Papua New Guinea Backstory

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If you've been to Velodrome Coffee Company, chances are you've heard of our ONE SPEED coffee.. our simple and straight forward option that's been the drip coffee we've served since day one.  Or maybe the crowd favorite dark roast, our Night Rider.  Well, there's a lot of reasons we like working with this coffee in both our ONE SPEED and Night Rider.  It's consistent, it's harvested multiple times a year in PNG so we can always keep it fresh while the other options we carry vary depending on harvest schedules, but most importantly this is as directly traded a coffee as you'll ever find.  It's one of those extra-special coffees because of the connection we have with the entire chain.  

Take it back to 2015, I (Brice) was working my first coffee roasting job for Luna Coffee in DePere, Wi.  The owner, Mark, sent me to the SCA Expo, now my favorite coffee event and I haven't missed a year yet!  I was just a rookie coffee nerd at his first SCA Expo event amongst thousands of other coffee professionals and I knew no one.  I didn't mind however, I walked the expo floor up and down and went to as many cuppings as I could.  The cuppings at the SCA Expo are held for about 3 days from morning to night, many are invite only, but regardless you end up in a small ballroom with potentially 100 other coffee pros, and you go around sets of tables tasting a myriad of coffees. It's a strange environment to say the least, the floor is wrapped in plastic so we don't dribble on the floor, and we're all trying to dangle cupping spoons into little cups whilst balancing your spit cup on a clipboard... oh and usually no conversation aloud while tasting.   

 

First meeting Vikram and Vijay

All said, you can imagine how surprised I was when someone read my name badge and recognized Luna Coffee! It was Vikram Patel, and he told me how he knew about Luna Coffee... he had encountered our coffee on a vacation to the Door County area in Wisconsin.  This was legitimately my first coffee connection!  We got chatting and Vikram told me about the Papua New Guinea coffee he was just starting to import.  This was the first I had really heard of a direct style of importing like this, and also the first time I met someone with such a direct roll in the whole process.  

A little bit later, Vikram introduced me to Vijay, a good family friend, they refer to themselves as basically cousins.  Vijay handles all the farm and export stuff in Papua New Guinea at the Sigri Estate, and Vikram handles the importing, sales, and working with roasters here in the US through his company called Benchmark Coffee Traders.  Soon after this trip,  at Luna we bought a few bags of some Peaberry coffee and the whole process was incredible. 

First things first, it was awesome to work with an importer who worked so closely with the coffee he was selling.  Vikram knew all the little details about his coffee and if there was a question he couldn't answer he'd ask Vijay at the farm and get the info.  Over a several conversations, Vikram was able to explain a number of other things about PNG and what makes their coffee so different and how the entire coffee infrastructure works there.  

Secondly, it was refreshing to work with an importer who was the do-all guy for the company.  Vikram kept me updated with current arrivals and coffees, took my order, sent the invoice, supplied shipping and tracking info, and was sure to touch base and ask if everything was up to par.  Always insanely good service.  

Fast forward to now, and I've been buying from Vikram for years, possibly hundreds of bags of coffee transacted now and that stellar service has remained, plus the addition of a great friendship.  We always get together during trade shows, have drinks in Chicago when I pass through, and when we first opened Velodrome, Vikram made the trek up to our shop and helped share directly with our customers how our business models have aligned.  The support like this when we first opened the cafe was paramount to our success and brand.

Vijay and I at SCA Expo 2017

Looking back on it now, Vikram has been a huge inspiration to what the Velodrome green coffee sourcing program has come to be.  It's relationship focused and as personal as possible.  Vikram now has a few other coffees he works with outside the several grades of PNG, but it was after relationships had been established and the same mark of quality and sustainability that Benchmark Coffee Traders upholds had been nailed by the other suppliers.  We do the same here at Velodrome... there's some origins we simply won't have until there's a perfect source.  Until then, it's doing the simple things right and working closely with the people we do know. 

 

This concept of more personal, relationship-style of buying coffees is still a rather small part of the entire Specialty Coffee importing market, but the people like Vikram, doing the small things right and consistently make it so much more accessible for everyone.  It's becoming something more consumers are looking for, coffees that provide full transparency and connection, and Vikram was offering this way before the curve because he simply believed it was the better way to do things.  

This idea of doing things the better way when maybe it's not the most popular or before the market asks for it also extends to the unique ways Benchmark works with coffee.  There's enough to be said here for an entirely separate article, but the short of it is, no other estate in PNG takes as much care of their plants from seedlings to harvest then Sigri Estate does.  They also carefully process and sort their finish product and prepare it for export.  Another unique aspect they have introduced is a resting period for the coffee before it is exports that drastically helps with water activity and moisture content, this is a huge factor in how well the coffee will store in the US and how it will behave in the roasting machine.  An added step, but again, the right way for a better product.

photo: @Belenphoto

Lastly, the major reason I have loved working with Vikram is the people aspect.  The deep care Vikram exudes extends to both sides of the chain.  I certainly feel it as a customer, and on the farm side the simple fact alone that Sigri Estate is one of the major employers for the whole region and provides thousands of jobs and lives for families should be enough proof.  But yet, Benchmark uses some of its proceeds to go towards funding social projects on the estate such as: free housing for all pickers, free schooling for children, free healthcare, and free AIDS educational programs and testing.  All in all, it's about the human sustainability of the operation and Vikram caries that mission forward through importing this great coffee.

 Anyway, many more stories could be told but hopefully this provides a glimpse into why we love this coffee so much.  It's been a mainstay since day one and it will likely not being going anywhere soon as it's hard to find another coffee buying relationship quite like this one.  So, thanks again Vikram, Vijay and the whole team at Sigri Estate, we'll keep looking forward to serving the next cup of your coffee!  

 

 

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