Another question I am asked is where have I gone in the world to find the finest coffees? Well, all over. Unlike many coffee roasters today who are visiting origin even before they begin roasting, I did not get to visit a producing country for 12 years after I started Oren’s. I was too busy learning about coffee and building my business.
My first trip to origin was in 1998 to Colombia as a guest of an exporter I knew there. It was a true education! Everything I had read in books and articles, pictures I had seen, all paled in comparison to being there on a coffee farm! Coffee cherries growing on trees, the flowers, the wet mills, the dry mills, the experimental mills were all thrilling to see. On every new farm I learned something new. That is still true today 25 years later. I have visited Colombia many times since then, including once as an international judge for the Colombia Cup of Excellence.
The Cup of Excellence, in short, is a competition of the very best coffees a country has to offer. The first round is among a jury of national cuppers. Those coffees that pass go on to the second round to be judged by eminent international cuppers. The winning coffees, those receiving a score of 86 and above, go to international auction. We have won several amazing lots over the years.
My next trip was to Costa Rica as a guest of the producer of La Minita coffee. Also amazing, seeing the care with which that coffee is prepared and the care of the farm workers and their families themselves by the farm owner. Truly a model farm. Worth the high price to support such an innovative concept in coffee production.
I began traveling in earnest in 2002, during the price crisis. There was a glut of coffee due to the huge increase in production in Vietnamese coffee as a result of investment by the World Bank and the IMF. They had become the world’s second largest producer of coffee in just 10 years. The result was a massive decline in coffee prices to far below production cost. This would historically be followed by a much higher price as the lower cost would lower production and supplies would tighten. But this did not happen because Viet Nam was producing so much coffee there was a multiyear glut. This kept prices criminally low and was a disaster for coffee farmers everywhere. This was also a disaster for coffee quality since farmers were not making enough money to take care of their crop as carefully as they once did. Quality declined precipitously. I was scared.
Good fortune found me when I was invited to be a judge for the Cup of Excellence in Guatemala in 2002. The first thing that happened was that I improved my cupping ability 1,000%. It was also wonderful meeting specialty coffee people from around the world. It was especially great meeting people from Guatemala that were as committed to quality as I was. They recognized that high quality coffee, and the premium price it would earn, was the only way small farmers were going to be able to make a living in such a crisis. As for me, it would guarantee me access to some of the finest coffees on the planet (and the satisfaction of knowing for sure that the farmer was getting the premium price he/she deserved). I have been visiting Guatemala ever since.
Following my enlightenment on trips to Colombia, Costa Rica, and Guatemala I found ways to visit other coffee growing nations. Many times as a judge for the Cup of Excellence, but also as a judge in a first ever coffee competition in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has a special place in my heart. I thought I had seen poverty in Central America but it was far worse in Ethiopia. I returned there 2 more times after the competition. I had funded project a project to bring water to a community of 5,000 people who otherwise had to walk miles each day for it. In conjunction with the International Rescue Committee we built 3 wells for the community with training on maintenance of the pumps. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the community after the project was completed. Also, I raised money for a second project to build new latrines, a library, and a resource room at a school that badly needed it. Without latrines, girls could not attend classes. I did not get to visit the completed school project, but they did send photos.
I also visited Nicaragua for a Cup of Excellence. I found that the best coffee came from a region not really world famous for its coffee. I always look for that region’s coffee now. Other trips brought me to Brazil and Burundi via the Cup of Excellence. I was also lucky enough to visit Kenya, Indonesia, and even the U.S. in Hawaii. All in the quest for better coffee, and to ensure we were paying money that actually got to the farmer. Every trip is always a learning experience. I love coffee, the product and the people. I hope to continue my visits to origin forever (or however long my forever is).