Connecting Through Coffee: An Interview with Kim Coburn, Equal Exchange’s Green Coffee Buyer
By Kim Coburn and Frankie Pondolph, Equal Exchange
During the week of April 10th Equal Exchange coffee team hosted 10-20 coffee & cacao producers at Equal Exchange headquarters for Coffee & Cacao Sensory Activities, learning from each other and participating in the annual Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Expo. I sat down with Kim Coburn, Equal Exchange’s green coffee buyer to talk about bringing producers together, sharing knowledge and learning from our farmer partner community.
As a green coffee buyer I imagine a lot of your work is going to the farmers and country of origin. What does this week mean to you hosting our partners here at Equal Exchange and at SCA?
I’m coming up on my first full year at Equal (amazing how time flies!), which means that this will be my first SCA with the team. Its exciting because we will be using this as an opportunity to meet with folks who we rarely get to see- from producer partners to project partners and other NGOs working in the region. It’s always good to know what other work is going on in the various countries to see if there is synergy and potential to collaborate in the future.
Wow! The web of the coffee industry is big, and I bet that SCA helps foster future collaborations, especially with people and partners we may not be directly connected with all the time. What producers are visiting us this week?
We purchase from twenty-three cooperatives in twelve countries, and only some of those will be represented this week. From Chiapas, Mexico we will have Finca Triunfo Verde, CESMACH, Comon Yaj Noptic. From Guatemala we have Chajulense and Manos Campesinas. From Peru: Sol y Cafe, San Fernado, Cecovasa, and NorAndino. Other coops from central america will also be here, including COMSA, a coop from Honduras, and Prodecoop, a coop from Nicaragua.
What do think one of the most rewarding aspects of bringing together farmers from different cooperatives is?
Providing a platform for discussion and exchange is absolutely the best thing. On top of that, of course we all get to know each other which doesn’t typically happen outside events like these.
We gave our visitors a tour of our facilities which proved to be a really fun experience. Many of the coops we work with also roast, grind their own coffee and have national distribution or aspirations to distribute a value-added product in their country. To see the scale that our cooperative operates at and some of the challenges we face with our distribution is important for us as a coop. Our growth has been steady and we are always happy to share our learning transparently to other ATO’s.
That’s super exciting to hear! I have heard a couple of folks at Equal Exchange share that when opportunities arise for farmers to learn from each other, share experiences and talk through various challenges- that’s some of the best cross-culture learning you can foster. What are some techniques and process farmers will learn in the lab this week?
Since we had a relatively large groups, and needed translation, we kept it simple. We tasted brewed coffee from various regions, and chocolate with different percentages of cacao.
We chewed the chocolate in silence, let it melt on our tongue, then sipped the coffee and noted how the flavors, acidity, and mouthfeel changes or were accentuated. The end result was a conversation on how chocolate and coffee pairings can accentuate characteristics in coffee and vice versa. We did this for three different pairings and then discussed our experiences as a group and what we noticed. Our first pairing was a coffee from Peru, and our mini chocolate bar, which is 55% cacao content. At the onset the chocolate was raisiny, coconutty, and floral. The coffee had the aroma of nuts and butter. Once I tasted the chocolate, and mixed it with coffee there was a burst of acidity and the flavor profile tasted more like whiskey and cherries. It was really fun!
We nixed the idea of doing a traditional cupping because of the group size, and this pivot ended up being really rewarding and really engaging. (Cupping is the industry term used for the process of analyzing a coffee based on its sensory qualities – for example, its aromas and flavors. Read more about it here.)
What do you imagine the biggest take away farmers gained during their time at Equal Exchange?
How our company operates as a cooperative, and what that means, how the market is affecting medium-sized alternative trade organizations (ATOs) such as ourselves, and how seriously we take food safety for us & our manufacturing processes.
I think it’s really cool that the coffee team choose to showcase our coffee and collaborate with a local cooperative business. I heard a delicious coffee IPA was brewed for the special week. Can you talk about this years SCA event and our collaboration with Democracy Brewing?
The SCA is an annual conference that brings coffee farmers, traders, roasters and baristas from across the industry together. This year it happens to be in Boston (in the past couple years its been in Portland and Seattle). The Equal Exchange coffee team attended lectures on the challenges posed by volatility in the global market and presented on panels. Our quality control team, Beth Ann Caspersen and Mike Mowry judged a cupping competition, while on the buying side, we sat down with a majority of the producer partners to check in on harvest and talk about upcoming needs, whether its contracting or financing, or questions about logistics that arose over the last couple months. It’s a great way to see a lot of people in a very short, jam-packed amount of time.
The Democracy Brewing event naturally came together for a couple different reasons. First,since SCA was in Boston after a hiatus, we wanted to take advantage and showcase a cool and new cooperative in our hometown of Boston.
Second, Equal Exchange is a coop, we’re sourcing coffee from cooperatives and.d=Democracy Brewing is a cooperative. Another fun fact is our co-president Rob also sits on their board. (And our co-president Rob is on the board). To have a coop to coop collaboration and create a beer together made so much sense! Years ago when SCA was in Boston, EE worked with Harpoon brewery. we go visit producers, they still bring the collaboration up. It made a lot of sense to have another coffee-beer combo, but we wanted to do something out of the ordinary. We didn’t want to do a coffee porter. While those are delicious, we wanted to surprise people and so when they picked up the lighter beer, and IPA-like beer, they were surprised because of the coffee aroma. Even the democracy brew folks weren’t sure how it would turn out- but I think all folks agree- it was delicious!
That does sound delicious! What cooperative did that coffee come from? Can you talk a little about the process of brewing coffee and beer?
For this beer we used a Peru Medium (meaning medium roast level), from the coop Sol y Cafe from the north of Peru. We made a cold brew concentrate out of it, and delivered that to Democracy, who then added it to their IPL Smash. The result was a light colored, hoppy Coffee IPA they named Crash.
Nice! That sounds like a delicious collaborating and so fun to highlight product from one of our visiting partners Sol y Cafe in Peru.
I imagine that week was filled with a lot of inspiration, learning and networking, not to mention that amount of logistics and planning it takes to host! Do you have a favorite moment from the week?was one of your most favorite moments during the week?
During the open house event, the general manager, Cayo Quispe, of the San Fernando Coop in southern Peru, saw a coffee bag out on our floor. We took several photos of it with him standing and smiling– it was amazing that the coffee that he helped get to us, was about to get roasted the moment he came to visit us (and the United States) for the first time. It was a reminder that coffee brings us together, no matter what part of the supply chain you’re in.