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…
The holidays are all about spending time with the people you love. It’s the time for ice skating and caroling and snuggling up by the fire with a cup of coffee.
Our friend Sulin Bell created a cookbook that we just had to share: Two Hearts, Four Hands. This collection of thirty recipes was designed for two people to enjoy together. Separate directions for two cooks come together for a collaborative experience in the kitchen: desserts, dinners, brunch, baking and more. And this cookbook isn’t just for couples, but friends, family, roommates and anyone!
Two Hearts, Four Hands:
Put love into your food and food into your love at the same time! This is the first cookbook designed for two people cooking together. Join with your partner, family, friend, co-worker, or new relationship for a fun, creative and tasty experience. A date in the kitchen provides quality time for your relationships while preparing delicious healthy food.
Two Hearts Four Hands is a lighthearted approach to expanding culinary awareness while addressing the time challenges of food preparation in our fast-paced lifestyle. Cooking together allows you the extra time for deeply nourishing yourself and your relationships.
Learn more at www.twoheartsfourhands.com
Bach said it best…
“Without my morning coffee I’m just like a dried up piece of roast goat.”
Here are a few of our favorite caffeine quotes from the world of coffee… some from our own arsenal, some we borrowed from others! Pin your favorites below – we’ll keep adding more every week.
Behind every successful person is a substantial amount of coffee.
This past weekend was all about shopping. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday – it’s a weekend of spending money and collecting things. But now Tuesday has come, and we get a breath of fresh air. We get to focus on what this holiday season is really all about: giving. November 29 is Giving Tuesday!
Share your love of Thanksgiving Coffee – get 10% off all of our coffees for the Holidays! Gift shopping made easy:
- Take advantage of special holiday prices for our gift bags
- Choose an option from our gift guide below
- Ship to multiple people within a single order
Figured out who needs what? Now let’s get them sent off…
If you appreciate a good cup of coffee, chances are that you’ve landed on the website CoffeeReview at one time or another. Founded by Kenneth Davis in 1997, CoffeeReview is the leading review website in the coffee industry. We regularly submit coffees for review to Ken and his team, and the latest results are in…
Fair Trade Month has come to a close, and we wanted to take the time to acknowledge the fair trade mark. There are many different aspects of the fair trade certification, and we want to share with you what it means to us!
There are many different types of certifications in the world of fair trade, but we chose ours for a very specific reason. Fair Trade International (FLO) has a strict set of standards that must be followed in order to be a certified part of the organization. While every fair trade certification has a set of rules, our research found FLO to be a leader in the industry: they set their standards higher, and continually challenge others in the community.
Thanksgiving Coffee History in Fair Trade
After Paul’s trip to Nicaragua in 1985, Thanksgiving Coffee Company took an important turn. When Paul realized how the coffee industry was affecting farmers and communities in Nicaragua and around the world, he decided it was time to make a change.
In 1999, we signed up with TransFair USA (now called Fair Trade USA), the only available certification at the time. We were the second company to sign up for this fair trade certification, and it was just one of the beginning steps toward “a just cup.”
In 2012, Fair Trade USA (FTUSA, originally TransFair USA) made some changes that we did not agree with, and we decided to make the change to Fair Trade International (FLO). At that time, FTUSA made the decision to allow larger coffee plantations to be certified. A move that may make sense in theory, but one that could hurt many of the smaller family coffee farms. We made the switch, and are honored to be a part of the FLO community now.
You can read more about the differences between FTUSA and FLO at this website: www.fairworldproject.org
Beyond Fair Trade
While fair trade certification is a vital part of Thanksgiving Coffee, there is so much more we do. Here are two more of the important certifications that we’ve acquired over the years:
B Corp Certification
The B Corps movement is people using business as force for good. They use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems all over the world. B Corporations are for-profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
Smithsonian Bird-Friendly Coffee
The “Bird-Friendly Coffee” certification was started by the The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The strict standards for this certification are that the beans be 100% certified organic, as well as shade-grown. The Smithsonian seal ensures tropical “agroforests” are preserved for migratory birds to find a haven when they travel. From your backyard to faraway farms, the Bird-Friendly certification provides a much needed habitat for these birds.
Pictured Below: The coffee farm that supplies the beans for our SongBird Guatemalan.
Celebrating Fair Trade Month
How can you join in on the mission? There are so many ways! And not just during October, but throughout the year. One of the best ways to participate in the fair trade community is simply by purchasing fair trade products. There are thousands of amazing brands out there that are committed to creating goods that that do good.
Another way to celebrate is by sharing the love! Log onto your favorite social media network, and help brands promote their product. Follow Fair Trade International on Facebook and Instagram to find shareable content.
Not sure what fair trade coffee is right for you? Take a look at the coffee selector on our website to learn about the different roasts available.
Happy Fair Trade Month from Thanksgiving Coffee!