Hello, coffee friends! I’m writing to you straight off the plane from our coffee farm in the Philippines. I’ve decided to begin a short series – yet untitled – as a recurring article in the Colorado Coffee People Zine. I also want to share it here.
When my husband and I planted our coffee farm last year, we didn’t have the slightest clue what we were doing. We listened to the only guy around for miles – a local university professor – and more or less took his word for it on when/where/how to plant the seedlings he provided us.
Do I blame us for this decision? Not at all. We reached out and did what we could at the time. However, one year later, we’ve already had our fair share of trials with our farm. Ok, a lot of trials.
For one thing, we didn’t take any soil samples before planting. Which sounds so obvious typing it out here, and made me feel so painfully ignorant as a research friend of ours surveyed our seedlings and asked if we’d been to the soils lab yet.
We didn’t take samples. We didn’t even think about it.
Just one item on an endless list of SO much we don’t know.
As we start from scratch, committed to our farm and our dream with all of its growing pains and humiliations, I’ve decided to share our discoveries with all of you. This is information that baristas rarely get to touch. Even if a barista is fortunate enough to visit origin, they don’t have to deal with the pain of low yields and tight margins. They don’t have to wonder who will pay to have their soil analyzed, and then pay for fertilizer to help correct nutrient deficiencies.
But as a barista going through this process firsthand, I know this is the kind of information I’d like to hear, and so without further ado – I present the first challenge in our series. Future discussions will include propagating a seedling nursery, harvesting, specifics of processing and beyond!
But first, let’s get down to the dirty. Literally. Let’s talk about SOIL. Stay tuned!
I woke up very slowly this morning. I drank a little too much coffee before my shift at the coffee shop, leaving me jittery and moving too quickly.
On Sunday morning, we leave for the Philippines. I’m trying to prepare, but there’s only so much I can do – in the past, our well-constructed ‘plans’ have dissolved on island time. Best not to structure things to rigidly.
I’m inhaling books and research and vocabulary builders, but for the most part, I am all too aware that even the best guides cannot prepare me for coffee growing and exporting. Nothing can prepare me for the questions I don’t know how to ask.
Who am I kidding? I’m a barista.
I have never tended the soil. I’ve killed all my houseplants. And now we have a hectare of red bourbon on ancestral fields abroad, and I am trying to pretend I know what I’m doing.
One one hand, it is very reassuring to know that the Ibaloi tribe, at its very core, is a tribe of farmers.
It is also reassuring to know we have a handful of resources in the Philippines, and are gaining even more here in the States.
But in just a few days I’ll be touching down in Luzon with my Ibaloi husband, learning firsthand just how to prepare for our first harvest. We’ll be discussing the building of a community dry mill for specialty coffee in the valley between Atok and Baguio City with neighboring farmers. We’ll be coffee crawling through Manila, and cupping existing Philippine coffee.
We’ll be talking about subjects that seem way over my head – exporting, importing, taxing.
Once this coffee is imported… it’s our job to roast it! And I am not yet a roaster, although I do know many more roasters than I do coffee farmers on this side of the industry.
Of course, to roast it, we’ll need a facility…
… and to have a facility with our own roasted coffee means owning a cafe….
… and to own a cafe means I’ll pour my heart and soul into building a small restaurant, because it’s been a longstanding dream to own a food service establishment.
And to own a cafe means to employ experts in the service world, and provide opportunities to travel overseas to visit the coffee farm, and the mill, and experience the harvest season. To crack the door of sustainable agriculture open a little further.
And it all starts right here, at the very beginning, with a seed in the soil.
The best part is, it actually started much further back – coffea plants growing in Ethiopia, khave discovered as a coveted beverage in Yemen, the theft of coffee plants to be grown in Dutch colonies, brought to America’s attention after the Boston Tea Party. Passed down until the day I stumbled into a coffee shop and met Isaac, an Ibaloi, whose tribe has grown coffee in the Philippines since its earliest history.
And we get to continue that history. We get to grow coffee with the knowledge of farmers and merchants. We get to serve coffee with the culinary knowledge of thousands of people before us, served to people who will one day sit in our cafe planning the revolutions of the future.
It is very exciting, and daunting, and adventurous.
Oh, hello there. Didn’t realize it’d been a year, did you? Neither did I. Does anyone read this blog?
Turns out, I haven’t blogged since JANUARY of 2017. What!? So strange. I fell away from it, and any record keeping in general, because I was overwhelmed with life happening. I couldn’t record it fast enough, and my emotions have shifted rapidly – too rapidly to record, it felt.
But now I’m back. I’m not in any stabler of a place, but I do feel as though I should return to writing things down.
At the dawn of 2017, I was wide-eyed and ready to make my mark on the world – on my industry, in particular.
Now, 12+ months later, I can tell you with pride that we have made strides, ladies and gentlemen. I’ve always been the kind of person that sits, dreams, and then romantically struggles towards a solution. Never in my life (until now) have I been the kind of person that just MOVES and then thinks about the risks later.
And look at how much can change in just a year!
I am now a married woman. I am now a business owner. I am a 22 year old with a sales tax license and a small business in the State of Colorado. (Where I now live, by the way.) I am the proud owner of a coffee farm in Baguio City, Philippines. And I am a national barista competitor headed to the US Barista Championships in Seattle in a few weeks.
Last month, my husband and I celebrated the opening of our first retail store and manufacturing site. We threw a party that was packed wall-to-wall – a huge surprise!
The most amazing part of this process is the notoriety that comes from owning a physical space. We’ve been dreaming of opening Silver Hand Co. for the last three years, and talking about it is one thing… it turns out actually having a physical store location has completely 180-ed the way we’re viewed in the community.
What a crazy feeling to realize that people can walk into a room full of products that were once just an idea. It went from Isaac’s engineering brain onto a worktable, then to hanging on a curated wall, and someone just walked in and bought that idea, and is going to wear it around and put their laptop in it and tell people about it.
If you want to come visit us, our location is in RiNo, Denver, Colorado, and the link to our website is here.
We’re going back to the Philippines in July to plant the second half of our coffee plantation. And hopefully, in one more year, we’ll open a bigger store with my dream of all dreams attached to it. A coffee shop. (A pop-up at bare minimum, but we will be serving coffee!)
Every day brings a brand-new struggle. There’s a lot about opening a business that people don’t tell you. Sure, they tell you its hard, and they tell you a lot of people fail, and that you have to be a tenacious breed of person to succeed.
They don’t tell you that every person you come in contact with is going to tell you ‘what they would do if they were you’ and that all of a sudden people reach out with ‘great ideas’ and a hell of a lot of criticisms. Completely unsolicited.
And it’s hard to respond with, ‘no, this is my business, thank you very much. I do not have to do those things you’re telling me i should do.’ And people become very offended when you protect this thing you brought into the world.
No one tells you why the money all bleeds away, or how hard it is to maintain a budget. No one tells you how to set up a shipping system so you aren’t driving to the post office every day.
No one tells you how important it is to eat breakfast so you don’t start out the day immediately drained.
No one tells you that you can’t afford employees, but you also can’t afford to run around and do everything yourself or you will collapse.
No one tells you all the days bleed together and you love and hate what you’re doing all at the same time.
But, simultaneously, nothing can compare to the feeling of being known and recognized. Nothing can compare to the feeling of looking at your own hard work, and looking at your spouse, and realizing that you are accomplishing something very difficult.
I’ve never felt more pride than standing in our store, looking at the shelving that we built, the decor we were donated, the leather we bought, the plants we brought in… and realizing it was a culmination of our own work, God’s utter grace, and our friends help that we are now open.
I remember the first time specialty coffee caught my eye.
I was a fresh-off-the-press culinary grad in need of a job, and I answered a Craigslist ad for a baker at a new coffee shop in town. Once hired, I understood right away that this shop wanted little to do with pastries and everything to do with coffee.
The word was said with hefty weight and reverence, like it meant something. It wasn’t thrown around casually, used to describe cheap fuel to keep the town running. It was spoken of as though a delicacy, a valuable and important asset all its own.
One cappuccino and I was hooked. Silky, velvety, smooth, surprisingly cool. I felt as though I, the recipient of this drink, were consuming skill and knowledge with each greedy sip.
I was also very confused.
When did coffee get this way? I wondered. Has it always been this complex? What are these devices? Where did the science come from?
Two years have passed since then. I’ve learned the answers to plenty of these questions, led on by mentors that both encouraged me and dumped my struggling drinks down the drain.
Barista? I learned how to show up early, work hard, take my work seriously. I can make espresso all day and never tire. But stepping outside of the shop, I am looking to explore. My questions have no limits.
When I moved to Portland to further my coffee education, I only found myself feeling trapped and discouraged. Portland is bustling with coffee nerds, events, throwdowns, and cuppings. There are shops on every corner. I live two blocks from a Stumptown and I work for one of the most respected companies in the city.
But I am, truly, blown away at how few people really love what they do here. Coffee hype got the best of the people I met. I remember vividly training a new employee who, when I pressed her for questions about why she loved coffee, responded with, “It’s just so cool. I love everything about it.” And that was the most I ever got out of her.
Coffee is cool. But it has little to do with your hip, tattooed barista and that cool record he’s playing – it has everything to do with the cup in your hand, that finally, against all odds, made it deliciously into your possession.
None of this was quite clear to me until I visited my first farm, in a country I immediately fell in love with – the Philippines. (It helps that I fell in love with a Filipino, too.) All of a sudden, I could see with my own two eyes, and hold in my hands the tiny parchmented seeds that were trying to make it out of the country.
These beans, mishandled, would end up roasted to a dark and oily sheen, blended and bagged and served cheaply.
But the Philippines has good coffee. Incredible coffee, actually. The climate of these islands allows for even very rare coffee to grow.
Why hasn’t it been showcased? Where does its potential lie? This we aim to find out, and to foster.
2017 is upon us, a year that looks like it will be hard, rewarding, challenging and unexpected. This is the year we will go back to the Philippines and get our hands dirty, on our knees to plant spindly year-old arabica seedlings. We know practically nothing.
And yet somehow, as I sit at a desk lamp late into the evening, booking tickets for our return and reading articles until I can function no longer… this is when I feel the same tickle of curiosity that I felt at the very beginning. It’s the same curious fascination as my first silky cappuccino.
No collection of articles can prepare me for what we’ll face this year. No online class can ready me for the unexpected turns we’re about to take. I feel like I’m back to square one – a student, embarking upon a quest to become a master, ready for the blows that will surely befall me. Even imagining holding a coffee plant (which will surely outlive me, and the ministry we are planting) makes my heart race.
Coffee is about to dominate my year, in a way that has everything to do with the land, the people, and our stewardship of it.
When I prayed to use my talents to reach people, to make a difference and to spread the gospel, I don’t think I realized how practical it would be. I love coffee. I love the culture. I love Jesus.
To use coffee — brewing, growing, roasting, processing — to reach people? To change lives? To make a difference? Ah. Now we’re talking.
I’m typing, rather painfully, on a cement surface that is so rough and new it leaves little powdery stains on my jeans. Still, there’s no place I’d rather sit, and not just because I’m wearing traveling pants that are made for the glamour of getting adventurous. No, I’m sitting on the unfinished rooftop of a restaurant that will soon be in business in the Philippines, and the flat, unfurnished cement patch I’m calling my desk will one day, with luck, be our coffee shop.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me rewind to six months ago, when I announced to everyone (including my boss) that I would be taking a three-week trip to the Philippines. Everyone asked the same question: why? (Equally importantly, why are you missing three weeks of work to visit some beautiful islands?) And I guiltily had only the faintest whisp of an answer.
“My boyfriend’s family lives over there,” I would reply. “We’re visiting them. And we’re helping with the missions work they’re doing.”
All of these things were true, Isaac’s family does live here, and we’re helping with the restaurant they’re building. But mostly we were going to scout out our own missions field, to reclaim the land that once belonged to Isaac’s ancestors and turn it into a full-fledged missions base that not only benefits the people here, but the land and lives of everyone involved. Oh, and we want to do it sustainably, economically and in a way that provides everyone involved with quality income. No more begging for missions funds to go overseas!
But all of these things sounded far-fetched. And to my largely secular group of friends, just saying, “I feel called” simply would not do. So I squeaked out an answer about helping Isaac’s parents do missions work and I prayed on my own that God would light the path for the reason we were here. Up until the very moment I got on the plane, all I could do was trust that God was going to bring to fruition whatever He wanted us here for.
Which brings me to today. Our month in the Philippines is almost up, and now that I have seen the land and met the people firsthand, I am excited to know the path is foggy no further. The land is ripe an available and currently unused for nothing other than my dearest love — coffee. For anyone that knows me, I am a coffee fiend. The love I find in a warm, welcoming coffee shop is what I live for. The deeper I got into coffee, particularly specialty third-wave coffee, the more I became aware of how important the process is and how many lives are affected each time you serve a single cup.
As a barista, I am painfully aware of how ignorant the consumer can be when it comes to their drink. I have to fight daily the stereotype of being a snobby barista that turns up her nose at the uneducated customer and re-center my life and worldview of coffee once again around Jesus. Instead of demanding that a customer listen to my speech about our natural-processed Yigracheffe, I have begun to realize that coffee is just like any other commodity. It came from somewhere and has to be handled responsibly to be good. It is the customers job, should they choose to be aware, to know what it is they’re consuming.
Because even though I am really, really excited about fruit-forward espresso that came from a three hectare farm in Costa Rica, me standing around preaching the coffee gospel does nothing for anyone. It only adds, in fact, to my own prejudice. I serve quality coffee and I care where it comes from, I think to myself. I love coffee and the people behind it. I’ll pay $12 for a delicious, well-sourced drink made with care. But truly, how much good does it do to preach at people, or pay someone else for their direct-trade beans? It does nothing. It spreads awareness. I myself am doing nothing more than standing on a pedestal behind a gleaming espresso machine, begging people to understand that their drink matters.
No. I can’t do that anymore. Coffee is my life and I want to use it to change other people’s lives, too.
So today we followed up with one of our newfound connections here in the Philippines and will hopefully have our farm up and running within the next year. It has happened so unbelievably fast! Of course, we are growing a particular varietal of Arabica and will have room to process and roast here, as well as eventually serve. The dream goes as far as to extend to a shop in the United States, serving our own coffee. I kept running into the question, but is it good? Is the coffee good? Do only the best people have their hands in our process? The answer to this question is yes, although it has taken some good old-fashioned, nose-the-ground detective work to find what we need.
With the ability to oversee the full-circle process of coffee production and handle in a way that is not only niche coffee (specialty coffee) but in a way that provides jobs for others (hopefully rescued women looking for work after freedom from human trafficking). This is all just a big dream, but one with connections and tangible possibilities.
As I sit on this rooftop, typing, the local kids are pulling out their matchboxes and releasing the spiders they keep inside for fights. They laugh and shout in a language I don’t understand, and they try to sneak up behind me to dangle the spiders in my face.
The quality of life here is different. The coffee farmers here may never even know that their beans are being inhaled deeply in a specialty shop hundreds of miles away, then served with a graceful swan on top to a customer who paid for a $6 latte. But hopefully, with some prayer and good old-fashioned digging, we can make a difference with coffee here that has nothing to do with us and everything to do with being stewards of our God-given talents. Hopefully these kids can be well fed and educated.
But, all that said, Isaac and I will need prayer to get this dream off the ground. We have the land, the people, the seedlings — we just need to get started! The dream goes beyond just opening a coffee shop, it extends into the lives of those that farm, process and roast this coffee. Our goal is to provide them good wages, a place to live and education and discipleship.
There are other facets to this dream, like the restaurant, a skateshop, leather goods and other needs that need to be met here in the Philippines and in the US. Lord willing, we’re able to do what we were called to do simply by using our trades. So, if you get a moment to pray, we’d be super stoked. And this mindlessly rambling blog post is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to logistics, planning and ideas, so feel free to ask away if you’re interested in learning more or wondering if you can help. It’s going to be so rad.
(Also, if you were wondering, the kids did manage to get a spider on my head during this blog post. I did freak out.)
I write to you from a house in Baguio City. There are five puppies and one rooster outside that will wake me up in a few short hours at exactly 6:00 with an incessant, obnoxious crow and some subsequent barking.
This is my first trip to the Philippines, and I am surprisingly comfortable and well-adjusted. I think mainly because everyone speaks English here in some form or another, and all of the signs are in English too. The houses are ramshackle and multicolored, where every day is laundry day (until it rains, then everyone puts their clotheslines back inside).
I am here, in short, to visit the wonderful relatives that feel like family. Isaac and I need their help scouting the land for what will eventually be a self-sustaining missions field. There’s already a lot happening here as far as missions work, and in part we are here to support what is already happening. Our own vision, however, is growing and we need feet on the ground here in the Philippines.
It is a beautiful country. I am surprised at how quickly I fell in love with it. The food is hearty, simple and filling. Rice is the foundation on which everything is built. (I heard one of Isaac’s relatives lean over and whisper to him, “But how does she like rice? She is American!”)
Because I have been here for only two days (I think– jet lag has me very confused) all I have are photographs. Hopefully soon I will have written out the stories to go alongside them!
So far, God has been faithful and given us vision for making these things a reality.
Coffee growing. Restaurant building. Skate park construction. Ministry using every facet of our skills and passions.
Tiny dots waiting to be connected. Lives waiting to be affected by what is going to happen here. Send prayers! We are in the earliest stages.
Mornings around here are quiet. It’s getting light later in the morning, so my drive to work is silent and drowsy.
When I unlock the market doors and let in the prep cooks waiting outside, I feel the tiniest sense of satisfaction. I always wanted to be a girl that worked in a marketplace, and here I am, propping open the doors with responsibility. The cooks greet me and offer a trade — breakfast for coffee. I always accept.
I have a purposeful routine to open. I turn on lights and select music, I heat equipment and run the grinder. The smell of the coffee grounds destined for drip is what kickstarts my brain activity. Like a true addict, my mind knows it’s about to get its fix of washed Ethiopian espresso, which motivates me to keep going.
This job is strange. Despite being in the heart and center of America’s coffee Mecca, people still are puzzled by specialty coffee.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” an exasperated prep cook says as I stare into space and inhale excessively into my espresso cup.
In nine million years would he smell this demitasse and think spicy melon? Peppercorn? Cantaloupe? Juicy?
Probably not. Nor do I expect him to.
There are other factors involved in this job. My coworkers, for instance, who look at me slightly puzzled all the time. Sometimes they ask me questions about Jesus, and we spend our entire shift debating theology. Sometimes we talk about relationships, and I am met with statements like, “You wouldn’t live together before you get married? Sounds dangerous.”
If Portland had a thermometer for the post-Christian climate, it would sit in the center of my workplace and register the pulse of the city, the way it warms and cools to ideas that were once radical and now are the norm.
I love every single person I work with. I have struggled with and finally embraced the atmosphere in which I spend the majority of my time.
Before now, I never had to explain my faith, or explain what I got out of going to church. Portland has stared my lifestyle straight in the eye and asked boldly: why? More importantly: are you sure?
The only thing in the city that has kept me grounded and guarded is Christ. And to proclaim that with boldness when someone asks me at 7:00 am before I’ve had my first espresso, “do I deserve to go to hell?” is a feat I didn’t know I could respond to.
Don’t mistake me. Portland is not a city of persecution for followers of Jesus. But it does lull them into conformity by soft discrimination and the pressure to just let go and live life based purely off of feelings and instant gratification. This is the city of everything. Amazon Now will deliver your orders to the door. Rare food markets carry obscure ingredients you can’t find anywhere else. Pockets of culture peer from every corner, subcultures unknown to the rest of the states thrive here.
It’s a beautiful city. I’m living in a charming house and working the finest buildout coffee has ever known. God has been good to me, he has shifted my perspective from one of overwhelmed panic (how do I survive here?) to confidence rooted solely in Him. Now I can thrive here, because he is fighting my battles and teaching me to love those that need Him. Even if they laugh at my old fashioned ideas or make my mornings a challenge.
As I sip (somewhat obnoxiously) my first pull of espresso for taste and quality, I get a caffeinated rush of gratitude. Garden City has not always felt like home, it has never carried the sense of being ‘my city.’ But, by the grace of God, it’s His. And He’s going to use me here.