The pursuit of personal relationships with coffee farmers
While the espresso machine is steaming and foaming at Zurich’s Münsterhof and busy passers-by are looking forward to a warming coffee, Oscar Hernandez in Pitalito, Colombia is thinking about the current state of his plants: the main harvest is just around the corner and the rain of the past few days has ensured his coffee cherries are growing nice and plump. If nature continues to play along, the harvest will exceed Oscar’s expectations.
These two scenes could not be more different. Nonetheless, we’re united, not only through our shared fascination for coffee, but also our personal relationship and mutual trust. It’s a relationship that is regularly nurtured by both parties and which has now celebrated its third anniversary.
An important three sentence
When we conceptualise a new coffee, it always happens in three steps: First, we must identify a coffee that we all like and that can be brewed in large volumes at the Espresso Bars. We then discuss how to approach this new product. What aspects do we want to emphasise when roasting? What lead times must be followed to ensure that the product can be brewed in good time? And finally, we consider the source of coffee. After we have looked at and tasted different green coffee samples, we start planning a trip to the country of origin: We want to get to know the people behind the coffee that we liked so much back in Switzerland. In addition to facts, you need a good gut feeling to build such a partnership. Only when both parties are convinced of the shared potential, will the price be agreed upon directly, and so a long-term partnership is forged.
Why these relationships are irreplaceable
What drives us? First and foremost, our curiosity. This begins with the quality of the coffee. By analysing the beans, some conclusions can be drawn about the local conditions. For example, one can judge whether the coffee cherries have received enough nutrients. The green coffee also gives information about how carefully the farm was worked: If the beans have small cracks, the coffee pulper was probably not correctly calibrated. At the same time, much remains hidden. The human factor, in particular, eludes the green coffee analysis. How do people interact with each other on the coffee farm? How considerate are they of the flora and fauna on the farm? And is there an interest in a long-term exchange of knowledge with us and other farms that work with us? Many of these important questions can only be answered on site.
Through one-on-one price negotiations, we can also ensure that prices remain relatively stable over the years. This gives the farmers planning security and enables long-term investments in the farm. This is particularly important in times of volatility and relatively low global coffee market prices.
The proximity to the farmers also allows a more comprehensive understanding of the local conditions and developments beyond the coffee farms. In close talks with exporters one learns, among other things, about the efforts in Kenya to abolish the marketing agents, to name an example from the East African coffee market. Such a change in local market structures would have a decisive impact on our local partners and, accordingly, on the way in which we can buy coffee from Kenya.
Relationships we’re building
We want stable relationships that are characterised by honesty and transparency. One-to-one relationships between entrepreneurs, with both sides taking responsibility for their actions. A prerequisite for shared, long-term goals.
Back to Oscar in Colombia: At this year’s visit, while he was sitting on his wet mill, we realised Los Nogales has a great need for nutrient-rich humus. The farm is steep and Oscar’s goal to reduce the use of fertilisers requires careful management of the existing soil. This led to the joint plan to build a composting facility that produces the required biomass on several terraces. A few weeks after our return we received an update from Colombia: Oscar shows us his new composting plant via WhatsApp. This worked so well that he started buying green waste from his neighbours.
Today we all benefit from a new composting plant in southern Colombia and a valued friendship between Oscar and ViCAFE.