In 1998, I was in Nepal. I was there because USAID offered me a free trip, provided I completed their mission.
The mission: to assess the coffee world in Nepal, from the farm to the cup. Nepal had some history in coffee production but it was in the distant past. Not much was known about Nepal’s coffee experience in 1998 – so they sent me to find out.
I was set down in a small city called Tenzen. I was housed in a small hotel in the foothills at about 5,000 feet above sea level. From my window I could see five 20,000 foot mountain peaks all lined up, covered in snow, and glowing golden in the late afternoon sun.
Nepalese Coffee Roasters
I soon found out how this trip came about; A local Nepalese coffee store owner who roasted his own coffee (selling to tourists and mountain climbers) had requested coffee information from the U.S. Government.
The question foremost on the mind of that local coffee roaster in Nepal was not how to build an industry that would benefit coffee farmers, but how to market his coffee to tourists. He was interested in helping himself, not growing the benefits of coffee for the many farmers who had coffee trees on their land. These farmers did not drink coffee, and had no ready market to sell into. I immediately re-organized my time and the people I needed to meet. I visited the farms and spoke with the coffee farmers. I soon discovered that my host, the Nepalese coffee roaster, was not liked by the farmers, because he paid very low prices for the coffee he purchased from them.
I got back to my USAID sponsors in the U.S. and told them they had been sold a bill of goods by a self-serving local businessman, and that I could not narrow my study to “How to develop a coffee roasting industry in Nepal” in good conscience. The potential was minimal, and very few would be helped with this mission. Those helped would be the educated middle class, not the poorer coffee farmers, who numbered in the thousands.
Word got back to my host and he was furious. This is not a good thing to happen to someone in a foreign country in the 90’s, where anyone could disappear in some back alley in Kathmandu, or under twenty feet of snow on some nearby mountainside. But I persevered. I decided (since I was already there) to teach the coffee farmers how to prepare coffee cherries for home roasting in a wok. I figured once they knew how to prepare coffee for consumption, they would have the basis for growing coffee for flavor. The idea was that knowledge would open up doors to export coffee, and bring in more money for their families in the future.
Nepalese Coffee Farmers
When I travel to a country to teach coffee to coffee farmers, I always bring green coffee samples from five or six countries to show farmers how the final product looks. It is important to know what green coffee looks like after the seeds are removed from the cherry, perfectly sorted, graded, and then processed for export. I want them to see what they are aiming toward. I also bring a small popcorn popper (110V) to roast the coffee samples if there is electricity available. In this mountain village there was none, so we rested a wok on three round stones over a bamboo wood fire.
This was a great teachable moment. In an open wok, you can see the changes as they come about. We sat around the fire, stirring the beans with a long stick. The heat from a bamboo fire is hot, very hot. As the coffee turned from tan to a dark oily black, I took small portions from the wok and allowed them to cool in a cool metal pie tin. After 15 minutes of wok-stirred coffee beans, we had all seen the changes and we had four separate samples to taste: Light Roast, Medium Roast, Dark and Very Dark (French Roast).
So we began by harvesting five pounds of their local coffee cherries. In the process of harvesting I taught the importance of “Red Ripe.” We de-pulped the cherries by hand (squeezing each cherry until the wet and slimy seeds popped out. Then we set the seeds out to dry on newspaper in the shade. It took five days to get the coffee beans to dry. They start out at about 50% moisture to about 25% moisture, and they need to be at around 11% to begin to roast. The weather was not cooperating, so I finished the drying in a wok over a low flame for a few hours. Then we let the seeds rest overnight.
Now we had Nepal samples and the roasted samples I brought from Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Comparison tasting is a good way for novices to get an idea of their own coffee as it might fare in the export market against the quality of other coffees. In addition, we had the four different roast colors which I wanted to use to show them how they could get different flavors from the same beans.
My next week was spent teaching the principles of coffee roasting and coffee tasting . “If you don’t know what you are aiming at, you can’t hit the target,” I told them. So we spent time tasting and identifying flavors.
It should be noted that the Nepalese are tea drinkers, and chai is their drink of choice. So when I was asked how coffee was prepared in other countries, I told them it was a medium for carrying flavors. In the U.S. we used primarily milk and sugar, but in other countries coffee drinkers added other spices. I encouraged them to prepare coffee however they would enjoy it, and that is what they did. Coffee/Chai formulas were the order of the day, for the next week. Every family made their own version of coffee, and they were all different and delightful. Nothing I have tasted since has come close.
I wrote my report for USAID and sent it in (this was the 90’s, pre-email) and left Nepal via Kathmandu to Bangkok, and then to San Francisco. I left behind 200 farmers who had gained knowledge in roasting and tasting, but had no infrastructure to organize anything. My mandate was to assess the situation and my report gave a clear assessment: build the coffee agriculture in Nepal, and let the roasting trade find its own way. Help the farmers was my message.
It has been two decades since my report was sent off to USAID. I believed I had failed to create what the farmers needed, but I was wrong!
Life goes on and you can’t discount the power of knowledge and education.
2017: Thanksgiving Coffee and Nepal
On Apr 5, 2017, almost twenty years later, I received this e mail from Mike at HimalayanArabica Nepal Coffee:
Hi Thanksgiving Coffee,
I found your company through Greenpages Org as we are also going through the application process and I wanted to take this opportunity to reach out to you to again.
HimalayanArabica believes in organic and ethical way of doing business and everyone along the supply chain from crop to cup can all benefit from doing business the right way.
Please give our coffee a try and you can get a free sample by simply emailing me your address and a phone number for the DHL packet.
I hope to hear from you soon and thank you for your time.
Below is a shot of our Roastmaster Jacob Long on the left, posting with the same sack of Nepal Coffee as Michael Bowen, from HimalayanArabica on the right.
I replied on Tue, Apr 11, 2017
This e mail was very nice to receive,
In 2001 I was sent to Nepal by USAID to evaluate the Nepalese Coffee situation.
I was part of a team of two. We were asked to come by a man who wanted to develop the tourist trade for roasted coffee in Nepal. My report stated my opposition to this plan as it would not have created a coffee industry , but only one or two farms to provide him with coffee to roast and to sell in Katmandu. I recommended the development of the cultivation of coffee so that many could benefit.
I am happy to see and know that my vision was clear and that in fact, aid and market forces (and Nepalese common sense) made the right situation happen and now 16 years later someone is offering me coffee from Nepal that I can roast and market.
For starters, who in the US is your importer that will handle the coffee ?
What is the availability and shipping date?
How many sacks are available?
What quality do you have ?
Has the coffee been cupped and scored by Q graders or would you venture a guess as to its quality?
Who is roasting coffee from Nepal now?
Send samples to Thanksgiving Coffee Company:
PO Box 1918
19100 South Harbor Drive
Ft. Bragg, CA 95437
Thank you for taking the time to contact me. I am very interested and that is an understatement.
Thank you so much for your reply, it was very educational and got to understand a little piece of history of coffee here in Nepal. My name is Michael Bowen and I am a Korean-American grew up in Wisconsin. I spent some time in Korea and realized I wanted to do something else and somehow, almost magically, I came to live and work in Nepal and was given this fantastic opportunity to work with a company that has the same vision as I do, which is organic, ethical, sustainable and quality.
Raj, the owner, has been working tirelessly for more than 10 years to develop the farms in order for them to move towards the specialty market. Nothing is all set nor perfect here, but we are moving in the right direction.
Even though I have only come into the scene for a little more than a year, I can see that there is a lot of potential here which you undoubtedly saw 16 years ago.
Regarding your questions:
We do not have a dedicated US importer, at the moment.
There is about 8 tons available for shipment as soon as money is received and another 8-16 tons can be made available of the same quality from a different region after some weeks after the order is made.
We only have AAA specialty quality available for export.
Raj is a Q-grader himself and tastes the every batch that comes in. The samples we are sending out now have been sent out to various other graders from US, Europe and Australia and have scored between 83-86. Raj has scored this lot 85.5 SCAA standard.
There are several ‘roasters’ here in Nepal, but we also do our own roasts. Raj was the first to bring in equipment from abroad, from pulping machines to a roaster from Italy, but now there are several places where roasting is done. Raj, I believe, has the most experience roasting and you can check out our website at the ‘home’ section for testimonials for more reviews of our coffee and you can check out some roasted beans we offer.
We will send out samples this week and I will notify you the tracking number.
That’s the story in a nutshell.
Time + Knowledge = Evolution.
We received the samples from Mike at HimalayanArabica, and I was surprised at the flavors and the cup quality. But I was more surprised at how good I felt about what I did twenty years ago in the hills of Nepal. I believed that I had failed to make change happen for those isolated coffee farmers, and that there was no hope for Nepalese Coffee.
Life goes on.
Order your own bag of Nepal Coffee now.
Rich and velvety with underlying hints of raisin.
I was born in The Bronx. I played stick ball. I hung out at the corner candy store. I bought two pretzels for 3¢.
We read comic books, which cost a dime. Once they were read, we traded them for 2¢. You could take your old comics out on the street, set them up on a wooden box, and collect your money for pretzels or an egg cream (8¢). The 50’s were pretty good for a kid. You could go anywhere in the city for a nickle subway ride, and you never thought it was dangerous.
I could tell you a million stories about growing up in the Bronx, including the time I went back in 1975, five years after I had left for California. I discovered that “my” candy store had become a Korean market. The soda fountain, comic books and telephone booths were all gone. (telephone booths were for the local bookies to take their bets and call in their bets they wanted to “lay off.”
I bought a t-shirt that stated The Bronx: Only the Strong Survive.
By the time I was 13 in 1951, I was traveling to Harlem to see the NY Giants play baseball at the Polo Grounds. One night, I remember sneaking into the Polo Grounds to see the Giants play the Cubs. I don’t remember the game at all, but I do remember what happened after the game…
It was about 11:30pm. I was waiting in the parking lot with my program for the ball players to come out of the locker rooms. Autographs were my goal. A reward for successfully sneaking into the game. It was dark, it was Harlem, it was late at night. All the cars were gone. There were no overhead street lamps to light up the parking area. But it was safe… or was it?
Where were the players? I had waited. Paid my dues, but nothing was happening as I watched the last few cars abandon me to being totally alone on a three acre unlit parking lot at midnight in Harlem. Then, a door opened and out came four players. The encounter went something like this:
#1: Hey kid, what are you doing here in the dark?
Kid: Waiting to get autographs.
#2: Where you live kid?
Kid: Palham Parkway.
#3: How you getting home?
Kid: I will walk over that bridge (138th st) to the subway and take the train home.
#4: Get in the car, we’ll take you to the subway station.
I got in the car and have no recollection of anything else. Thirty-four years later, while showing my six-year-old son my baseball card collection (the one most mothers are reputed to throw away), out popped the Giants’ 1951 program. I had not looked at it for over thirty years. Much to my surprise, it had three autographs on the cover and one inside. Who were these players who saw fit to rescue a 13 year old white boy from the long dark walk to the subway?
Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Hawk Thompson. All Hall of Famers. Inside was Don Mueller, the 1951 national league batting champion. They’re the first four guys from the left on the bottom row of the photo below.
There is a lot of the Bronx still left in me. I had my first cup of coffee in the Bronx. They said it was mountain grown and good to the last drop.
Today, 65 years later, I want you to taste a Bronx-influenced blend of coffee I proudly named for myself (THAT’S Bronx Moxie!) I am proud of this blend. It took a lot of personal coffee experience to understand, as I eventually did, how to get the flavor profile I wanted. It’s a Bronx kind of coffee! Intense, heavy, with blueberry/strawberry notes and a long finish. The coffees are from Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Two countries where only the strong survive.
Paul Katzeff, co-founder and CEO of Thanksgiving Coffee Company
I was trailing off to sleep, it was a cool summer night in Mendocino. Joan’s voice came into my consciousness and broke my reverie. She was not yet ready to say good night to the day.
“Paul, I was listening to NPR today and there was this story about the poverty and the general plight on the African Continent. I think we need to begin focusing on buying coffee and supporting cooperatives in Africa like we do in Central and South America.”
Of course I agreed, and dozed off to spend some unconscious time thinking about the idea and all the effort it would take to be as bold an activist in Africa as we were then (and now) in Central America. I hoped that when I awoke in the morning my mind would have used the eight or so hours sleeping to clarify. I had no intention of just jumping into more work.
What Joan was asking was not simple but as President of Thanksgiving Coffee she did have a big voice in things such as this. We would have to pick the countries we wanted to work in, we would need to take sixteen hour flights, we would have to find communities we could work with, we would need to buy coffee in container loads to be effective. A container load is 37,500 pounds. We would have to build a demand for these new coffees or we were going to have to buy less of other coffees (which hurts the farmers we are already working with). Can’t do that!
At the breakfast table the following morning, I told Joan that if she wanted Thanksgiving to work in Africa she was going to have to lead the way, because my plate was full. We ate breakfast and headed in to work. My sleep time thinking had convinced me that I was not right for the job in 2003 and it enabled me to say “NO” to finding the Africa connections we needed to do business our way. Our way had always been buying from small scale, Fairtrade certified farmer cooperatives and building quality of life and quality of coffee through social and environmental benefit initiatives. That was our our mission, and if I couldn’t do that effectively, why add more work to my plate?
That morning at work, an amazing thing happened.
I received a phone call from a professor at Michigan State University. She had recently received a USAID grant to help the Rwandan Coffee industry create a market plan for their reentry into the Specialty Coffee market, specifically aiming at the United States craft coffee trade. Yes, the entire country’s coffee industry!
How serendipitous is that? One moment we are lying in bed thinking, and the next day the answer and the challenge arrives on the phone.
They asked Thanksgiving Coffee to be part of a small group of coffee experts. We would fly to Rwanda in three weeks to help a country only ten years from its genocide in 1994. A genocide that saw 900,000 Rwandans murdered by their fellow countrymen, and their entire coffee infrastructure destroyed in the process. I wanted us to be there to help, but I said to Joan after the phone conversation: “Joan, you started this last night, and your answer and opportunity came this morning so I think it is YOU who will have to fly to Rwanda in three weeks.”
And that was the beginning of our now fourteen year odyssey with the Rwandan coffee farmers.
Shop Rwandan Coffee
Trips to Rwanda
On that first trip to Rwanda, I remained in Mendocino. It was a first for us; me staying home and Joan going to do the exploring and experience the adventure.
On her first day in Rwanda, she met with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International Executive Director, who was interested in linking the Rwandan coffee industry with saving the last 400 Mountain Gorillas, something Dian Fossey was murdered for trying to do. Joan saw the opportunity, and said that Thanksgiving Coffee would create a marketing plan for linking Rwandan coffee to Mountain Gorillas. That is how – on DAY ONE of Joan’s first trip to Africa – Gorilla Fund Coffee was born.
When things are supposed to happen, they do.
But usually, not so fast.
Joan went to tour the gorilla habitat, trekking for hours into the Virunga National Forest and was gifted by coming upon a family of Mountain Gorillas, led by a 500 pound Silverback. In her words:
“The rain is soft, the trail slippery and muddy. We’re moving quickly, breathing hard in the thin high-altitude air. Intent young trackers radio one another, ‘We are close.’ Suddenly the Amahoro Gorilla family crosses our path. Wow! What a sight. Two young gorillas grasp the pant legs of a couple in our group before bounding off to join the adults – which included a 500 pound Silverback. I am transfixed and transformed in the presence of these gentle giants. I still can not believe I was there and it really happened.”
My own experience with the gorillas in Rwanda came a year later. I got a chance to hang out with a different family of gorillas. I sat cross-legged, facing the Silverback leader for 45 minutes exchanging grunts every so often but never allowing our eyes to meet. He had a very intriguing aroma about him. Musty, earthy, very Sumatra coffee-like. It was clean and powerful. I would recognize it anywhere. And yes, I did read the novel Ishmael about the Silverback Guru teaching a journalist about life’s questions. I sat with my Silverback thinking he might just know a lot more than me about the meaning of life. He had big Brown eyes.
I took his portrait picture and it adorned our Gorilla Fund Package until 2016 when it was removed in favor of a younger gorilla image.
Shop Gorilla Fund Coffee
Building in Rwanda
On my second trip in 2005, I met with the Director of the USAID project and we mapped out a quality improvement plan to make Rwanda coffee the best it could be. We wrote a proposal which was funded the following year. It was a plan to put a tasting laboratory at every coffee cooperative so the farmers could separate their coffees and evaluate each lot individually.
This was a great advance at the time, and it put Rwanda in the running to be one of the most advanced coffee regions in all of Africa. This project gave me the opportunity to travel the countryside and visit many growing regions and finally find the Dukunde Kawa Coffee Cooperative in Mussasa. It is the coffee we have purchased for the past 12 years and has won the reputation of being the best of Rwandan coffee for the past five years in the Cup of Excellence competitions held yearly. We use that coffee to help save the gorillas.
Gorilla Fund Coffee has raised over $100,000 for DFGFI, since we began this program in 2005. Joan and I have attended many DFGFI celebrity fundraisers given in big city venues as honored guests for Thanksgiving Coffee’s work educating coffee lovers about the Mountain Gorillas. At one event I met and had a conversation with Gloria Steinem, at another I spoke with Sigourney Weaver who played Dian Fossey in the movie Gorillas in the Mist.
Now we are partnering with DFGFI to inform the American Coffee drinkers about the plight of the Grauer’s Gorilla who is Critically Endangered in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In my youth, this area was known as “deepest, darkest Africa.” Using the same idea, we went after finding a good coffee from the Congo to represent the Grauer Gorilla, that we would create a dark roast from.
Congo coffee is new to the pantheon of craft coffees. It is a country rife with political instability and crazed rebels who wreak havoc on villages. In 2013, I turned down an invitation to visit the Congo by my long time friend Richard Hyde of Cafe Direct who was working with a group of coffee cooperatives there. He knew I could be a buyer, but I had enough coffee and the Grauer’s Gorillas that make their home in the Congo had not yet come upon the DFGFI’s radar.
Three years later, the DFGFI began to work in the Congo, and I called my friend Richard to find out where I could get the coffee that comes from the mountains where the Grauer’s Gorillas reside.
In the beginning of this journey, we realized that it was the gorillas that could help the Rwandan people. Not many Americans will go out of their way to help the Rwandan people but all Americans want to support the Mountain Gorillas. So we focused on the gorillas to build the value and demand by consumers for this coffee.
We used the Fairtrade model and certification to give money back to the Dukunde Kawo Coffee Cooperative. We created a climate change mitigation program and financed shade tree planting. We even funded a milk cow project to supply each family with whole milk and cheese for family use and for added income. Every sale of the Gorilla Fund coffee benefited not only the gorillas, but the people of this Rwandan coffee farm. We intend to follow that same model to inform the public of the Endangered Grauer’s Gorilla, and support industry in the Congo.
It isn’t easy to do this kind of work in coffee. Lot’s of collaboration needs to be built into the process. There is always the risk that too much coffee will be purchased and sales will not match up. But we do this work for other reasons. Coffee is the medium, but it is not the message. This is how we work now with the American Birding Association, to save Migratory Song Birds, with Friends of the Earth to save Pollinators, with Defenders of wildlife to save our Wolves and soon, with more partners to save our wild animals.
So join us in our efforts and purchase these coffees and together we will make a difference.
Shop Gorilla Fund Coffee
Paul Katzeff, co-founder and CEO
Shop Gorilla Fund Coffee from Rwanda
The world is lush with coffee growing regions, and inside those regions are thousands of small-scale coffee farmers, growing coffee in hundreds of different micro-climates and soil types. This is where we find the “micro-lot.”
Together with dozens of varietals (air, shade, wind, sun, rain, soil type, etc.), the coffee flavor is created in all its possibilities.
We have been in the coffee game for over forty years, and know the territory well, from Papua New Guinea to Nicaragua.
We know the farmers and they know us. Together we find these small, exceptional “micro-lots” produced by individual farms in quantities of no more than 10-20 sacks (1500-3000 pounds).
We pay the farmer a premium, and everyone involved is happy that a rare and quality coffee did not get lost in the crowd of good and quality coffee.
When the coffee finally arrives at Thanksgiving Coffee Company, our Roastmaster Jacob Long roasts the coffee 3-5 pounds at a time, using his knowledge to bring out the magic from each bean.
So when you see Thanksgiving Coffee offering a micro-lot coffee, you can be certain that you’re purchasing one hell of a great coffee.
– Paul Katzeff
Shop micro-lot coffee online.
Back in 2000 when I became the 17th president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, I was tasked to speak at the Annual Colombian Coffee Federations Conference being held in Colombia’s capital city: Bogata.
Not wanting a lot of fanfare when I arrived at the airport (the FARC rebels targeted Americans for kidnapping and ransom), I booked my arrival time to be midnight – when I would be certain there would be no one to meet me and welcome me to Colombia.
I picked up my luggage and proceeded to the taxi stand, walking through the marble-floored lobby. To my surprise, there stood a man with a handlebar mustache, a shoulder serape, a big smile and a donkey.
The donkey was not smiling. It was having trouble standing on slippery marble.
It was Juan Valdez, the famous Colombian coffee farmer, who had for decades been the spokesperson for The Richest Coffee in the World. He was there with the president of the Colombian Coffee Federation for a “photo op” with me.
So much for my quietly slipping into Colombia!
Thanksgiving Coffee sells two Colombian coffees here on our website:
A rich coffee with flavors of toasted nut and dark chocolate followed by a smooth lasting finish, making this a clear winner for dark roast coffee enthusiasts.
Sweet, smooth, and balanced. Mellow milk chocolate and honey notes with a lively, full body
How poor quality coffee becomes great: the time it takes
A continuation of My Laos Experience: Part II
On December 6, 2016 I got this text message from Laos,
“Hey Paul, I want to tell you about this Reward Program we started with the coffee farmers. We had an interesting development happen since I first e-mailed you. A village has split off, and is not sending any coffee to Japan, electing to only send coffee to America. Last year they cupped at 87 without picking fully red ripe cherries and without adding any compost to the soil. This year we have had them picking only red, eight compost bins were created in each farm this summer, organic fertilizer tea is being sprayed on every tree, and the micro lot will be about 14,000 pounds(54 sacks). Plus the processing area is impeccable now! And we have created a pick team so that the ten families rotate between farms ensuring they pick only soft ripe cherries and no over ripe beans. This system is so different from the traditional way that they do it in Laos where it is traditional to only pick your own farms trees. Last year, they only picked about 70% ripe . This year it will be 95%.
We spray painted the harvest baskets red so they have a constant reminder to pick ripe cherries.”
98% ripe cherries from last weeks picking.. Luscious looking and a hard days work!
“Michael(shown below) , being the coffee expert here with me, believes we could hit 89 or 90 points with this lot. The harvest is late(usually it starts in October) so we don’t have mid pick samples yet but will soon.”
This is a unique way to help pickers see the results of their picking. The paddle has 50 holes. Each hole represents 2% of the picking. Fifty random cherries are pulled from the basket and placed in the wholes. The number of green and over-ripe beans are counted and the calculation for percent of red ripe is made. For every not ripe cherry, a percent of money is lost as the flavor is corrupted by these beans. This is the best system I have seen for improving the motivation of coffee pickers in forty years.
John (pictured below right, Lao Farmer) with Michael (below left) with his compost in his hands. John has the cleanest washing tank ever. He even keeps plastic cover over it when he is not using it to keep the dust out.
The red baskets and Mr Sam Sung and his puppy. Note compost bin in background:
Note coffee trees in background. They are the dark green trees that rim the patio:
In the lower portion of this picture you can see one over-ripe cherry:
Here is Tyson Adams with a village friend who must be half his size and three times his age. I bet she cooks up some great Lao Cuisine!
Fifteen years ago I wanted to help Veterans For Peace make their peace with their Laos experience. They dropped bombs on the people of Laos and had deep feelings of guilt; they needed to do something positive for their souls.
Now in 2016, a different person from a different generation, (Lee Thorn was 65 in 2014, Tyson is 31 now) is picking up where we left off but he brings different and more pertinent skills to Laos. Both wound up working with the same Jhai Coffee cooperative and now, after fifteen years, we have reconnected with that coffee coop and look forward to being able to roast it so you can taste it.
The way coffee becomes great is with time and hard work in the fields.
There is one other aspect that is needed and that is love. If the trees provide enough income to pay for a family’s food, clothing, shelter, health care and education, then a farmer will love his trees. It is the love that the plant feels that creates the best flavors the tree knows how to produce. But it is as much the love as it is the soil, weather and variety that makes good coffee become great coffee.
My Laos Experience: Part I || My Laos Experience: Part II
How poor quality coffee becomes great: the time it takes
A continuation from My Laos Experience: Part I
Between 2004 and 2014, Tyson was in and out of my sights as he ferried back and forth between Laos and the United States. He was a very internet-savvy millennial and did a few fundraising events with Kickstarter to finance his now-evolving water well, sanitation and personal hygiene projects in his newly adopted mountain village in Laos. He was building water systems and evolving a Lao-centric life. We spent many hours talking about Laos coffee – the income source for the Lao people on the Plateau. To raise more funds, Tyson created a coffee program (this was in 2011, when he was just 24 years old).
Between 2011 and 2014, Tyson spent many hours at Thanksgiving Coffee in Fort Bragg – learning how to cup coffee and learning how to roast as well. He had this idea: he wanted to teach the Lao coffee farmers how to taste their coffee and bring it up to specialty quality. The Japanese buyers were not interested in flavor – they just wanted the volume. Tyson used his Kickstarter funds to build a coffee house in Laos, in the village he was living in. He called this coffee house The World’s First Philanthropic Coffee Roaster & Cafe. He spread the word digitally that a good cup of coffee could be had in Laos, and tourists, ex pats and the curious came to partake of a fresh-roasted and well-brewed cup of coffee… and they could meet the coffee farmers too. Customers also got to know that their purchases would go toward drilling more water wells in Laos.
By 2014, Tyson was hard at work helping the Jhai Coffee Cooperative get out from under the Japanese hold on their coffee. Having only one buyer (albeit their traditional buyer for three decades) was Tyson’s challenge. In order to get any coffee (and there was only 500 sacks), the Lao coffee co-op had to decide to short the Japanese. I had to bid up the price to make it attractive to the cooperative management.
Here is what the communication was like on February 7, 2014
On Feb 7, 2014, at 8:09 PM, Tyson Adams wrote:
Still in Thailand. Needed to get passport pages because I ran out. In two days I will be back in Laos with better Internet access. I do apologize for the lack of communication. There were some technology challenges via not having access to Internet on my phone.
Thanks for the emails as of late! Cool project in the US and very similar to ours. Only difference is that we are located at the source and our doing the work with our own farmers.
Spoke with Nick yesterday and it looks like there will be a container load of ATJ coffee available for Thanksgiving. They didn’t want to pay more than 38,000 kip so they are only taking one. You guys are offering 39,250. About $1.25 / kilo more.
We still have to discuss all this with the JCFC and of course ATJ (Japan) wants to know about other buyers (thanksgiving) but we are crossing our fingers that their expressed desire to only take one container instead of two is a positive thing for us. Plus that the JCFC and all the farmers will reserve this coffee for Thanksgiving.
At the very moment we get back we will call a meeting with the JCFC to discuss and get back to you. ATJ will be in Laos shortly to pick up their container so the sooner we figure this put the better.
TYSON ADAMS I Founder
Jhai Coffee House
The World’s First Philanthropic Coffee Roaster & Cafe Located At The Source
On Feb 8, 2014, at 12:07 PM, Paul Katzeff <email@example.com> wrote:
It was not my intention to out bid the Japanese by 62 cents a pound. I followed your math and used 37 cents as the export costs which I deducted from what you said was the Japanese offer. I have actually distorted the price/value proposition for future dealings. This is not good, As Jacob said, $160-$2.00 was the value I came in higher to meet what you said the farmers would sell at. It is not good to piss off buyers by raising their price after they put up 70 % for pre finance. I would settle for half a container . Do not burn bridges. The Japanese are the historical loyal buyers and their efforts need to be respected .
I had copied my correspondence to Lee Thorn who originally contacted me back in 2004 about Veterans For Peace wanting to help the Laos people, and he joined in with this e mail the following day:
Dear Tyson (hi, Vorasone, Paul and everyone),
Congratulations on a great job, Tyson! This is wonderful work you are doing. Paul. I am particularly excited to see in emails that Paul Katzeff and Thanksgiving Coffee are planning to buy the co-op’s coffee and bring it to the U.S. As you may know, Paul is a leading light among coffee people and is an extremely experienced and renown coffee man. His son visited the co-op quite a few years ago. I cc Paul here.as well as some people on the Jhai side who helped start the cooperative.
I loved working on this! I had loaded bombs that in all probability landed in those fields. Many people who live in the coffee villages have told me they used to live along the Lao/Vietnam border. I know we heavily bombed that area, too. I was pleased to find out that many of the village elders and leaders were war veterans like me. They were from both sides of the Lao conflict. I know we all shared and share the hope of the coffee fields and the sorrow of the war. For me, this work was an amends and an amazing and illuminating chance to become friends with so many people who know how true community really works. It is humbling.
And, of course, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything in Laos without the great help and comradeship of Vorasone and Ariya Dengkayaphichith as well as Bounthanh Phommasathit and her great extended family. Many people from those days have passed on, now, and I mourn their passing.
Please give my best to everyone and tell them they all are still in the hearts of Jhai Foundation (which is chaired, now, by Eli Neiburger cc-ed above), my family and myself.
Yours in Peace,
Chairman Emeritus and Senior Advisor, Jhai Foundation
That was 3 years ago (2014) and much has happened in the 1,000 days since then. The coffee house has received visitors from many countries, foundation grants have enabled Tyson and The Jhai Coffee farmers Cooperative to build a warehouse to store coffee, farmers have been given agricultural training in organic farming and compost building, children have been taught western personal and dental hygiene, and coffee was exported last year into the United States. I was encouraging but having been burned a decade before, I figured I would wait out their first export coffee and jump in in their second year… which is 2017.
So now, after thirteen years of flirting with Laos as a coffee origin, I will get a second chance to present our loyal customers with coffee from Laos.
The History of Coffee in Laos
Laos has an interesting coffee history. The French, when they Colonized Laos, planted coffee trees and began the industry which lied dormant and was destroyed during the secret war in the 70’s. Most trees died but what was left became the basis for the revival which began with the Japanese buyers in the early 90’s.
The French knew what they were doing. The Bolivan plateau is prime.
The climate and the soils are a perfect match for the great varieties the French planted 75-100 years ago. Now, with a very sophisticated coffee world, with people who are dedicated to great coffee flavor, and with a young man with on a mission to help build a new and sustainable Lao Coffee Industry that improves the lives of the people in the villages who grow the coffee, I can’t wait to taste what comes next.
This photo is of the cherries now being harvested by the JHAI Coffee Cooperative. (all ripe means the flavor will be as good as the tree can do. The key to preserving the trees effort will be in the depulping, drying and grading yet to come)
Next up, My Laos Experience: Part III
How poor quality coffee becomes great: the time it takes
Back in 2004 I received a call from Lee Thorn, the president of the San Francisco chapter of Veterans for Peace (VPAT). Lee was a Vietnam veteran who dropped bombs on Laos and destroyed the lives and villages of innocent civilians – and forty years later he was still feeling guilty for having done so.
He said that VPAT was an organization that wanted to make amends to the Laotian people, and asked if I would help him and his group do so. He explained that while on a return visit to the Highlands of Laos he had seen the farmers growing coffee. His idea was to import their coffee to the states, have Thanksgiving Coffee roast and package it in a branded package (Jhai Coffee) and then have his veterans group sell it to other VPAT chapters around the country.
That was back in 2002, almost fifteen years ago!
I was all for it if Lee could develop the sales. We began with a single container – which we imported without even tasting it for quality. The price we paid was fully 50% higher than the world market price and that extra amount went to the farmers as a bonus for selling to us instead of their long-standing Japanese buyers. Even though the farmers were happy to get the bonus, they feared losing their long-standing buyers that didn’t care about quality.
Coffee Farms in Laos
Coffee was planted in Laos by the French. They had colonized the country in the early part of the twentieth century. That part of the world was eventually known as “French Indo China” and included Vietnam and Cambodia. The French knew their coffee varieties and carefully selected the Typica variety as most suitable for the Laos climate and soil conditions.
Knowing this, I was certain that if the farmers picked fully ripe cherries and processed the pulp and seeds properly, we could get some really great coffee. We could also become the first coffee roasters in the states to offer coffee from Laos. The story would be War Veterans Giving Back to Those They Harmed.
Moving Forward with VPAT
The first container arrived and the coffee was fair. The flavor was flat, acidity was low, sugars were not developed well and it was obvious the farmers needed greater supervision in their coffee farming practices. The coffee had hints of greatness and obvious potential. But it would take training in new systems for bringing the coffee to export grade.
I decided to continue with the project although I was finding the coffee hard to sell. Lee had also over-estimated the sales potential of the other VPAT chapters. I believe this “adventure” cost Thanksgiving Coffee $50,000 in advertising, marketing, labels and brochures. By the end of that first year we had roasted the coffee into many French Roasts (irony) and had sold 50,000 Jhai Foundation Coffee Packages.
Lee hired a “Development Director” to work in Laos with the farmers to improve their agricultural practices, to harvest only red ripe cherries and to reduce imperfections to 2%. The 2003 Crop was really sweet and filled with caramel and nutty flavor tones, and I was happy!
That year my son Jonah was living in Cambodia. I asked him to make a visit to the Jhai Farmers to reinforce our commitment to the program and to the Jhai Farmers Cooperative. There he met Will Thomlinson, the VPAT Development Director that Lee had hired. Together they mapped out a plan for Thanksgiving Coffee to purchase two Containers (75,000 pounds) in the following year.
Now, with really good coffee that I knew could only get better, new and better harvesting practices, and a guarantee of sale, I and The VPAT members went into full sales and marketing mode. We sold a lot of Jhai Coffee packages. We raised a lot of money for the Laos coffee farmers. The money was given to VPAT and they transferred the money to Laos. I was more interested in the coffee side and building a new market for Laos coffee in the USA. My plan was to bring in great amounts of raw coffee as it became available over the years and to resell the coffee to other artisan roasters. It all seemed to be falling into place.
The following year, in 2005, Mr Thomlinson went rogue, selling our contracted coffee from that years crop to a Japanese company.
The project died.
The VPAT members dispersed and we at Thanksgiving Coffee got stuck holding 20,000 empty Jhai Foundation packages, 50,000 brochures, and egg on our face.
We moved on, a bit wiser and a bit poorer for the effort.
A Decade Later
Fast forward to 2014. Ten years pass and I get a call from a young man who was living in Seattle but traveling to Laos. He was so in love with the Lao people and obsessed with the fact that the children had no books in their schools. He started a program with a local coffee roaster, and called it “Coffee for Books.” One book was donated for each pound of coffee sold.
This young man wanted my advice and help to use Lao coffee beans for his project. He said he had met and made friends with coffee growers on the Bolivian Plain in Laos (The same region I had been dealing with a decade before) and was going back. Then asked if I would be his adviser, and implied that I would roast and package Lao coffee for his project, if he got the coffee exported to the USA.
I thought of the song lyric: “once burned, twice shy babe” and told him I would think about it – and get back to him before he left for Laos.
His name was Tyson Adams.
Read My Laos Experience: Part II now…
These packages of Nicaraguan coffee seem simple to understand, but the reality is decades of work behind it all.
by Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder & CEO
Coffee trees are remarkable for their ability to regenerate after severe pruning.
Severe pruning is hard on the psyche. You have taken care of your tree for 15 years and it has produced an amazing amount of enjoyment as it took you through its seasonal life cycles for 12 of those years. You are no Paul Bunyan with an anxious ax. You want to save trees, not chop them down. So you are about to break your own heart and you know it. You are, however, about to rejuvenate your tree and it will love you for your bravery. Sharp pruning shears are all that you need (and faith).
“The Cut” – May 4, 2016
On May 4th, 2016 the “cut” was made about 18” from the base of the tree; it broke my heart. That’s because I harvested 511 cherries from the tree, de-pulped them, soaked the seeds in a water-bath, dried them for a week on a window sill, and in the end had about 12 ounces of green beans. We invited the mayor of Fort Bragg, chefs, a winery owner, and our staff to a once in a lifetime “cupping.” We put the roasted beans on the cupping table with coffees from Central America and were pleasantly surprised when they received the highest praise for flavors we described as bright with hints of lemon, peanut butter, and dark chocolate.
27 Days Later – June 1, 2016
Note the small fresh leaves close to the trunk. This tree has plenty of root spore and therefore it is overpowered. It has stored its regenerative powers and now those roots have much less plant structure to support. It will put on a vigorous growth spurt over the next 6 months. Notice a new trunk beginning about 8” up the main trunk. We will watch it and hopefully 2 or 3 others will emerge from the lower trunk, proving the structure for the new tree.
48 Days After “The Cut” – June 21, 2016
The tree is beginning to fill in its remaining architecture with bright new leaves and a second trunk has emerged at about 10” from the base. We are on our way. There is nowhere to go but up and out.
Stay tuned for photos of its progress over the next 6 months.