Training Beyond Quality

Beth Ann Caspersen
March 30, 2011
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Over the last few years I have written about shifting gender roles in the coffee industry; how women are moving into different positions of power and influence within their own communities and co-operatives. The change is slow, but I believe this systemic change begins with individual women and the opportunities that are available to them.

Women are a vital part of the coffee chain on many levels and we are working to support their training and empowerment through the quality of their coffee. Two such women, Yaneth Josefina Taborda Morales and Angelica Maria Arroyave Cordoba, are from Colombia and for two consecutive years they tried to get visas to the United States to expand their skills and knowledge through the Equal Exchange Cooperation in Quality seminar (they were rejected visas for no apparent reason). Although frustrating, we did not give up, and finally, with a little help from the Colombian Coffee Federation, they were awarded visas and made their way to snowy New England this past January!

Cooperation in Quality is an Equal Exchange quality seminar that introduces international cuppers and coffee tasters from small farmer co-ops to the U.S. specialty coffee market and the world of quality control at Equal Exchange. We hold this event annually at our coffee roastery in West Bridgewater, Mass., to train, educate, and share our ideas and methodology on sourcing great coffee. The week-long seminar focuses on the fundamentals, but the value for the participants far exceeds a seminar about quality- it's also about relationships and intercultural exchange.

Angelica and Yaneth work for the ASPROCAFE Ingruma co-operative. Angelica is the lead cupper and Yaneth is a trained cupper (both are certified Q Graders by the Coffee Quality Institute), and Yaneth now buys coffee for the San Lorenzo collection center. I have worked with Yaneth and Angelica for the last four coffee harvests. Colombia has two distinct coffee harvests; the primary harvest generally begins in November and the smaller harvest, called the mitaca, generally begins in August.

Each year during my visit to Colombia, we spend days roasting and cupping coffee from the producers of ASPROCAFE Ingruma. Equal Exchange has significantly invested in the production of quality organic coffee over the last five years by holding two organic coffee competitions, various visits and meeting with producers, and working with Yaneth and Angelica. Over time we have been able to build a common vocabulary and determine microlots based on location and flavor profile. Our work has culminated into tiny lots that can contain less than seven bags of green coffee and up to 200 bags of green coffee. It has been very rewarding to see the quality developments and to see the professional developments that have been created through our small group. But the work doesn't stop there. An important step for these two women in their development as coffee cuppers and coffee buyers was to see the U.S. side of coffee.

Thus, they spent a week with us in our coffee roastery.

As I mentioned, Cooperation in Quality is an intercultural experience. It's about everything coffee and then some. The intercultural aspects during Yaneth and Angelica's visit encompassed everything from seeing snow for the first time, to tasting American cuisine, to seeing the division of labor in my household, where they stayed. (My husband, Todd, who happens to be the Director of Purchasing at Equal Exchange, and I split all responsibilities down the middle, preparing meals, cleaning, and caring for our son, Magnus). The intercultural experience goes both ways. Here are some of our experiences together.

"I have never seen snow before, only on TV." -Angelica

Of all of the possible times of the year to visit, our friends from Colombia hit the snow jackpot! While many New Englanders were growing tired of the piles of snow and difficult driving conditions, Angelica and Yaneth were loving it! They arrived on a Sunday night and woke up to a temperature reading of -1 Fahrenheit - yikes! For us this is cold, for them, it was something they had never imagined they would ever have the chance to experience. I can't remember the first time I saw snow having grown up here in New England - but think about the feel of snowflakes falling on your face, the pure adrenaline of racing down a hill on a sled or your first snow ball fight. They were amazed.

"We have pizza - but not like this." -Yaneth

As a self-described foodie, delicious and interesting foods are central in my life - and the same goes for many of the folks that work at Equal Exchange. We talk about food all the time in the laboratory and food references have become a main focus both inside and outside of the coffee roastery. We wanted Angelica and Yaneth to experience a variety of foods that we enjoy and are easily cross referenced with flavors we find on the coffee table, so we set up tastings that included: five different kinds of apples, star fruit, milk chocolate, very dark chocolate, raspberries, blueberries, dried figs and more. Some of the food that we find so commonplace like pizza or beef stew was like a new food adventure at every meal. Sure, they had pizza in Colombia but as they told me more than once, "not like this!" It was awesome to listen to their comments as they ate, and see the truth reflected on their faces when they weren't so fond of a dish"¦. but when they enjoyed a dish, pure joy would spread across their faces. I saw these expressions during a delicious meal at our favorite restaurant Loie Fullers in Providence, RI. It is a gorgeous French inspired bistro owned by our friends Desi and Eric on the West Side of Providence, RI, and the food is amazing! We spent the evening sampling a variety of delectable plates: pistachio filled ravioli, rendered duck, mussels and frites - touting sweet, sour and savory flavors. Yaneth said, "it's like a dream" as she sat looking out the window as heavy snow was falling. They clearly enjoyed the atmosphere, tasty food and the juicy Cote du Rhone that accompanied it. After dinner we ventured home (I live four blocks away, lucky me) through the snow and I suddenly found myself running down the street laughing hysterically as Yaneth and Angelica threw snowballs - or some version of them - at each other and at me. This was their first snow ball fight. They say I started it, but I can't imagine that, knowing those two.

"And this is my dad." -Angelica

One of the coolest parts of our cultural exchange was technological: Angelica was sharing daily updates with her friends and family on Facebook and chatting every other night on Skype. I was downstairs in our kitchen preparing some food for my son, Magnus, when suddenly Angelica appeared with her laptop in hand and her father on the computer screen. It was the first time I had ever been introduced to someone via Skype and it truly encompassed the power of technology during the week. Angelica snapped photos everywhere she went, from the airport, to the roaster, the train, to the Equal Exchange coffee trike, she kept all of her friends and family updated about everything!

Aside from the cultural differences Angelica saw during the week she was very excited to talk about how Cooperation in Quality would influence her work:

"Everything I learned is very valuable in our practice: the method used to describe the physical and sensory [side] of coffee; roasting and cupping coffee from other countries with different characteristics [than ours]; preparing and tasting espresso; chocolate tasting; alternative methods used to prepare coffee [like the French press, Clever & pourover]; and, of course, the warmth that is seen in Equal Exchange, a well established company with enterprising people that are hardworking, friendly, responsible and dedicated to such demanding work. From this experience I can strengthen my methods of analysis and preparation of the drink. I can share with employees and farmers how important our coffee is for you and I can try to create a culture of family consumption - management in growing, harvesting, processing, drying and storing [their coffee] to maintain very strict product quality."

The morning after Angelica and Yaneth left for Colombia my son Magnus said, "Mama, where are the Colombians?" I said, "I'm sorry sweetie, they went home," and he looked at me with very sad eyes. I asked him, "Do you miss them?" and he said, "Yeah" and I replied, "Yeah, me too."