As I grow as a roaster and we as a roastery, I think a lot about coffee origins and varietals. Usually my thoughts focus on cup quality and character and the craft of roasting, but lately I’ve found myself shifting to questions of visiting origin and more importantly the value of doing so.
What compels small roasters and coffee professionals to invest precious time and resources into taking such trips? In the vacuum of my own mind, a description I’d like to apply merely to the present topic, I think it really boils down to three motivations; sourcing, romance, and education.
Sourcing great coffees that prove their quality in the cup is ideally a constant pursuit for a passionate roaster. Where do you come up with an ever-shifting always-improving coffee line up? Well, you’ve got to search them out and one way to do this is to go where they’re grown and processed; to go to origin. The problem with this as a model for small business, however, is one of resources. Can you really afford to go trekking around the globe, pith helmet fitted, slurping enough brew, observing enough processing, and visiting enough places to source all the coffees you want to offer? Seriously, if a small roaster is going to origin to make deals and source their coffee, they’re going to need to rely heavily on someone whose done the developmental ground work. The other option is succumb to the pressures of the moment settling for what is available at the sadly few fincas you can afford to visit and likely ending up with a lower quality cup but a high dollar investment; a bad choice on every front.
The second motive for going to origin is romance. Now, when I say romance, I’m thinking about pie-eyed star-crossed love of a place and all the sights, smells, and sounds that will accompany you to your grave. The stories you’ll tell any new friend / victim as though the whole of your life revolves around the gravity of two weeks spent away. The other kind of romance that I’m thinking of is the dirty profit manipulable kind where those same sights, smells, and sounds can be communicated to and experienced by a pie-eyed star-crossed consumer at the low, limited time offer, of cash dollars. Seriously, though, a getaway is a good thing, and a tax deductible one is even better but, in the end, it’s a vacation. Valuable? Yes. A proper tool for sourcing great coffees? No.
So, I come to the last point in view. Education. An origin trip is simply an invaluable tool to educate oneself. We’re not talking here about bringing our expertise to the realm of processing, but rather learning from the experts at origin. We all know the basic processing methods from dry to wet and their innumerable hybrids and how they influence our approach to roasting, but what we can learn at origin helps us move from perceived theory to observed fact. Additionally it gives the opportunity to observe consistencies in processing or in the negative, inconsistencies and therefore an irreplaceable tool in assessing what coffees we source and what sources we choose to offer.
To conclude, then, the compulsion to make origin trips can be many. But truly, the best thing that can be had for a small roaster or coffee related business is not the chance to establish direct trade opportunities, nor marketable romance, but rather the opportunity to get an education. In this way we further equip ourselves to do the job of roasting and offering great coffees from many sources.
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