Blueprint Coffee Origin Partnership Vision

Since opening in 2013, we have tasted coffees and had many constructive conversations about how we can make a relevant impact on our coffee origins. The conversations have focused on the lives of the people in the specialty coffee chain and the future of the coffee industry. As idealistic as it sounds, it is something we take seriously as a part of our role in the coffee industry and as business owners. Before opening Blueprint, we came up with the following questions to determine the success of our sourcing:

1) What coffees in our line up have been consistently good? And why?

2) Which coffees have long-term connections with our importers?

3) How can we make a relevant impact to the people growing, harvesting, and processing coffee?

4) How can we do that in a manner that shares in the risks that are taken by our importers and the people of specialty coffee?

5) How do we do that in a manner that is mutually beneficial to the producers as well?

After pondering these questions many times and taking a number of trips to visit producers at origin, we have set the following principles to approaching our origin partnerships.

Building Trust and Insuring Risk

To begin and establish a foundation of trust with our coffee partners we need to establish a level of relationship and partnership based on common goals.

The seed that this partnership is grown out of is a personal and business connection. This is why after having bought, roasted, and sold a partner coffee, we establish deeper ties that are important to us. In some cases, we are identifying these partners based on the history and experience of our importers. They are the ones who have spent years investing time and resource, building quality and relationship, before Blueprint was ever in the picture. Trusting our importers is as just as important as trusting our origin partners because we are reliant upon them to gain insight into the region, the personalities of the farmers, and the present and future state of the regions.

After meeting the producer or experiencing their coffee, we then begin a process of inquiry to identify the producer’s needs and to understand if Blueprint can be of assistance at a basic level. To a farmer, processing adjustments in the name of quality improvement is a risk. It cannot be separated from any other risks and costs of farming, like drought, disease, farm management, and market fluctuations. An attempt to improve quality by changing reliable methods can be a greater risk. 

I share a meal with the owner, Ana Vizciano, and staff of La Esperanza in Guatemala
Josue Morales of TG-Lab and Hignio Gomez tour Hignio's farm, Las Moritas.
Jesus, the farm manager at La Fragua in Colombia, uses a backpack sprayer to apply actively-aerated compost tea to the coffee trees at La Fragua for the first time.
Our partners at La Fragua in Colombia – Miguel (farm manager), Lina Sinisterra (farm owner), myself, and Chris Davidson (Atlas Coffee Importers)

A 2011 agricultural study by The Jornal of Risk and Assurance showed that farmers will not take a risk in adding new crops to their farm unless it is insured. This included the farmers known for great quality and farm management.[1] When the test group started offering insurance, the farmers started planting new varieties of crops to diversify their offerings. At Blueprint, we do not want to encourage a risk for a farmer that is not insured or supported by us. We benefit from the positive results if it works and feel it is unethical to back out if it doesn’t. This is where trust grows. This is where learning occurs. We believe in the learning process as an indispensible component to this partnership for both parties to gain an understanding of sound principles. These principles will assist in the long-term goals of all parties to improve quality, sustainability of the farm, and strength of the partnership.

 

Maintaining or Creating Environmental and Economic Sustainability

To begin a conversation about sustainability we need to start with the coffee plant and what supports it. What provides its health and long-term vitality is the foundation of sustainability. We are firm believers that soil is the source of long-term health and sustainability of any farm. Conventional farming has disregarded and misunderstood the needs of plants for too long. To have healthy and disease-resistant plants, soil biology needs to be sound. We have personally invested our time and energy in understanding the micro-ecology of soil and the need for improving composting methods and applications. This contributes to the foundation of our partnerships. 

We are actively supporting this approach to soil health in Guatemala and Colombia with two of our origin partners. Our goal is to reduce the input costs of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, while making it a healthier environment for the plants, people, and earth.

 

Identifying the Real Costs of Production and Quality

Another step in building our partnership while moving collaboratively towards economic sustainability and improved quality is to establish the real costs of production. To have an honest and fair conversation about shared risk between partners is to establish base line costs. Farmers are faced with unpredictable variables every year but have very pragmatic decisions to make, such as:

How do I sell my coffee in order to make ends meet?

Where will the market be next year?

Should I try something risky and attempt to get more money for my

coffee?

If so, will the market hold out to reward that investment?

What if I try something different and the importer/roaster rejects it and the market is down?

Measuring the progress of a test batch of coffee fermenting in Guatemala with the aid of inoculated yeasts provided by Lucia Solis of Scott's Lab.
Purposefully built compost and the farm staff at La Esperanza in Guatemala. January 2017.
I usually bring my microscope and testing equipment to origin to analyze soil and fermentation samples.
Members of the Tomastepec Cooperative in Guatemala spend some time sorting their harvest before turning in fresh cherry because they are paid better for consistent and ripe cherry.

These questions, in addition to outside pressures, are a part of the pragmatic decisions farmers face annually. This is why real costs are established as we start to build the partnership. Then, any agreement to improve quality is firmly rooted in the costs the farmer incurs and the yield they produce. Blueprint directly perceives the value in improved quality and is committed regardless of result, because real costs were invested in the product.

 

Understanding the Fundamentals of Quality

So, the immediate question to the above principle is to ask, “What if the coffee isn’t good enough?” Any collaboration must have clear goals and methods mapped out in order to gain a better understanding of fundamentals of quality. The fundamentals of quality need to be rooted in data that allow both parties to first understand the process then communicate how the process influenced the result. This quickly gets highly technical and involves infrastructure development. Luckily, this analysis does not all need to occur at once. We see this as a process to build year-to-year and as connections between costs and quality are discerned. The extent of our investment can then be moderated according to need. The idea is to work collaboratively to establish a baseline for quality and leave with a better understanding of how it happened. 

This helps establish a framework for the collaboration to grow and move forward. Most importantly, it allows the commercial relationship to move beyond pass/fail status and allows for a progressive partnership that grows on information. When both parties trust each other and understand the goals, the incentives are shared, the costs are shared, and the benefits are shared allowing the process to be mutually beneficial. [2]

[1] The Journal of Risk and Insurance, 2011, Vol. 78, No. 1, 37-55

[2] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2016/popular-economicsciences2016.pdf