It all started after I received a customer ticket from a guy named David Griswold. It seemed pretty random. Who is this guy and what does he want? Sadly I did not know who he was at the time, even in the small world of specialty coffee.
He was kind in his introduction, asked some great questions that led us to many follow up meetings and finally an invitation to come to a special event called, “Let’s Talk Coffee.”
So we went.
This is a short story of our experience at Let’s Talk Coffee in Honduras 2023. This will not be a step-by-step explanation of everything that happened, but I wanted to share a few private moments that stuck with me. We attend a lot of events, but this one was different in a very fun way.
We stepped off the plane for the first time in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and were sped through customs. Within a matter of moments we were hand shaking other attendees in the Let’s Talk Coffee welcome tent outside of the airport. This was a breath of fresh air and prepared us for the next step; the bus ride to Copan Ruinas.
Shortly after leaving San Pedro Sula a special theme for this event began to take shape;relationships. It’s a five dollar word used too often, like synergy, but is an apt description of what this event creates. We definitely had some extra time to say hi to those sitting next to us on the bus ride up to Copan Ruinas.
After checking the GPS on my phone quite a few times to see how close we were, we finally arrived. We stepped off of the bus with more than 350 other coffee professionals from 26 countries and were greeted by a line of smiling event staff at the Marina Copan Convention Center.
It was a long 20 hour travel day to finally arrive in the beautiful city of Copan Ruinas, but it was worth it. This is a small town with steep cobblestone roads and an ornate town square with small rivers chasing the hillsides. The historical capital of chocolate and the place of Honduras’ national beautiful Macaw bird.
It felt like we were arriving on a vacation, not an event. We were definitely stepping into a sacred space and couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
TIME TO HIKE
Our first surprise for the event was that our airbnb was over a mile away from the town square. The event did provide a list of suggested hotels but we thought this would be ok. Since we do not speak Spanish, requesting a taxi service to pick us up was not as easy as signaling an Uber or Lyft. It worked out, but next time we will just stay at one of the hotels they recommend.
After walking a mile on dirt roads that morning in white pants hoping to remain clean, we arrived at the square and got on the bus. Remember the theme I mentioned on the first bus ride? It was back. The conversations began and we ended up meeting one of the faces for coffee in Brazil, Luisa Nogueira.
After a brief interview off the bus, we walked into the event to get some breakfast.
There were many times where we would sit down for breakfast or lunch and the people at our table could not speak English, but we were all excited to get to know each other. So almost every single time we found help from someone else sitting at the table to help translate between us. Our broken Spanish was sadly not conversational so this was much appreciated.
The daily cuisine was perfect throughout the day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the sun’s shadows dropping into the small valley of the event hall’s eating area definitely pulled you further into a mindset ready to listen.
I’m not going to go over every single talk as mentioned before, but just share a few of my personal favorites and why they were important to me. All of the panels were amazing with their own unique messages, but each of us in the audience brought our unique perspectives too. So you are looking at the event through my glasses to see what was the most exciting from my limited perspective.
So please take my thoughts with an open hand, or a grain of salt, or whatever idiom you can think of and remember that these are only my thoughts, not a judgment of anything else positive or negative at the event.
Jon Allen stood up to the podium and rocked the mic. For those that know, you know ;)
I loved their four pillars of quality, transparency, kindness and beauty. Quality is a rhythm for Onyx. It includes aesthetics, the way they treat their baristas and vendors and even the pursuit of good. Jon eventually introduced his old boss, whom he married; Andrea.
Andrea shared her vulnerable first moments in the coffee industry and Onyx’s humble beginnings. She is a true story teller. One of my favorite quotes was, “coffee is the place that we gather to share moments.”
I spoke with Jon afterwards and shared that their transparency model reminded me of a fun tactic practiced by an old theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He would sometimes overstate things, almost heretically, to get your attention. When you unashamedly stand for something that helps others, how do you get their attention? Share it in a way they can’t ignore.
We are big fans of the magic that Jon and Andrea create, but to spend more time in person and hear their vulnerability was humbling. Their next steps will continue to rock the mic, whatever they choose to do.
This was a fun two-speaker panel by Carlos Guerra and Cosimo Libardo. We’ve known Cosimo for awhile so it was a great familiar face, but Carlos was new to us. His mystique was only known as a brewer champion from Honduras and he quickly helped us understand why.
Carlos stood up with no notes and recited his entire talk in English perfectly; a second language for him by the way. We got to know Carlos better after the event while visiting his beautiful cafe Cafe San Rafael in Copan Ruinas. He shared how his branding was pieced together using the elements of three.
He is a humble and an insanely talented coffee professional with a great stage presence. Some of our next steps in Honduras include Carlos’s help, so we are so excited to share that news very soon.
Australia soon took the stage, which included Lucy Ward (St. Ali Coffee Roasters), Debra Knight (Knight Mattingly Coffee Roasters) with moderation by Sarah Baker from BeanScene Magazine. Ok, they don’t represent all of Australia of course, but it was a fun conversation.
Some of their stories included how each company managed the tough times through COVID with new creative ways of reaching their customers. Some ideas included introducing new delivery home services and new products like whiskey or other RTD type drinks.
Lucy shared a fun short history about Italians roasting coffee in Melbourne and also how Americans are similar to Australians in how they drink their coffee: we both like to sit and drink. Whereas Italians typically drink coffee quickly and stand.
This talk was memorable because of the brief look back to what we all experienced together worldwide. It was tumultuous time filled with unknowns and to relive those moments from the other side of the world was fascinating.
HOW DO WE BUILD MORE DATA-DRIVE COFFEE SUPPLY CHAINS?
One of my favorite panels was almost at the end of the event hosted by Veronika Bolduc. She is truly brilliant and has a strong coffee champion pedigree winning multiple brewers cups, coffee in good spirits, and more at WOC (world of coffee). She is the head of marketing at Roest in Norway.
I think that this event was my favorite because I had just witnessed a magical demonstration unfold before my eyes moments earlier in the cupping room. That demonstration built up my expectations because I wanted to hear more details about what just happened. I will share more about that cupping room demonstration shortly.
And also, as a reliability engineer in my past life (NASA, Kansas State University), I was constantly analyzing data to define optimum reliability of aircraft systems for maximum life cycle. So I am naturally looking for the fun ‘data-driven’ talks because I love to see how others are analyzing data in their industries.
This panel included Alan Lai (Profile Print), Ji Hoon (Eggstone), Peter Roberts (Emory University) and Bill Ristenpart (UC Davis).
Veronika opened with a talk demonstrating the coffee processes where human error is introduced. She explained a typical day reviewing 40 samples from origin;.recording the data, preparing samples for roasting in an old drum roaster (in her past job), and then going over 120 cups on the table. She then explained that this is where technology can help the most; helping us reduce the amount of errors. This will help us identify defects faster, communicate more effectively and roast better.
Afterwards William Ristenpart spoke. He is a professor of chemical engineering at the UC Davis Coffee Center. He shared one of the books used for his coffee class, “The Design of Coffee an Engineering Approach,” where he has been able to grow their coffee program from 18 students in 2013 to 704 this year. He also shared details about Roastpic, a tech incubator that gathers coffee data (size, color and defects) in one photo. The date is gathered from many different stages in the coffee supply chain.
Ji, the founder and CEO of Eggstone was given the podium next. His company applies artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics to coffee. He believes the datafication of the green bean is the core in driving a data driven supply chain. They scan coffee with light scan technology (Profile Print) and he shared many charts to prove his points. One spider chart listed acidity, sweetness, aroma, body and bitterness showing ‘crop year differences’ and was linked to a bar chart of the chemical components that increased and decreased during the same time period. These charts connected the relationship between the chemical components and tastes.
Next up to the podium was Alan Lai with Profile Print. His primary goal is to help coffee cuppers become better cuppers wherever they are in the industry: buyers, sellers/growers, or traders. They have a special tool that grades coffee and also works with many other types of products like juices, herbs, spices, tea and more. This tool was a part of the demonstration in the cupping room that took place before this talk.
The final speaker was a business professor from Emory University, Peter Roberts. He shared his research on the Specialty Coffee Transaction Guide to try to help uncouple the daily use of C prices to guide all coffee pricing in specialty coffee. He was essentially trying to create the Kelley Blue Book of coffee prices based on real data from the 199 companies participating in the study. So be sure to download the latest guide with his link below and take a peak yourself.
Here are a few of Veronika’s questions with the panel’s answers.
Veronika asked, “How do we know how much data is enough and how do we overcome the challenges in collecting the data?”
The panel responded that they can’t say an exact number, but the more people to participate in more areas around the world will help. Alan added that potentially less, but better data is always preferred to more data. The next questions helped try to answer what is ‘better data.’
Veronika asked, “How can we trust the data? If we can manipulate chat.gpt to create false answers like 2+2=5, how do we get the best data in coffee?”
The answers ranged from explaining that data comes in stages at different thresholds, so they would be graded differently. Xi added that if a coffee scores differently from region to region, that machine learning will adjust to the region where you are located for the cupping score. This provides preference for the people in those regions.
My reaction was that I thought the data would not be weighted in the scores, but maybe in a separate ‘preference for region’ section possibly. Either way, this was a great talk with a lot of brilliant minds that are all helping us take big next steps in data for the coffee industry.
WHAT WILL BE THE IMPACT OF ELECTRIC ROASTER TECHNOLOGY?
I won’t share as many details in this talk, but wanted to mention it because I could relate in a different way. I felt the great amount of efforts all of them had taken to get to this point in their businesses. Taylor and I are continually trying to push ourselves in our business to learn as fast as we can, so to see the founders of so many amazing companies share the stage was humbling.
The panel was moderated by Karla Quinones (Cafe Comunion) and included Arno Holschuh (Bellwether), Trond Simonsen (Roest), Andrew Storyd (Ikawa), and Alex Lee (representing Stronghold Technology, a canadian brewing champion).
All of their technologies are helping the coffee industry do better things, faster; so we are all indebted to their efforts.
Let’s Talk Coffee had a speaking hall and a cupping room. You could attend one or the other since they both had events scheduled for competing times. Most people in the speaking hall had no idea what history was being made in the cupping room, it was amazing.
On the last day there was a presentation for Profile Print and Eggstone and I was curious what they were going to present. I had no idea what to expect.
They started this event with a series of cuppings. After the cupping results were recorded in Tastify and then the mic was handed over to Juan (Cupping Farmer) and Xi (Eggstone) to present the next steps.
Alan Lei’s team from Profile Print pressed a button on their laptop to display the Tastify score on the projector and then pressed another button to view the Profile Print/Eggstone score grading the GREEN coffee in their special light grader.
Magic. The coffee scores were less than 0.5 points from each other.
They repeated this process at least two more times and the results were similar; the Tastify scores input by humans were only 0.5 points off from the Profile Print scored by their laser grader.
I needed to know more about this process and they were going to be in the speaking hall an hour later. It was exciting to see how easy it was for the hardware and software from Profile Print and Eggstone to easily replicate a similar score. This will definitely help the coffee ecosystem better communicate.
This was something truly special and unexpected. In fact, I had to learn how to tie a bowtie since it was part of the dress code. What a fun part of the randomness of this final event.
Everyone came in the main entrance to get a quick picture and then find a table. After sitting down with our food we were introduced to an amazing dance by the locals (with swords!), a short award ceremony and finally more conversations. Just like the event began, it was ending: building relationships.
What a spectacular way to end such a great time together. Get dressed up, have one last meal, and a final toast to the next steps for everyone.
THE MAYAN RUINS
With the event sadly over we had the amazing opportunity to visit the local Mayan ruins in Copan Ruinas. Taylor and I absolutely love history so we jumped at the chance to see the Paris of the Mayan culture.
One of the crown jewels of this particular site is the beautiful ornate stairway showing 16 generations of Mayan rulers. The Hieroglyphic Stairway has the longest known Maya text inscription from ancient Mesoamerica, dating from the eighth century AD (anno domini).
We could hear the macaw birds, but didn't see too many of them. They definitely woke us up at the airbnb a few times though as they seem to have extremely vocal cords!
I felt like we were walking through the ABC’s TV show Lost. Looking up at the tall trees in the first entrance, walking up a winding rock stairway to the first set of pyramids. Stepping through the beautiful landscape was definitely a step back in time. You could imagine the teams playing the dangerous game Pok-A-Tok, jumping between the two rings, or training in the great hall.
It was surreal.
One of the more disturbing historical practices explained to us by the docent (tour guide) was about the Mayan royalty adding jade to their teeth. Ouch!
Source for Map:
WHY WAS THIRD WAVE WATER IN HONDURAS?
We wanted to attend the event and hear the speakers for sure, but our main goals were to better understand the coffee industry and share how we can help. So many times we will execute something and then find out we were wrong or missing some key information. This was the perfect place to ask the hard questions and also receive the same difficult questions in return. It’s the best way to learn.
What we learned and what we are doing about it will be shared later this month and we can’t wait to share the details so stay tuned!
We want to give a special thanks to David Griswold and Aflonso Carmona for putting on such a great event, to Oscar Magro and Keith (Red e cafe) for breaking bread at the end of the trip at Carlos’s amazing cafe, to Davis Palazuelos, Juan Welchez and Carlos Guerra (San Rafael) for their hospitality and Allison and Hollis Anderson from Exploradora Coffee for great conversations on the last bus ride back to San Pedro Sula airport.
We left Honduras with a new found respect for our hard working friends in the coffee industry and are immensely blessed to enjoy the rich new relationships. Here is to seeing everyone again soon!
If you know any coffee farmer who needs Third Wave Water this year we are providing 50 sponsorships worldwide up to $50/year of value. Not all locations are guaranteed, but we will do our best to work with our partners to get the minerals delivered.