April 20, 2015

Weekly Extraction: Observations from Origin – Introduction


In this Perfect Daily Grind feature titled The Weekly Extraction: Observations from Origin, I will be writing about my experiences as a coffee shop owner in rural Guatemala where specialty coffee is produced. We’ll look at the unique aspects of day to day experiences of operating in a producing country, what it takes to run a shop, how to evaluate the profitability of opening up your own coffee shop and due to the close proximity of the coffee farms in this area, we’ll meet various farmers get a chance to see their farms and drink their coffee.

It’s one thing to go to your local coffee shop or supermarket and purchase a pound of coffee to drink at home. It is an entirely different story to watch a farmer harvest his coffee, process it, dry it, bag it, roast it and then sit down to drink his coffee with him. I know that when I purchase coffee directly from a farmer that money is going into his pockets at a fair price.

I will be expounding upon some of the observations that I have made from my time here in Guatemala and trying to explain the answer to some of the questions I myself have had. Why in a country where there is good coffee do the people drink crappy instant coffee? Why do they put SO MUCH SUGAR in everything they drink? Why do farmers plant coffee instead of some other crop and is it even a profitable venture? Why is it so difficult to find decent coffee in a country that is number three in the world for coffee quality? What can we do as coffee buyers and end consumers to impact the lives of rural coffee farmers for the better?

We’ll talk about all this and more as we follow coffee from the plant to the cup in rural Guatemala.

Men picking coffee cherries

Zach wants to source his own beans for his own shop. But why is it so difficult to find decent coffee in a country that is number three in the world for coffee quality?

How Did I End up Running a Specialty Coffee Shop in Rural Guatemala?

The first time I had espresso I was a student in college. Honesty, I hated it. I couldn’t even finish the two-ounce beverage set before me. I thought it was terribly bitter and quite frankly disgusting. However, I can’t blame that experience on the coffee shop because now – as a lover of coffee – I know that they pull some excellent shots of espresso consistently every single day. Thankfully my uncle and his family who lived in Italy for ten years continued to serve me espresso and cappuccinos until finally I became an addict.

It was during this same time in college while I was learning to love coffee that I had the opportunity to travel abroad for extended periods of time. It was these experiences that led me to witness poverty with my own eyes. I studied in Africa for three months and then the following year in Honduras I worked as a volunteer with a non-profit organization that also sold coffee to support its work with an orphanage. Both of these experiences left me feeling that a typical 9-5 job was not for me and that if I could do something to help people in developing countries I would do it.

Group sitting on a porch in the sun

Zach enjoying fresh bananas with Victoria, a coffee farmer with whom he worked with alongside the NFP.

My growing passion for working with the poor and my love of coffee led me to turn down job offers that I had lined up in public accounting. After graduating college, I sold off my possessions, set out to learn Spanish and began work with a coffee-centered Christian NFP operating in Guatemala. My goal was to combine my passion for coffee and background in accounting to try to help break some of the cycles of poverty that plague coffee-producing families.

Coffee is an excellent tool for international development for two reasons. First, coffee is the second highest traded commodity by volume on the international market. This means that there are opportunities to generate impactful revenue streams that feasibly can change the lives of poor rural farmers. Second, the top 15 coffee producing countries in the world are almost all plagued by the highest levels of violence, homicide and corruption. The demand for coffee in the international market and the growing trend of direct trade creates the perfect opportunity for coffee buyers and consumers to directly work together against the injustices that are occurring in the countries that provide us with our favorite beverage.

After having worked just shy of two years with the NFP in Guatemala, I left my position as program manager. Not wanting to return to the States, I opened a coffee shop in rural Guatemala where I continue to nourish my passion for drinking good coffee and helping out those in need.

Zach pulling shots in his shop – La Fabrica in Monjas, Jalapa. He, an America from a consuming country, serves coffee to Guatemalans who have grown up with coffee plants in their backyards.

Article edited by N. Bhatt.

Perfect Daily Grind.