Getting to the Source: Coffee lessons on location around the globe

By Kate Vanskike

Coban, Guatemala

On a 2010 trip to Hawaii’s Big Island with my brother (not a coffee drinker) and our 6- and 9-year-old kids (also not coffee drinkers), I managed to make a stop at a Greenwell Farms, a coffee plantation near Kona. That was my first experience seeing coffee cherries on the branch, watching the bean-washing process, and learning that the peaberries – beans that didn’t split – make some of the finer coffees one could drink. It ignited an interest in the processes behind creating my favorite beverage.

Greenwell Farms, Kona, Hawaii

In 2014, during a humanitarian aid excursion in Guatemala, the organizers had the good sense to include a coffee plantation tour in our itinerary. After all, we were near Coban, one of Central America’s coffee production centers. At Coffee Tours Chicoj, a walk through the field was educational, a zipline course over the plantation was entertaining, and the frozen coffee popsicle was a divine encounter on a sweltering day.

Chicoj Coffee Tour, Coban, Guatemala

But it wasn’t until a trip to the Dominican Republic with a nonprofit called Plant With Purpose that I finally understood the value of getting to know the coffee growers who lived in dire poverty and hand-planted coffee on the mountainsides. One elderly farm owner marched up the steep incline of her property to show us the way her coffee plants were nestled among banana trees and avocados and cacao so they could benefit from shade. That was the first I’d learned of shade-grown coffee and the environmental perk it fosters even though it means less profit for the farmer than if she razed the hillside of its trees and crammed together perfect lines of coffee bushes.

Coffee seedlings, nourished under a tarp until planting time, Dominican Republic

The Kona trip, while my first foray, was just a tourist stop on our way around the island to show my daughter turtles, black sand, and volcano activity. But the second two – those changed the way I buy coffee. Being in the highlands of Guatemala with people who have no running water, and seeing their gratitude for the simple acts that would help the basic health of their community – that sticks with me when I’m choosing my coffee. Visiting communities in the Dominican Republic where farmers support one another by creating their own savings and loans programs from their meager earnings so one family can buy a refrigerator and another can send a daughter to school – that makes an impact on where I buy my coffee.

I am privileged. That isn’t lost on me. Which is why it’s that much more important to me to remember the suntanned faces and calloused hands that worked the field for my joe. And it’s why I choose to buy from coffee roasters who source the beans from fair-trade suppliers, and gladly pay more for it.

Next time you’re ordering your mocha or latte, consider asking the baristas where the shop gets its beans. Their answer – whether it’s “from our downtown warehouse” (which I’ve heard before) or from a specific nation in the coffee belt – will be a good indicator of whether the business places a high value on supporting the people who provide our beloved brew.

A cup of strong brew and natural cane sugar are the standard serving in Dominican Republic.

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