I left my heart in San Francisco but found it again in Bolivia

To say its been a busy few weeks is a massive understatement. You may have noticed I’ve been on the quite side, so thought it might be a good time to bring you all up to date.

My mammoth trip began with a trip to San Francisco, and my first experience of trans Atlantic flight with a budget airline Norweigan air. I remember seeing that Ryanair were in the running for this franchise, and I have to say that I was pleased it was not them. Apart from having to buy the worst headphones in the world, I have to say I like cheap flights to America.
I was in San Francisco for the latest instalment of Tamper Tantrum. This was our 15th Tamper Tantrum event over the past few years, and our second time into the United States.
But before that I was lucky enough to meet up with my hero Tom Owen for a couple of hours and a recording of a podcast to come out soon for Tamper Tantrum. It was officially #tomowenday. A tour of the warehouse was enlightening, and getting to meet all the team (and its a big team at sweetmarias) just sending out green coffee.
Tom was a real gentleman and warm and insightful, an hour of amazingness. Cant wait to share it with you all.
A tour of some of the most famous coffee shops ion San Fran ensued with the highlight being Wreacking Ball and the famous and obligatory pineapple wallpaper selfie
The main event was at the Headquarters of Github, who is is a web-based Git or version control repository and Internet hosting service. It is mostly used for code. Without the jargon people store things a little like dropbox who are programmers and they are huge. There headquarters are a tech haven of table tennis tables and it equipment, and the guys and girls there were so welcoming and sharing. I got a tour of the building and made me very jealous of all their facilities.
Photo courtesy of Cris Mendoza
The event itself went super well with speakers from Hanna Neuschwander, Professor Bill Ristenpart, Trish Rothgeb, Kin Khao and a super debate with Katie Carguilo and Colleen Anunu and Myself and Mayra Orellana-Powell. Videos will be coming out in the next few months at
One of the speakers was my “mate” Alejandro Martinez, I always like to take pictures of him eating, just because it amuses me. Tartine bakery was amazing !!
As soon as I put down the microphone I hot footed to the apartment to pack to start a mega journey. The first flight was to El Salvador where I had a 6 hour layover. Although not meant to leave the airport, what do you do whilst in El Salvador ? Well you meet up with your friend Ernesto Menendez of La Ilusion and Alaska fame. A few hours and a good breakfast with a friend was amazing, and we chatted about so many different things, last harvest, next harvest and everything in between.
Back to the airport for a stop off at Peru and then on to La Paz at 2am in the morning. La Paz is the most unique city in the world with its space like lots and its mega thin air, breathing becomes a major chore.
4 hours after arriving the alarm clock goes off to hot foot again into a taxi to begin the annual tradition of cycling down the death road to Corico. Now a tourist attraction, with a bypass built, 15 years ago it was known as the worlds most dangerous road with many many deaths. Now you start at nearly 5000 meters above sea level and cycle your way down to around 1200 masl. I’ve done it so many times now I have lost count.
Still dangerous there have been many injuries and more than 22 cyclists have lost their lives on Bolivia’s “Death Road” since 1998. We started with snow and rain reducing visibility to nothing. Certainly the worst conditions I have ever done the ride in. The further down we got the dryer and warmer we got, with the weather clearing around half way.
Then the drive to Caranarvi. My annual trip, somewhere I look forward to every year. We arrived to rain, again a first, something I’ve not seen on this scale in Cararvi before.
A couple of days in the cupping room tasting the new crops, I think we can all be excited about the upcoming harvest. But the main event was yet to happen. In between I got to visit a few people we are buying from in Vincente and Carmelita and was all the fun.
Pedro Rodriguez our exporter started a project called “Sol de Mañana.” He has been sourcing coffee from small producers in the region for three decades. However, this steady decline of coffee production has not only put the sustainability of his export business at risk, but the future of coffee production in Bolivia is at risk of disappearing forever.
In return for joining the program “Sol de Mañana” producers take on agronomic advice, replanting old plant stock, working the land and tackling farming head on – not “just letting it happen.” And they are supported by the team at the mill in Caranrvi. The mill will try and partner them up with a roastery, Our biggest success from this has been Vincent Paye who is part of the first ten producers to have crop from the program. Hew has turned around his yields and his quality to one of our favourite coffees. But the mill decided it was time to get the other 9 involved so we held the first ever Sol de Mañana cupping competition.
All 10 coffees were put on the table and scored by and international jury of me and Joanna Alm of Drop Coffee Roasters Sweeden and a winner was decided. With the wining coffee guaranteed to be sold to one of us. All but one of the families came to the mill to watch us cup and see who would win.
From the competition we decided that next year we will work with 4 of the 10 buying all the coffee from all of their farms, and much fun was had meeting them and explaining why some did better than others. The scores were high, and I can say very easily I would have bought any of the lots, and it came down to personal cupping preferences. We also encouraged them to try the coffees and see why we preferred some to others it was a fun discussion.
But that was not enough so as soon as we cupped us, and the producers made our way to an indoor football pitch and has a game of Has Bean Vs Drop Coffee. A highly fought battle and some lucky goals from Drop meant it was a 3-3 draw. But highlights were that I had not only Tedacio Mamani on my team (who’s coffee we have bought for years and you may remember sent him a Sunderland shit back in the day) but Bebeto and his two other sons. Such a kick to play football with them.
But after the game the ladies inspired by joanna also asked if they could have a game so it was boys vs girls, and I managed to talk Vincente’s (Paye)son to come on my team and have a kick around (he’s a good footballer). This was far dirtier than I expected with feet flying everywhere, but another tightly fought battle needed up 1-1.
The following day was spent visiting some farms we have been working with for a couple of years in La Linda, Don Carlos and Alisitias. Great to see the development of these farms and how they have come along from the very first seedlings planted. I also brought a drone with me so I could get some amazing arial shots. These will be edited in due course 🙂
A fantastic trip, mixed with old friends a new in the north and south of America (and a little bit in the middle)

Costa Rica La Pira

Don Carlos is an eccentric, and an innovator and an experimenter. He doesn’t follow the rules he makes them–listen to our chat as we walked around the farm earlier this year.

From this January’s trip, one of the highlights for me was to meet up with Don Carlos from Finca la Pira in Tarrazu, Costa Rica.

You see Don Carlos is an eccentric, and an innovator and an experimenter. He doesn’t follow the rules he makes them.

The walk around was lots of fun, and I recorded our conversations, so you can share a little of the trip here.

You can also see the Flickr pictures here 

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

Some things have changed since we first opened our doors, but my thoughts on sourcing travel and relationships haven’t really.

The most common question I ever get when meeting someone for the first time is “Why do you travel so much?” I hate flying, it’s been a phobia I’ve had for many years, and I am a terrible road passenger moaning and groaning. I rarely cup when I’m at origin, as the differing protocols, different water, and your body clock and diet all messed up means you can not do a good job at the cupping table. Coffee often tastes better when you’re in the sun, with friends, having a blast. If it tastes good in Stafford on a rainy Tuesday night, then it will taste good anywhere.

And lots of coffee roasters buy their coffee without ever setting foot on an airplane. So why do I put myself through the torture of traveling to origin? 2016 brought 129 flights all over the world and many many air miles, with 2017 not looking a lot better with 13 already in the middle of February.

Well it’s not for the airline food or my love of airports. We buy directly from over 50 farms and over 20 different producers in 9 different countries. Add to this the relationships we have with importers who still need love and attention to make sure the great coffee keeps flowing, and we continue to work together.

The advent of the internet has made this much easier to manage these long distance relationships and much of my day is spent firing emails and whats apps backwards and forwards. But for those of us that have had long distance relationships, this doesn’t work for all the details. Seeing the whites of the eyes of the person you’re dealing with fixes many of the problems and challenges, and also gets across your points of view, and a chance for you to hear theirs.

Let me give you an example. On my trip a few weeks ago to Central America, I spent the day on a farm we have been buying from for a few years. By now, I’ve been on a lot of farms and have gained knowledge from experienced growers on parameters and processes.

I ask similar questions everywhere I go: “What varietals do you grow?”, “walk me through the way you process the coffee”, “What kind of drying times are you getting?”. The farm in question answered the last question differently to other places I work with, farms all with a similar set of conditions. But the farm in question dried their coffee much quicker than normal.

Now it could be that this is best for this farm and mill, and I’m always very careful to not prescribe to producers what they should do. I use the mantra that if they turned up to my roastery and told me how to roast, I’d be quite annoyed at them, and I think they would feel the same for my advice if delivered wrong. Email and short messages can often be misconstrued this way, even more so when English is often the second language.

But they were super interested in this idea, so within 5 minutes, we were splitting a lot, and using half of it as a control sample doing what they normally do, and the other half slowing down the drying process to see what difference it will make. It could be that few learn nothing apart from what they are doing is amazing, but we could both learn what slowing down that drying process does to the coffee. We are both excited to see the result and how it turns out, both learning, and something that just doesn’t happen on a Skype call, and could be delivered in a way that was “wouldn’t this be interesting” instead of “do this do that”.

Another trip a couple of years ago, I took one of my favourite producers (and one of my closest friends) Alejandro Martinez (or Finca Argentina fame) to Honduras and Nicaragua to learn more about how they do things there. From the visit, he has built new relationships too, with experienced farmers, a resource for some new varietals to try on his farm and someone to bounce ideas off who knows what they are talking about (aka posed to me and my crazy thoughts.). The trip was so successful that when I left for home, Ale stayed with the producers, and learnt a little bit more with them.

Relationships are difficult, not just coffee ones, relationships in general. We all screw up, we all make mistakes. But you know, when you visit someone, all those screw ups and mistakes kind of get forgiven, as you get to understand the person, their challenges, and their strengths and weakness, and you learn to work as a team. But they also learn your weaknesses and you buy yourself so much goodwill.

I make lots of mistakes, I make lots of wrong calls and fly off the handle all the time. Catching up with my mates at origin is not only lots of fun (and it really is) but a chance for them to forgive my mess ups, an important piece of apparatus in my sourcing toolbox.

Roland’s other last day in Costa Rica

So Roland sneaked in an extra day before his flights home, so here it is.


I kept up the busy pace for my last day in Costa Rica. Francisco, our exporter, arranged to take a group of jury members out to the West Valley to see some of the farms and mills that had success yesterday. Luckily for me, there were some familiar names in the Cup of Excellence results!

We started with a visit to the Herbazu micromill. Antonio from Herbazu won the top spot, and of course we’ve had coffees from them for quite a few years now, so it was great to see him and the mill. From there, he took us up to the farm plot that had won – Leoncio. Named after his grandfather, it’s a very organised farm. He’s planted it with a range of different varietals – bourbon, geisha, villa sarchi, Ethiopian, Catimor and the one he used for the winning lot – SL28. This is one we think of as a Kenyan varietal, but in this case his seeds came from El Salvador.
This was also a great example of how close speciality coffee growing in Costa Rica – and especially the West Valley – is: Finca Leoncio is the plot of land directly below Cafe ARBAR, that I had visited last Saturday! As we were leaving, we stopped to say hello to Carlos there and he ended up coming with us to our next stop. Only two minutes down the road, we found ourselves at the Vista Al Valle micromill – another familiar name! As it happens, Carlos is also a cousin of the family who own the mill, so soon all of us were in the family’s front room were they’d put on a lovely spread of fresh fruit for everyone.

image3We then took a look around their mill – it really lived up to it’s name – View of the Valley. After spending time looking around, Francisco, ourselves and all the producers and their families went up to a local restaurant for some lunch. It really reinforced the sense of community within the West Valley, as more farmers turned up and everyone chatted over food, with lots of congratulations to Antonio!

All that was left was for me to head to the airport and the long journey home. Saying my goodbyes, it felt hard to imagine that I had only met everyone in the last week. Being on a Cup of Excellence jury and meeting producers was an intense experience – absolutely incredible – and one I’ll never forget.image1

Roland’s Diary. the last day ……

The last day of Cup of Excellence Costa Rica 2015 started as early as the others, but this time we only had one cupping session. By this point, we had selected the top 10, so our task for the day was to give them final scores and descriptions for use when they are put up to auction. For this cupping, we were also joined by members of the National Jury and other guests to see what we had picked. It’s a really interesting selection that made it, as they are very varied.




The end of the cupping was a bit of a mixed experience – a relief to have got the last round of cupping finished, but also sadness that it was the end of the week and time to say goodbye to new friends. Everyone who ran the event did a great job and was incredibly helpful and friendly – there’s a lot involved in getting something this big organised and they did fantastically.


Our scores were compiled and the final rankings decided, ready for the awards ceremony in the afternoon. In the end, 35 coffees have made it to auction, with the top two scoring over 90 points and getting a special Presidential Award. The awards ceremony itself was quite an experience too – the atmosphere was electric as they started announcing the winning farms.

I was sat with the family from a farm called El Quetzal, who were competing for the first time in Cup of Excellence. They were placed 35th this time, and we’re really happy to have got CoE status. It was also very positive to hear how committed they were to learning from the experience and to build on their success for next year.


Rolands Diary, Costa Rica Day 6

So the diary continues, he hasn’t been taken by bandits or tied up and held hostage, he’s still cupping


image1My time in Costa Rica has really flown, with today being my sixth day and also the end of the first round of the Cup of Excellence competition. Very much as Day 5, today we started at 8am and did three rounds of cuppings to score the remaining coffees. Our discussions after scoring are really interesting to see which coffees split opinion, and which we mostly agree on. Before tomorrow, all our scores will be averaged, allowing the round 1 coffees to be cut down to round 2 contenders, which we will cup again.
After lunch, the International Jury was taken on a trip to a farm and mill near Naranjo called Finca Santa Anita. Not far from Cafe ARBAR, I got to again see the beautiful views of the West Valley.image2
At Santa Anita we met the family who own the mill and farm – the 3rd and 4th generations since the farm was founded. The farm processes about 14,000 46kg sacks of coffee a year, both from themselves and other small farms in the area – quite a bit smaller than Beneficio La Eva that we saw yesterday. A really clean and well organised farm and mill, they’ve also invested in solar panels which provides 85% of the electricity they need to run the mill when it’s busy. In their cupping room, I had a surprise, as their cupping table and sample roaster are the same type we used at Has Bean until recently.