Carrboro Coffee is one of our Community Sponsors here at HQ Raleigh.  “Carrboro Coffee Roasters is a premier small batch artisan roaster that has drawn international attention. Our success lies in an unwavering commitment to sourcing the finest coffee through direct relationships at origin, expertly roasting these beans, and delivering a premium product to wholesale accounts and coffee lovers throughout North Carolina and beyond. We are equally dedicated to coffee education and training to ensure the best cup is brewed, and serve our award-winning coffee at two flagship shops, Open Eye Café in Carrboro and Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill as well as many fine cafes, restaurant, and retailers throughout the region and beyond.”

Where are most of your farmers located?

All over the coffee growing world!  We do a lot of travel and relationship building in Central & South America since they are relatively more accessible to us, but I have also spent time in Africa, recently Rwanda, and Indonesia/Pacific Rim region of coffee growing; such as India where I was talking with farmers there.   I was also working on a USAID project these past 2 years in Myanmar to develop the full value chain of the coffee industry there from the farm all the way thru to the retail and export segments.  At the end of last year, I was working in Yunnan, China and helping the development of coffee there too, which has a lot of potentials.

You are focused on sustainable, direct relationships at Carrboro Coffee, can you explain how you first began to form those relationships, and how you continue to maintain them?  

it all started with a love of coffee and want to know as much about it as possible, and eventually have as much control over every step as was reasonably ( some would say unreasonably ) possible, as is my nature.  I wanted to be able to answer any questions I & other people might have about the process and what it actually takes to grow, roast and make exceptional coffee.  All the while making as equitable and fair a scenario for all parties, that would lead to a truly, long-term sustainable scenario.

For too long has the coffee farmer been taken advantage of and I wanted to find a better way that did not rely on commodities markets and the overvaluation of price over quality.  We turned that on its head and LEAD with quality first in all things and then work thru the other details.

Our Model is called Farmer Direct Relationship because our goal is to create longstanding and mutually beneficial relationships with the farmers we work with.  We look for farmers who care about what they do and are incentivized to maximize the quality of the coffee itself and want to be able to understand the process such that they have control over it and can replicate it from year to year.

Passionate farmers whose first question when I visit is “do they like my coffee”, are the types of invested families & communities we want to take the time to build a relationship with – and it does take time, like any good relationship!  There are hurdles – some historical, some cultural, some from past experience, that we need to work thru until we get an understanding of our needs and theirs.

Our needs are fairly simple in some regards – the highest quality coffee, year after year. Of course, the devil is in the details!

Then we work with farmers and groups to find out what they need in order to accomplish this…not once, or by accident; but intentionally and year after year.

This is laborious and time-consuming work, and is an added expense in time, travel, and cost of coffee; and I wouldn’t do it any other way!

We look to extend this relationship building fully thru the value chain – integrated vertically from the one we develop with our farmers to the relationships we develop with our clients, so that we can share the info & story with them and then they can further that connection to their customers in a fully transparent and connected way – developing and building on that long developed relationship throughout, from farm to cup.

This also allows me to continue to develop the whole industry and show folks how much better we can all do; while hopefully shining a light for the coffee farmers around the world to work toward!

How do you bring together communities from all across the world? What does that look like?

Some of that is answered above, but really it is a physical thing that gets extended through action and then telling those stories, around the world, & especially here in our community where we created the ‘end of the road’ for many of these exclusive coffees.  But,  the coffee may ‘stop’ ( i.e., you drink it…) while the story and the connection remains, and can grow into a greater understanding and therefore into a greater appreciation!  We are the conduit for these experiences as well as these coffees – to connect up the whole chain of the hundreds of hands that touch these coffees.

What makes Carrboro Coffee different than other coffee roasters who may be trying to achieve the same things as you?

The fact that we actually suffer and strive to make them happen, no matter the cost.  These ideas for a better way come first, not just when it is easy, and never as a slogan or simple marketing…I can’t stop people from using words for actions that we actually accomplish, but I can show you the actual results and all of our efforts that quite realistically no one else is doing.

I won’t lie – it doesn’t always make business sense to do what we do!  All the more reason to make it happen, and make the system better for everyone involved and not just those on the retail side.

Also, these are exclusive coffees we develop, that only we can offer with a breadth and depth of info & experience unmatched.

What has been your most memorable moment or experience as far as interactions or relationships with farmers go?

I cannot imagine picking one.  I have a truly touching ( for me) example below, but there are so many more….so many people who have their whole lives involved in what we do, and for us to be there for them when they need ( or even before they know they need it!)… and then when they are there for me. …

How have you seen farmer’s lives transformed or changed in some way since you’ve met them?

After many years for working directly with farmers in coffee growing countries, I celebrated the first ever Origin of Denomination seal awarded to the coffee grown in Marcala, Honduras ( think Napa branding for wine from that region) at the cultural fair put on for the honor. During this period and in talks with an all-women’s growing Co-Op, I arranged to have one of the young members to come to The Roastery in Carrboro and be trained in all things coffee retail. It was then, Over 10 years ago, that Nancy Hernandez left her country for the first time and was sponsored by Carrboro Coffee Roasters to learn her trade, beyond coffee growing. She wanted to learn all she could in the 10 days she was in the USA about coffee roasting, espresso preparation and coffee brewing, and any other retail experience she could take home to Marcala in order to open her very own Cafe. Soft-spoken but knowledgeable Nancy (who spoke no English) also shared her viewpoint with area residents and staff so they could also put the pieces together for what needs to happen in the farming/processing side of coffee before it gets to us to roast.

Now, 10 years later she has 3 coffee shops and is actively selling an amazingly high-quality coffee, derived from years of hard work, to select folks around the world.  While we stayed in touch over the years and I have visited her in Honduras, this year marked the first time she could return to visit the place of her coffee education start!  Even more amazing was to be visited along with her daughter, who at 12 is already starting to be an amazing coffee professional!

For me, this is but one example of what we have done as a company over the past several decades, but a quintessential one, as it clearly shows our larger goals of creating a broad economic base for all of our Farmer Partners, for greater long-term, and truly sustainable, relationships for them, their families and their communities.  This isn’t about buying a coffee once or even twice ( though we do value delicious, unique, high-quality coffee…), but about safeguarding the future in all forms. For us, this started as an investment with a young Nancy and now extends to her daughter, family, and community at large.

Our tagline is ‘Coffee Unites the World’ and we strive every day to make that true. Sometimes the effect is immediate and observable, and sometimes, like coffee, it too is a seed that is planted for future hope.

This year we are working with Nancy to offer her own farms’ coffee – Finca El Jazmin. This coffee is amazingly balanced. The care that went into its growth and processing, that we tease out with careful and expert roasting, shows in its amazing tropical fruit sweetness and lovely floral and brown sugar qualities.

While we have much more examples of our hard-earned Farmer Direct Relationship coffees available, this one has an amazing, full-circle quality that really epitomizes all the years of effort, travel, and actual blood, sweat & tears invested in what we lovingly call ‘work’.

No one else in our area, or even many in the Country, have the unique qualities that are exhibited in this program and put at the forefront as we do for our company ideals and mission statement, and are willing to go to the lengths we will fulfill them.

What is the best part of what you do?

The people are always the best part.  I love almost every aspect, but it is always the amazing people that drive me when it gets hard.  I work in crazy far-off places that are also often beautiful, even sometimes a little dangerous. I get to enjoy the nuances of so many cultures. But the essence of those cultures are the people behind them.

What’s the hardest part?

You need to keep in mind the sheer number of variables involved in every phase of the coffee industry and understand that small changes in any one of these many variables can have a drastic effect on the final results!

I can give you some small idea of what happens on the farm – and it is here that we start our interaction with farm & farmer to optimize the quality of the coffee and the relationship.

Transport logistics then come into play to get the coffee safely out of one country and into the next – no small step!  Then we have to ship it from whatever port it lands, to our space.

Once there we utilize it anywhere from 6 months to the next crop cycle ( usually only once a year at different seasons, depending on where in the world you are) so that it isn’t sitting any longer.

This is, however, the point at which you can store the coffee the longest and have it change the least.  after this phase, the window of use drops dramatically, beginning with roasting the coffee.

Here we aim to find the specific perfect roast for each individual coffee so as to make sure that we are unlocking what is special about that particular coffee.  We do this by ‘sample roasting’ with small amounts until we find the way that allows the coffee to shine, and then scale it up to the bigger roaster, all the while cupping (systematic tasting ) to determine the attributes we are unlocking in each coffee, and then doing it again to make sure we got it right and can replicate it.

There are also MANY variables in roasting which is equal parts science and artisanal sensory art to utilize heat to start chemical processes and unlock the special characteristics of each seed.

After having been roasted, the coffee is at its absolute best within 2-3 weeks in its whole bean form.  We try to impart to our clients and customers a sense of what it takes to get their coffee to them. Being able to tell the story of all the farmers and the visits we make, as well as pictures we take, help tremendously.

We consider ourselves the caretakers of the innate quality of the coffee, knowing that any mistakes we make mean all the hard work that came before us was wasted.…this is just as true when we consider the next step- beverage preparation.

It is very easy to screw it up by making a bad cup of coffee, and we work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen and we can respect the many hands that have touched this coffee and allowed us to prepare it well and others to enjoy it as it should be.  

this means we are again involving ourselves in the many possible variables in coffee making and fine tuning them in such a way that we can systematically make it delicious each time.

So….many very difficult parts to our journey….hard to pick just one.  Maybe the single hardest thing I have ever had to do is tell a farmer partner we could not purchase the coffee that harvest due to defected coffee that we could not sell…The key here – and the basis of our true relationship structure, is we didn’t leave the answer at ‘No’. The next question was, ‘ how can we help fix this for next harvest?’.