Coffee, like everything else, is not perfect. Coffee regularly gets negative press of being exploitive on one end and elitist on the other. (For some thoughts on the complexities of making trade fair, see my second guest post for Angels’ Cup.) It’s nice to take a moment to recognize that coffee is also very inclusive and provides more than enough space for people to do great things for themselves, their families, their communities, and their countries.
At a cupping in Brooklyn last week I met Jorge de Leon Jr., a coffee rockstar from Guatemala. He finished 8th in the World Cup Taster’s Championship competition in Gothenburg, Switzerland, is the creator of the stunning Spanish-language Coffee Magazine (available online and distributed in print in Guatemala), and mastermind behind Castell Cafe. He works as a consultant and trainer with Axiom Coffee Ventures and is a whirring nucleus of energy determined to master all things coffee and settle for nothing less than the best.
A certified Q Grader at age 17 and R Grader at age 18, I asked him how he his path to coffee cupping glory first started. “When I was 15 I made a list of things I wanted, sort of a “life plan.” When I looked over the list I realized almost everything on it was about money, very materialistic. I didn’t like that. But I also had on my list that I whatever I did I wanted to do it at the highest level. My father is a Q Grader, so I decided to get involved in coffee.” From there, he has never looked back and accelerated at a truly impressive pace.
Jorge is one of those people who makes you want to pause and ask, “What have I been doing with my life?!” His enthusiasm is not exclusive and his talent is not elitist. Specialty coffee can be a very closed circle, but Jorge is joy incarnate and would love nothing more than for every coffee farmer in Guatemala to produce 90+ coffee and learn to cup like a champion.
I absolutely love his Coffee Magazine, (celebrating its first year!) because it is a true celebration of coffee from soil to cup. The magazine is educational, positive, and absolutely gorgeous. It captures the beauty and elegance that is coffee.
It has now been over a year since I have been on a coffee farm, and I deeply miss the people and places that were my nomadic home during the journey to write When Coffee Speaks. It was an unexpected treat to meet Jorge and his Axiom associate Israel in Brooklyn and get a fresh dose of the energy I felt time after time when visiting producers. The attitudes and mindsets are different when you extricate yourself from the US, and those variety of perspectives were what I hoped to capture by compiling a book of first person accounts.
Scott Brant, founder of the Coffeelands Foundation, published a wonderful review of When Coffee Speaks and cites this texture of perspectives as being integral to understanding coffee as much to as understanding people.
To call the book entertaining and educational is an understatement. For a year, Rachel recorded conversations with coffee farmers, their families, agronomists, exporters, millers, shop owners, roasters, coffee scientists –to compile a rich, complex tapestry of life in coffee. If coffee was taught in college this would be a must read textbook – and it reads smoothly and is vastly entertaining.
Finding new perspectives from which to see things is, for me, the most valuable type of learning. The people I met at origin patiently showed me so many different ways to view everything–food, agriculture, land ownership, family, business, industry, trade–and that is what I want to pass along to readers of When Coffee Speaks.
Meeting Jorge was a reminder that intention does matter; it maybe matters more than anything else. Approaching a task by challenging yourself to excellence rather than looking for the quick monetary gain is an admirable attitude to have. I continue to stay involved in coffee even though it brings me no monetary gain because it is a way for me to reorient myself and constantly discover new ways of approaching the world that are qualitative and oriented towards deeper understanding rather than just getting things done. You can’t fake agriculture. You can’t talk your way out of a drought or argue your way to delicious quality. To make excellent coffee requires a deep understanding of the biology of crops and the chemistry of taste. To translate this to a shareable beverage requires a thorough artistry and an even deeper patience.
If you look at coffee from perspectives of price or politics it looks like an absolute mess. But there are always other ways to see things, and thank goodness there are coffeepeople around to demonstrate ways to embrace coffee’s best sides.