The Source: Tha Pye Gone

Boy meets coffee, boy falls in love with coffee, boy travels the world taking sourcing shots, the staging of which has not been seen since MacArthur gallantly refused to roll up his combat trousers.

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As the specialty coffee industry has become bigger and the world smaller, this smallness can be seen on my instagram feed with a constant stream of shots of roasters and baristas meeting those who produced their coffee (interspersed, of course, with latte art and well-plated food). I am generally reluctant to present sourcing from a first-person perspective, introducing myself into the narrative. Along with the feeling that I am trying to force people (i.e. you, dear reader) to watch my vacation slides (when you love what you do, it’s all a big vacation), I don’t know how to avoid the tendencies of adulation or patronization.

Adulation in that, caught up in the travel and the emotion, along with the caffeine, there is an obvious tendency to accept as fact everything that we are told, and to aggrandize everything we see. After all, we have made a choice to partner with these growers, love their coffee, and at the end of the day, have the common goal of selling said coffee to you, no less, dear reader.

On the other hand there is a tendency toward patronization, presenting oneself as either a coffee hunter or coffee savior.

The coffee hunter travels the world, going to the most remote and dangerous places to source exotic and rare coffees. (I know, there was a TV show about this and yes, I thought it was awful.) But coffee is the seed of a plant, and its quality neither stems from the remoteness of its location nor the exotic head garb of its cultivators, but rather from choices of genetics, crop management, and care taken in post-harvest. Even when the Indiana Jones narrative is conscientiously minimized, telling the story of how a coffee was produced often means telling a story of poverty. And what one set of eyes sees as telling the seed to cup story, another could easily see as glamorizing poverty to provide consumers a rustic tie to the land or to bygone times, and trying to profit off of a supply chain still largely based on cheap labor from historically oppressed populations.

The coffee savior is one who uses their historic position as “lord of the supply chain” to pay “more than the other guy would pay you.” But the “good” should not be defined by simply mitigating the bad, and Guy Travels the World, Applies Heat to a Seed, and Doesn’t Conscientiously Screw People Over is not really much of a story.

But perhaps I am being self-righteous about not being self-righteous. Please pardon my Midwestern ways. If you are still with me, please enjoy the recounting of my trip to a community that is growing one of my favorite coffees. I tried to put words together to describe the trip, but truth be told, the slide show (or scroll show) probably does it better.

This April I was finally able to visit the Tha Pye Gone community in Myanmar, producers of a coffee we have offered for the past two years. As a little background on the trip, over the past several years I have been blessed with the opportunity to contribute to the nascent Specialty Coffee industry in Myanmar by volunteering as a post-harvest consultant with the Coffee Quality Institute and Winrock International, hosting a port-to-cup tour in the US, and through our purchasing of Myanmar coffee at Little City. This opportunity has not only allowed us to bring some great coffees to Texas, but on a personal level I have made some deep friendships.

For those in the Specialty Coffee industry, it may seem like Myanmar came out of nowhere to becoming a fairly well-known origin. But having peered behind the curtain a (very) wee bit, that instant success is the result of the dedication and competence of many people such as Sai Wan Ming, Su Su Aung, Steve Walls, Nimish Jhaveri, Craig Holt, Min Hlaing, Pheelay, Thu Zaw, April McGil, Anne-Claire Degal, Lisa Conway, Ko Ko Win, Khun Tu Kyi, Andrew Hetzel, Ye Myint, Marcelo Pereira, Melanie Edwards, U Khine, Sara Morrocchi, Mye Mye Aye, Moe Sat, Amy VanNocker, and so many others… and, at the end of the day, President Barack Obama, who twice visited Myanmar and led an initiative for the U.S. to invest in a nascent democracy.


Last month I spent 2two weeks in Myanmar working at two new dry mills, Behind the Leaf and Amayar, to ensure the machines were working properly and the staff running the mills was adequately trained.  While there, I was able to get away for a day to visit Tha Pye Gone, a community Little City has partnered with to exclusively offer their coffees. Tha Pye Gone is inhabited by the Pa-O people, an autonomous ethnic community. The government of Myanmar officially recognizes 135 ethnic groups. Within Shan State, the Pa-O ethnic group is the second largest, behind the Shan people. Please visit here for some background information about the Pa-O people.

This partnership is through Behind the Leaf, a coffee wet mill and dry mill that was started by Melanie Edwards, an American (more specifically a North Carolinian) who has lived in Myanmar for over 15 years, dedicating her life to bettering lives in rural communities. Behind the Leaf is the coffee offshoot of Lilypad, a company that focuses on making water filters, and bricks, and training rural growers on raising rabbits. Behind the Leaf works with several local communities to produce high quality coffees.  

Rather than bore you with a blow-by-blow account of the trip, here is brief summary, followed by a slide (scroll) show.

Tha Pye Gone is about 20 minutes off Highway 43, lying at the end of a dirt road that passes through picturesque fields of rice and garlic as it winds upward. Upon arriving, we went to the house of Zaw Zaw Tun to pick up the latest harvest. Zaw Zaw is the agricultural leader of the community, and is well-versed in coffee and avocados, two of the principal crops of the community. He works with members to ensure they are properly tending to the plants, performing the harvest, and drying the coffee. He insisted that I put on traditional clothes and we sat around the stove and spendt a few hours talking about coffee and the history of the community. Melanie, Jweet, and U Khine distributed water filters to the community, I snapped some photos, we packed up the coffee, and then headed back at sunset. I have also included some photos from a Pa-O festival I attended. So, break out the popcorn, pour yourself a cup of joe or an adult beverage (hey, no judgement here) and enjoy the beauty of Tha Pye Gone, Behind the Leaf, and the Pa-O people. Not always, but sometimes beautiful coffees come from beautiful places… (and if you are reading this, thanks Melanie. You are an example of decency, integrity, and perseverance).

 

The Dock and Market at Inle Lake

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The Road to Tha Pye Gone

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Tha Pye Gone Sign

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The Main Road of Tha Pye Gone

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Zaw Zaw Tun

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Zaw Zaw Tun’s Nursery at the Side of His House

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Sitting with Zaw Zaw Tun at his house in traditional Tha Pye Gone clothes.

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Jweet from Behind the Leaf delivering a water filter.

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Taking the Filters Home

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Bagging the Coffee to Take Back to Behind the Leaf

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Tha Pye Gone Growers

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Unedited Interview with Zaw Zaw Tun

 

Photos from a Pa-O Festival

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The Source: Single Origin Diversity - Café De Costa Rica

As we’re making final selections on Costa Rican coffees and waiting for the shipments to arrive, Ian recaps his sourcing trip to Costa Rica and the takeaways from the different farms and regions in this month's edition of "The Source."

While I would love nothing more than for my list on a trip to Costa Rica to include nothing but various tropical fruits I will add to my guaro from atop my beachside perch, while wearing the Little City hat on sourcing trips (literally, actually, check out the photos. I love that hat) I got food poisoning the moment I got to the beach. So instead of rehashing my romantic relationship with the toilet at my Airbnb, I’m sharing a little more about the coffee sourcing part of the trip to Costa Rica and various coffee producing regions I visited in January.

The first context of Single Origin coffee for me was Juan Valdez himself. For any of you who don’t remember the legend of the man, check this out. While Juan is obviously the national coffee hero of Colombia, I was informed that he drinks Costa Rican coffee. Some Costa Ricans actually had a bumper sticker created, resulting in a lawsuit between Colombian and Costa Rican coffee. The lawsuit was settled after finding a Costa Rican named Juan Valdez, who did in fact drink Costa Rican coffee.

Broad generalizations of coffee from one country to another are just as silly as that bumper sticker. Coffee quality varies drastically from origin to origin and region to region. We visited farms from the West Valley, Central Valley, and the Tarrazu Region, each with its own historic, socioeconomic, cultural, landscape, and flavor profile differences.

All in all, Costa Rica has eight main growing regions:

  • The Central Valley
  • Tres Rios
  • West Valley
  • Turrialba
  • Orosi
  • Tarrazu
  • Guanacaste
  • Brunca

In all honesty, I haven't been to all of them. Though I have been to three of the better known areas. During my last trip in January, I visited and cupped coffees from the Central Valley, West Valley, and Tarrazu regions. By the end of it, flavor attributes from each region started to present themselves in the cup. But that’s not the point… we were on a mission.  (I tend to get side tracked, so bear with me.)

Without spending too much time droning on about the specific criteria we use when sourcing (if you’re interested, take a look at our sourcing outline), this particular trip was intended to identify a coffee profile that can replace our current Peruvian blend component. A washed coffee with mellow acidity, full body, and notes of milk chocolate. It’s a relatively easy profile to identify, in all honesty; the hard part is the quality threshold. Let’s say you want a nice lager beer. If the criterion is just lager, a Lone Star tall boy works just fine, but if you want exceptional quality, nothing comes close to the St. Augesteiner Helles Lager (IMO). Trouble is, that damn St. Augustiner can’t be found anywhere outside of Bavaria. Our blend components are no different (they actually stand up quite well on their own as a single origin). To get the quality we are looking for, going to source is the only way.

In addition to the blend profile, we want some coffee to nerd out on. Last year we featured coffees from El Cedral farm in Dota Tarrazu, Costa Rica. Personally, this was one of my favorite coffees of all time. A well rounded, natural processed, Yellow and Red Catuai, full bodied, strong notes of stone fruit, milk chocolate and an after taste that doesn’t disappoint. Naturally (Pun intended), I had to visit to see what made El cedral so exceptional last year.

Sitting at 1,900–2,000 masl, it was one of the highest farms in the Dota, Tarrazu region. Generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the longer the maturation period (due to a milder climate). From my experience this increases the chances of an amazing cup of coffee. While most of the coffees in this valley had been harvested already or were in the middle of picking, El Cedral was just beginning to reach full maturity. This coffee wouldn’t be picked until a few weeks after I left, so unfortunately we have not yet tasted it. (Samples will be arriving in Austin in the next few weeks).

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From the picture above you can see the small town of Dota; located at the center is Coopodota, a cooperative processing mill that all the growers in this region are a part of. While the smallholder growers may not have the resources independently, as a group they are capable of some pretty incredible things. The mill was one of the most sustainable and organized mills I’ve seen. Sustainably speaking, all of the coffee pulp is composted and used to fertilize the crops. The water from the mill is either sprayed into grazing fields or star grass for purification. Most of the electricity is generated from the nearby river and the dryers are heated using only coffee parchment.

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Overall, the co-op administration has most of the control to decide which lots get picked on which days and to determine how they will be processed. The two receiving stations are the larger more industrious station and then the microlot receiving station.

Stopping by one co-op to find the perfect coffees for our blends isn’t enough, though. Another great example with its own nuances would be La Candelaria. We would be meeting Coricafes Green Coffee Manager, Stefan Wille, at the farm. Stefan had actually been to Little City’s roasting facility to visit months beforehand.

  Stefan Wille (left), Ian Myers (middle), Fernando Cabada (right)

Stefan Wille (left), Ian Myers (middle), Fernando Cabada (right)

After the 1.5-hour car ride to the West Valley, just northwest of San Jose, we arrived at the Candalaria Estate, Stefan waiting patiently at the gate. Funny enough, Stefan did not realize it was the coffee roaster he had visited in Austin, TX coming to visit until he saw my face. The coffee industry has had of way of making the world feel like a small place. The potential to run into someone you met in a completely different country is very real.

Candelaria Estate was founded in 1965 by Otto Kloeti. Otto, Uwe Thormaehlen, and Klaus Ronning founded Coricafe, the independent coffee exporter, the same year. Candalaria was purchased from producers in the province of Alajela, 40 km northwest of San Jose. Like most coffee growing regions in Costa Rica, the road to Candelaria was winding, steep, and only sometimes paved. Once inside the farm you immediately see the recently harvest coffee shrubs from the lower altitude lots of the farm. At the time, Candelaria was in full swing of harvest, though at 10 a.m., most the action is still happening in the fields. Stefan showed us the newly updated washing station and also showed off some of the old ox-powered equipment.

After touring the washing station and mill, we moved on to the highest lot on the property. The views were fantastic, though most of the coffee at even its highest lot had been picked already. It’s great for tasting but not so great for photos. Hence the non-coffee-oriented landscape photo.  

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One of the fascinating things I learned while at Candelaria was how they processed the waste water from the washing station. Otto Kloeti took steps toward sustainable clean water years ago at the washing station. Otto hypothesized that by sprinkling the waste water over star grass, it would filter the water enough to rejoin the rivers. After testing, his hypothesis was proven true, and it is now used by many other farmers in the region.

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The Source: Sourcing Seasonality

In this entry, Little City GM Ian Myers provides an introduction to our new section called "The Source," and explains some of the basics of sourcing seasonal coffee.

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Hopefully you have experienced the enhanced flavor of coffee that is freshly roasted, ground, and brewed. It’s life-changing, or at least it was for me. But what about freshness in terms of seasonal coffee? And I am not talking about Pumpkin Spice or White Christmas seasonal, but rather “fresh crop coffee” that was freshly harvested.

What does “seasonal” coffee even mean? The coffee shrub, like many other trees, has harvest periods throughout the year, when its fruits are ripe for the picking. Depending on rainfall and weather patterns, the coffee plant can have one or several harvests throughout the year. Those harvest times vary by country, and even by the specific region within a country.  As Joel talks about in The Roast [LINK], the coffee bean is actually a seed, and the minute that coffee seed is harvested, it is removed from its protecting mother plant and subject to degradation. In other words, the clock is ticking. What happens as the bean ages? The first sign that a coffee bean is past its prime is that the flavor attributes fade—the coffee loses its brightness, sharpness, and intensity. After that stage, the coffee starts to taste “past crop,” gaining papery, woody, flavors and even astringency.

As the General Manager of Little City, I wear many hats. But, along with head roaster Eric Wolf and all of our team, one of the ones I am most proud of is how we keep our blends fresh by constantly sourcing fresh crop seasonal coffees. Along with our seasonal microlots, we are always planning ahead for coffees that will go into Congress Ave, Republic, Grackle, Messenger, Violet Crown and other blends. Our blends are crafted in the sense that they are not the same coffees year round, nor are they “where microlots go to die.” (A common industry practice is to use blends as a place to get rid of older coffees that might have once been good, but have since faded and now taste faded or woody.) We are constantly planning our blends and changing out the components with fresh crop so they don’t fade, or, worse yet, develop those “past crop” woody flavors.

  The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

The Little City team cupping Costa Rica samples from Ian’s sourcing trip, to determine which freshly harvested (seasonal) coffee will replace the Peruvian coffee in some of our blends.

You may have seen calendars showing the harvest, ship, and arrival periods from each country. God, I wish it were that easy. The only way to understand the ever-changing harvest seasons and ensure freshness is through relationships with producers and exporters, and visiting them as often as possible to have an ear to the ground about the intricacies of each harvest.

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Counter clockwise: Ian cupping coffee in Costa Rica, Eric in the fields of the Huila Department in Colombia, and Joel enjoying a non-coffee beverage in Myanmar.

 

Of course, even “perfect” planning doesn’t ensure flawless execution. For example, we’ve sometimes struggled getting coffees into the U.S. from countries like Myanmar, or even neighboring Mexico. The steps between harvest, processing, sampling, contracting, milling, bagging, exporting, and importing take real time and attention. Best case is three months after harvest, and we’ve found that working with exceptional producers and carefully vetting supply chains help to hit that target. I traveled to Costa Rica last month and last week our team made a decision about the new Costa Rica blend component. You can follow those coffees at #lccostarica.

But I am so proud of our results. It’s time consuming and expensive to constantly be sourcing new coffees for the blends, not to mention the time spent working on the roast curves to ensure they don’t alter the blend profile. But it’s worth it. I am very proud of the work we do and the quality of our blends. They are not afterthoughts. Our motto is Everyone Deserves a Great Cup of Coffee. And with all of our blends, that rings true year round.