It has taken me two weeks to get a chance to write this blog – and it’s going to be a long one because we had such an amazing time!
A long time ago, Wheelie Good Coffee was randomly invited to the Producer and Roaster Forum in Guatemala City. The event was organised in part by the Perfect Daily Grind magazine who I had contact with back in the UK during my Phd. I was delighted to be asked along, as they only had 50 international guests attending! Once I’d got my ticket, I started reveling in how amazing an opportunity this was – a week in Guatemala, a way of making some great new business contacts,and a legitimate excuse to go exploring in Central America again. I hadn’t been out there since before our kids were born (Actually, I was in Guatemala City for the World of Coffee conference in 2010, while heavily pregnant with Beastling-the-Elder). It would be mean of Mum to go off by herself… So. I took the whole family with me!
The aim of the event was to establish closer relationships between Guatemalan coffee producers, and the people who actually buy their coffee: roasters like me. Such is the ways of global capitalism, I would usually never get to meet or trade with these farmers directly. The normal system is, I buy my green (raw) coffee off an importer. That large importing company employs ‘buyers’ (often called ‘Coyotes’ by the farmers, which should give some indication of the relationship) and it is that buyer who actually meets and negotiates the trade of the coffee – a year in advance. They decide which coffees to buy and decide the price they are willing to pay. The company then imports it to Canada via the US, and I buy it off their website. The money I pay is then goes to the employees of the importing company, and their customs brokers, and their shippers, and then the tiny fraction that remains goes to the farmer. This is, in brief, Not Good. I would much prefer to cut out the middle men and for the farmer to receive a far bigger slice of the money I pay for green beans. I would also like to be able to choose which coffees I buy in more detail, rather than just clicking “Guatemalan”. But I am a very small operation, I have no import license and regular flights to Central America are beyond my budget. So what can I do?
The first part of the event was to meet some local experts. My group was hosted by Christian Starry of Truth Trading Company, and together with roasters from the UK, Poland, Holland, Australia and South Korea, we visited Christian’s cupping lab to sample some local coffees and get an idea of what those Coyotes are tasting when they buy. We cupped 20 coffees from different farms that work with Truth Trading Company (an exporting collective). The difference between tasting coffees straight off the farm (even under lab conditions) to the stale dross you find in most of Regina is indescribable! We soon got a great idea of the sorts of lots we’d like to buy. For context, these coffees ranged from $2.80 per pound up to $11 per pound for an exceptional honey Gesha, (Gesha is one of the most expensive varietals in the world – with good reason, its amazing). That is for raw coffee beans, and those prices were what the farmers were asking. It really isn’t much for a year’s hard work, but usually they would be negotiated right, right down. The global commodity price for coffee at the moment is around $1 a pound.
We also got to visit some working coffee farms. The first trip was a wash out – our coffee convoy of cars just about wiggled up the steep track up the side of Volcan Agua near Antigua, but as soon as we got out to admire the view and see the coffee, the heavens opened with that fat, heavy tropical rain where the sky turns purple and the birds go berserk. We had to run back to the cars and get back down before the track got impassably slippery. The next farm trip later on proved far more successful – we took the kids too! They happily hunted bugs and ate weird fruits off the trees. I accidentally stood in an ants’ nest. Ouch. It was interesting to see a coffee farm in the spring – all my previous adventures had been during harvest season, and I hadn’t appreciated how much work has to be done the rest of the year.
The conference part of the trip was fascinating with some excellent presenters talking about coffee markets in Russia, Australia, UAE… places I knew nothing about. Diversifying crops so that farmers are not so dependent on volatile coffee, using complicated machinery to automate processes on farms, we even got to learn how blockchain could work in coffee trading. I learned a lot and it felt so good to geek out about coffee again, it’s been a long time.
On our last, we sat outside on our sixth floor balcony looking out over Guatemala City. Carl said, ‘What’s that red light over there?’ I thought it was just a plane coming in to land, as the airport is right in the middle of the city. But the red light wasn’t moving. It took us a moment to realise it was red hot lava flowing out of the Volcano on the edge of the city. No one seemed bothered by this.
The week passed much too quickly and soon we were back on the plane, actually enjoying an 11 hour layover in Mexico, and negotiating with Canadian customs when declaring I was carrying several pounds of green coffee samples with me. Everything, and everyone got through fairly easily, and normal life has resumed. I am still feeling incredibly inspired by everything, and with a renewed interest in all things coffee. I hope I can use something of what I learned there for this little coffee business.