One of the most rewarding things about being a coffee roasting company is visiting the farms we work directly with to purchase our coffees. What's even more fun? Sending city folk, like our cafe managers and head office staff, down to these farms to have their minds blown. Here are nine things about visiting coffee farms we learned in Nicaragua, the native home of our La Bendicion, La Peña, and La Pradera coffees, earlier this year.
1. Your ride into the fields is a little more exciting than your usual commute into the city. "The hills of La Peña are not only one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, but they're surely not for the faint of heart. In many spots the hills are around 75 degrees steep, made even more treacherous by the constant winds and misty clouds that rush through the surrounding mountains. If you slip there's not much stopping you from a 100+ foot tumble to the bottom." — Josh Littlefield, Director of Education.
2. Picking coffee is a LOT harder than it looks. "Josh and Amarys insisted that we pick coffee, so out came the baskets. We only had about 1 hour to pick before we needed to head over to the wet mill to watch the processing. The trees were quite difficult to pick as you had to wander in search of ripe cherry, and even then you may only find a handful of beans to pick from one tree. We were only able to pick about 30 lbs between the 3 of us." — Dan Streetman, Green Coffee Buyer.
3. And you have to only pick the good ones. "Being able to pick our own coffee was life changing and actually pretty difficult! It was tough trying to find the perfectly ripe and purple (like jamaica iced tea) colored cherries. We picked for an hour but didn't get too many baskets filled, maybe like 1 and 1/2 (if that)." — Amarys Serrano, Manager, Irving Farm Grand Central Terminal
4. De-Pulping machines are a lot like Taylor Swift. "We visited the brand new wet mill that Luis Alberto started building in November of last year. He showed us the machinery that de-pulps the coffee. It was all pretty advanced, although the machines were just 'shaking it off'". —Amarys
5. The professionals work way faster than us city folk. And they have to. "We watched as all the coffee picked by the workers today, about 1600 lbs, was sent through the wet mill. Afterwards we raced the 2 hours back to the dry mill so that we could spread out our coffee on the raised beds before it would ferment." — Dan
6. Coffee processing can be a Zen-like experience. "We chose to have our coffee as honey processed so we took the coffee to the raised beds and spread them out with a rake and our hands. It was so sticky, just like honey! We spread them out as much as we could and I went to work with Dan trying to take out the leftover pulp in our green coffee. It was actually kind of relaxing and I was determined to save all the beans stuck to the pulp!" —Amarys
8. Being actually there really makes you appreciate something.
"Today has shown me the beginning stage of coffee productions and it has made me appreciate it so much more. These men are on a MOUNTAIN SIDE picking coffee for 8 hrs. They risk their lives all to provide us with the delicious product that many many people might take advantage of. I will be a hawk on my staff for how much coffee they waste from now on!" — Amarys
9. At the end of the day, every part of the coffee chain matters. "La Peña was the coffee I competed with for Big Eastern, so just the mention of having the chance to see this plot in person was already surreal. When we tasted the ripe yellow catuai off the branches (which are actually more orange when fully ripe) they were noticeably sweeter than the varietals we had tried previously. What was also really interesting for me is that coffee thrived in this climate. The hills are constantly cool, moist and shadowed by cloud cover. In this pretty harsh environment the trees were full, healthy and lush. So cool!" —Josh
There's no reason to keep it a secret: Fall is our favorite season here at Irving Farm. It's the time of year when lattes taste richer, the tang of hot local cider warms your tongue, and the leaves just look that much brighter with a side of spicy chai. It's natural, then, that it's during our favorite season that we're proudly launching our new Organic Pumpkin Seed Milk, made locally by Jnana Organics in Mt. Kisco, New York. This milk alternative is packed with antioxidants, vitamin E, zinc, iron, copper and manganese. It's lactose-free, cholesterol-free and an excellent plant-based protein. It's also more sustainable than almond milk, and it's completely delicious. We sat down with Jnana's Patricia Trongone to talk superfoods, emotional eating, and how the right food can balance your chakras.
IFCR: Can you give us some personal details about your journey and how you arrived at this moment in your life, producing organic seed milks in Mt. Kisco? Where did you grow up? When did you first discover yoga and healthy eating?
Patricia Trongone: My journey into yoga and nutrition started as a young teenager. I studied yoga and meditation long before it was popular. I was later drawn to the Buddhist teachings and deepened my yoga practice at the same time, both in NYC and Japan. All lead me to self-publish The Chakra Mantra Cookbook (2000) which is a vegan, spiritually-inspired, color-coded book consisting of meditations, prayers, mantras and recipes that support the Chakra energy centers in the body. Healthy food has always been a passion growing up in New Jersey. I further enhanced my learning at both Integrative Nutrition and the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC. After moving to Westchester and wanting to create a healthy lifestyle for my family, I put my background to work by launching Jnana Organics—Nourishment for Body, Mind and Spirit. Jnana is a Sanskrit word that is pronounced Yah-nah and means "self-knowledge". How did your relationship with Irving Farm begin? My business partner Gil Kernan, suggested we add organic coffees to our menu to address the many requests from our customers. We spent many months testing and researching brands and roasters. We concluded that Irving Farm best aligns with our fundamental principles on sustainability and on utilizing the highest integrity ingredients. Plus, we love the team!
Pumpkin seed milk is not included in your product list on the Jnana website. Is this something that you're producing exclusively for Irving Farm, or is it a new venture? Our small factory is an ongoing food laboratory where we work on recipes and develop interesting tastes. Around the time we began talking to IFCR, we discovered that the health benefits and taste of the pumpkin seed milk were compelling. Pumpkin seeds also stack up better than the nut milks in terms of sustainability. Today, it is made exclusively for IFCR, but we plan to roll it out in other venues. How do you see coffee fitting into your mission of creating healthy, affirming, mindful, and stimulating food options? Although at Jnana Organics we are offering Vegan, Organic, Non-GMO, Sustainable Green Juice Detox Programs, our customers regulate the pace of their cleanse. We don’t suggest that you go “cold turkey,” because giving up too much all at once may cause unwanted symptoms, such as fatigue or headaches etc. (Most of our customers are coffee drinkers.) We recommend [they drink] cold-brewed Organic Farm Brew Irving Farm coffee, which we soak overnight and add to our vegan milks to make it more alkaline. It's a big hit at the local Farmers' Markets. Lots of customers will have their coffee first, followed by a green juice. We also have experimented with ground coffee in our chocolate truffles. Made with superfoods and the highest quality ingredients, these truffles are healthy enough for breakfast! Everything in moderation, rotating your intake with the seasons and relying on your intuition are key principles. We generally eat to satisfy a corresponding emotional need and/or have trigger foods when under stress. Knowing intuitively what your body needs at any given moment helps to create balance.
Most coffee lovers are new to pumpkin seed milk. What do they need to know? Pumpkin seeds are a healthy, superfood non-dairy alternative with a smooth and creamy texture, that doesn’t curdle or separate in a coffee beverage. Pumpkin seeds are packed with antioxidants and provide a great source of all the different types of Vitamin E as well as Zinc, Iron, copper, manganese, and it’s a good plant-based protein. It is lactose-free, cholesterol-free and supplies the body with a good source of fatty acids needed to burn fat. It's easier to digest and more sustainable than nuts. The health benefits are truly endless. Thank you so much, Patricia! Try Jnana's Organic Pumpkin Seed Milk as a dairy alternative in our cafes and tell us what you think via Twitter and Facebook!
Photo by Bill Bullard
Last month we bid farewell to David Saileni, an Irving Farmer since 2011, who began working at our former cafe on 7th Avenue and managed to pull shifts at every single location except for Millerton, which is quite a feat. He's a customer favorite and you only need to spend a few minutes in his presence to understand why. Originally from Tanzania, David moved to Washington, DC, in 1998 before relocating to NYC in the early aughts where he began working for Whole Foods. His friendly customer service resulted in a friendship outside the store with Sandra David which eventually led to marriage, and it is this particular life adventure that is now leading him to Charlotte, NC, where Sandra is pursuing a job opportunity in the world of taxes and accounting. In an effort to assuage our sadness over his departure, here are a few things we've learned about David and his uniquely positive energy. It's a glimpse of what we'll miss, and what we've grown to love.
If you scroll through David's photos on his phone you will see clouds. Hundreds upon hundreds of clouds. He's captivated by their transient nature and shifting beauty, how they invite you to observe patiently. If you don't see anything at first, wait a moment and a shape will be revealed. If you see something extraordinary, capture it in a picture because it won't last. His prized photo of a cloud shaped like a crocodile is trapped in his old phone which got stolen, then recovered, then held as evidence in the investigation, then returned to him eight months later with the SIM card locked for 23,000,000 minutes. David recognizes that he'll be elderly and close to death when this phone is liberated, but he cheerily entertains the possibility of sharing the crocodile cloud with his grandchildren one day because, after all, even a locked SIM card is impermanent.
He also has hundreds of photos of butterflies. As a kid in Tanzania he would see all sorts of butterflies and it was only later that he realized people traveled from all over the world to see this rare population. After school he would get distracted for hours studying the variety of shapes and patterns. He would collect the butterflies with his friends and carry them to the rooftops where they would be released in a flight of winged color, a ritual that became an emblem of his own desire to see the world in its profound multiplicity, something his father got to do as a member of Tanzanian parliament.
Another favorite animal is the honey badger for its determination and resilience. Even in the face of bee stings and snake bites, the honey badger will not give up. And it is reasonable to expect that David would also brave poisonous attacks in the pursuit of his goals. We once saw him shove his arm down a clogged drain in the floor at our 79th Street cafe while everyone else stood dumbfounded by the spewing, gurgling mess. That was definitely a honey badger moment.
When asked about his secret to making such incredible latte art, he says it's all about taking his time. When he went to Barista Camp in Wisconsin he realized how much emphasis was being placed on minimizing the time it takes to craft an espresso beverage in an effort to increase efficiency and output. He began to explore what would happen if he slowed down by a few seconds each step along the way. This slight increase in production time resulted in a more relaxed energy, both for himself and the customer. He wants each customer to know that he's invested in them having a good beverage and a great experience, that he's really with them in that moment and it's an opportunity to make a meaningful connection. There is an extraordinary patience in his willingness to observe the formation of a cloud, the delicate designs on a butterfly's wing, the perfectly textured milk breaking the surface of the espresso and the gentle merging of crisp whites and silky caramels.
If David has a weakness, it's bananas. He's been known to consume up to ten bananas per day, his regular number being seven. This somewhat limited diet was only supplemented by oranges and the occasional avocado or chocolate bar, so upon seeing his blood sugar levels a doctor had to intervene and demand that he scale back. He's now down to four bananas per day, so there's hope that he'll live to see the crocodile cloud once more.
"Enjoy the day. Forget everything and just enjoy. Go out there and have fun."
This is what David says he wishes for each customer, because he knows that people enter the coffee shop with any number of worries, so his interaction with them could be the only affirming moment of their day. When he was a kid, if he struggled in school or had a bad day he knew that afterwards he'd be able to spend time with the butterflies, and that for every difficult weekday there would always be Saturday when he could relax in nature. As an adult he understands that if you hate yourself, everyone you encounter becomes a monster, so his abiding creed is, "Love yourself, and love others the same way you love yourself," and to awake with the intention to make each day the very best.
As much as we hope to convey this attitude to our staff and customers, we recognize that David is special, so we'll do our best to remember his example and hope that NYC hasn't seen the last of this lovely man. We'll miss you, David, but like a cloud or a butterfly we can't hold onto you forever. Now enjoy the day. Go out there and have fun!
Our collaborative spirit often finds us in beautiful spaces all over the world—and in our own backyards—populated by creative, entrepreneurial people who inspire us. We recently sent our Head Service Technician and resident beer expert Bill McAllister to the borderlands of Connecticut, where he visited a...beer farm?
My phone’s GPS started to work only intermittently before I crossed the border from New York into Connecticut. I was on my way to visit Kent Falls Brewing Company after Irving Farm's Teresa von Fuchs surprised me with the opportunity for a brewery tour and a takeaway of a few cases of beer. Totally helpless without a computer navigating for me, my anxiety peaked as I came close to completing a full circumnavigation of Lake Waramaug—but it wasn’t long before I felt a mild bliss at the sight of the idyllic farm that Kent Falls Brewing Company calls home. I picked the closest building—a modest barn—and invited myself in, looking for Barry Labendz, co-founder/manager of the brewery. What I walked into was this beer geek’s fantasy: gleaming mash tuns, stainless steel fermentation tanks, a keg cleaner/filler, and most gorgeous of all, a line-up of perhaps twenty wooden barrels. I introduced myself to the three-person bottling team, Barry appeared, and I soon had a miniature glass of beer in each hand. In my left, Waymaker, one of the three flagship beers brewed regularly on the farm. In my right, Coffeemaker, an experiment that spikes Waymaker with some of Irving Farm’s coffee sourced from the Santa Isabel farm in Guatemala.
Before launching into the geeky details of how Coffeemaker came to be, let me say: I was blown away by this beer. I’ve had several beers made with the addition of coffee, from the straightforward (and often boring) generic coffee-flavored porter/stout/name-your-typical-dark-beer to ambitious and wild single-hop, single-origin coffee, single-keg releases from the beer industry’s darling hot shots. Coffeemaker reminded me both of the Waymaker I had sipped seconds before and an iced version of our Santa Isabel, served by the carafe-ful at the IFCR training loft all summer. It may sound simple, but achieving that balance is something that few brewers are able to pull off. Kent Falls Brewing has, and it is delicious. Even without the addition of coffee, Waymaker is a bit of an unusual beer. It is hoppy and complex, with flavors more easily describable by setting a scene than drawing comparisons to other foods and drinks. Think late spring verdancy in New England, carbonated in a glass. The body sat heavy on my palate, but not in the syrupy way that I’ve come to expect from most thick beer. Genre-wise, it is an India Pale Ale (IPA) that is fermented with wild yeast called Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short. IPAs are a staple in the craft beer section of any grocery store or deli, but still land outside the mainstream due to the heavy dose of hops essential to the style. Besides the aromatics of citrus, flowers, and pine resin, the hops bring a bitter component to the beer. Brewers often use extra malt in IPAs, which provides a sweetness to balance that bitterness but also increases the body of the beer.
But what about this wild yeast? Normally, beer is fermented with domesticated Saccharomyces yeast. Brett is its feral cousin, five times removed, except anyone that studied biology in college would point out that these two are not even in the same family, taxonomically speaking. Brett is used to ferment sour beers or a “wild” saison style brew because, depending on the work of the brewmaster, the yeast produces acidic chemicals and a wide range of exotic aromatic chemicals otherwise absent from conventionally fermented beer. It also typically makes for a thinner, delicate beer. Here is where I cede to you the limits of my beer-geek knowledge. Waymaker has got the spicy, barnyard-y flavors that are a dead giveaway of a brett-fermented beer, but does not lack for body at all, and I have no idea how the guys at Kent Falls Brewing do it. I am certain, though, that Dan Streetman, our Green Coffee Buyer, and Teresa von Fuchs, our Director of Wholesale, hit it out of the park for their side of the Coffeemaker collaboration. Dan and Teresa did much more than drop off some beans. They chose the coffee, the brew method, and experimented with a wide range of beer-to-coffee ratios. The brew method was a straightforward decision, since we have confidently brewed hot coffee directly onto ice at our cafes for years. This method results in coffee that is strong while preserving the nuances of hot coffee that we love, particularly the crisp fruit-like acidity and aromas, which other methods such as cold-brewing sacrifice.
Beans from the Santa Isabel Farm in Guatemala were their choice for this first batch of Coffeemaker. Dan has been visiting Santa Isabel for years, and Irving Farm is very proud of the relationship we have with Alex and Martin Keller, the third-generation operators of the farm. Relationships like this are at the core of how Irving Farm works, and so Santa Isabel is our quintessential mid-summer coffee after we have gone through all of the season’s Costa Rican and Salvadoran coffees. It is also delicious—a beautiful example of a sweet, clean, balanced Central American coffee. It simultaneously has approachable flavors of caramel and dark chocolate, but also the sparkle of fresh pineapple. It is easy to see why Dan and Teresa chose Santa Isabel for our first collaborative brew. If all of this has you ready to find a four-pack of Coffeemaker to bring home, don’t hesitate. As much as Kent Falls and Irving Farm have common ground in delicious beverages, we also see the truth in the seasonality of agriculture, whether it is coffee or grain. So, expect Coffeemaker to change as the seasons do, but trust it will always be delicious. Join us 7pm, Thursday, August 26 at the Owl Farm Bar, 297 Ninth Street, Brooklyn, to taste Coffeemaker as well as a limited edition Cascara Waymaker at a very special Kent Falls Brewing launch event!
We love to celebrate all the ways beyond coffee that farmers, chefs, and other food and drink artisans bring delight to the world through their thoughtful sourcing and practices. And, let's admit it—we love sake. In the continued spirit of collaboration, we've teamed up with Joto Sake for a special evening of process-focused tastings on Wednesday, August 19th, from 6-8pm at our Upper West Side cafe.
Joto has been importing and distributing small batch sake from a focused portfolio of Japanese breweries since 2005, representing the various regions and styles of this centuries-old tradition, and on August 19th they'll be serving a delicious selection of their chilled sakes alongside Irving Farm's newest (and sold out!) limited edition series, the Los Niños Experiments—one harvest of Salvadoran coffee processed four different ways.
Learn about the science and taste of processing both coffee and sake, from the sun-drying of coffee's cherries to the polishing of sake rice, all while sampling a dynamite grain-and-bean coffee/sake cocktail alongside beautiful cheese and charcuterie furnished by Brooklyn-based importer Food Matters Again.
Join us to get your beverage processing geek on, and share a sure-to-be delectable night on the Upper West Side.
Irving Farm and Joto Sake Wednesday, August 19 6-8pm Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, 224 West 79th Street
$30 in advance, $40 at the door
Irving Farm's Director of Wholesale, Teresa von Fuchs, has had the opportunity to visit coffee farms in a few different parts of the world—it's not, as they say, her first rodeo. But a recent trip to Ethiopia with our Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman, to visit the Amaro Gayo coffee farms belonging to our producing partner Asnakech Thomas, opened her eyes into the past and future of coffee as just part of the greater social and agricultural landscape. Read on...
When I teach classes or conduct trainings about coffee, I always stress that coffee comes from far away, that it’s exotic and we shouldn’t take it for every-day-granted. When I had the opportunity earlier this year to travel to Ethiopia, and specifically to visit coffee producer Asnakech Thomas at Amaro Gayo, this truth was so clear. And although I’d been to other coffee-growing countries, Ethiopia was truly like nothing I’d ever seen before. It took almost 3 hours to drive to Amaro Gayo from Yirgacheffe, a distance of only about 50 kilometers (as the crow flies) along rough, dirt and gravel roads. The landscape alternated from lush and green to dry rolling desert then back again. The spare number of buildings we passed were mostly hand-constructed in the local style from organic materials, and some had intricate designs carved into the wooden windows. We passed beautiful mosques and Christian churches, built out of corrugated metal, or occasionally stone. Our fellow travelers along the road were almost all on foot herding cattle, sheep, or goats, or leading a mule piled with water, or sacks of grain, or coffee. Some rode handmade carts attached to mules piled with building materials, like long sticks, or more sacks of grain or firewood, or more people. We passed motorbikes with up to three or four riders, also carrying goods.
Wearing two pairs of glasses on her head, Asnakech was sorting coffee with about 20 other women on the porch of her coffee storage facility when we arrived. She shared that they were resorting 40,000 lbs (one container's worth) of coffee because she had been unsatisfied by the sorting done by the processor in Addis. The women were seated, with large metal trays on their laps with small piles of green coffee. They sorted out the defects and rejects into smaller pails and the newly sorted coffee into separate bags. They had removed their shoes before coming onto the porch and a large piece of burlap covered their feet. The material was to ensure that no coffee was dropped onto the floor of the porch and that anything that was dropped could be added back to one of the sacks in the center of the porch to be sorted. Asnakech estimated it would take them all about 20 days to sort through this last container. From there she switched the sunglasses from the top of her head to her eyes and invited us to walk through the mill and then her farm. We were late in the season, and the harvest had happened earlier in the year than usual. Mill workers were already cleaning up the raised beds, replacing older posts, and cleaning the mill. From the mill, we walked through parts of the farm and she explained that the rains stopped too early this year, and sadly many of the cherries on the trees were not able to fully mature. Total production was down nearly 50% because of this and had increased her costs with the extra sorting. She told us that it was the hardest year of her 11 on the farm so far, but "c’est la vie" she shrugged—what could she do?
Well, actually, during the rest of the walk and the day, we learned how much she was doing. We walked down to the river just outside the lowest part of her farm. She explained that this was the primary water source for this area and though it was running strong now, by the time her trees needed the water, it would dry up. So she’s building an irrigation project at the top of the hill. She was still working on funding to build it when we visited, but the hope is that building the irrigation system and rain collection tanks will allow for a backup water supply so the trees and her harvest don’t suffer like they did this year. She also showed us the pruning techniques she had been developing, the fertilizer they create from the coffee pulp byproducts in the wet process, how they dry and package coffee leaves, and the husks they save from the naturally processed coffee to sell to the local market as teas. She then walked us through a small nursery that was planted by some of her trainees. Asnakech hosts trainings once per year for other local farmers, on everything from farm management to how to produce coffee for quality, not just quantity.
We walked back to the porch and coffee storage building and shared a lunch of injera, lentils and many small cups of coffee with her and her workers while she told us about all the other projects she’s working on. Along with training other local farmers, Asnakech also trains the women in her area, many of whom are the farmer’s wives who end up doing much of the farm work. She trains them not just in farming, but in banking. In her region there had never been a bank and not much reason for a bank to open, because no one wanted to use one. She convinced a bank to open in her town, and in her trainings she created an ID system where husband and wife both get cards and she pays them separately for the cherry that meets her quality spec. This way the women have an income and, potentially, savings. She stressed the importance of this because in her area women have no property rights to their husband’s land. Typically if something happens to a woman’s husband they cannot keep their land and thereby lose their income. With the bank, they can at least save a share. Since the bank has opened she’s also working with all the locals to open accounts and use the bank to secure funding for projects that could help them create more profitable futures. She said even small things, like the capital needed for an out-building to store their coffee and protect it from the elements and animals, can make a huge impact on a small landholders' earning potential.
She’s also working with her community to create alternative revenue streams, such as setting up honeybee hives and teaching people how to collect and sell the honey. She worked with a group of local women to produce pottery that she hopes they’ll be able to bring to market next year. And she’s working on introducing new crops to her area like adzuki beans. She has also worked with a partner to create an HIV awareness program. She explained that though HIV is a huge health issue in her region, there was no local knowledge of what the disease is and how it is transmitted. She runs the program during her employees’ work days at no cost to them and incentivizes that everyone in her area go through the program yearly. Another project she’d like to complete is to build a hospital. The closest facility is hours away. It could take an ambulance days to arrive and almost no locals have vehicles. Asnakech has dreamed about being able to open a hospital in Amaro since she was a little girl and listened to her older sister suffer for days and finally die in childbirth. When we were there she’d secured a site but had been disappointed as funding kept falling through.
What was most obvious and moving to me was that Asnakech’s passion for her coffee was a larger expression of her passion and pride in her region and people. She spent years lobbying the agriculture minister in Addis to study her area’s coffee trees. Every time they refused, saying that her trees were most likely the same as the ones 40 kilometers away. She insisted they weren’t and finally offered to pay for the research project herself. Once there, the scientists discovered 58 new varieties which had never been seen before. She continues to pay for the project to study and cultivate her unique varieties. She named her farm for her region and her tribe, Amaro—which she said no one had really heard of until coffee people started traveling to visit her and discover why her coffee is so unique—and Gayo, a waterfall in the area. The legend is that Gayo is the place where sacred water collects into a waterfall, and this water was used to anoint the king of her tribe. When I caught the first aroma of this latest crop of Amaro Gayo coming off the grinder, it made me think that all of Asnakech’s work is like the sacred water collecting, ready to spill over, her beautiful coffee, like her spirit, anointing the world.
In these pages, we've been proud to share occasional travel journals from Irving Farm family members like our Green Buyer Dan Streetman, or this wonderful Honduras reflection by longtime staffer and all-around-talent John Summerour. Now, we're thrilled to share words from Liz Dean, manager of our Upper West Side Cafe, who we profiled here last fall. Earlier this year, Liz took a trip along with some other Irving Farmers to visit some of the farms we have relationships with in El Salvador. Here are her impressions, along with her photographs.
One of the things that makes Irving Farm special is its commitment to truly investing in the professional development and education of its staff, and one of the ways in which we’re doing this is by selecting a few staff members every year to travel to one of the countries we get our coffee from. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the people chosen to go on the trip of a lifetime to travel to El Salvador to visit some of the farms and mills we work with to supply our coffee. The purpose of taking what is referred to as a “trip to origin”—a sort of rite of passage in which a coffee professional visits a country, like El Salvador, where coffee is grown—is to try and understand the place on its own terms. The word “origin” is deliberate—it implies something prehistoric, knowledge a priori, or things that exist outside of our own experience of them. For those of us who work in a cafe setting, we are required to surrender that we're actually only the last step in a very long chain that begins somewhere far away. It’s because of this that taking a trip to origin is the dream of many serious coffee professionals—it’s the only way to fully understand our role and, ultimately, our responsibility, within our industry. I knew that this trip would likely be one of the most formative and defining parts of my career as a coffee professional.
When I got back from El Salvador, I was asked to share some thoughts about my experience there. I discovered that I had a hard time figuring out what to write, which wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to say. It’s a well known and very bad habit of Americans like myself (of a certain education and income level) to travel to foreign countries—especially those seen as impoverished or lacking in resources—and then use our very Americanized lens to describe and dictate, in pictures and blog posts, the terms in which other people live. It can be a kind of gross exercise that usually says more about the person visiting than about the place visited. It was important to me that I give proper tribute to the country and people who had graciously shown me so much during my short time there. I wanted to try and present El Salvador as authentically as I could, and to seize moments of surprise as opportunities to examine the assumptions I came in with.
Nowhere was this more evident than when I spent several hours picking coffee at Talnamica. This farm was on relatively flat ground, which was unusual for a coffee farm—since coffee grows best at higher elevations, many pickers have to work on steep mountainsides. And even though we had it easy that day, it was still hard work! After we’d picked for just a few hours, we hauled our bags to the patio to have our coffee weighed. While pickers are paid based on the weight of the coffee they picked, there are still incentives to pick properly and not just strip the trees bare in order to get the heaviest bags the fastest. After all, stripping the trees of everything on them would damage them, and picking cherries too soon would also mean fewer ripe cherries to be picked later on. I’d been pretty careful in my picking and while I didn’t pick as much as some of the others in my group, I’d picked well. I was told that the coffee I’d picked would have earned me $1.25 USD. On average, a coffee picker in El Salvador earns about $10/day.
Several American friends expressed disgust when I told them about this. “That’s appalling," they said. And I’ll admit that my initial reaction was similar, until I realized how much more complicated this issue was, and that this was one of those moments in which I was going to have to step back from my own biases. I spent my week in El Salvador expecting just to learn more about where coffee comes from and instead was given a crash course in the economic and social difficulty of evaluating and comparing quality of life across culture and country. It’s very easy for an American to feel bad for a Salvadoran coffee picker who lives off of $10/day because there’s a value we associate with that money, and what it can and cannot buy.
This attitude also suggests that the Salvadoran coffee workers are deserving of our pity, that we should feel bad for their lot in life. Our Americanized lens allows us to chase the narrative of the downtrodden, exploited worker when the reality is more complicated. In fact, while I visited only a handful of farms and mills, the Salvadoran coffee workers I met seemed to take an extraordinary amount of pride in their work and seemed to see their work as important and meaningful. Many of them also possessed skills that made them invaluable to the process of producing coffee. No one exemplified this more than Wencis Lao. Wencis Lao has been working with coffee for almost his entire life. He has a huge, toothy grin and strong hands rough from work. His job is to oversee the turning of the harvested coffee as it dries, which has to be done at specific timed intervals to ensure that the coffee dries evenly. He told us that he sometimes skipped his lunch break because he was worried about making sure the coffee was being turned properly, on time. It was clear that he cared about and took pride in his work. Coffee has to reach a certain percentage of moisture content before the drying process is considered finished (if the coffee is still too moist, it can spoil and rot). While a moisture meter could be used to scientifically and accurately measure the moisture content of the coffee, Wencis Lao can guess the percentage just with his hands alone. Most of the time, he is just as accurate as the meter. He can also predict how long it will take for coffee to reach the right moisture level, even down to the specific time of day.
Another problem with how we react to $10/day for Salvadoran coffee pickers is that we are, in fact, part of why they make so little. Coffee is a tremendously undervalued commodity, given how much work and time is required to produce it in the first place, right from when it is first planted to when it reaches its final destination, brewed into a cup. Knowing how much goes into producing, say, hand-brewed pour-over coffee, it’s surprising that it’s as cheap as it is at $4.50. And yet, even at the cafe I manage on the Upper West Side—one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan—people balk at this price. “$4.50 for just a cup of coffee?”. But the reality is: it’s not just a cup of coffee. It’s nothing short of a miracle that happens as a result of a very long process involving a lot of labor and time and many different people across different countries. A process that requires painstaking attention to detail every step of the way. And that’s before it even gets to the barista!
For every moment you have shared with a friend over coffee, or for every morning you have woken up and felt grateful for the cup of coffee to help prepare you for the day, you owe thanks to an extraordinary number of people for making that possible. We owe it to every person whose hard work and long hours are part of the process that makes coffee what it is in the first place not just recognition, and gratitude, but also (perhaps more importantly)—fair wages, and a certain standard of living - for the meticulous care and effort that went into its production. Seeing this at work firsthand helped me shed the lens of my own American gaze, but one doesn't have to travel to see the facts of our part of the process.