On Amaro Gayo

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…

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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.

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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?

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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.

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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.

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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.

Amaro Gayo Ethiopia Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

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.

Book Nook With Teresa von Fuchs

 

Teresa Von Fuchs Irving Farm Coffee

When Irving Farm’s Director of Wholesale, Teresa von Fuchs, told us that she wanted to write a piece for the blog inspired by a French book from the ’70s, we said, “Bring it!” Teresa is a mold breaker and a big inspiration for many people in the coffee industry. Here she reflects on literary theory, wine geekiness and, of course, her love of coffee.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother joked that she often chided me to put the book down and go play outside.

In college, I was a writing and literature major. I dove deep into pulling apart reading, looking in between the words, thinking about context and authorial bias, about otherness and narrative point of view. New ideas bubbled up everywhere.

Toward the end of my last Literary Theory class, we were assigned The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes. While it is about what the title might imply, it became more important for me as I grew and my span of reading grew. Initially, the book reminded me that part of what had drawn me to reading in the first place was the joy. Some of that joy had been lost in my learning to analyze reading and writing.

I was happily reminded of The Pleasure of the Text‘s ideas when Irving Farm’s green coffee buyer, Dan Streetman, insisted I read Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine. While Streetman is a much bigger wine geek than I am, he said what moved him most about the book was that it encapsulated how he feels about coffee: It’s delicious. Appreciate it. Share it with others. Repeat. What’s refreshing and so exciting about Asimov’s book is not that he’s so knowledgeable or has so many years and such breadth of experience with wine, which he does. It’s that he’s most interested in sharing his joy in wine with you, his reader.

Part of my role at Irving Farm and as a coffee professional in general is to dissect what I’m tasting in the cup and why it tastes that way. That goes for crazy delicious tastes as well as off-putting flavors. What both Barthes’ and Asimov’s books reminded me is that though my role is to take coffee seriously, there’s still plenty of room to enjoy it. I can use my knowledge to take pleasure in each cup and to not forget to share my love along with my knowledge.

One of the things that moves me most about coffee is thinking about all the people that had a hand in its existence before it ever gets to mine. Taking a moment each day to immerse myself in that wonder, or better yet, share that wonder with others, only adds to the pleasure in the cup. And pleasure need not be divorced from seriousness. It should enhance it.

We’re back from TED and full of ideas!

Beyond the talks and minds that make TED famous each year is a particular kind of fuel we’re proud to be in the business of: coffee, and the customer service that goes along with it. This year, we were honored to have two of our best coffee professionals, Teresa von Fuchs and Tamara Vigil, selected to help out at the TEDcoffee portion of TED. Here’s Teresa’s firsthand account of what made it so special.

 

Teresa von Fuchs serving coffee at TED2013.

Teresa von Fuchs serving coffee at TED2013.

I first heard about TED when someone sent me the video link of Jill Bolte Taylor detailing her stroke. The story of a Neuroanatomist experiencing her own brain in such a unique way, and then being able to detail that experience just blew me away. The venue for sharing this was TED—and uniquely TED.

So when I was invited, along with 30 other respected coffee professionals, to be a part of this year’s TED, as part of the coffee service program, I was thrilled. Thrilled by the thought of rubbing shoulders with great minds in so many different fields. (And of course there was some of that—I actually met Dr. Bolte Taylor, along with some other very inspiring and smart people). And thrilled by the coffee peers selected with me, and by the way new ideas were able to germinate and bloom so quickly in the simple act of working together. Thrilled by how with even the barest infrastructure, we all took the task of pouring what we loved about coffee so seriously into every cup.

A little background on this year’s #TEDcoffee, as we called it. While serious coffee has always been important to the TED organizers, this was the first year the Barista Guild of America (BGA), the Roasters Guild and the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) had the opportunity to take on the project and present a coffee service as a collaboration.

The Roasters Guild held an open call for coffee submissions, and blind cupped coffees from 36 different roasters. They then selected five coffees to be highlighted as single origins, and created one blend using coffees from three different roasters.

The Barista Guild sent invites to members it had identified as having strong “skills in not only making great coffee but being exceptional ambassadors for specialty coffee.” And the SCAA asked its equipment and smallwares members if they could loan/donate/pitch in to create the seven bars that were open continuously during the event. There’s no overstating what a massive amount of logistical, organizational and plain-old-elbow-grease was required to just set the process in motion, let alone pull it off as a raging success. Huge props, hugs and high fives go out to Chris Schooley, Head of the Roasters Guild, Trevor Corlett, Vice-Chair of the BGA, Julie Housh of World Coffee Events and Peter Giuliano of SCAA Symposium.

The day before TED opened, 30 baristas flew to California from all over the world and met up at SCAA headquarters in Long Beach to get the scoop on the work we had cut out for us during the next week. Our organizing leaders had invited the barista team because they knew we could all make great coffee and spin a good yarn about what makes it special, but they had an even clearer idea of what they wanted service to look like. Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of the SCAA, started us off by talking about how we’re all here because we love coffee:

“We think it’s really important, but at the end of the day, it’s just coffee. We’re not curing cancer, its not rocket science, there’s no nutritive value. But that’s one of the reasons its special. We don’t need wine or music or love to survive either, but it’s those things that make life richer, sweeter. And coffee has that power too, to enhance our lives not because we need it, but because we love it. And we can share that love with the folks at TED.”

We were encouraged to talk about the coffees by talking about what we were doing, not just the seed-to-cup story, but focusing on the craftsmanship and artistry of making specialty coffee special. In the same vein, Chris Schooley asked that we focus on the actual people who roasted these coffees. We were given info about each coffee, and each roaster detailed how he or she approached this coffee. He asked that we name the roaster, not just the company, for each coffee when we served it.

Trevor Corlett followed this up by reminding us that the story of all of us coming together from competing companies, that we volunteered our time and paid our own ways to be there, could help create the potential “lightbulb” moment for people in attendance.  These were, after all, some of the brightest people in the world, coming together to share ideas: why wouldn’t they want to share some ideas about coffee with some of the brightest coffee pros around?

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All this inspiring talk about service and love eased us into the nitty gritty of schedules: though it was now pushing 10pm, some folks were still needed to finish setting up the bars. And this was basically how the rest of the week would run: morning meetings started at 7am, we started closing the coffee bars down at 7pm, and then all tromped to dinner where we’d discuss the finer points of how these big ideas of service were translating into the day-to-day details.

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So how did all these big ideas translate into actual service? About as well as they do at home, in all of our best-intentioned specialty coffee businesses. A small percentage of folks already got it and were thrilled with what we were doing and that we were there. A similar percentage commented that they’d come in with a cup of something else and soon realized they couldn’t drink it once they compared it with the deliciousness we were serving. A few folks had their socks blown off for the first time. Most folks said thank you. And a good number barely registered that we weren’t catering staff. And though that reality could seem disheartening, it didn’t kill the love we poured into every cup one bit. It didn’t dampen the collective professional passion, or our ability to remain open to learning something from the person working beside us. There was a really natural and quick evolution of bar/work flow as folks from all different shops and backgrounds worked together during the stampedes to fill every cup, and how we drew together in the slow times to coax attendees into engaging. The story of collaboration, of the three-roaster blend, of working next to someone who at other times is a “competitor” (in business life, or literally your opponent in a barista competition) infused the whole experience, creating real magic. As Peter G. encouraged us in our early meeting, this helped us bring “real humanity into the equation of specialty.”

I don’t mean to downplay the joy or truly incredible experience many attendees had—there were meaningful and rewarding service moments every day, when someone (like former VP Al Gore or the head of Google) started asking questions about the coffee or what we were doing, or why our badges said volunteer when we were clearly working hard, or had that look of pure delight when they took a sip and actually tasted the coffee.

One of my favorite, though silly, moments was overhearing an attendee, or TEDster as we called them, walk by and ask her friend “Did you know the coffee people here are world champion coffee makers? They came just to make us award winning coffee.”  But one of the biggest things I took back with me was how much we can learn about preparation and presentation from the spirit of collaboration—of working with people who you’d otherwise not have the opportunity to work beside. This coming together renewed a focus on the coffee as a whole as special, not just our company or shop or cup or even the coffee producer, but the collective work and passion that goes into the whole equation.

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Along these lines, I want to mention a parallel I’m still chewing on from one of the talks I got to hear during the event. We talked about this and many other ideas from the talks in our clean-up or slow moments, but I’d like to know what you all think about how this idea can relate to our work: musician and performer Amanda Palmer talked about wanting to never lose a direct “intense kind of eye contact” connection with her fans, about how she approaches her art, her life and her music with a daring trust in her fans and collaborators to support and “catch” her.

And from that perspective it looked like maybe the music industry has been asking the wrong question, when it wonders “How do we get people to pay for music?” The question she wants to explore is how can we ask them to pay for music? And in that vein, I’m wondering how we can we ask our customers and coffee drinking people what’s special to them about coffee and in what new ways we can draw them into our love and passion.

Thanks for reading, it was a long, awesome week and this is really only the beginning of the ideas and inspiration bubbling up. For a full list of “winning” coffees, “world champion coffee makers” and partner supporting organizations that made #TEDcoffee possible, check out the BGA blog here.