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My name is Cole and Sacramento is in my blood. Born and raised? Check. Sac State grad? Check. Lifetime Sacramento resident? Check. I’ve performed music here for 12 years, helped shape our nationally admired specialty coffee scene, and have been contributing to City Scout as HypeDad, a blog persona about staying relevant through fatherhood. As much as Sacramento has influenced who I am, I like to think I’ve had a modest influence in Sacramento’s recent ascent in relevancy. Undoubtedly, we are rising, and I plan to contribute to that rise anyway I can.
I come to you today, though, as a coffee professional employed by Sacramento’s beloved Temple Coffee. My position at Temple is twofold. First, I am Director of Education, a fancy title that means I manage our infamous and extensive barista training program. Second, I am something like a Creative Director, meaning I manage our artistic content across a multitude of platforms: social media (follow us on Instagram!), website, and various marketing campaigns.
Recently, I had an opportunity to travel to origin. What’s origin? In specialty coffee terminology, it’s the Holy Grail. It means traveling to where coffee is grown and purchased. All serious baristas dream of doing this someday. To touch coffee cherries on the tree, to shake hands with coffee farmers, and to cup coffees at the precise place they were grown, harvested, and processed. It’s a trip that usually comes cloaked in grandiose romanticism. You know, those revelatory, my-life-will-never-be-the-same type trips. Was that my experience? Well, yes and no. And by the end of this piece, you’ll know why.
My job during this trip to Central America was to document Temple’s coffee purchasing model “Farm to Cup: Direct Trade.” In short, Direct Trade means our green coffee buyer Eton Tsuno (the guy with the long hair in pictures below) travels to origin multiple times a year to build and sustain relationships with the farms and farmers we purchase our coffee from. Eton monitors growing practices, farm and worker conditions, and cups (tastes) coffees at their origin. Because we purchase coffee solely based on cup quality, often at prices three to four times above Fair Trade price, small farmers have a financial incentive to invest in their craft. It’s a win-win: farmers get better prices, and Temple gets better coffee.
February 22nd-25th, Costa Rica I’d never traveled to Central America. The air was different. It had texture. We were, of course, near the equator where coffee grows best. We stayed in San Jose, the bustling well-developed capital city of Costa Rica.
We visited six coffee farms in 2 days — from the large, elegant estate of Sonora to the small, two bedroom house of Casa del Coyote. I was brimming with excitement each time we reached a new farm. Seeing the coffee drying on the patios, shaking the farmers hands, touching coffee on the tree – it was magical and romantic like I’d imagined, a barista’s dream come true.
There was somewhat of a routine at each farm. We’d meet-and-greet the farmer (who may or may not speak English), we’d tour their coffee crops and any processing machinery, and Eton would ask questions, give feedback, and talk logistics. Naturally, there was an element of courting by the farmers. They respect that you’ve traveled such a distance to visit them and, of course, they want you to purchase their coffee.
One thing that may surprise you: farmers rarely drink their own coffee. Further, they most likely don’t know how to make a decent cup. As a barista, this was very difficult for me to understand. I expressed my confusion to Eton.
“They probably think it’s crazy that you couldn’t look at parchment or cherry and know if the coffee was good or not,” he explained.
Touché. Farmers know quality by the quality of crop. Things like coffee tree conditions, proper picking, sorting and even drying. It’s true – those are the types of things that produce quality coffee, just at a point in the process most consumers never see firsthand. Farmers are experts at a different craft, agriculture, and they judge their product accordingly.
February 25th-27th, Panama Panama was gorgeous. Lush, green, quiet. We had the privilege of visiting one of the most famous coffee farms in the world: La Esmeralda. Their rediscovery of the geisha coffee varietal a decade ago turned the specialty coffee world upside-down. We cupped this year’s crop in their office and Eton gave one particular coffee the highest score of the trip. This is one reason why Temple travels to origin: to secure what we believe to be the finest coffees of the year. First dibs kind of thing.
Coffee purchasing happens in a multitude of stages. If a coffee is not already contracted, producers will put together a “table” of coffees for buyers like Eton to taste. Among other things, the table is made up of coffees from different lots, different varietals, and/or different processing techniques used at the same farm. Traveling to origin often means getting “first dibs” on these coffees. While I never saw Eton commit to purchasing anything during this particular trip, the coffees he was interested in were put on reserve for him until he’s had a chance to taste them again at home — what we call “pre-ship” samples.
These types of logistical realities are at the heart of origin trips. In fact, they dominate the specialty coffee buyer’s career. You’re purchasing a multitude of coffees from different small producers all over the world a year in advance. Your quota must project your company’s growth while staying in budget. You also have to get the coffee from point A to point B, which always requires travel over water in a shipping container, which can compromise the coffee’s quality if mismanaged. These are just a few things they are considering. The more I observed and learned, the more I realized these were business trips, not romantic excursions like I’d imagined. There’s a lot of money on the line, and the success of your business relies on perfectly executed purchasing practices year in, year out.
March 1st-3rd, Nicaragua.Nicaragua is an up-and-coming coffee growing country on the specialty scene. You’ll see more and more of it in the years to come. It was also more of what I expected from origin. I’d never seen poverty like that first hand, though Eton tells me it’s nothing compared to Africa. My first reaction was to be scared and feel sorry. But the more time we spent there and the more I interacted with the people, I realized they weren’t unhappy or dangerous. They were prideful and courteous. They had families and were trying to make a living just like anyone else.
Our trip was a total of nine days. By the end, I was tired. And to put things in perspective, just three days before leaving to Central America, Eton had just returned home from a two-week trip to Africa. And when we returned from Central, he was leaving a few days later for a weeklong trip in Guatemala. This is the life of the coffee buyer six to eight months out of the year. Is this a romantic life? Every barista’s dream? Maybe. But to me, it’s more than that. It takes immense talent, patience, and sacrifice to be a coffee buyer. More than I ever expected. And I hope you, like me, will have a little more appreciation for your morning cup, and you’ll consider the people and their efforts behind it. Your coffee will taste that much better for it.
Photos | Cole Cuchna
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