Carson Lynch is the owner of The Gorham Grind, a small coffee house in downtown Gorham. Earlier this month he took a trip to a coffee farm in Costa Rica with the owners and some of the staff of Portland based roaster Coffee By Design to get a better sense of where America’s favorite drug comes from and how it is harvested.
Carson and I talked about his experience in Costa Rica, how the Dot Com boom of the 1990s fueled the popularity of coffee houses, and why coffee can be “as esoteric or as blue collar as you like.”
Tell me a bit about your interest in where coffee comes from. All coffee is not farmed and created the same way. Why does that matter?
I moved to Gorham and bought this place, which was then a year old, and I had the time to put into it. The previous owners didn’t really have that time. I had a relationship with Coffee By Design and I really appreciated that they weren’t following fluctuations in the market, trends or fads. They would continue to source sustainable coffee that met or exceeded standards represented by logos people had come to put on that product, meaning “Fair Trade”, meaning “Organic Certified.” Those sorts of labels are often run by for-profit companies and it is hard to know what you’re getting. Sometimes a farm can’t afford the $30,000 it takes to get classified “organic” so they would rather put that money into their people and land. They would never use pesticides so it has always been technically organic. You have to know your roaster to find these things out, and they knew this stuff.
I am definitely guilty of judging based on labels alone and you bring up the important point that the labels themselves carry baggage. What you are pointing out is that people concerned with the origin of their coffee would smart to maintain a relationship with knowledgeable roasters. That roaster might know more about the overall process than simply what certifications can reveal?
It is hard to shop by label, it really is. I don’t take anything away from TransFair or any of the organizations that have created some sort of standard. In fact, I encourage anyone who is reading this to check out the Rainforest Certification for coffee. It is provided by the Rainbow Alliance, which is a sustainability, organic farming and positive treatment of workers organization on steroids, basically.
So how did you end up in Costa Rica?
Coffee By Design has been visiting countries of origin for years. The owners [Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear] bring high level management on these trips. They believe in knowing their farmers. This was the first trip on which they have taken people who are not part of the company and I was fortunate to be part of that. It was incredibly exciting because they know that people like me, people who carry their coffee, want to tell this story. We tell it non-verbally every day when we sell the product. You can taste the difference. But coffee production is a very labor intensive process. We have all heard that if coffee was priced based on how much it actually costs to make, no one would buy it. But there is this middle ground for cafe owners and roasters to figure out and the only way to really understand the entire process is to go and see it. There is nothing like being there. I got the whole story from tree to cup.
Tell me about your time there.
It was 6 days total. We stayed on a farm, where we had three full days to see every aspect of production. We were about 2 hours outside of San Jose. This farm is owned by a broker and importer. The farm is called Hacienda La Minita and they also own one called Hacienda Rio Negro. There are other properties they own around the world, but these guys have been doing incredible things around coffee and sustainability and all of the elements of fair trade since the 80s because it is good business. They have always wanted to raise the bar on what is in the cup.
Coffee beans come from the seeds of a cherry. The cherries have to be the right color. To properly harvest Arabica coffee you can’t mechanically strip the leaves and pull off the branches. So we picked and we sold coffee on the roads. Basically you work the fields and filled your baskets—well, you would like to believe it is full but it is unbelievable how much work that has to go into filling a basket of coffee.
I say all of this with no disrespect. I say it to paint a picture. You work behind a counter much of the time and before that you worked what became a corporate job. You are not predisposed to farming.
[Laughs] And that became very clear. That’s why they sent us down there. That was very much the point of the trip.
And you said something about selling coffee on the roads?
You take your harvest and a guy comes by on a tractor with a cash box and your basket is turned into these standard boxes. Those boxes have a value and you are paid cash. For about an hours worth of work I made 350 Colones, which is about 78 cents and that was with people throwing stuff in my basket to help me out.
I should also add that La Minita is on an incline that doesn’t look safe to step near. It looks like a cliff and in order to get around on it you need to find a clearing. There are people working on them like mountain goats. It is unbelievable how relaxed they are in conditions that seem untenable to us.
Yeah. If we get three inches of snow I don’t drive anywhere.
I am generally weak and terrified. I am not one for cliff based coffee picking. So by going on this trip, you see how harrowing this process really is. What did you take out of your adventure?
Treating people well—treating the Earth well is good business. The best companies know that and have known it forever. They don’t need government regulation to tell them that. For example, La Minita is in the delta of two rivers in the valley and they have been generating hydroelectric power since the 80s. It was a huge investment then and everyone thought they were crazy because the coffee boom had not yet happened. It was all flatland coffee at the time, and all machine picked—grocery store coffee. They had this vision that if they followed through and with the right amount of investment and upfront infrastructure they realized that they were going to be able to offer more and more to their employees each year. They have electric meters that run backwards for 9 months out of the year because they were smart enough to figure out selling back to the grid was a good move back in the 80s.
This mentality of yours—where you maintain quality and uphold an ethos ahead of competing just to compete—is growing in popularity but it is still an outlier of an outlook. How do you survive in a marketplace that puts a premium on intense competition?
There is backlash to big box. I think what you see after big box stores strip-mine a section of a road for other businesses there is a morning after moment where the general public realizes, “That little hardware store really listened to me and stocked weird things and got into the idea of special ordering.” In terms of brick and mortar, small business is more responsive and can create a more satisfying customer experience. I think down the road we are going to look back and see that there was a high cost to low price. We lose an important connection to the community.
Why did you get into the coffee business?
It is the culmination of a great relationship I have had with Coffee By Design, who I have a vendor relationship with in the late 90s and into 2000. I worked at what was then Fresh Samantha. I enjoyed how CBD appreciated vendors and how they did not switch products lightly. They would do whatever they could to stay with a brand no matter what the sales were like during the week or month. That’s not always the case when you are talking about businesses, which tend to go after the hottest brands. There was a good vibe whenever I went to CBD.
I moved on from Fresh Samantha during the Coke buy-out but up to that point I had found myself doing my administrative work at cafes. I couldn’t work at home or a cubicle and so I appreciated the cafe, which is that third space community hub that has the right amount of activity in the background.
And it provides space built around one of two America’s favorite drugs, which are caffeine and alcohol. Great ideas are sorted out around coffee consumption and then debated over booze. America was born to this marriage.
Totally. And this was all through the 90s. I had seen a lot of different people attack the idea of the coffee house with all of the money that had come out of the Dot Com boom and bust and you could see who was doing it genuinely and who wasn’t. As I was traveling around for various types of delivery and sales, I started coming up with a list of coffee houses that were doing it right. I compiled a greatest hits list of how I would do it myself and that is when the idea really took shape for how I would do this when I actually grew up. Then I took my savings and I held my breath.
I ended up managing Coffee By Design’s store in Monument Square for a while and I got a wholesale account with them. Portland’s coffeehouse scene was starting to catch up with Boston and elsewhere from 2002 through 2005. I saw the density of coffeehouse culture in Portland and decided that I wanted to open something outside of the city.
I never really thought about the relationship between the Dot Com boom and the ascent of modern coffee house culture.
When the Internet really blew up, everyone in Silicon Valley were working like crazy and so there were these people on the West Coast who were totally wired all of the time literally and figuratively. Coffee was a big deal and there was a lot of money floating around. When more and more successful tech companies relocated, they took that idea with them. You know, there has to be a latte on every corner. It is not that every single person who got out of Dot Com started a cafe but what I did see was people getting sick of corporate and looking for something more simple to do with their lives. I think Portland Coffee Roasters had that story back then.
So these people who were fueling their work with caffeine were inspired by that and they had money to invest into spreading the vision.
Every floor on a Microsoft campus not only offers free coffee but free espresso. It is just how they do.
When I saw these places sprouting up for whatever reason, I saw people who really cared and who were working day and night. Knowing that CBD was that kind of company, they were present and hands on, inspired me to spend money in their store, spend money there, and to try to figure out how I would adopt those ethics in my life. I was working what had become a corporate job and in corporate work when you are promoted and move up any sort of ladder you move further away from the street and the action. You start to feel a little bit empty. I wanted to keep it real. The people I met who were in this not exclusively to make money but because they really cared about it were finding very tiring but very satisfying lives. Eventually I ended up here.
Coffee can be and is a form of fine cuisine. It is as complex as wine. There are elements to the cherry that encases the coffee seed, which becomes the bean that you roast. That can be imparted to the bean to add an incredible amount of other flavor and life to that. Most of the people that I talk to don’t even realize that the bean is a seed, and the way that the fruit is harvested and milled directly impacts what is in your cup. It is a deep rabbit hole in terms of a culinary item. My job is to keep it fresh and hot, keep the gear clean, and not phone it in because that translates into really delicious espresso which has its own life. Extracting the oils from coffee with an espresso machine is something we realize is different but we might not know why. The way that interacts with caramelized sugars in steamed milk is another way you can go with it. There are many layers.
Or it can be a matter where someone doesn’t want to be bothered with the details and the cup sizes are 12, 16 and 20 ounces—we haven’t made up words for the sizes. And that’s that. Coffee can be as esoteric or as blue collar as you like.
IMAGE CREDIT: Carson Lynch