Last week, I had the great pleasure of co-hosting the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe's (SCAE) origin tour to Hawai‘i. Ok, I wasn't really hosting; rather, I was giving moral support. Andrew Hetzel of Cafemakers did all the hard work and many hours of driving. I just tagged along to offer what knowledge I could.
The SCAE group was small- just 5 people (3 Brits, 1 German, and 1 Ukrainian). However, where it lacked it quantity, it made up for in quality. These guys (yup, all boys) were a very solid, interesting, energetic collection of coffee roasters, importers, journalists, and academics (coffee nerds unite!). They soaked up all the information we threw at them all the while asking clever and insightful questions.
To be perfectly honest, this group was a great mix and the small size perfect. When locked in a minivan for over 20 hours in 5 days, one worries about the compatibility of personalities. As it turned out, the 7 of us got along smashingly well. I can't recall a single moment of tension during the week!
I could relay the details of our week together. However, Andrew already did that. I encourage you to read his blog entry. I only want to add a simple lament that there wasn't enough time and money to visit the other 4 coffee producing islands in the state. Next time...
Instead, I want to emphasize the great benefit, even need, of taking trips to origin. Simply, the benefit comes from things that can't be found in books, blogs, and media coverage. People.
The SCAE group met many farmers in several regions of the Big Island. Each farmer has a different history, a different story, and a different motivation for doing what they do. These stories explain so much about the coffee. They transform that simple black beverage into an emotionally and psychologically enriched experience. All of a sudden, these guys discovered that coffee is produced by average people, just like them. More importantly, they discovered just how difficult it is to create good coffee. Through people, coffee became so much more than it had been.
I can teach you a lot about coffee; I spent 8 years of graduate school studying many aspects of it. However, I can't teach you what coffee mucilage tastes like. I can't make you anxious to hurry though pulping because you want to go eat dinner. I can't impart the joy of walking across a drying deck filled with impeccably clean coffee. I can't bring your heart to the orchard where a part of it will always remain. Only by visiting a farm can you learn all these things.
Connecting with farmers is easier than ever, especially in Hawai‘i. With telephones and email access, you can meet almost any farmer in Hawai‘i (and, trust me, they'll be quite glad to hear from you). While I certainly encourage you to contact them, I submit that it isn't enough. You need to shake their hand, share their air, and caress their passion. I promise, after you do this, you'll feel differently about coffee.
There are some 80 countries that produce coffee. Origin trips abound. There's no reason why you shouldn't find your way onto a coffee farm.
Of course, if you want to visit the Hawai‘i origin, we welcome you. Andrew and I (along with many others) are eager to show you our industry, from seed to cup. Please, let us know when you're coming and we'll take care of you.