Walk into a Kansas City cafe, and you enter a global marketplace where beans from Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Panama or any of the other 50 or so countries that produce coffee are brewing or bagged for sale.
By ANNE BROCKHOFF
Special to The Star
The area’s coffee community strives to bring variety to our cups, but the trade doesn’t flow just one way. Local professionals regularly export their own knowledge to coffee-growing countries. The resulting relationships yield better coffee for us while creating more profit, opportunity and security for farmers and their communities.
“It’s a great industry to work in,” says Tracy Allen of Brewed Behavior, an Overland Park-based consulting firm. “Coffee actually improves lives.”
At first glance, coffee seems simple. Farmers plant trees and harvest the berries, called cherries, when they’re red and ripe. The cherries are processed, and green (unroasted) coffee is exported to the United States, where it’s roasted, brewed and sipped.
But coffee isn’t simple. Farms are usually small, remote and poor. Different cultivation, harvesting and processing methods yield varying quality. Prices fluctuate, sometimes dipping below the cost of production. Most coffee is pooled into large lots, obscuring the best and making it hard to reward those who grew it.
That’s why specialty roasters in the 1990s began to trek into producing regions to meet with farmers and cooperatives. They struck up friendships, labored to improve quality, supported community projects and paid top dollar for top beans, a practice now known as direct trade.
“Having direct relationships makes it a more sustainable market for the grower,” says Jon Ferguson, green coffee buyer for the Roasterie. And “it allows you to have better access to higher quality coffees.”
A growing concept
Direct trade is more common now than when the Roasterie opened in 1993, but it remains a loosely defined term. It generally applies to roasters who foster ongoing relationships with growers, rather than buying from middlemen.
At PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. in Topeka, direct trade means buying first-rate beans, paying premium prices and encouraging sustainable practices, financial transparency and annual farm visits.
PT’s sources about 80 percent of its coffee this way, says Jeff Taylor, who co-founded the business in 1993 and began roasting four years later. His first coffee-seeking trip was to Guatemala in 2001. In 2012, he spent eight months on the road, visiting growers and family and studying Spanish.
“I’m buying the best a country has to offer and working with producers to make sure I can continue buying the best,” Taylor says.
Taylor considers those producers his friends, and like many roasters, PT’s stands by its friends. When bandits raided Finca Santa Maria earlier this year, PT’s helped the Colombian grower raise funds for repairs. PT’s also supports medical clinics, schools and soccer teams in El Salvador and Colombia, as well as the Catholic Relief Services’ Borderlands Project in Colombia and Ecuador.
“Jeff’s an example of how those projects work,” Brewed Behavior’s Allen says. “When you buy his coffee, it will be the absolute best you can find and absolutely tied to a social project.”
Allen’s own coffee career began in Kansas City, first at Procter & Gamble, where he helped develop the Folgers and Millstone brands, and then at the Roasterie. He moved to Seattle, became a co-owner of Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea Co. and started Brewed Behavior. In January, he relocated the business to Overland Park to be near family.
He continues to collaborate with roasters, baristas and producers throughout the United States, Asia, Europe, Africa — anywhere there’s coffee — to create an industry that works for everyone.
“We’re not waving some social do-good flag,” says Allen, who will in 2015 take over as president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. “The impact of what we do is measurable, and everybody who participates in coffee can be involved.”
Sourcing with a humanitarian bent
Global coffee output is expected to reach 146 million bags (one bag weighs 132 to 154 pounds) in 2013 through 2014, but very little is grown in the U.S. Bringing it here is a complex process, which is why most roasters rely on importers for sourcing, financing and logistics. Importers also facilitate direct trade relationships, and some, like Kansas City’s Kapeh-Utz, do so with a humanitarian bent.
That’s part of the appeal for Bo Nelson, whose Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters goes through Kapeh-Utz to buy from Guatemala’s Comal Cooperative. But quality is also important, Nelson says. Customers might purchase his coffee once because it makes them feel good. They won’t do so again unless it is good.
“We want to create a product people are in love with and can’t live without,” says Nelson, who together with his business partner Bill Holzhueter plans to open a café in the Crossroads Arts District early next year.
Balancing quality and mission is also important to John Neudorf of Friendly Bean Coffee. He began sourcing beans with a “demonstrable story of good” about five years ago and now buys most of his supply through importers like Kapeh-Utz. In February, Neudorf traveled to Honduras with KC’s Revive Coffee to visit a cooperative there.
Everything he learns, he shares with customers.
“We can help my customers here in Kansas City make a difference,” Neudorf says. “It’s shocking how much you can change the world through coffee.”
Relationships also change the coffee itself by giving roasters more input into how it’s produced, says Jon Cates, co-owner of Broadway Café & Roasting Co. Cates has long worked with growers in Nicaragua, and this year Kapeh-Utz connected him with the San Miguel Tzampetey cooperative in Guatemala.
Broadway is already selling some of the co-op’s coffee, and Cates will travel there in January. In the meantime, he uses email to keep in touch with farmers, and sends them samples he roasted.
“We were able to send coffee back down to them in April,” Cates says. “That was the first time they were really able to taste their own coffee.”
Feedback through blind tastings
Feedback helps growers better understand the market, roasters say, as do programs like the Alliance for Coffee Excellence’s Cup of Excellence program.
Ten countries hold CoE competitions. In each, a panel of international judges blind tastes entries, then scores them on aroma, flavor and other characteristics. The process creates what Kate Blackman, director of retail operations for Parisi Artisan Coffee, calls an immediate, traceable feedback loop.
“It’s a good chance for (producers) to see what coffees scored well, why they scored well, what flavors people were interested in and who’s buying the coffee,” says Blackman, who in August served as a CoE juror in Kigali, Rwanda.
Blackman is adding some of her favorites to Parisi’s lineup, and in November she led a tasting for industry pros during a one-day Barista Nation event in Kansas City.
Such knowledge creates richer customer experiences, builds demand for specific coffees and justifies higher prices — all key to the survival of coffee, says Habte Mesfin of Revocup Coffee Roasters.
“The link between the consumer and the producer needs to be solidified,” Mesfin says. “People need to identify the coffee they like directly with the source.”
Mesfin grew up in Ethiopia and worked for a coffee cooperative there before moving to the U.S. in the mid-1980s. He knows first-hand how precarious coffee farmers’ existence can be and worries that if they can’t make a living from coffee, they’ll switch to more profitable crops.
That’s why he and his wife, Nigist “TG” Ambachew, began supporting nonprofits working in Ethiopia after opening Revocup in 2008. Then, in 2012, the couple formed the Revocup Foundation to address education, water and pricing issues in the country’s coffee regions.
The foundation, which is supported by Revocup and donations, partnered with Books for Africa to supply schools with textbooks. The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union delivers them.
Last year the foundation donated 22,000 books to eight libraries serving 6,000 children. Another 22,000 books were shipped to libraries in 2013, and Mesfin hopes to eventually stock 50 libraries.
“What they need are the tools to improve their lives,” Mesfin says of coffee farmers. “They are not beggars. The system makes them dependent because they don’t get paid enough.”
Building coffee community
When the Roasterie and PT’s opened two decades ago, the idea of locally roasted coffee was unique. Now, Brewed Behavior’s Allen estimates there are about 100 specialty roasters within a day’s drive of Kansas City. Together with a cadre of cafés and baristas, they’ve created a thriving community eager to connect locals with far-flung farmers.
Among them is Ben Helt, of Benetti’s Coffee Experience. His are loyal customers; when a pair of them relocated to Panama City, Panama, earlier this year, they hired Helt to help open a new café there.
Helt arrived during coffee harvest, so he visited Finca Lerida to learn how that farm picks and processes its beans. The experience left him with a “unique perspective of where you fit in the supply chain,” but it wasn’t the point of the trip.
“What made the trip special was that it wasn’t just about touring farms,” Helt says. “We were in a tourist area. It was fun for a week to serve people from all over the world.”
That sense of hospitality is essential to coffee, says Pete Licata, Parisi’s quality assurance manager. He should know. The Olathe native won the 2013 World Barista Championship and now travels the globe, sharing his experiences and skills with pros throughout the U.S., Russia, El Salvador, Italy, Japan and elsewhere.
Everywhere he goes, he meets people who grow, brew and drink coffee and links them to a world where better taste truly leads to better lives.
“We’re connecting Kansas City to the rest of the country and to the rest of the world,” Licata says.
Freelancer Anne Brockhoff writes about food and drink for the Food section. She also blogs for Chow Town at KansasCity.com.