As most of our customers know, we do things a little differently here at Velodrome Coffee Company. One of our biggest driving principles is sourcing our green coffee personally. That means we visit most of the farms we work with and personally know the people we buy our green coffee from... when we can't travel to the farm ourselves, a trusted friend has visited the farm and can tell us how the operation is running and what their environmental and social impact is like.
So what, why? Why should a company that only roasts a few hundred pounds of coffee each month source green coffee this way? We're going to answer that through this field report from our most recent sourcing trip to Guatemala.
Earlier this month, I (Brice) rounded up a group of friends and went to Guatemala.
I don't speak much Spanish, and one of the convictions I have when traveling and doing business outside of the US is to exalt and be respectful of the host country's culture and language. So, rather then expecting all the farmers we meet to embarass themselves and be uncomfortable by trying to speak English, I brought my sister, Staci, on the trip to translate. She studies Spanish in college and is completely fluent... her abilities broke down so many cultural barriers and because of her translating we were better able to understand the people we came to see. Also along for the trip were Alex and Amanda, our personal video crew. I had just met Alex a few weeks before this trip through a mutual friend and long-story-short I invited he and Amanda to come and film. Rounding out the group was Jimmie, head roaster at 8th and Roast (who I do consulting work for) in Nashville, TN . I think it's incredibly important for coffee roasters to personally understand the whole supply chain of coffee... so whenever I consult another coffee roasting business I not only recommend that they send their operations team/roasters to origin, but I also offer to bring my consulting clients along for trips whenever I travel to origin. Not only will they learn a great deal, but we also help get them lined up with a stellar coffee to buy while we're there to see what makes the personally traded coffee method so special.
We flew into Guatemala City very late on December 7th and our group met up at the airport before grabbing our rental SUV. Just outside of the airport we met up with the Schippers, the family who I visited last year. The Schippers put us up for the night in their home just outside of the city. As always, their accommodation and absolute hospitality were incredible. We grabbed a quick night of rest and set out for the Schippers farm in the Santa Rosa district the next morning.
I think the Schippers' farm will always be one of my favorite places on earth. It's remote, has incredible views, and is surrounded by lush forest... as are most other coffee farms, however the connection I now have with the Schippers makes being there a whole different experience. Furthermore, there's something incredible about going back to the same remote place on earth and seeing how much has changed, yet how much is the same. The Schippers' farm was where the inspiration for personally sourced coffee even came from in the first place. It was here one year ago that I realized the only way to repair the dissonance between roasters and farmers is through human connection. So, going back was less about the actual location, or even catching up on the goings on of the farm... it was more about spending time with John, Johnny, Franz, and all the other farm managers I met last year. It's taking in again what makes each of them tick... it's just enjoying how they lead you around the farm and show you the progress... it's witnessing the smiles and excitement during the record harvest... it's talking about dreams, new lots, and new challenges. The real reason and substance for going to origin, especially time and time again is for the true, face-to-face human connection. I learn their world, they learn mine. They ask how we roast, they ask what our customers are like, they ask about the other coffees we serve.
One of my other favorite things about the Schipper's farm is settling in and spending the night. There's a nice home with some guest rooms in the center of the farm where Johnny (the family patriarch) lives. Enjoying those late nights, meals, and early mornings together right in the middle of the farm only deepens your connection to that place and the people there. Many of the other farms I have visited are just for a few hours. Being able to come and spend some real quality time at the Schippers' farm is especially unique.
One last thing that made this year's visit special was being there during a record harvest. Over the past few years, the Schippers have been investing heavily into their farm and trying to produce more and more high quality coffee. It was amazing to be there in a moment of them enjoying the fruits of their labors. Since the farm sits at a lower altitude, while we were on the farm the first pickings had been going on for a few weeks. There was so much activity and workers come from all around the country to work on the Schippers farm. They treat the pickers and their families exceptionally well, and again, it's amazing to see how this whole cycle of goodwill pays off for all the humans involved in this chain. When the Schippers invest in their crop and their labor force, they produce more and better quality coffee... pickers make more because there's more to pick, roasters pay more since the coffee is better... it's in this little economy where we can all win, but it starts with the producers, the Schippers, prioritizing humans above profits.
After carefully descending from the mountains of the Schippers' farm in our rented SUV, we set off for Antigua. A few hour drive back through Guatemala City and over to Antigua had us arriving late in the afternoon. We spent the night seeing the sights of Antigua and enjoying some of the great food and drink the city has to offer.
The next day we met up with Melanie from Bella Vista. I had never met Melanie or had any connection to Bella Vista before this trip. A lot of people ask how we even go about meeting farmers and seeing these places, I say most of it has to do with mutual friends and just asking for introductions. I went to the Schippers' farm a year ago just because I asked them, but most other farms I have visited have been working with an importer I know or have been directly working with another roaster. Cat and Cloud in Santa Cruz, CA works with Bella Vista directly, so I reached out to them and asked if they could introduce us... and tah-dah!
Melanie was an incredible hostess and went out of her way on her day off to show us the Bella Vista headquarters in Antigua. Not only did we learn all about the workings of the Bella Vista operation, but more importantly we were able to hear all about Melanie's life and dreams. She went to school for agriculture, one of only a few girls amongst hundreds of men in her class. She told us she just bought her own piece of land in the mountains and is working to develop that into a specialty coffee farm. She seeks to create a farm that empowers women and can be a place of education for other coffee farmers. Her drive and selflessness in striving to help others through her skills and abilities was truly inspirational! These relationships are also insanely important to us at Velodrome. Though we might not be able to buy Melaine's coffee for a number of years, relationships like these allow us to get involved at a very ground-level and practical way. Through this human connection and trust, there may be opportunities to support Melanie's endeavours and in-turn be able to one day buy some really special and one-of-a-kind coffee.
From Antigua, we headed north to higher elevations in the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala. The drive between Antigua and Huehuetenango is hard to describe.... bordering on the line of insanely dangerous and outrageously adventurous might be the best way to put it. However, we made it in one piece despite getting lost in every single village we passed through and every blind curve on the side of a cliff we zipped around.
Here we met up with a few people from the Onyx Coffee importers team. Again, this connection was merely a, "Hey we met at an SCA cupping and I'm going to be in Guatemala. Can you show us your operations and introduce us to some farmers we could potentially buy coffee from?"
The next morning we got up early for a cupping of some coffees from farms we were about to visit. Then Lucas, Danae, and Julio from Onyx Importers took us up into the mountains to visit some incredible producers! It had been a little wet during the typical dry season, so getting up to the farms on dirt mountain roads at ridiculous grades was interesting... but we made it!
First we met Francisco Morales at his farm La Esperanza, which means "the hope." Francisco is a community man and a lifelong farmer. Before owning his own plot of land he ran a coffee plant nursery. Here he would take seeds and skillfully grow them into young plants and sell them to other farms. Before long, the nursery grew and grew and Francisco was able to transition into a full farm. When Fransisco isn't working on the farm he is known as the community truck driver. Any building materials or large deliveries that need to go up into the villages in the mountains where he lives, he's the one who makes it happen. It seems so mundane to mention that in a sentence, but if you were to go up these mountains in 4x4 pickup trucks and see how difficult that was, you'd be impressed with the amount of skill and guts it would take to haul anything but yourself up these "roads."
After parting ways with Francisco we went down the road a little further to a small village where we met Octavio Lopez. He has a farm called El Durazno. Octavio also owns a few other plots of land around the village he and his family reside in. Furthermore, his son-in-laws also have farms - they all work together to maximize efficiency in logistics. We were able to see Octavio's wet mill and then we headed out of the village to see one of his son-in-law's farms.
I think one of the things that struck me most about this visit was the enthusiasm and passion these gentlemen have in showing you their farm. I think it's easy to see what you do in life as simply a job. But to many of these producers, their farm is their life. They revere and feel so grateful for what they have. They work harder than anyone I've ever met and when you walk around their farm, they're showing you their biggest accomplishment in life. Not only that, but when you've tasted the coffee that is the direct result of their work, and the coffee is good - it just adds more and more depth to feeling their enthusiasm. I feel like it's one of the only ways to connect with these weathered and tough-skinned men. When they show you around and tell you the future plans they have for their land, there's a small window into their soul... you can start to understand what drives them and it's incredibly inspiring.
A lot of times as Americans we can get into a mode of, "we're so lucky to have some much so we should help those you don't have anything." I mostly agree with that, but that's not what these trips are about. We aren't a charity, and we are not in the business of paying more for coffee for no reason. The reason we source coffee this way is because we believe it's the best way. Velodrome Coffee Company has never been about profits or cutting costs in any way possible - our mission is to enlighten more people to the goodness of specialty coffee. So that goes with saying, we believe in goodness. There's more to coffee than a product, there's people. We humans have energy, we have souls, and we believe when we can shake the hands of the men and women who grew the plant we both create our livelihoods from, something more happens. We both take away a respect for each other and accountability to hold up the integrity of our craft. They've got to grow great coffee, and we are tasked with representing their work... marketing to other humans and sharing their story.
We source our coffee this way because human connection is what ties everything together. Not only that, but we want to connect more humans to the inspiring stories of these producers around the world. Whether it's a quick mention of their name, a short story about them and their family, or coming to origin with us someday - that quick connection has impact. We believe in goodness, and we believe there's more to coffee than merely a drink... it's souls connecting and stories being shared.