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…
Our partners at Jhai Coffee are making a huge impact in their community in Laos. In 16 months, Jhai Coffee has completed 21 community hygiene programs, installed 25 water filters and 7 clean water wells, which are providing thousands of schoolchildren with clean water. We’re proud to partner with Jhai coffee to roast their coffee in the United States!
Jhai’s Impact infographic re-posted from jhaicoffeehouse.com
Every cup of Jhai Coffee makes a big difference. In Laos, diseases related to poor hygiene are the #2 killer of children under five years old. Our partners at Jhai Coffee are working to build a healthy community by directly supporting the installation of clean water wells and hygiene programs at schools in the region.
Jhai Coffee is also implementing farmer education and infrastructure to improve coffee quality and enable the community to receive maximum earnings for their hard work. Each cup you drink supports community health & sustainability projects in Laos. One dollar from every bag you purchase is donated to Jhai Coffee House to provide funding for their important work with the Jhai Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative.
We’ve set a goal of helping Jhai Coffee build a new clean-water well, which costs $600 to build. For every package that you buy, Thanksgiving Coffee will match an additional dollar of our own to fund this effort (up to $300). Let’s get this partnership off to a great start!