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Let's Talk Coffee

Four day conference brings together the world's most passionate coffee connoisseurs

by Julie Wolfson in Food + Drink on 30 October 2012

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During the Let's Talk Coffee (LTC) conference, coffee farmers, importers, exporters, financiers, cafe owners, baristas, and the Sustainable Harvest staff gathered in the Rionegro region of Antioquia, Columbia to do just that. People from twenty-eight countries including South America, Central America, Mexico, Africa, Canada, the USA, India, and Europe joined the team at Sustainable Harvest to share inspirational resource information and celebrate the ten-year legacy of LTC.

"We wanted to recognize the effort of the outstanding coffee growers that currently exist in the region and introduce them to the market properly." -David Piza, Sustainable Harvest

Sustainable Harvest's four-day event was filled with panel discussions of topics ranging from fair trade and emerging markets, to innovation in coffee machinery and the importance of origin coffee stories. The days were also filled with cuppings, tastings, and demos where the participants could share ideas and ideally strike deals that would be mutually beneficial. Each evening culminated in a meal celebrating the flavors of Colombia, many drinks, and dancing. The final day, participants joined field trips to coffee farms in Antioquia or to tour the best coffee bars in Medellin.

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Based in Portland, Oregon, Sustainable Harvest coffee importers have offices in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Tanzania and the goal of creating sustainable and equitable transactions in the coffee industry. Sustainable Harvest discovered early on that their conference helps connect people, citing instances business relationships grow from conversations begun at LTC. Transparency in their supply chain has became the hallmark of Sustainable Harvest's work. Each year these celebratory days in South America help forge bonds and solve issues that the farmers and other coffee professionals address everyday. When Sustainable Harvest began hosting Let's Talk Coffee ten years ago there were 70 participants; this year more than 425 gathered at Recinto Quirama.

Sustainable Harvest founder David Griswold speaks about coffee and coffee people with palpable enthusiasm. The second morning of the conference Griswold welcomed Sergio Fajardo, the governor of Antioquia. With coffee being such an important commodity in Colombia, Fajardo has created programs supporting the farmers and entrepreneurs throughout the region. Fajardo outlined his commitment to working with the farmers to provide resources growing the highest quality crops of coffee beans.

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On another day, nestled in a cozy room at Recinto Quirama with cups filled with water and ground coffee, the officiators of the triangulation cupping competition called out "Listo?" and the noisy spectacle began. Each competitor was attempting to suss out which coffee was different than the two other cups. As each competitor moved down the table dipping their spoons and slurping the liquid, they shifted one cup to designate their choice. The act of cupping coffee is used to determine quality, and for importers, roasters, and cafe owners to choose which beans to purchase. A frequent theme of Sustainable Harvest's Let talk Coffee conference was the exploration of the professions in coffee. Learning to be a certified cupper for many can lead to a career in the coffee industry.

In a panel highlighting exemplary programs that help young people find careers in coffee, Gilbert Gatali of KZ Noir in Rwanda supervises eight washing stations and thousands of small farms. He shared a story about Laetitia Mukandahiro, who began her journey in coffee as a bean sorter at the factory and is now not only KZ Noir's Head Cupper but also has served as a jury member of the 2012 Rwanda Cup of Excellence competition.

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"Governor Fajardo wants to show the rural youth in the region that coffee has great future, that it is a vibrant and modern crop." -David Piza, Sustainable Harvest

In Medellin, Let's Talk Coffee coordinator David Piza of Sustainable Harvest previously served as a Senior Economic Advisor for the Coffee Sector to Governor Fajardo. His excitement to share his region of Colombia with the Let's Talk Coffee participants from 28 countries was evident by the broad smile on his face throughout the entire event. "Sustainable Harvest wanted to present to coffee roasters a new destination of specialty coffee within Colombia. Antioquia has a great tradition and culture related to coffee, but due to the fact that it has been normally know for commodity and blended coffee, this is an unknown origin among specialty buyers," explained Piza. "We wanted to recognize the effort of the outstanding coffee growers that currently exist in the region and introduce them to the market properly. Sustainable Harvest is the first U.S.-based importing firm partner of Mr. Sergio Fajardo's specialty program."

"Governor Fajardo wants to show the rural youth in the region that coffee has a great future, that it is a vibrant and modern crop, that is a global business and that it represents a unique opportunity for professional, economic and personal development for themselves and their communities," added Piza. "We want young people to feel proud of who we are, of where we come from, of our culture and our traditions and all these are closely related to coffee. We want to present the new face of Colombian coffee to the word, we want local young men and women to engage in the new wave of coffee, we want them to project themselves through hard work, commitment to excellence, innovation and entrepreneurship with a great future in the coffee sector."

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To explore the coffee culture in high end North American coffee bars, Jordan Michelman and Zachary Carlsen of the coffee news obsessed website Sprudge moderated a panel featuring Stephen Vick from Blue Bottle Coffee, Sam Lewontin from Everyman Espresso, Fabrizio Sención-Ramirez from Café Sublime, and Jared Linzmeier from Caffe Ladro to talk about the trends of modern coffee bars from the perspective of coffee buyers, roasters, and baristas. The late night talk show format of this panel proved to be entertaining for the audience who could be found later talking about how coffee bars serving high quality single origin coffees with trained baristas helps elevate the profile of the whole coffee community.

Many cups were brewed during daily coffee tastings, and world-class barista Sención-Ramírez made espressos and cappuccinos on a Dalla Corte machine. Sustainable Harvest's Colombia team set up a tasting of nine local coffees including a geisha that drew and became an instant hit with the discerning crowd. Vick, Linzmeier, and Lewontin could often be found with an electric kettle and an AeroPress. The praises of the AeroPress were sung throughout the weekend, especially at the Granja Esteban Jaramillo Federación de Cafeteros farm. The coffee educators we met there showed how they use an AeroPress in the pack they developed for farms to bring resource information to farmers and learn more about the coffee beans they are growing, and the challenges they are facing. The idea of a Colombian coffee farmer in a remote location learning to make a cup to taste their own coffee beans while across the world Lewontin makes one for busy New Yorkers in the West Village, speaks volumes about the way coffee makes connections between people everywhere.

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The impact of Let's Talk Coffee lies in the exchange of information, the formulating of new ideas, and through the deals that were negotiated. One thing became abundantly clear— the leaders of the world-wide coffee community attack their work with a passionate commitment from bean to cup.

Images Courtesy of Lets Talk Coffee with additional photos by Julie Wolfson

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