In February 2016, on the same Sunday that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos beat the hometown Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, Evan and I were a continent away hugging a Colombian farmer we’d just given a life-changing amount of money to. We were somewhere between 2 and 11 drinks deep when we raised our hands, again and again, in a bidding war at auction for Jairo Quinones’ top lot of coffee.
We were 9 months into roasting, and somehow got selected to be jurors at the Best of Huila coffee competition, and then somehow found ourselves in a bidding war in a language we barely spoke, in a country we didn’t know, for a coffee we had tasted only twice.
There’s a global crisis in the coffee world — the commodity market pricing has fallen so low that it doesn’t even cover costs associated with growing the product. As in, farmers are losing money by selling their coffee. Coffee is trading on the global commodity market for less than it was 30 years ago. That’s insane. So we, the ultimate consumer, have a responsibility to help rectify this. And relationship coffee is where it begins.
Prior to that rainy, sweaty day at an outdoor mall in Colombia, Jairo Quinones had only ever sold his coffee to a cooperative for less than US$1.00/pound, at which point it was blended with hundreds of other farms and sold as a regional crop. But thanks to our partner Cafe Imports, the top 30 coffees in Colombia were pulled aside so roasters like us, in advanced countries like the U.S. and Sweden and South Korea, could pay whatever we want directly to the producers for the opportunity to (re)sell their coffee.
On that Sunday, Evan and I agreed to buy Jairo’s coffee for $5.50/pound, a 550% increase over his previous harvest. He danced and jumped and slumped over and cried a little, hugged his family and hugged us and hugged strangers. All we did was write a check for $6,000, and it changed his life forever.
Fast forward to 2019, and I am sitting upstairs at our Basecamp cafe on a cold Friday morning drinking Jairo’s coffee. Not the same one we came home with in 2016, but the harvest after the harvest that was after THAT harvest. We did more than write Jairo a check that day; we established a connection, a relationship, that binds us as partners. For 2017 and 2018, we purchased Jairo’s coffee for that same price without tasting it first — it’s an exercise in trust and collaboration. The result was a coffee that got better each year, proof that Jairo and his family (he’s a second-generation producer) were reinvesting our capital to make his coffee better.
We have 100 pounds of Jairo’s coffee left in inventory, and then that’s it. While we love getting Jairo’s coffee before it hits the open market, we also love to be part of a story. A story of growth and progress and opportunity. So when Evan went to Colombia in September 2018, part of the reason was to meet Jairo again, to taste the harvest and discuss the relationship.
At that point, Cafe Imports told us Jairo’s coffee was the best in Colombia — of course we knew that, Evan said, it’s always been great! No, they reiterated, it’s literally THE BEST coffee in Colombia. It scored the highest of any coffee from one of the world’s largest and best speciality coffee producers. And as a result, we all agreed, Jairo earned the opportunity for his crop to go back on auction. That meant competition for Summit, that after 3 years of being his exclusive distribution partner, we might not have that privilege anymore.
And how it played out was magical. Evan and I agreed Summit could pay up to $13 for the coffee, an absurdly high amount but I’m a sucker for a good story and a good relationship. So Evan bid, higher and higher and higher, and all of a sudden the price was $15 and $16 and we were out. Jairo’s coffee, all 1,000 pounds of it, sold that day to a company in Singapore for $29/pound. So Jairo’s $1,000 check from 2015 that turned into a $6,000 check from Summit in 2016 had turned into a single payment of $29,000.
It’s the definition of bittersweet. Bitter, of course, that we lost Jairo’s coffee. We’ve grown to love it, and him, so much so that Evan used it to compete in the U.S. Barista Championship. But honestly, so sweet. Here’s a second-generation Colombian coffee farmer, shy and reserved and earnest with his work, who in three years earned a 3,000% increase in annual income from his crop. How cool is that?
Who knows where this story goes from here, and whether Summit is a character for another chapter or whether our time in Jairo’s coffee life has come to an end. But if so, we rest comfortably knowing that our relationship allowed Jairo the opportunity to flourish, and flourish he did. He used the investment to learn, to make improvements, to take a chance that his hard work and skilled labor would be rewarded at the end.
Our relationship with Jairo opened our ideas to this concept of relationship coffee, and it’s why we’ve ventured to the valleys of Guatemala and to the mountains of Peru.
So if you have the opportunity yourself to drink another cup of Jairo Quinones’ coffee, or to have his bag sitting on your counter, know that you’re part of the process that makes relationship coffee possible. Because while we bring the coffee to the U.S., we need people to buy it. So thanks, from Summit, and on behalf of Jairo. It’s difficult to see how a single $2 cup of coffee or a $18 bag of beans impacts the world around us, but it does.
Thanks for being part of this beautiful story.