Intelligentsia gathers growers from all over the world in Los Angeles
by Julie Wolfson in Food-Drink on 4 November 2011
As the movement to recognize coffee as a serious foodstuff continues to grow, expert farmers from around the world are sharing production methods as a way of increasing quality and as a chance to experiment with new ways of cultivating beans. Intelligentsia, one of the leading artisanal coffee purveyors, is helping to foster these relationships with their Extraordinary Coffee Workshop (ECW), which we recently got to experience in L.A.
The three-day event brought together Intelligentsia growers, producers, co-op managers and top baristas for lectures, discussions, demonstrations and, at one point, a roasting competition. Participants were introduced to Cropster, a system used to support, track and manage farm information, before finishing off the weekend with a six-course dinner with coffee pairings.
What began as a meeting of industry people from Africa, Mexico, Central and South America, transformed into a virtual United Nations of the specialty coffee industry at the ECW, much like the past two ECW workshops in El Salvador and Colombia. According to Geoff Watts, Intelligentsia’s VP and green coffee buyer, “Farmers from Honduras met with growers from Kenya at the ECW in El Salvador. They took what they learned about their approach to processing coffee back to Honduras, did some experiments trying to replicate the Kenyan process. The results were spectacular. They put that coffee into the Specialty Coffee Association annual Coffee of the Year competition and got third place.”
VP of strategy Kyle Glanville notes, “These guys have become fast friends. After this they go and visit each other and they check out each other’s farms. Our quality has definitely gotten better as we’ve grown. I think a huge part of that is that the producers are not content to just follow tradition, they are actually talking to each other and troubleshooting and improving.”
Experimental farmer Camilo Merizalde hosted the first ECW at his farm in Popayan, Columbia. One of Intelligentsia’s most important direct trade relationships, the workshop prompted Merizalde to visit the farms of the attendees, from Brazil to Bolivia and beyond. Glanville explains, “He went to Ethiopia and then other places, like Yemen, on a fact-finding mission, to compile the world’s best practices, to find out about new varietals, and he has really dramatically changed his farm over the last few years as a result. He’s gone from being a high-quality producer who tries to get a lot of volume to deciding that his farm is going to be a super farm.”
The L.A. workshop this year gave the growers a chance to experience roasting, cupping, and coffee making at the Intelligentsia cafes in Venice, Pasadena, and Silver Lake. National roasting manager Gabriel Boscana points out, “This is the first time for most of the growers to see what we do in the café. For a lot of them they now understand how seriously we prepare their coffee. We showcase it every day in a little cup. For them to see how much love we put into it is meaningful. For us it was humbling. It puts pressure on us to make their coffee taste good all the time.”
“A weekend like this helps make this world a little bit smaller,” says Devin Pedde, the educator at the Silver Lake Intelligentsia coffee bar. “We are meeting people who produce the coffee we have been drinking for years. For the producers to be able to get together to talk about their shared struggles of cultivating the land and pruning the trees helps them share tips and tricks. Basically we all want to drink really good coffee and we want to make sure the people who grow good coffee are compensated for it. Everyone learning to improve is really the goal of this workshop.”
Sarah Kluth, green coffee manager and buyer, reiterated the effectiveness of such a gathering. “We can not overestimate the power of collaboration and that exchange of ideas. A lot of these producers live in mountainous areas, high altitudes, in countries that have poor infrastructures. They don’t have massive paved roads to their houses. You think about that in terms of neighbors and in terms of ideas or communication. They can be isolated within their countries, even with a tradition of how to grow coffee. To get in the same room with all of these other growers and to get them to exchange ideas is incredibly powerful.”
In addition to coffee-making the growers were treated to a road trip to Saarloos and Sons Vineyard, north of Santa Barbara, to explore the kinship between coffee farms and vineyards. Roaster Sam Sabori sums it up: “I was talking about coffee with one of them and he said, ‘Oh I am the producer.’ I told him that I learned so much from his coffee. I can ask the farmers about the dilemmas they face when processing the coffee then I can tie that to my roast and then to the cup and have a taste. It really comes full circle.”
At the end of the ECW weekend Charles Muriki from Kenya—a country Watts calls “the gold standard” for coffee—reflected on his first trip to the United States. At the end of a six-course meal at Intelligentsia Pasadena pairing dishes with coffees, he burst into a Swahili song from his childhood, “Kwaheri” or “Goodbye my friends goodbye.” As Muriuki proceeded to lead the group in a sing-a-long, it quickly became apparent that at this business meeting of the major players in the world-wide specialty coffee market, the participants have become much more than colleagues—they have developed a deep bond based on their shared commitment to coffee. “When you get the sense that there are 50 of us here from 15 different countries and we are all working towards the same thing, it creates a sense of family,” said Watts. “It creates a sense that people can advance a lot quicker in solidarity with each other.”