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.