Saturday, June 26, 2004

A Family Affair

Diane runs like a turbine engine in a Piper Cub. A New Yorker, who lost her accent but not the motor. This coffee import business, this social entrepreneurial venture, one would have given a slim chance. The one woman, show was a challenge. Employees did not work out, lots of them, but there was no money. Energy and perseverance won out, with a lot of help from business schools.

A young IT graduate with a minor in math and the young Guatemala coffee expert make up the perfect team, freeing the founder to sell. The combination of marketing and a computer science major, as primary management seems unique. Successful new companies are usually teamed by a marketing leader and production engineer. Later as the company grows, an administrator is brought in. Things usually deteriorate at that point. In this case, however, the Internet plays a significant role in supply and distribution channels. The IT becomes more critical. Finding him was more or less an accident brought about while scratching for low cost outsourcing.

When you stop to think about it, marketing and IT may be the perfect start up combination. The IT precludes the necessity of a bean counter. Accounting for the pure purpose of internal decisions and systems, seamlessly connected with supply and distribution channels, without the bean counters, read administrator’s restraints, makes for innovation and creativity.

The perfect Information Age company, it supports the small family farmers that were hurt by an Industrial age misadventure, The Internet manages supply and distribution. It supports the environment and the rain forests. It offers an organic, genetically unaltered product of superior quality at a reasonable price. The packaged coffee product trades internationally. This kind of excitement must be what the venture capitalist sees.

Saturday, June 12, 2004


Can’t seem to upload photographs, should be simple but I’ve disabled my Instant Messenger in every way conceivable. That may be the problem.

Sitting on the porch of el Tul y Sol, a delightful French restaurant on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, I enjoy a cup of coffee roasted by the owner. The view might be right out of National Geographic. The water glistens sparkling clear. The large high altitude lake remains trapped between volcanoes just behind the coastal range. The deep clean water invites swimming and a water taxi ride to the few villages that shadow the shoreline. Tall water grass lines the shore where I am sitting, separated by an old wooden dock and a small beach. Shade trees frame the view. This area delineates the roadways and Antigua to the south from Mayan people and mountainous country to the north. Native dress is the rule among the women, with colors characteristic of their village.

The sun warms the well-kept lawn and reflects off the trees, the tall grass and the water. A breeze cools the air and rustles the leaves. A young woman in clean bright native dress walks onto the lawn below carrying a very large bag in a woven basket balanced on her head. I am surprised when she stops right there. Putting down her load, which is obviously heavy, she spreads out a canvas about six feet square. She opens the bag and fills the intricately woven basket with linen or silken colored beans. She then holds the basket over her head pouring the beans into the wind so that they fall at her feet on the canvas. The most amazing and colorful sight unfolds as the silken chaff blows away from the beans igniting the air in a cloud of reflected sunshine. The golden brown beans pile up at her feet while the silk piles up several feet away. Amazingly, this goes on all morning in a graceful and untiring ballet danced to a distant glare of village music and the chirp of nearby tree frogs.

The choice coffee beans, now in the gold, provide our hosts with quality beans for their roasting. These beans come from higher on the volcanic mountainside from patches that belong by tradition to various families. At harvest, time buyers ride the water taxi buying hundred pound bags from the dock. The color and the haggling can be imagined. This setting with distant volcanoes forming the head of an imagined elephant was the front cover of Antoine De Saint Exupéry’s book, The Prince.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Strictly Hard Bean

More than you probably want to know, the strictly hard bean Arabica is the top of the pecking order. This is the coffee from higher up the mountainside. Shade grown, it matures slowly. Because access is difficult, it is often hand picked, chemical free or organic for much the same reason. The farmer cannot afford chemical fertilizers or pest control.

Herein lies a bit of a mystery. These coffees do not irritate the GU system the way other coffees do, but the reason is not known. Is it the high altitude hard bean or the lack of irritation due to the absence of chemicals? This would be a great student research project.

The answer would be of certain interest to urologists and to the Specialty Coffee Associations in their certification of sustainable coffee. Identifying a health benefit could be yet another reason to include high quality as the forth parameter for certification of sustainable coffee; organic, shade grown and fair trade comprise the other three.

Presently certification for any one of these desirable characteristics must be individually perused. The cost of any one is more than the family farmer and or his coop can afford. There needs to be some way to characterize this super premium class of brew. Presently certification of any of the above says nothing about quality and in practice; the certified coffees tend to be from large fincas (estates or plantations) where not all of the above characteristics can be met.