‘It was so cool! And they work directly with the farmers in Guatemala! And she left a sample! Can we try it? When can you roast it? Let us know so we can come cup it. Here are their contact details. Will you roast it tomorrow? And can we work with them, please?’
This was the stereo greeting I received when I walked into the cafe one afternoon. The two baristas, granted, both susceptible to over-excitement, couldn’t stop talking about the girl who had just stopped in to drop off samples and talk a little about the organization she was a part of. So of course I immediately reached out to Laura, who was kind enough to stop by the coffee shop again the next morning before flying out. And I got it. I got why our baristas had been so excited the day before. This wasn’t just another importer dropping off samples hoping to pick up another client, this was somebody who wanted to share their coffee. And to share the experience and what it was that they were doing.
Didn’t hurt that the sample I roasted was the best Guatemalan coffee I tasted last year. And so the relationship was pursued and Laura passed me on to Monique to deal with the coffee contracting side of things. And even through email it was clear that this was another person passionate about what they were doing and invested in making a difference. The idea for a trip to Guatemala began forming at that time, and then a few weeks after meeting Monique at SCAA in Atlanta she emailed me that I ‘must’ come down to visit De La Gente, and so it went. Tickets were booked and an itinerary was created to allow me to work with and meet as many of the farmers as possible, and really experience the organization.
So what was I hoping to gain? I’d already been to origin in several different countries. Done the farm tours, tasted the cherries, interacted with the farmers. But every time I’d felt like a voyeur. Swooping in to source some new coffee, maybe judge a competition, learn a little bit more about the process that I could take back home with me. De la Gente seemed like the opportunity to take that one step further. To work in the fields, to taste coffee with the farmers, to learn what methods were being used to improve quality.
In short, to participate.
And that’s the opportunity that was provided to me. From the first morning when I went up the mountain with Timo, head of the San Miguel cooperative, and Monique and Beth from De la Gente, I felt engaged. It was a farm tour, sure, but a more intimate one than I’d been able to experience before, and thus the opportunity to ask more questions and learn more about the history of the cooperative and the work being done. And the theme continued. Working in the fields, a home stay with Eduardo, roasting with Gabriel, trying to buy a random tortilla sign with Julio, cupping coffee with all the farmers - at every step I felt connected. Like I was able to participate in an exchange, rather than just broadening my own horizons.
‘So when are you going back?’
That was the first question I got from a lot of friends as I tried to describe the experience. Maybe I’d been infected. Whatever drove that passion behind De la Gente, I’d been caught up in it. And they could hear it in talking to me.
It definitely changed my views. Allowed me to see a way in which origin trips really can be a two-way street. A sharing of knowledge and a giving back. And it was a long discussion with Andy about the state of the industry that really crystallized that notion. Gave voice to what had been in the back of my mind. Too often we on the consuming end think that simply going down there, seeing where our dollars are being spent, and bringing back pictures and stories is enough. And don’t get me wrong. It’s not not useful. Making consumers aware of what’s really happening all the way at the other end of the supply chain can be eye-opening, and it has begun a shift in our industry towards transparency and paying a fair price. But too often we stop there. We’ve done our bit. Made a difference.
But have we?
Buying a product from a producer at a higher than commodity level price is important. But it’s not truly investing. Investing means more than just buying a product that we’ll turn around and roast and sell to our own customers. Investing is more about the future of that product. Using our knowledge, our time, our skill, and yes, our money, to help create something that will bring greater quality to us, and greater value to the producer. The two-way street.
Is it ironic that all of the streets in Antigua are one-way? As is the majority of value in the current industry standard of origin trips. The streets in Antigua aren’t going to change, but can the industry? Can we as roasters find ways to give more back? To get our photo-ops at origin, but also leave something of value behind? The million-dollar question, and the answer is still a work in progress. I’m still trying to find my answer, and I’m realizing it might have to wait until I go back.
Shouldn’t be too long though...
~ David Wilson