A couple of weeks ago I had the distinct privilege and pleasure of going to El Salvador to meet Aida Batlle during my first origin trip with PT’s Coffee. Senora Batlle is one of our Direct Trade partners and the producer behind Finca Kilimanjaro, which will be re-launched later this year. The context for my going is rather personal, so allow me to quickly tell you some of my story:
Coffee is a seductress like none other. When she beckons, you answer. Coffee chose me about four years ago, and since then it has been my prerogative to learn all that I can about this new lover. I spent some months living and working on a coffee farm in Hawaii, and upon coming back to the Midwest was given the opportunity to work for PT's as a barista at our College Hill store. Suddenly, so many of the best expressions of so many of the best coffees in the entire world were readily available to me, and I’ve loved every moment of it.
A unique trait of the Coffee Road is that epiphany lies around every corner. I won’t ever forget when I had a cup of Finca Kilimanjaro for the first time. Talk about a "eureka!" moment. This coffee told a story, answered unanswerable questions, and inspired untapped emotion—all in waves and in ways that can’t be told. The experience is inexplicable, but it is one of those that addresses that impossible question of “Why? What is the point?” and keeps you going, inspired.
Since then I have had another dream realized by being entrusted with the position of Roasting Apprentice. And so about a year after that first encounter, it was a big moment of culmination when I had the honor of roasting Finca Kilimanjaro for the first time. Recalling the transcendental nature of this coffee, and the important part that it had played and was playing in my own journey, I passed some of these sentiments along to Aida. Of course there is no separation of product and producer in an example like this; a thank you was in order.
You can well imagine my joy when Jeff Taylor told me that they wanted to send me to El Salvador to meet and work with Aida Batlle. This woman has been profiled by the New Yorker and TIME Magazine, among others, is already busy enough with this year’s harvest concluding, and is in constant demand from specialty coffee’s key players. Yet, she was willing to make some time and space for me, our production team was willing to pick up my slack for a week, all while I had nothing to offer but my humble appreciation. And so, I got off the plane a couple of weeks ago, walked out of the airport, did not see my name being held up by any strangers, hopped into a cab and rode off into the El Salvadoran night.
I’d like to share my own two cents about the ongoing stress Roya is putting on producers in El Salvador, and what it means for us here. I also look forward to sharing more about Aida Batlle the person: what she means to Coffee, to us at PT’s, and to me personally. I have an opinion or two on the coffee itself as well (spoiler alert: it’s amazing). But for now, may I take this soapbox moment to address you the reader, the coffee lover, and say thank you from the bottom of my heart for that essential role that you play in it all. You are the noble recipient of that last expression of a zany relay of jobs done right where good enough was never an option; that absurd miracle called coffee. A theatrical bow to you for taking part in the madness—it is such a joy to share in it with you. Coffee is a seductress like none other. When she beckons, you answer.
Coffee people LOVE coffee. With so many first dates, profound conversations and creative epiphanies had at the mercy of coffee, how can we not? And of course the fullest expression of this romanticism waits at origin. Nothing short of pure magic exists in these places for those of us that have been brought into the fold. Unfortunately, love can quickly become a reckless liability if not balanced with a dose of reality…
Roya continues to be a real problem in El Salvador (and much of the coffee growing world). Even though some hard-hit places show signs of recovery, the residual effects still have firm hold: aggressive containment measures of yesteryear will inevitably have a harsh effect on today’s crop yield. Aida offered a grim example from one of her farms: Due to drastically lower yield combined with drastically higher inputs, her cost of production this year is about 2.5x what she sells her green coffee for. Aida will survive, but extrapolated over the country as a whole, the implications can hardly be exaggerated. Simply painting a bleak, sensationalized picture offers no solutions, though. Rather, it seems this issue should draw attention to a larger reality, so let’s think about the market implications:
Coffee is a commodity, traded at an ever-fluctuating C-Market price. For a relatively small coffee producing country like El Salvador, the market does not even blink when something like Roya decimates crop yield on a wide scale. Meanwhile, as Aida would put it, if it doesn’t rain in Brazil for a week, the market panics (and in fact that exact thing happened: as of this writing the market had spiked about 65% over six weeks due to speculation/concerns over drought conditions there, and is just now trending back down). It isn’t just unfortunate that these farmers should be so helpless over their own fate, subject to the whims of a highly volatile market. We have markets to help us know what something should be worth, but we can’t rely on them altogether when we know better.
Admittedly, I am only beginning to understand the nuances of this global industry, and thus the implications of our consumer decisions. That being said, one main reason out of many that I sought out PT's as a company I wanted to work for was the way we prefer to do business—namely, Direct Trade. Firstly, we do business with our friends, the very best in the game. With mutual respect and insistence on quality, we can confidently enter into contract agreements that insulate both ourselves and our producing partners from market volatility. The benefits and responsibilities are inside out, and shared by all. Transparency and quality are the non-negotiables. In our small corner, the world is a better place.
The solution is still somewhat elusive, though. Efforts to improve the world will always require a unified front. Perhaps my point is only this: If we as consumers continue to demand a superior product, we do need to accept our responsibility and bear in mind that we aren’t just buying a better cup of coffee, but a better world. That’s just real, good, and shared by us all. Without the love….