Seven months ago, I told the story of being the first American to visit Querocoto, Peru, and more specifically the Rutas del Inca Cooperative. We have sourced from Rutas since our first season in roasting — the spring of 2015 — which coincided with their first harvest as a cooperative, and my trip last June was the step toward relationship coffee. I recycle this story because three coffees, one from the cooperative and two single farm lots that I helped hand select — are now in Davidson.
It’s (pretty) easy to source good coffee. Dozens of import partners are doing wonderful work at origin, tasting coffees and improving processes, so we can enjoy the (literal) fruits of their labor here in the states. But we didn’t get into roasting to follow in line; we opened our roasting operation to become more innovative and impactful. In so many ways, it feels irresponsible to sell ourselves as an intentional purveyor of craft coffee without lending a similar energy to being partners with the producers themselves. So I didn’t need to go to Rutas del Inca to have access to this coffee. I did need to go to Rutas to show that, to Summit, coffee sourcing is a two-way-street. That we care about more than the coffee they grow. It’s expensive and exhausting, but it’s our responsibility to the entire supply chain — from the farmers who harvest the coffee all the way to the customers who enjoy it.
I will never forget the moment when I felt, for the first time in my life, new. It was a Tuesday night, around 8:00pm, and I was sharing a beer with some other coffee people in the downtown square of Querocoto, Peru, a town of 400 people who lived and existed a six-hour mountain bus ride from the nearest “city.” As we stood there, I looked around and saw the town of Querocoto in stillness around me. The locals stood in their doorways, sat on sidewalks and froze in time, just watching us.
When I set out to find Querocoto, home to the Rutas del Inca Cooperative from where we’ve sourced coffee since 2015, our import partners informed us that nobody from their U.S. office had ever visited the producers at Rutas. The adventure, and the newness, only amplified my interest in discovering Querocoto — a town hidden in the Northern Peruvian mountains amid Incan ruins. What I didn’t grasp was that not only were we the first coffee folks to visit Rutas del Inca, we were the first people ever from the United States.
Step back for a moment and picture this: you’re in your neighborhood, on your front porch, sitting behind Summit or Kindred or at 12 Bones BBQ. And all of a sudden a small group of people unlike anyone you’ve ever seen before, speaking a language you’ve never heard, just appear. How could you not stare? How could you not wonder?
That’s what we felt, that Tuesday night, except for the first time in my life I was the one who felt new. Who felt different and out of place and confusing to everyone around me.
And the warmth with which I was greeted was staggering. The coffee producers, who’ve spent their lives tending to plants and harvesting their crops, hand their coffee off to a cooperative and it’s shipped out of sight, out of mind, until the next harvest season when it’s time to do it all over again. Rinse and repeat. But when I stepped onto their farms, shook their hands, drank their homemade aguadiente, they made me family. They hugged me and walked me through the organized chaos of their coffee farms. Their eyes welled up when I explained how their coffee, their work, their lives, impact our community, our business, our lives.
I shared with them about North Carolina, and about Basecamp and the Outpost and Asheville, and how we love their coffee so much that I needed to board a plane, and another, and another, and then a van and a bus and the bed of a pickup truck, just to say hello and thank you. That’s it. I didn’t want to strike a better deal. I just wanted to meet them, hug them, tell them thanks.
The idea of coffee origin trips has always felt like a luxury for me, for Summit. It’s a chance to travel and explore and make coffee more of an adventure than it already is in our cafes. What I didn’t realize until the streets of Querocoto was how much it would mean to the producers of Rutas del Inca, and their families and their next generation of coffee farmers. Turns out, many of these producers have never left Querocoto, and probably never will. They’ll never see their coffee jump on a ship in a Peruvian port city. They’ll never see it survive the journey and land in New Jersey. They’ll never see us roast it in Cornelius, or brew it in our cafes in Davidson and Asheville.
They’ll never see the bags of “Rutas del Inca” sitting on countertops of homes all around the United States. They’ll never sit in my living room and enjoy it in a Summit mug. But the moment when I sat in their living rooms, walked their farms, showed them what a Summit Coffee bag of Rutas del Inca looks like in their cocina, that I will never forget.
The producers might never meet another coffee partner again. But they’ll most definitely see me again. This is relationship coffee. It’s organic and Fair Trade and lots of other wonderful certifications. More than anything, though, it’s relationship coffee. We take for granted so much about our beautiful chaotic lives. Heck, I work in coffee and take for granted how unbelievably blessed I am to drink the best coffee in the world in the comfort of my home.
But if I learned anything in Peru, I learned anything in my sense of newness in Querocoto and drinking (horrid) homemade alcohol amid mosquitos on the farms, it was that what we are doing matters. The visits and the stories and the attention we put into sourcing and roasting and brewing. It all matters. We’re doing justice to the life’s work of 300 coffee producers who won’t ever see the final product.
But at least, now, they trust it’s in good hands. They know that we care, that it matters, that they matter. Thanks for being part of their story.