Origin trips are a great opportunity to make valuable coffee connections and gain first-hand insight into the production process – if you plan your visit right. If you don’t, you might find yourself regretting wasted time and missed chances.
So to help you create the perfect itinerary and achieve that eye-opening travel you’re dreaming of, we spoke to some coffee pros with experience of going to origin. They shared with us six things they think are vital.
The Coffee Pros
Samuel Coto is a Guatemalan coffee farmer, sourcer, and US importer for Third Wave Coffee USA. Danner Friedman is a Q-Grader who works in Specialty Coffee Sales for Balzac Brothers. And Ben Weiner is the man behind Gold Mountain Coffee Growers, direct trade exporters/importers with their own Nicaraguan farm, Finca Idealista.
Between the three of them, they have experience of visiting producers, of being producers, and of helping producers. And they’ve planned a lot of origin trips.
Origin trips will give you hands-on insight. Credit: Aumakua/Jose Morales
Coffee can be grown anywhere between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. That leaves a lot of landmass for you to choose from. When you decide between Peru, Indonesia, or anywhere else in that space, you vastly change the trip you are going to take.
Coffee profiles is one point that Samuel and Danner were keen to mention. Maybe you already have a few staples at your shop, such as an earthy Sumatran and a sweet Ethiopian with notes of blueberry. So what’s next? Samuel and Danner suggest starting with the coffee you love. Alternatively, if you’re looking for something different, they recommend considering whether you want to hone in on a specific country profile or diversify your options by adding a new continent.
Either way, it’s necessary to consider the flavor profile you’re hoping to achieve. To do this, take some time to research the tones that different regions and countries offer or, better yet, Samuel suggests choosing to do a cupping to test the nuances of different regions.
For Ben, it’s also worth considering diasporas. “Think about your customers and which coffee they would like to taste most,” he recommends. “Is there a diaspora community from a coffee origin country in your community? Establish some connections and make the local community part of your coffee program.”
Another point Ben is keen to stress is the value of information. “Take the road less traveled, but still traveled,” he said. “Given how easy technology and communication have become, you can visit just about anywhere; there’s no need to stick to the most popular places. However, you also don’t want to strike out in the dark.”
“Visit that small farming group you’ve heard about, but also talk to those who have been there before and take their advice. The logistics of exporting/importing coffee are complicated, and perhaps some other adventurous roasters have blazed a path you can travel.”
See the cherries growing on the tree during an origin visit. Credit: Danner Friedman
Harvest time will be extremely busy and stressful; nevertheless, for Samuel and Danner, this is when you should go. Though there is a vast amount of work going on, the chance to see every step between the harvest and the export is an opportunity, they assured me, that you do not want to pass up.
Ben adds, “Go just before exports happen so that you can cup samples. Visiting during other seasons, however, can also be educational and a way to establish contacts for the first time.”
In other words, going at any time is valuable – but depending on your purpose, certain times will be better than others.
This is one thing that, frankly, you’ll have to do without.
“Expect to eat new foods, be tired, get dirty, learn a lot, meet amazing people who don’t speak the same language,” says Danner. It’s things like these that will make your trip so rewarding – but don’t go expecting a first class event.
Ben notes that you should make your trip a little more comfortable for yourself by not eating local cheese or raw vegetables, and also making sure not to drink local water. But that’s still not going to make this luxury travel.
“Coffee travel is mostly uncomfortable and tiring,” explains Samuel. Most likely you will experience bumpy roads, humid weather, and more. If this is a deal-breaker then you may seriously want to consider why you are taking the trip and how you plan on making it work for your personality.
In fact, Ben warns that you may even want to volunteer for less comfort at times. “Sleep with your coffee,” he advises. And no, that’s not a metaphor. “Some exporters will cherry pick the best samples for you to try and then include those samples in larger blended lots. Have a trusted and adventurous, rugged staff member stay there with it and make sure it isn’t switched or blended. If you find that your partner at origin doesn’t allow this to happen, it’s likely because they plan to switch your coffee.”
He adds a final word of caution. “Don’t fall in love with your contacts just because of the mystique surrounding the ‘visiting origin’ concept. Take the time – it may be years – to establish more trustworthy partners at origin.”
Get to know both the farm and the farmer. Credit: Danner Friedman
Every coffee farm will be different, Samuel and Danner caution. This makes it important to know who’s growing your beans. This means that look into sustainable practices is key when choosing your origin. Besides being better for the workers and the environment, there’s a strong correlation between sustainable practices and high-quality beans.
“Focus on building relationships,” Ben adds. “You want these to be with farms, companies, and organizations that can guarantee you high-cupping specialty coffee consistently, and can do so through a model that empowers farmers rather than taking advantage of them.”
No matter how nice the farmers are and how sustainable their practices might be, you have to keep production in mind. Samuel and Danner recommend asking yourself how much you’re looking to roast. Do you want to be a small micro roaster or are you looking to ship all across the map? While it will be a great learning experience to visit any new location, going to a farm and then deciding not to work with them is probably not worth their time – or yours.
“You’re unlikely to be able to swoop in and bring back coffee yourself,” Ben tells us. But don’t feel dispirited. “Connect with someone who can make it happen. Establish a way to get the coffee from origin to your roastery effectively and securely.”
Finding someone who can work as an intermediary may seem challenging – but nowhere near as challenging as creating that coffee relationship on your own. Ben gives himself as an example: “We’re literally on the farms of partner producers all the time, and have our own farm.” This, he says, makes it easier for him to establish or facilitate business relationships with farmers.
So there you have it: six things that coffee pros consider crucial for planning your origin trip. If you’re still interested in going after all of that, then you’re truly in for a treat. Finalize your location, book your tickets, and start packing.
Want to go on an origin trip? Want to make the most of your time while having your costs subsidised? Join the SCAE’s trip to Indonesia at the end of July.
Written by D. Haas and edited by T. Newton. Feature photo credit: Aumakua/Jose Morales.
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