Hello, my friends!
My name is John Elijah, and I am excited to introduce myself and my project to the Thanksgiving Coffee community. I have dreamt of creating a video production company here in Uganda for the past several years, and Paul Katzeff is helping me bring that dream to life. I have known Paul for over three years now, and with his blessing, I would like to introduce my story to you.
[Read the letter from Paul]
Over the past several weeks, I have held three different video shoots, and have put in over a hundred hours worth of editing. I believe that my country has something truly spectacular to offer to the world, but I need your help in making this a reality.
This coming Tuesday, look for an email and video with the details of my campaign, and how you can help build a thriving industry in Uganda!
When you receive this email in your inbox, I ask that you share it with your family and friends. Forward it onto your relatives, share the campaign on your social media pages, and help us create something remarkable.
This is our Uganda.
As we express gratitude for our families and friends during this season, you are at the top of my list. Thanksgiving Coffee’s supporters are some of the most forward-thinking and philanthropic people I have ever met, with great ideas and great heart. It’s an attitude that invigorates all of us here, and inspires us to grow and to give.
In the spirit of this season, I want to share a story and an opportunity with you. Back in 2015, I traveled to Africa to visit a coffee farm in Uganda. On my way off the mountain, riding in the back of an old Toyota pickup, my driver and I passed a party in progress. It was spilling out onto the dirt patio alongside the road. We slowed down to listen to the drummers banging out some rhythms that made you want to get up and dance. In the crowd was a young man with an old and bulky video camera, recording the chaos. He saw the pickup and rushed over to offer me a DVD he had filmed and edited. His name was Elijah.
This started a three year relationship between me and Elijah, via email from 10,000 miles across the globe. I’ve referred this young man to other business owners needing footage in Uganda, and have watched his skills grow and improve as he continues to work in his passion.
We have an opportunity here to showcase what Uganda can offer to the world at large, and support a young man who has the skills and is ready and willing to work.
I believe in Elijah, and I am excited to introduce him to my friends and family and supporters of Thanksgiving Coffee. In the spirit of giving this year, I am asking you to invest in the future of Uganda, by giving the gift of a charitable donation. Follow this link to back the campaign!
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
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
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.
Back in 1978 (that’s thirty eight years ago) I was just beginning to learn about coffee. I spent the first six years getting comfortable with the fire and heat it took to convert it from a tasteless seed into a toasted reddish brown carrier of comforting flavor.
Then I turned my focus to understanding the botany and chemistry of this magical “bean.” One of the first things I wanted to know was what made my coffee so much better then every canned coffee on the shelf.
Back then, a one pound can of Folgers or Martinson’s cost one dollar. My coffee, packed in a clear bag, closed with a twist tie at the top, was $3.50 per pound. I wondered, how could those big coffee companies turn out coffee at such a low price?
Back then there was not a lot of intellectual conversation about coffee in print or on the web. (There was no web, the closest thing to it was The Encyclopedia Britannica.) Coffee was an unsophisticated cup of Joe and not much more. There were no “to go” cups. You didn’t see people walking in the streets, or driving cars with cups of coffee in there hand. Cars didn’t have cup holders yet. Cane sugar found its greatest use in coffee and there was no such thing as corn syrup in packaged foods. It was a simpler time, a time before craft beer, and when people smoked in restaurants.
My investigation led me to Robusta coffee vs. Arabica Coffee.
Back then Every coffee company said their coffee was “Mountain Grown,” an indication that it was High Quality with “Deep, Rich” flavor. But it was pretty much a lie. The canned coffee was basically the lowest grades of coffee they could put into the mouths of unsuspecting and gullible American consumers. The truth was that the major portion of the canned coffee blends was coffee from a variety called Robusta, and Robusta was really cheap coffee with a rough, leathery flavor with wood notes and an ashy dry finish. But it had a heavy body and packed a punch that my coffee did not come close to.
So what was going on here? I was roasting Arabicas, and they were blending in Robustas with their Arabica’s to lower their cost. Robusta was all about volume and price. Arabica was all about flavor. The difference between Specialty Coffee and the 300 year history of coffee leading up to 1978 was the focus on Arabica varieties and the disdain for the Robusta variety.
The botany of these two varieties was very different. Although a raw coffee bean is known to have over 1600 chemical compounds, we tend to define coffee by its caffeine content. (Did you know coffee is 20% coffee oil by weight?) I learned that Robusta varieties have 2.5 -3 times the caffeine as Arabica varieties. I learned that caffeine is a waste product of photosynthesis and is stored in the plant only because the plant, unlike the animal kingdom, can not get rid of its waste. So there it is. And being water soluble, it is not destroyed by the high heat of roasting, and comes out into the cup when coffee is brewed.
So why do these two varieties produce such different levels of Caffeine?
To get to the answer you need to know that the two varieties do best in different environments. The Robusta variety likes the lowlands where the sun is hot, the air is heavy and moist, and the ground is rich in alluvial soils. The Arabica variety loves the cool dryer climates of the high country between 3,000-6,000 ft above sea level. Here the soils are young, with a very thin layer of topsoil, the ground is cool and the forest shade trees are essential for the light sensitive leaves of the Arabica tree.
Photosynthesis is the process by which the plant takes in sunlight (energy) and along with the soils nutrients and water, converts these assets into food. In this case, into coffee berries which contain two seeds and a whole lot of sweet juicy pulp that surrounds them. The seeds are the way the plants reproduces itself, and in the two different environments that these varieties call home, the seeds wind up with different amounts of Carbohydrates (food) and Caffeine (waste). Why?
Germination risk is the reason. The tree evolved to maximize its chances for survival.
When a coffee tree drops its berries at the end of a growing season, it wants the seeds to have a high success rate, meaning it wants its seeds to germinate. In the case of the Arabica variety, high up the mountainside, the conditions for germination and young seedling survival are slim. The soil is dry and cool , and the rainy season is six months after the seeds are ripe and fall from the tree to the ground. The tree knows that it might be a while for the conditions to become perfect. So it prepares the seed by being very efficient with its photosynthesis.
It produces more food and less waste for each seed. High carbs for the long wait and for energy for sprouting under difficult conditions. The Robusta tree does not waste its energy on producing a lot of carbs for the seed’s germination energy because it knows that the soil is warm and moist, and that the nutrients are there in the soil to feed the plant in its sprouting stage. Why waste energy on producing long chain, complex carbohydrates? So the energy goes into the production of Caffeine.
I like to think of the Robusta as a Buick that will operate without being highly tuned and the Arabica tree as a Ferrari that will not run unless it is highly tuned.
Hardy Robusta – Fragile Arabica. Arabicas taste better because they have the need to put food in the seed. That food is a complex starch that under high heat, breaks down into simple sugars which caramelize and produce the flavor of coffee. Robusta has starch to convert to sugar in the roasting process and thus, it is less sweet. Now, caffeine being one of nature’s most bitter substances, adds a distinguishing bitterness to coffee- and 3 times more in Robusta. Arabica coffees have less caffeine, and more carbohydrates so it is sweeter and less bitter. The major negative in Robusta, Caffeine, becomes a positive when you forget the flavor and use it for the speedy pick-up that its caffeine gives the drinker.
In 1978 Thanksgiving Coffee Company introduced Pony Express, “The Jackhammer of Coffee,” the start your day with a “Blastoff” drink.
It is natures natural five-hour power shot. It will make your heart race, it will keep you on your toes, and if you want to stay awake, you will stay awake!
Today, Robusta coffees are quite a bit more flavorful, mostly because the way coffee has evolved over the past 35 years. Flavor counts for value, and value means higher price. When I first created Pony Express, the flavor was metallic with a petroleum aftertaste. It was rough and not to satisfying. Today, our Robusta comes from places like Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is clean and has a flavor that will take you back to a time when coffee was “Just a cup of Joe”, but this time, you might just develop a taste for it and never look back.
– Paul Katzeff
DARK ROAST • HIGH CAFFEINE
This restaurant, located on the western edge of the Anderson Valley on Highway 128, about 25 miles from the Pacific Coast, serves the finest pizza west of the Mississippi River. I come from the Bronx where “Italian” means “old world”, authentic and spare. Dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, combined to make a savory blend, greater than the sum of its parts. I dropped in with Joan a couple of Sunday’s ago on a wine tasting trip, something we rarely do, being surrounded by great wineries, you seem to take them for granted.
Lunch was pizza and a draft, a North Coast Pale Ale from Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewery. We sat at the bar, on high stools and watched the preparation of our pizza. The stone oven registered 900 degrees. Black Valley oak embers glowed in the oven. Sweet basil tickled my nose. The dough was spread, tossed just a bit and laid out on a wood panel board, covered with a right amount of tomato sauce, blobs of fresh buffalo mozzarella and slid into the oven. About four minutes later it was in front of us, bubbled up crust with carbony tipped edges just made me think of those days back in the Bronx in the 50s when the only pizza you could get was called a “pie” or a “beitz” and it came whole, not by the slice. It was “old country” just like the one we finished off at Stone & Ember.
A perfect Ten!
– Paul Katzeff
Co-Founder & CEO
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