The Coffee Shelf

Coffee shelf at Grupo Asociativo de San Isidro in Pitalito, Huila
Coffee shelf at Grupo Asociativo de San Isidro in Pitalito, Huila

No direct trade coffee farm is complete without the coffee shelf. The requisite installation includes bags of beans from all the roasters who buy directly from the farm. It’s the coffee grower’s trophy case: a line up of all the places his coffee has reached, packaged with his farm’s name, a nice big Direct Trade or Single Origin label, and sometimes even the story of his family.

 

Hartmann's family story.
Hartmann’s family story.

In order to become direct trade coffee sellers, growers have to convert themselves into industry experts and just general aficionados, learning to cup and determine first hand the quality of their coffee. This is also usually the foray into becoming something of coffee collectors; and so the coffee shelf includes bags of beans and grounds received as gifts or picked up in travels to other parts of the country or the world.

The first coffee shelf I saw was at La Candelilla in San Marcos de Tarrazu, Costa Rica. The Sanchez family proudly displays Starbucks bags boasting their beans and an entire Korean line of Single Origin coffees.

La Candelilla goes to Asia.
La Candelilla goes to Asia.
And to Starbucks.
And to Starbucks.

Coopedota has a pretty healthy collection too; their coffee shelf also includes all the coffee they package and label for private collections. They have a “coffee table” next to the coffee shelf that showcases all the different iterations on Coopedota’s own coffee, from (an admittedly quite unexciting) generic blend sold in local grocery stores to their Dota Fresh micro lot line, which is on the short list of the best coffees I’ve tasted anywhere on this trip.

The Dota coffee table line up.
The Dota coffee table line up.

Henry Hueck’s coffee shelf at Ramacafe in Nicaragua is an ample assortment of Central American coffees and includes a Starbuck’s Reserve: Nicaragua Black Diamond Limited Edition vacuum sealed coffee brick containing 70% Ramacafe coffee.

Exclusive Coffees, being Costa Rica’s exclusive direct trade exporter, has a loaded coffee shelf, with coffees from Costa Rica’s best micromills transformed by roasters across the US, Canada, and Asia.

Phil and Sebastian's, an Exclusive coffee shelf veteran.
Phil and Sebastian’s, an Exclusive coffee shelf veteran.

In Volcan, Panama, the Hartmann family’s coffee shelf is inside their cupping lab; all the bags of coffee like a row of sentinels stationed above the picture windows.

 

Coffee soldiers, battling bad brews world wide.
Coffee soldiers, battling bad brews world wide.

The Janson family’s coffee shelf occupies a corner of their coffee lab and includes as many of their own coffees as those of others.

In Boquete, Ricardo Koyner’s Kotowa coffee shelf is brimming with extravagant packages of prized Geisha lots, including a Japanese “Gran Cru” champagne bottle.

Wilford Lamastus’s coffee shelf is inside his Bajareque coffee house in Casco Viejo, Panama City, and has just as many coffee books and back issues of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal as it does bags o’ beans.

Looking at people’s coffee shelves is one of my favorite things about visiting farms, cupping labs, and even people’s homes. It’s the kind of thing you can’t see on the website or in a marketing brochure; to brush the dust off the bags lining someone’s coffee shelf you have to be there.

Dusty, longwinded, and one of a kind.
Dusty, longwinded, and one of a kind.

Specialty coffee is a pretty small circuit, and direct trade coffee is an even tighter circle of people who all know each other (whether they work together in harmony or just gossip about each other…) Checking out people’s coffee shelves becomes like a scavenger hunt to see who’s been where, who has whose coffee, and where the overlaps are. (Phil and Sebastian Roasters of Canada, for example, buys from both Exclusive in Costa Rica and the Hartmann’s in Panama. I know this because both had the stylish blue Phil and Sebastian’s bags on their coffee shelves).

The coffee shelf is a point of pride and a right of passage. It’s personal and human and I wasn’t really expecting to find one in the land of technified Colombian milds. But I did.

Every Department of Colombia that grows coffee has a Departmental Committee with a main office in the Department’s capital. On Monday I visited the Department of Risaralda’s main office in the capital city of Pereira to talk to the Coordinator of Extension Services (from which I walked out with the magic formula!) I had spoken to countless Extensionists at other small offices across various Departments, but this was the first time I was visiting someone this high up the FNC food chain. I could immediately tell that he was a higher up not because his office was bigger or because it was on the second floor with a separate secretary; I could tell because he had a coffee shelf.

He was the first science/political/non-direct trade grower I’d met who had a coffee shelf, so of course I was extra curious. I was picking up the bags and skimming the labels of unfamiliar names- and of course a few Juan Valdez- when I saw a black bag with a peeling paper logo reading APOT.

No way. I grabbed it, brushed off the fine layer of dust, and it was indeed a bag of coffee from APOT, the Association of Producers of Organic Coffees of Turrialba, Costa Rica. Here in an office building in Risaralda, Colombia was a bag of coffee from the very town where I started this whole trip. Here was a bag of coffee that had beans from Marie’s organic farm at Monte Claro and Fabio’s finca in San Juan. I was ecstatic. Somehow, in someone’s hands, this coffee had made the same trek I had.

Grinning, I showed the lead extensionist the bag, saying, “I’ve been here! I know them!” He half looked at it and said, “oh, I don’t even remember where I got that from.” I didn’t care that he didn’t care. It was too cool that APOT coffee was sitting on the coffee shelf of an FNC office (and too bad that I had no phone or camera with me to document the coolness).

When I was in Turrialba in October the members were trying to resurrect APOT from the ruins of a corrupt former president. They weren’t even processing their own coffee, let alone roasting it or selling it. And they might never again. So the bag of APOT coffee on the extensionist’s coffee shelf was something of a collector’s item.

I don’t even have a bag of APOT coffee. I wish I did, but in my first month I was trying to refrain from collecting more things to carry (but once I realized that I was going back to NYC for a week I immediately amassed my own sort of portable coffee shelf, which turned into me checking an extra 35lb “coffee backpack.”)

Traveling coffee shelf.
Traveling coffee shelf.

Coffee reaches around the world’s girth in growing regions from Turrialba to Risaralda to Vietnam and Burundi. And then it reaches around the world thousands more times to get Phil and Sebastian’s and micro roaster and macro roasters and all the way into your travel mug. It’s massive and complicated and tangly.

Which is why I love the coffee shelves. Even if you don’t remember how you got that bag of APOT coffee gathering dust on your coffee shelf, it’s there. It’s real and it’s tangible and it’s there. It represents the work of real people growing real coffee in real places. If you keep your eye on the coffee shelf you can follow a few threads through the tangled coffee fabric, and by following just a few it reminds you that all those threads you’re not following also correspond to real people growing real coffee in real places.

Coffee is drinkable and transient and as baristas know and sweat about, over all too soon. But coffee can also be deified: mounted over the fireplace just as majestically as the antler’s of the season’s biggest buck. Coffee can be sipped and spent, or it can be put on a pedestal and revered as a symbol of taste or struggle or success or exoticness or whatever it is that its collector most wants to revere.

I revere people like Duvan carrying 60 kilo sacs of coffee cherries down the mountain. My super heros are coffee farmers.
I revere people like Duvan carrying 60 kilo sacs of coffee cherries down the mountain. My super heros are coffee farmers.
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