A History in Nepalese Coffee

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.

Kind regards,
Mike

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.

Nepal Coffee

I replied on Tue, Apr 11, 2017

Mike,

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.

Paul Katzeff
CEO

Mike replied:

Hi Paul,

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.

Kind regards,
Mike

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.

Paul Katzeff
Mendocino, California


Order your own bag of Nepal Coffee now.

Rich and velvety with underlying hints of raisin.

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Only the Strong Survive: A Story from New York

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

Fourth of July Mendopendence Parade!

We had so much fun participating in Mendocino County’s Fourth of July parade! Check out a couple shots of our piece of the parade, and a few photos of the day…

A great drone flyover video of the July Fourth parade in Mendocino, from California Poppy Films. What a crowd!

And this video is actually the ENTIRE parade from the guys at Mendocinosportsplus… you’ll see our crew at 41 minutes in!

The Mendocino Beacon also filmed the parade live from the judges stand in front of the Kelley House Museum. Check it out below! The Thanksgiving Coffee crew heads through that video at 49 minutes in.

The photos below of our Thanksgiving Coffee families were captured by Sam Koski Jones – thanks for sharing!

Cold Brew History: The Condensed Version

From Lawrence Bullock

Cold-brewed coffee has become popular in the United States in just the past 10 years or so. But it’s not new.. There are many versions of cold coffee all over the world. Thai and Vietnamese iced coffee, and Indian cold coffee. These methods, however, use either hot-brewed coffee (Thai and Vietnamese iced coffee) or instant coffee (Indian cold coffee). The first instances of true cold-brewed coffee, made with cold water, come from Japan.

Kyoto-Style Japanese Coffee

Kyoto-style coffee, which takes its name from Kyoto, Japan, where it’s extremely popular, is the earliest record of cold-brew coffee. The Japanese were brewing coffee this way in the 1600s, but it’s unclear as to any earlier occurrences. Some think that the Japanese may have learned about it from Dutch traders, who might have made cold coffee in order to be able to take it on long ship voyages.

As time has gone by, Kyoto-style brews have become varied and artistic. Rather than submerging coffee grounds for hours, drop by drop brewing through a convoluted glass tower sets the pace. One drop of water seeps through the coffee grounds at a time. It takes just as much time as the long- immersion method does but is really amazing to watch. Some of the Kyoto cold brew towers are works of art. They are also, unfortunately, expensive and unless your goal is to make a brewing experience people might drive hours to see , it is an extravagance not as suited to an American pace of life.

Cold-Brew Comes to the U.S.

Cold brew has come to the U.S. overnight since the 1980’s. (Yes, that was a joke.) Initially, The Toddy Company method was the go-to cold-brew of choice for years. It was easy for busy restaurants and coffee houses to make, the product cut through milk and sugar and contained a lot of caffeine.

What prompted the cold-brew trend? Who knows? Cold brewing requires little manual labor and therefore is practical for coffee shops, cafes and restaurants, and is a creative way to feature coffee. Since coffee has been trending more towards elements of art (ask a barista who made that swan in your cappucino if they think they’re an artist) it could be that as well.

Is hot coffee necessarily the default brew of choice? Well, hot brew’s not going anywhere but evidence points to the fact that coffee’s been enjoyed cold for at least four centuries. We think it’s fine that people are re-discovering this long-established way of enjoying coffee, and we’re excited to see what cold-brew will evolve into as time goes on. You and (if you’re one of our restaurant accounts) your customers might be excited about it as well.

Take Your Dog to Work Day

Friday, June 23 is Take Your Dog to Work Day! Then again, for a few of us here at Thanksgiving Coffee Company, everyday is take your dog to work day. Meet two of our office pups, Zoe and Brutus!

Border Collie Zoe

Paul Katzeff, Mendocino Coast Humane Society

Zoe was adopted from the Border Collie Rescue of Northern California. These guys serve most of Northern California, re-homing animals that need new situations and families that will take care of them. Zoe’s mom is Patty, from our accounting team. Patty has been a part of the Thanksgiving Coffee family for 28 years, and Zoe for 8 of those years!

Zoe at Thanksgiving Coffee Company

Brutus is a newer addition to our office. Co-founder and CEO Paul Katzeff adopted Brutus from the Mendocino Coast Humane Society just two months ago! He’s already adjusted nicely to life at our headquarters, although we found out he does not like to pose for photo shoots.

Brutus and Paul

Thanksgiving Coffee Company has partnered with the Mendocino Coast Humane Society to create a Cause Coffee that benefits their shelter. This non-profit has been serving Fort Bragg and beyond for over thirty years. We are proud to be a part of their fundraising efforts, and stand with an organization that is doing good for the animals of our community! Learn more on the MCHS Cause Coffee page.

   

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Boonville Coffee for Sierra Nevada!

This weekend is the 24th annual Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, and it’s one of the Mendocino County events that is not to be missed. As you’re driving to and from the festival and need a coffee fix, here are a couple places to stop by and grab a cup of Thanksgiving Coffee!

BOONVILLE

Lizbby’s Restaurant and Bar
Anderson Valley Market
Redwood Drive In

PHILO

Stone and Embers
Lemon’s Market
The Bewildered Pig

NAVARRO

Navarro General Store

YORKVILLE

Yorkville Market

CLOVERDALE

Dahlia and Sage
Eagles Nest Deli

The Upsetter (Espresso)

Did you know that our Upsetter Espresso Blend is a reference to one of our favorite reggae artists? Lee “Scratch” Perry will be performing at Sierra Nevada this year. The label design on our Upsetter (a light roast espresso blend) is a reference to his label: Upsetter Records. Can’t wait to see him perform this weekend!

Have fun at Sierra Nevada… maybe we’ll see you out there!

Best Friends Day: Share A Cup of Coffee!

If there’s one thing that we know for sure, it’s that coffee was meant to be SHARED! While we may be some of the worst culprits at hogging the coffee, there is simply nothing better than sitting down with a friend for a latte on a weekend morning. Coffee tastes better when it’s paired with friendship and comfy chairs – it’s just a fact.

Not that we’re biased at ALL, but we do have some the very best cafes in America serving up caffeinated beverages from Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Stop by one of these coffee shops on Best Friends Day, and share a cup (okay, get two different cups) with your bestie.

@julioperez4482 over at Goodlife Cafe in Mendocino poured this pair of lattes!

This shot of @jamiedanno and @karlhenry_ at the Inn at Newport Ranch has got to be one of our favorites. Bonus points for sharing coffee on Mendocino headlands!

Sharing coffee AND food – now there’s a good idea. @marulopez got this shot at Sam’s Log Cabin in the East Bay!

@chloebahama and @the_real_wyatt_sanderson sipped these gorgeous lattes at STEEP in Hopland!

@christygilesx and @akarambo_ shared shots of espresso at Caffe Etc in Hollywood.

Check out all the places you can settle in for a cup of Thanksgiving Coffee with your best friend, on our store locator page!

National Trails Day in Mendocino

This weekend, we celebrate National Trails Day — put on by the American Hiking Society! As residents of beautiful Mendocino County, Thanksgiving Coffee employees are well-versed in the art of getting outdoors. We all feel pretty lucky to live along a coastline that all of California vacations to.

Mendocino County has some of the most stunning cliffs, breathtaking sunsets and magnificent ocean views you’ll find anywhere. Why? Because we have organizations and volunteers keeping our parks and public spaces preserved. The Mendocino Land Trust has been protecting and preserving this area since 1976, and we are proud to be partnered with them. The Fog Dodger Coffee benefits the Land Trust, and their work here in Mendocino County. For every purchase, 25% is donated back to the MLT!

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In honor of National Trails Day, we’re highlighting a few of our personal favorite hikes in the area! From the Thanksgiving Coffee headquarters….

Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder and CEO

I am not a great hiking enthusiast. I don’t like the idea of walking just to walk or hiking just to hike. But living in one of the more beautiful spots on the planet, I do feel the need to see the beauty. I like the hidden beauties, the places that seem as if I am the first to stand on a spot of land and see the beauty around me. My “hiking” rarely takes me to the same spot twice so hiking to the same spot twice is rare.

I was on my way back from San Francisco, traveling on HWY 128. It was a warm summer day. The sun was high, the sky powder blue, and the air still. I pulled over at mile marker 2.98, with only a few more minutes until I would hit the coast. It was the spot where I stopped back in 1971 to rest after traveling cross country in my ’46 Mack Truck which contained a double waterbed and a wood cook stove and was my home on the road. What attracted me then (and now), was the 120 year old second growth Redwoods that bordered the Navarro River for a 16 mile ribbon on both banks.

In 1971 the additional draw was a campsite with 100 semi naked and totally naked Hippies who had come (like me) one family at a time, attracted by the desire to stop and rest by a river and commune with the forces of Redwood nature. Forty-six years later, curious to see the spot I camped on when I was scared to be naked among strangers in public (wasn’t that illegal?), I parked my car and walked in under the trees and down to the river. It was quiet, very quiet. I picked some wild blackberries and walked out on a fallen log that had silently met its maker in a storm that put it horizontal ten feet over the river, all the way to the far bank.

I shimmied out to the middle of the log and watched the salmon fingerlings in the water below. A raven being chased by a starling flew by breaking up the silence.

Then, silence. I sat and waited for the next event to happen. The cicadas hissed. I looked around for a sign. I was alone.

That’s the kind of moment I hike for.

Mendocino County Hiking

Larry Tholberg, Sales Team

The beach at Van Damme, though tiny, has been rated one of the top ten beaches in the states. It is a hot spot for abalone diving, kayaking, hiking and more. Across from the beach is the State Park which features a fairly easy to moderately difficult hike if you follow the trail all the way to the pygmy forest. When the trail splits, stay left for what my family thinks is the prettier trail. We like to park a car at the bottom and arrange for a ride up Little River Airport Road to the Pygmy parking lot – then we hike down to the coast. Bring a snack and water if you do this.

Van Damme

Marchelo Bresciani, Brand Manager

The Lost Coast Trail is one of the few places where I’ve truly felt the wild of wilderness. The rugged landscape and remote location of this trail isolate you completely, leaving no trace of our crazy modern world just beyond the steep rolling coastal canyons. You are left with the sights and sounds of untouched nature, and the stunning vistas of the wild Pacific Ocean.

Lost Coast Trail

Jen Lewis, Digital Marketing

It’s the most obvious trail in Mendocino County, but it was the first spot that took my breath away on this coastline: The Mendocino Headlands. One of my top places to whale watch, walk, slackline, and simply sit by the water. Best part about it? A GREAT view of the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse from just across the waves.

From the quiet trail through the trees (in my photo below), to the land bridge over the waves on the south side of the park – this area will transfix you every time.

Mendocino Headlands


Support Mendocino trails with your cup of coffee! Purchase our Fog Dodger coffee and 25% of the proceeds will be donated to the Mendocino Land Trust, so they can continue to keep Mendocino County beautiful!

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Roastmaster’s Select: Colombian Coffee

We’ve sung the praises of our Roastmaster’s Select Club before. An all-new coffee every month, micro-lots that you won’t see anywhere else, small batch roasts, and limited editions that taste magnificent.

But if you aren’t ready to take the plunge and sign up for a blind monthly club subscription, we have another option. Every few months, we pick a favorite from the club, and feature it here on our website for non-members. We’ve featured coffees from Panama, Kenya, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and more in the past months.

What’s up next? Our Colombia Medium Roast from the Cafe Colsuaves co-op.

Coffee From Colombia

Thanksgiving Coffee has sourced coffee from Colombia for years, and it continues to be a favorite origin of ours. We found this lot of coffee while searching for unique Colombian coffee for our club members. Roastmaster Jacob Long sample roasted the green coffee, and blind tasted it alongside a variety of samples — finding this Colombian to be a real stand-out.

This coffee is sourced from the Popayan region of Cauca, on the western side of Colombia. We ended up purchasing 500 pounds of this micro lot, and we’re impressed with the way it turned out. It’s quite smooth and nuanced, with a great body and flavor. The Cafe Colsuaves group produces brilliant coffees by putting a strong focus on lot separation and processing control, creating some truly unique micro-lots.

Colombian Coffee

Colombian Medium Roast

Jacob created a roast profile that brings out the natural flavors of this Colombian, and everyone here at the roastery is loving how it tastes. This Medium Roast is rich and smooth, with complex notes of milk chocolate and vibrant citrus undertones. At the Thanksgiving Coffee tasting room, we especially love it in the Soft Brew, and we’re planning on trying it in our Cold Brew Kit later this month.

Give the Cafe Colsuaves Colombian Medium Roast a try. Add this coffee onto your next order, and we’re certain you won’t be disappointed. Don’t wait too long to get this coffee delivered! In just a few weeks, we’ll be rotating it out for a new Roastmaster’s selection!

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Coffee Cherries in Colombia

Coffee beans from Colombia

A shot of a Colombian town

Coffee from Rwanda

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.”

Virunga Mountains in Rwanda

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.

Coffee Cherries in Rwanda

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.

Paul Katzeff, Making Friends with Gorillas in Rwanda

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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.

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Paul Katzeff, co-founder and CEO

Picking Coffee in Rwanda
Rwandan Coffee Farmers with Paul Katzeff and Team
Paul Katzeff, On Safari in Rwanda
A Family of Coffee Farmers in Rwanda
Micro Lots of Coffee Farms in Rwanda
A Boat at Lake Kivu in Rwanda
Rwanda
Holding our Gorilla Fund Coffee at a Celebration in Rwanda

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