Back in 1996, he purchased a plot of land in the village of Kigarama that was separated from Bufcoffee’s coffee washing station (CWS) at Nyarusiza by just a few kilometers of narrow dirt track.  The following year, Gaspard planted his first 100 coffee seedlings, and he has been delivering cherry to Bufcoffee at Nyarusiza ever since they first started yielding fruit.

When Gaspard cast his lot with coffee in the mid-1990s, Rwanda was recovering from a genocide that claimed nearly one million lives in a period of one hundred days, a gruesome spasm of violence that set neighbor against neighbor, decimated the population and left the country’s economy reeling.  As part of the reconstruction of Rwanda’s rural economy, the government set about gathering people into villages, investing in infrastructure and expanding education, including radio programs on agronomy.  During those years, Gaspard listened intently, wrote down as much information as he could and applied what he learned on his farm. His coffee flourished, and his neighbors took note. They asked for his help in bringing his good coffee-growing practices to their farms.  He has happily and humbly being doing so ever since.

From the start, Gaspard was rewarded for the intensity and precision of his effort with high yields.  More recently, he has complemented his effective agronomic practices with an explicit focus on quality.  Along the way, he has reinvested his growing coffee earnings into growing his farming operations.  He purchased and planted seedlings on his first farm until he ran out of room, running the coffee rows all the way to the boundaries of the farm.  Then he purchased a second farm in the nearby village of Bahina, where he continues to plant coffee, steadily improve his agronomic practices, and share what he knows with his neighbors.

The modest coffee grove that Gaspard planted in 1997 has grown to a staggering 23,000 plants, an unthinkable number in a region where most growers have fewer than 500 coffee plants.  At first, his farm grew in small steps based on steady increases in production, then in great leaps and bounds as quality premiums accelerated the rate at which he could earn money and reinvest it.

Getting Separation

For years, the cherry Gaspard delivered to the Bufcoffee washing station at Nyarusiza was bulked with that of his neighbors.  Eventually, however, Gaspard was producing enough coffee and delivering enough cherry that Bufcoffee was able to process it separately. Back in 2015, we cupped through dozens of lots offered to us by Bufcoffee that we found to be exceptionally sweet and clean.  One lot consistently separated itself from the pack, sweeter and cleaner than the rest: Gaspard’s.

A Shining Example

We have been sourcing coffee directly from growers for more than 15 years, and have been privileged to be part of stirring stories of success just about everywhere coffee is grown.  But it is hard to recall any story with beginnings as humble or growth as dramatic than Gaspard’s.  He epitomizes the promise of specialty coffee for smallholder growers committed to quality and hard work.  And we aren’t the only ones who feel that way.

In 2015, village authorities honored Gaspard as the farmer who applied the best agricultural practices within the district of Nyamagabe, and rewarded him for his work with a cow. This is a great honor in Rwanda, and a valuable asset for smallholder farmers anywhere.  Gaspard accepted the recognition humbly, but it is clearly a source of pride: when he invites visitors to his home to meet his family, he also introduces them to his prized cow.

Gaspard Rwanda

Gaspard has maintained his focus on quality even as he has expanded his farm and earned accolades.  He continues to work with the same small crew of farmworkers that has accompanied him through the growth of his farming operations, which he continues to oversee directly and manage with precision.  He dispatches workers to harvest specific areas of the farm at specific times, and ensures that they adhere to the strict composting, fertilizing, pruning and nutrition programs that he has developed over the years.

The first year we tasted Gaspard’s coffee, we released a small lot of it as a Zirikana Limited Release, a complement to our traditional Rwanda single-origin offering, Zirikana.  Last year, we presented Gaspard’s coffee as a single-farm lot bearing his name. This year, on the 20th anniversary of his first planting, we are proud to offer you our Gaspard Rwanda. 

Buy it here.

 

Rwanda’s coffee heroes

From our Green Coffee Buyer for Rwanda J Mlodzinski:

Kinyarwanda is the official language of Rwanda, and Imena is Kinyarwanda for hero.

Our Zirikana Imena Rwanda is a new Intelligentsia offering that marks the beginning of an exciting new phase in our Direct Trade relationship with Furaha Umwizeye and Kivubelt Coffee.

Furaha was born in Rwanda, raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and educated in Switzerland, where she studied economics.  Like many Rwandans who were abroad during the country’s horrific genocide in 1994, Furaha found herself searching for ways to contribute to Rwanda’s ongoing reconstruction.  Unlike many of them, her studies of international finance and trade had prepared her to lead processes of economic development and market engagement.  In 2011, she started Kivubelt, a coffee farming, milling and export operation in the Western Province of Rwanda on the shores of the breathtaking Lake Kivu.

Kivubelt owns and operates three large farms with more than 90,000 coffee trees, which makes it a considerably larger undertaking than most farms in Rwanda.  For years, Kivubelt rented a coffee washing station (CWS) in the village of Murundo to process the coffees it has grown on its three farms, delivering this coffee our friends and long-time Direct Trade partners at Bufcoffee for dry milling and export.  But the company has also been working for several seasons with smallholders in the region as part of its mission to leverage the coffee trade for positive social impact.

People’s Farm

In the rolling hills that surround the Murundo CWS live hundreds of smallholder growers with small coffee gardens.  The scale of their operations may be modest, but little else is: they are set in a growing environment ideal for coffee quality, planted with traditional Bourbon cultivars and tended by farmers with a fierce work ethic.  The two recent Cup of Excellence awards won by coffees grown on these smallholder farms and processed by Kivubelt at the Murundo CWS are testament to the potential of what Furaha calls the People’s Farm.

Hero Coffee

Furaha describes the inspiration for the name of this release:

The idea behind Imena is that our neighbors are small-scale coffee farmers who grow their coffee in very high and very hilly terrain, places that are accessible only on foot, or perhaps by bicycle or motorbike.  Basically they grow their coffee with their hands, hoes and feet. When the cherry is ripe, they hand-pick it and walk with it on their heads to the coffee washing station, and all this during the rainy season when the roads have turned to mud.”  

To Furaha and the team at Kivubelt, in other words, Rwanda’s coffee farmers are heroes.

But Imena isn’t just the way Furaha and her team from Kivubelt feel about the farmers that neighbor the Murundo washing station.  It is also an aspiration: they want to make heroic contributions to the economy of the region, which is why they work so hard to deliver agronomic assistance, pay the highest prices possible for cherry, process coffee with meticulous attention to detail and build lasting relationships with leading roasters.

Zirikana Imena

In 2017, Kivubelt bought the Murundo CWS and began introducing tighter controls on cherry reception, improvements to sorting procedures and upgrades to the milling process.  We tasted the difference immediately in this lot of Zirikana Imena, which is simultaneously the culmination of years of hard work and the beginning of a new chapter of collaboration between Intelligentsia, Bufcoffee, Kivubelt and the hundreds of heroic farmers who deliver their coffee to the Murundo CWS.

We introduce you to them individually and offer you their coffee here.

Enter Buziraguhindwa

From our Green Coffee Buyer for Burundi J Mlodzinski:

Ramadhan Salum has been an Intelligentsia Direct Trade partner for the past three years.  He owns and operates Kayanza Premium Coffee (KPC), a quality-focused coffee company whose growth has helped to drive the emergence of Burundi’s coffee sector as the source of some of the world’s cleanest and sweetest coffees.

KPC: Quality pioneer

Just 10 years ago, every coffee washing station (CWS) in Burundi was government-owned.  In 2009, when KPC opened its first CWS at Buziraguhindwa, it was one of the first in the country to be privately held.  From the outset, Ramadhan and KPC have married a strategic commitment to quality with a meticulous approach to operations to deliver exceptionally clean coffee.

We have sourced coffee from KPC regularly for our annual Karyenda Burundi releases, but the investments Ramadhan has made in recent years are paying dividends in the form of increased cup quality.  Beginning tomorrow, we are delighted to offer this Buzira Burundi Limited release from the KPC CWS at Buziraguhindwa. Our QC team chose this coffee from dozens of samples carefully selected from all four of KPC’s washing stations. It represents coffee delivered during a single day by over 100 growers from the same village.

Buziraguhindwa: The land of milk and honey

Ramadhan’s operations create incentives for quality not only at Buziraguhindwa, but at all of his CWS.  He pays more for cherry that is ripe and clean, of course, but that isn’t all.  KPC also pays a little extra to farmers who travel farther to deliver their cherry: a way to compensate them for their additional transportation costs.  And farmers who bring KPC their cherry return home with compost created at a nearby KPC washing station, as well as milk and honey that is raised at the CWS.  When it first opened the Buziraguhindwa CWS, KPC even distributed coffee seedlings to the local farmers for free to renovate local coffee farms, where most plants were 20-60 years old.  KPC has even worked to give growers access to finance and has implemented a financial literacy program designed to help growers boost household savings.

ECW: Cross-Pollinization

Ramadhan traveled to Central America in 2016 to join us for our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop for the first time.  There he visited the Coopedota cooperative that is source our annual Flecha Roja Costa Rica offering.  He was so impressed and inspired by the quality of the co-op’s mill and post-harvest processing that as soon as he hit the ground back home in Burundi, he immediately set about modifying the design of two new washing stations that were under construction and implementing changes to the two washing stations already in operation at Buziraguhindwa and Mbirizi.

The improvements included tiled fermentation and soaking tanks, an important contributor to clean washing that has become a common feature of mills in the Americas but one not seen too often in Burundi.  KPC’s washing stations were already among the best examples anywhere in our Direct Trade network of meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive sorting and separation throughout the entire post-harvest process, from the moment cherry is delivered to the day it is finally removed from raised beds.  These marginal improvements in CWS infrastructure have only made KPC’s coffee even better.

And that’s just at the washing stations.  Ramadhan has also begun implementing some of the agronomic practices he saw in Costa Rica on his own growing network of farms and incorporated them in KPC’s agronomic extension services.

Ramadhan is a rising star in our Direct Trade family who delivers pristine coffees for our annual single-origin Burundi releases from his growing network of washing stations in Burundi.  He has also become a coffee bee, buzzing from one origin to another and taking ideas and inspirations from our Direct Trade partners in other countries.  If Burundi’s emerging specialty coffee sector is a flower, then the ideas and practices that Ramadhan brings home with him are the pollen helping it bloom.  We are excited to share with you this Buzira Burundi Limited Release, whose intense aromatics and persistent sweetness represent the lovely blossom of Burundi’s coffee sector.

Purchase our Buzira Burundi Limited Release and meet the growers behind it here.

Llano Redondo | Colombia Cup of Excellence #4

Our Llano Redondo Colombia COE #4 Special Selection is the third and final winning CoE lot we will release for 2017, capping a short run of extraordinary single-farm lots that mark our reengagement with a competition platform that has played a vital role in the development of many of our most important trading relationships.

Intelligentsia, COE and Direct Trade

For four or five years beginning in 2003, as we were establishing the foundations of our Direct Trade program, Intelligentsia was one of the leading U.S. buyers of CoE coffees.  Many of the single-origin coffees that are perennial favorites on our menu today have been built around relationships that began as many as 15 years ago and were originally brokered by the Cup of Excellence, including our La Tortuga Honduras (Finca La Tina), Itzamna Guatemala (La Maravilla and La Soledad), Malacara (Los Inmortales El Salvador), Zirikana Rwanda (Nyarusiza and Remera coffee washing stations), Matalapa El Salvador, Los Delirios Organic Nicaragua, Takesi Bolivia and even a few lots from our annual Tres Santos Colombia releases.

The two winning CoE lots from Colombia we have released this week represent more of the same: the purchase of specially selected lots from growers already in our Direct Trade network to deepen established relationships (La Mina Colombia COE #8 Special Selection) or accelerate emerging ones, like this CoE winning lot from Llano Redondo.

The Axis of Quality, Buesaco and Llano Redondo

Colombia’s traditional coffee growing area, located in the departments of Caldas, Quindio, Risaralda and the northern reaches of Valle de Cauca, is known as the Eje Cafetero, or Axis of Coffee.  Over the past decade, a new configuration of four departments in southern Colombia has mounted a challenge to the primacy of the Eje Cafetero.  They are Cauca, Huila, Nariño and parts of Tolima, and they have come to be known as the Eje de Calidad, or the Axis of Quality.  

Since Colombia held its first Cup of Excellence back in 2005, these departments have dominated the competition.  Three municipalities in particular have cast long shadows: growers from Pitalito in Huila, Planadas in Tolima and the quiet town of Buesaco in Nariño have taken home more hardware than farmers from any of Colombia’s other storied coffee regions.  These areas seem to be custom-built for quality, since they keep rising to the top of CoE winner rolls.   This year, there were 12 winners from Planadas and 10 from Buesaco.  One of those was Llano Redondo, a modest family farm in a tiny village called Medina Orejuela in Buesaco.

The ultimate father-and-son project

Llano Redondo may not have the same pedigree as many of its neighbors, but its owner Ángel María López Loaiza has been quietly working on quality for several years with our partners at the progressive exporter Inconexus and some of the growers in Buesaco who have been part of our Direct Trade program there for years.  This year we were impressed enough with Llano Redondo’s coffee that we purchased a single-farm lot for release in January as part of our annual Tres Santos Colombia offering.

Recently, Ángel María began to compete in local competitions, and this year decided to try his luck for the first time at Colombia’s CoE.  He enlisted the help of his son Jesús, pictured here, in the ultimate father-and-son project: trying to produce a coffee worthy enough to stand out among a crowded field in one of Colombia’s most celebrated coffee regions.

Our Llano Redondo Colombia COE #4 Special Selection is an extraordinary debut, even by CoE’s lofty standards.  It earned some of the highest scores awarded by our Quality Control team in all of 2017, and reminds us of nectarine, honeydew and butterscotch.  

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Pre-order this stunning lot here.  Orders received by Thursday, 12/14 at 3 pm will be roasted and shipped on Friday, 12/15 and arrive in time for Christmas.

If the person on your shopping list has been especially good this year, add the La Mina Colombia COE #8 Special Selection to your cart and take 15% off the total.

La Mina | Colombia Cup of Excellence #8

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

There’s a place

A short drive up the winding road outside the small mountain town of Buesaco in Nariño lies is a small family farm called La Mina.  At first glance, it looks much like all the other farms in the area.  But La Mina and its owner, Franco Héctor López, are in a league all their own.

This lot represents the fifth time La Mina has finished in the top 20 in Colombia’s prestigious Cup of Excellence competition, making it the most decorated farm in the entire region.

Don Franco grew up around coffee.  His mother and grandparents were coffee growers.  They taught him to love the culture of coffee, and he learned the lesson well.  He purchased his own farm more than 30 years ago and has been pouring himself into ever since.

Today, he has nearly 20 hectares (roughly 54 acres) of land, seven of them planted with coffee, the rest a densely wooded conservation area.  At 71 years of age, he continues to be a leader in his community and a model for other farmers who look to follow in his footsteps.

Do you want to know a secret?    

When you’ve had as much success growing coffee as Don Franco, no one would blame you for wanting to take it easy for a while.  He’s got a great market for his coffees, a wall full of awards and the respect and admiration of his peers.  What more does one need?  Fortunately for all of us thrill-seekers who find the beauty in coffee taste to be a source of overwhelming joy, Don Franco is not slowing down.  He’s having fun, and he is wired for work: I’m not sure he could stop even if he wanted to.  

And therein lies the real secret behind the consistently show-stopping quality of La Mina’s coffee.  Sure, it helps to be located in Buesaco, Nariño, a municipality that seems to have a special sauce for its quality recipe and has become a hotbed for high-end coffee buyers in search of treasure.  But it takes more than a favorable growing environment to produce coffees that demonstrate the real potential of the species.  Bringing out the best in a coffee requires deliberate effort, a willingness to go to great lengths achieve optimal flavor and persistence.   And Don Franco is nothing if not inexhaustible.  Every year I’ve visited La Mina, I have seen new investments in the farm and its processing set-up.  A few years ago, Don Franco built a drying system that was the envy of his neighbors, complete with automated fans and thermostats.  This year, he’s constructed a new lab on-site for quality control.

With a little help from my friends

Don Franco may be the heart and soul of La Mina, but his is not a solo act.  He gets by with a little help from his friends and family.  His daughter Cielo runs the commercial side of the family business, and his son-in-law Nilson helps out with operations.  (Nilson is a formidable farmer in his own right: his farm El Bado, just up the mountain from La Mina, took top honors in Colombia’s 2014 Cup of Excellence.) Adriana Villanueva, from the quality-focused exporter Inconexus, is also a good friend who has been providing support for years.   This kind of collaborative effort is part of the reason that La Mina has been able to hit home runs year after year.

Getting so much better all the time

We have purchased coffee from the López family for six straight seasons.  Some old-timers may remember the debut of La Mina on our menu back in 2012, when it was included in a spectacular release we referred to as “Amigos de Buesaco.”  In early 2018, we will launch a single-farm Limited Release from La Mina.

In the meantime, we are delighted to offer this superlative lot, which placed eighth in this year’s Colombia Cup of Excellence competition.  It is La Mina’s fifth winning CoE lot, bursting with flavors of pear, apricot and mission fig.

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Pre-order this truly special coffee here.  Orders received before 3 pm on Thursday, 12/14 will be roasted and shipped on Friday,  12/15 and arrive in time for Christmas.

Learn about Intelligentsia’s involvement with the Cup of Excellence competition here.

Find more information on the Cup of Excellence here.

El Cerro | Peru Cup of Excellence #2

From our Green Coffee Buyer for Peru Jay Cunningham:

Most of the truly great coffee in Peru has been blended into obscurity.  There, coffee is mostly collected from thousands of growers and bulked into large, homogenized lots that dilute the quality of dozens or perhaps hundreds of small lots of exceptional quality.  In the United States and other countries where Peruvian coffee is consumed, you may find it hidden in colorfully named blends on grocery stores shelves, but you would have to look hard.

Peru is one of the top-10 coffee-producing nations in the world by volume, but it is still struggling to make a name for itself where quality is concerned. Thankfully, that is beginning to change.

Peru’s Past

Peru’s coffee sector faces challenges that are typical of many coffee-growing countries, including persistent poverty, limited economic development in rural areas and poor infrastructure, and others that aren’t: it is massive, meaning that many parts of the country’s coffeelands are exceptionally isolated from ports and markets.  Development aid and organic and Fair Trade certifications have made an impact in Peru: coffee growers are making a better living and the cooperatives that link them to markets are able to reinvest in technical and agronomic assistance.  

A Culture of Quality

Peru has not had a reputation for great quality, but not because it doesn’t have the conditions to produce extraordinary coffee. Peru’s soaring Andean peaks, lush coffee forests, cool temperatures and traditional varieties make it a natural source of quality coffee.  What it lacks are a culture of quality, the commitment to lot separation and premium prices that make all that separation worthwhile.

Incentives for Quality

In recent years we have been working to create incentives for growers to begin to separate their lots based on quality, and the results have been genuinely exciting.  Last year we released the first edition of our new Rayos del Sol Organic Peru lot, our first Direct Trade single-origin from Peru in years. Earlier this year, the Cup of Excellence underscored the idea that there is value to be captured by lot separation when it held its first-ever competition and auction in Peru.

Enter CoE

In our blind cupping of all the winning Peru CoE lots, this particular one really stood out on the table as exceptionally sweet and clean.  We were thrilled, but not surprised, to learn that it came from Efraín Carhuallocllo, a member of the Café Solidario cooperative that puts together our Rayos del Sol Organic Peru lot.

Efraín and El Cerro

The village of El Corazón is located in the Province of Jaén, four hours north of the bustling city of the same name that serves as the official capital of the province and the unofficial capital of Peru’s coffee sector. To reach Finca El Cerro requires another hour-long walk from the village. The landscape of the farm is rugged, with elevations up to 2000m and lots of natural shade and untouched forest. Or at least, that’s what we have come to understand from members of Café Solidario’s leadership team, who have been telling us for years about Efraín and his farm.  We attempted to make our first visit this year but were thwarted by roads that weren’t merely too muddy to navigate, but too much for our vehicle to take: the effort to make it through the mud to the farm actually killed our truck and we had to hitchhike back to our hotel!

Like most coffee farms in Peru, El Cerro is small: a two-hectare plot (less than five and one-half acres) planted with about 10,000 Caturra trees. Unlike most coffee farmers in Peru, Efraín is hyper-focused on quality and part of an organization committed to relentless separation.

Efraín has been working this farm for seven years, making steady improvements every year. He maintains a small but pristine depulper and fermentation tank, as well as a small solar dryer that allows him to avoid the risks of El Corazón’s finicky wet weather.

Efraín was already well-known for his meticulous approach to coffee before this year’s Cup of Excellence.  Now he is nothing short of a celebrity in El Corazón, where his neighbors have sought his advice on fermentation, his help constructing new drying infrastructure, and most of his Yellow Caturra seed, all of which he has shared happily.

This spectacular lot, which reminds us of persimmon, turbinado sugar and dried cherry, is the harbinger of a new era for Peruvian coffee.

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Visit our single-origin coffees page to pre-order this coffee.  It will be roasted and shipped on 12/15 and arrive in time for Christmas.  If there is any left after that, we will fulfill orders every Friday until we run out.