So Alexis, where are you from? How did you get involved with Crop to Cup?
I’m from Northern California. I went to college in Maine, and majored in Anthropology and Art, and I moved to Brooklyn after that – about four years ago. I’ve always been interested in food and the culture of food – I guess part of that came from my anthropology studies.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Brooklyn Flea, and that’s where I discovered Crop to Cup. It was three years ago. I really liked their coffee, but it was their approach to the whole thing that really caught my eye – their real focus on transparency and the farmers who grow the coffee – they had pictures of the farmers and their families, stories about who they are, where they live. I hadn’t really thought much about coffee origins before and I found it really interesting.
So I just introduced myself to Taylor at Flea, and I kind of nudged him for a while, asking if he had had any work he needed done, and after a few weeks I started organizing and working Crop to Cup’s weekends at Flea. Over the course of the next year that evolved into a full time position running the Brooklyn wholesale operation, and helping Taylor to grow the company by doing whatever needed to be done.
Can you tell us a little about how the company was founded?
Sure. Taylor went to NYU, and while he was there he spent some time studying abroad in Switzerland. That’s where he met Jake, our co-founder who’s based in Chicago. They became friends and while they were over there they met a guy who was a coffee exporter who did a lot of work in Uganda.
When they finished school, they went to Uganda to work for the exporter. The were based in Mbale, which is north of Kampala. There’s a whole coffee community in Uganda, from the farmers to the exporters, and all kinds of tasters and graders from all over the world. They got to know one particular exporter – a Brit – really well. He had this like cadre of expert tasters that are called Q graders. They were from all over the world – Ethiopia, Costa Rica – everywhere, and they really knew what they were doing. They started to really open up the whole world of coffee to Taylor and Jake, and they just started getting fascinated by it all.
There is a LOT of coffee coming out of Uganda. It’s mostly lower-grade stuff that’s used by bigger companies like Folgers for what they call ‘filler coffee,’ but Uganda also has a lot of the highest-quality Arabica growing at high elevations up in the mountains.
So while they were working there, they really got excited about the coffee, and about the idea of kind of promoting the people growing it. That never happens with coffee. Like with lots of foods, the coffee supply chain really completely disconnects the farmers from the consumers. At that time, Ugandan coffee was known, but not nearly as well as Ethiopian Yergachef or Colombian or other specialty varieties. There’s always a ‘hot’ coffee, and Uganda definitely didn’t have that status then. Anyway, they wanted to bring both this great specialty grade Ugandan Arabica coffee to the U.S., and they wanted to promote transparency regarding the whole coffee production process.
So they went ahead and imported a quarter of a container’s worth of coffee beans. Jake worked out of Chicago and Taylor worked out of a storage space here in Brooklyn. They found a great roaster here called Gillies – they’re just a few blocks away. They do an amazing job and we love working with them. They’re a family business and they’ve been roasting coffee in Brooklyn for eight generations. Once they had a roaster in place, Jake and Taylor hit the streets, going door to door from cafe to cafe, restaurant to restaurant, and just started finding clients and getting it going!
You mentioned that the higher-quality coffee in Uganda comes from higher elevations. Can you tell us some more about that?
In general, the higher the elevation at which the coffee is grown, the better the coffee. Up in the mountains, you get much more drastic temperature fluctuations than you do at lower elevations. Basically, it gets pretty cold every night. That temperature change affects the natural sugars in the plant, which allows some really complex flavors to develop. It gives the Ugandan mountain Arabica a really smooth, distinctive kind of chocolaty flavor. Most of the farmers we work with live in the Mount Elgon region, which is one of the highest elevation coffee producing areas on the planet.
Uganda also produces a lot of robusta coffee. Robusta is a more resilient plant grown at lower elevations. It’s considered a lower grade and lower quality of coffee. The beans are smaller, and it doesn’t benefit from those temperature fluctuations that you get up in the mountains – both factors affect flavor. The bigger the bean, the more time it’s had to grow. The more time it’s had to grow and mature, the more complex the flavors become.