October 9th, 2009 5:33 pm | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Business

Live Review: Stumptown Coffee Producers Panel

coffee beans
Stumptown Producers Panel, Leftbank Cafe, Thursday, Oct. 8

We gathered in the airy, chi-chi industrial environs of Leftbank Café—before Stumptown's first-ever Producers Panel—for a coffee tasting. Hundreds of us did, and it occurred to me that even 10 years ago this would have been unthinkable, or at least absurd: fodder for a Seinfeld episode.

“Coffee and what?”
“Just coffee.”
“Just coffee?”
“It was a coffee tasting. We. Tasted. Coffee.”
“Coffee. Huh.”

Except, of course, in the intervening years, long past Starbucks' original overcooked push into the bourgeois consciousness, coffee has become something akin to wine or beer, with its own tasting vocabulary, its own politics, its own host of wonky geeks with thoughts on everything from climate to drying process to proper roasting temp, and its own vehemently opinionated (if not always informed) populace of drinkers. Thus, it makes sense that a literally standing-room-only crowd, bursting into the wings of a cavernous space, is here to hear a panel consisting of exporters and growers of coffee from Kenya, Columbia, and Costa Rica. It was their coffee we'd been tasting, before the panel.

The contingents from each of the three countries described a somewhat similar narrative of their recent years, though the timelines and the nomenclature varied among the countries. Used to be, the coffee growers had no control over the price of their product, were not rewarded for quality (indeed, they had no idea how to assess it), and had the majority of their potential income stripped away by agents and middle-men and price-fixers. However, through newer, long-term, direct-trade relationships immediately linking gourmet coffee roasters and growers (called “2nd window” in Kenya, Las Mingas in Colombia), growers are not only learning how better to make their product—thus serving Stumptown's need for consistency—but are also able to charge higher prices based on this quality, and so also gain access to healthcare, send their kids to university, etc. Which is pretty good.

Although, if this sounds utopian, it isn't; only a small portion of growers are hooked up with gourmet coffee roasters with policies as nice as Stumptown's. The rest are still stuck with subsistence-level farming subject to the whims of auctioneers and the NY commodities market. In this particular crowd, though, what we saw were some growers whose livelihoods had changed remarkably in the past decade or so, and so it was a largely feel-good affair, punctuated by deafeningly loud bursts of applause from the largely left-leaning people who show up to things like coffee symposium. In particular, when Costa Rican coffee farmer Juan Ramon Alvarado described the environmental benefits of his own process of machine-washing, which included near-full reuse of coffee byproducts for fields and livestock, one audience member was so excited she clapped after almost every sentence he spoke. Rightly so, really—it was kind of impressive.

I suppose as Stumptown's popularity has reached hysterical levels nationwide, one gets tired of hearing nice things about their business practices—at some points, the goodwill and fellow-feeling almost cloyed, it's true—but until anybody hears anything different, we in the press are stuck being largely congratulatory. Sorry, people.

A couple of the more fun moments in the panel came from the competing pride of the different growers in the panel. When Ngatia Kattyoge, a farmer from the slopes of Mt. Kenya, described his coffee as the “best in the world”—a statement this particular Kenyan-coffee-loving reporter is fairly sympathetic to—Francisco Mena, an exporter from Costa Rica, couldn't contain his shit-eating grin. Likewise, when Alvarado enthusiastically extolled the ecological benefits of machine washing, Alejandro Cadena of Colombia was quick to jump in to explain how economies of scale make this process impossible to implement for most of Columbia's small growers.

At one point during the audience Q&A, it was also interesting to hear the different countries' takes on the burdens or benefits of organic certification—which is often unthinkingly, and fallaciously, taken by greenie coffee drinkers as a certification of quality. The Kenyans flat-out said it was impossible where they are, because no known organic pesticide can stop coffee berry disease, which causes a crop loss of precisely 100%, while for the Colombian producers the problem was the exorbitant cost levied for organic certification, which they have been working to pass on to the consumers rather than having it penalize the growers.

In any case, the one thing I kept wondering during Stumptown's symposium was: at what point will we truly have a wine parallel? That is, as the growers become more connected to the market and more associated with the coffee's quality in the mininds of the consumer, at what point does the grower's reputation start to rival that of the coffee roastery? Or, heck, when are we going to see Kenyan-or Colombian-owned roasteries (with complete and exclusive control of their own coffee berries) cropping up in downtown Portland or Los Angeles or New York? It's a long way coming, if it ever does, but no matter how good Stumptown is in both practice and execution, it's hard not to root for it—even though it would be Stumptown's own nice-kid actions that helped set it in motion.

Photo courtesy of Stumptown Coffee. We'll update this post with photos from the event once they are available.
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