Back in May, I was invited to go on an origin trip to Guatemala. It was an absolutely incredible experience, filled with wondrous beauty and a lot of reality check. The trip truly changed my perspective and gave me a new sense of what our work at Full Cup Flavor roastery means.

First, I just want to say how incredible it is to work with the amazing people at Full Cup Flavor. Seriously, how many coffeehouse owners get to go to origin and meet the people who grow the coffee they serve? I’m still amazed that this even happened.

Mario Alvarez, one of the co-founders of Full Cup Flavor, took me to three very different farms in different regions of Guatemala. The memory of the two of them riding in the back of a truck (being expertly driven by coffee producer Gustavo Alfaro) still as fresh as an hour ago. They let me ride in the cab because they’re gentlemen. The reason Mario invited us on this adventure was to show us what ‘relationship coffee’ means, and now I think I have a pretty good working definition. Relationship coffee means handshakes and hugs. It means jokes, heartfelt deep conversation, and bonding. It means a coffee producer like Gustavo meeting us at the airport, taking us out for dinner, and arranging rides for us. Bottom line: it’s personal.

Gustavo’s farm was the first farm we visited. Hacienda Santa Rosa is sprawling and gorgeous. They produce a lot of very interesting coffees at Santa Rosa, and many of them are grown very high on a very tall mountain. To see the best coffees, we had to climb up, and good lord was it worth it.

Just in case you need it: a tiny bit of background about where coffee comes from. Even though we call it a coffee ‘bean’, coffee is not a bean. The ‘bean’ that we know is the seed of a fruit called a coffee cherry. The fruit has a sweet taste, and the seeds inside are covered with goo and a papery layer called parchment.

Since using machinery to pick cherry up so high would be impossible, the coffee is all picked by hand.  I have known this for a long time, but didn’t really understand the reality of that statement until the day we hiked that mountain. After about an hour of very steep climbing, when we were already getting tired (the elevation change wasn’t helping), we stepped into a clearing and, incredibly, people were picking coffee up there. I know there is no logical reason that I should have been surprised to see people picking up so high, but I just found it completely remarkable.

And the thing is, it is remarkable. The amount of work that goes into one cup of Guatemala coffee is incredible and shocking. We depend on so many different pairs of hands to grow, pick, process, import, and roast these incredible seeds, and what is our job as baristas? To brew it in a way that showcases all of the hard work that went into it, and then serve it to you. And your job is to drink it. You complete the circle.

Understanding the definition of ‘relationship coffee’ was a very important lesson to me for two reasons. First, because I don’t care what the suits say, business is personal. Full Cup Flavor is my baby, and its good to do business with people who feel the same way about their businesses. Often on this trip, I would realize that although our specific jobs are different, just about everyone we met and hung out with were on the same wavelength. Just a whole bunch of creative thinking small business owners constantly trying to figure out what’s next.

Secondly, I now have a much better understanding of our place in this incredible cycle.  The coffee industry is a very complex network of people who all share the common goal of making delicious coffee, and Full Cup Flavor is just a cog in that machine.

Here are some things that happened on our origin trip that completely amazed me:

In Your Guatemala Coffee Cup

We visited the studio of Rudy Cotton, a famous Guatemalan painter. This is an image that Mario took of me marvelling at his paintings. These panels are gorgeous – abstract expressions of the mountainous landscape and of the feelings felt by the people of Guatemala. I certainly felt drawn to the work, and I learned something amazing when I started talking to Rudy about his work: he studied under Wifredo Lam, who has been one of my favorite painters for at least 10 years. I think of Lam as one of those unsung heroes of the cubist movement, and to talk about art with one of his students was transcendent.

In Your Guatemala Coffee Cup

We visited Rudy’s studio because Gustavo recently commissioned him to paint this mural at his farm, Santa Rosa in Huehuetenango. This is a totally different definition of ‘coffee and art’, and the idea of having an artist making a permanent installation on a farm is a very novel and exciting idea. Would it not be amazing if you could go to local farms and see big sexy graffiti murals, for example?  I really think we need to explore that some more.

I also have to tell you about the ash piles.

At every farm we went to I kept seeing these charred piles of ash. At one point I asked a farm manager what they were, and he smiled and, pointing to the pile, just said “lunch”. They were remains of cooking fires. I was completely fascinated. The culinary anthropologist in me was showing itself as I asked too many questions to try to get to the bottom of it.

Here’s the story of the ash piles: the workers who pick the coffee generally bring in a small comal pan, tortillas, and some guacamole, meat or salsa (and I’m sure other things).  They make small fires to heat the tortillas, which allows them to have a hot lunch.

I had to think about it for awhile, but I finally realized why this was such an important discovery. The first layer, of course, is once again the reality check factor of getting a glimpse of what picking coffee means on a day to day level. But also this practice really serves to complete another circle for me, about why I got into the coffee business in the first place.

To make a (very) long story short, I got into coffee because I’ve had a long-standing interest in the history of caffeine and how this substance has shaped human culture. I’m not going to get into too much detail here – if you want a tangent about it, just ask me next time you see me. The crucial detail for our purposes is this: during the British industrial revolution, coffee and tea became very important to the newly growing class of workers moving into cities to labor in factories. These hot drinks, which were sweetened with sugar, helped keep people alert and allowed them to work longer hours. The other reason this became such an important daily ritual is summed up nicely by John Burnett:

“A cup of tea converted a cold meal into something like a hot one, and gave comfort and cheer besides.”

And that’s why this is so amazing to me. The coffee industry as we know it probably wouldn’t be quite so huge today if the working masses hadn’t decided it was a suitable replacement for a hot meal. But the fact is, a cup of coffee or tea does not really make a meal hot. But a cooking fire does. And there’s something interesting in that connection. The fact that an entire industry has been sustained by us – the global population in search of comfort and cheer, when the very people who pick our coffee just get right to the point and prepare a hot meal. I’m still amazed by this.