Ben from Sundog (left) and JMV (right)
Ben from Sundog (left) and JMV (right)

May & June 2023

Newsletter archive

July 3, 2023
sent to subscribers on
June 20, 2023

Hey everybody!

Last newsletter we wished you happy spring, and wow now it's 24/7 iced coffee time! The summer is already flying by, and on that note ...

AUGUST Shipment

... heads up! Both of us will be out of town during the first week of August so we will be shipping August subscriptions either early or late - whichever you prefer. Billing will still run on the 1st as usual, but we will send the specific shipment options via a super simple Google form next week to get your preference. Keep an eye out! :)


Our May shipment was a pretty special one, and a big first for us as coffee roasters (and for that matter, coffee drinkers!) This is the first single-producer Rwandan coffee we've roasted, and even the first we've knowingly tasted! Jean Marie Vianney, or JMV Usekanabagoyi is a smallholder located near Baho's Ngoma washing station. He's been working Baho since their first Ngoma harvest in 2020, and with 13,000kg of cherry harvested this year, he's one of the larger producers in the area.

Smallholders in Rwanda vs. Elsewhere

The vast vast majority of Rwandan coffee is blended at the washing station level, often with hundreds of producers contributing from surrounding hills. Producers deliver coffee that is still "in cherry" (i.e. with the fruit still on the seed), so all of the value-add processing is done after delivery. To put this in context, farmers all over the world sell their coffee in cherry, often to local processing stations or even to a buyer that shows up to their farm. However, even very small farms in Colombia, Honduras, etc, etc, will often do some or all of the processing in house.

Without getting too much into the weeds with details, it's important to remember that "small" doesn't mean the same thing in every coffee-producing origin. Each region has varying economic, agricultural and social factors that determine the realities of a typical smallholder. So while JMV is one of the larger producers contributing to the Ngoma station, by land area his farm is only half as big as the producer of El Durazno (our June subscription shipment), Don Santos Aguirre.

The Name on the Bag

Baho keeps detailed records of all deliveries, specifically tracking producers and lots all throughout the processing of the coffee. This allows them to sell separated lots of coffee such as the Ikizere project and JMV's coffee, as well as station-level blends. This is such an incredible project, and we've learned a lot roasting and brewing the separations over the last few years. Even within the same region, same variety and the same washing station, there's so much beautiful nuance in all the different coffees.

There's also an economic incentive driving this change. In the words of Baho owner Emmanuel Rusatira,

The reason why Baho coffee selected to process and market their production separetely from others is because we wanted motivate them. Selling coffee in their names makes them proud and increases their energy and commitment. It is very easy to ask them to implement all our quality control protocol and it is also easy to have full information about their farms through our records taking system. We wish that, in future, this coffee to be served in coffee shops in the names of these farmers, owners. We are more than happy of what happened for our first year of this initiatives and we want keep extending till we can 100% give any information about our coffee from farm to export level. We have signed a commitment letter with these farmers where they commit to implement all good agricultural practice, quality control and deliver cherries to Baho cws. Baho will market, promote their coffee and pay them better prices that is higher than any other farm in the region/country.

Specialty coffee roasters love to buy coffees that are unique, and a lot of coffee drinkers are looking to feel more connected to coffee growers. espy definitely falls into both of these categories, and we certainly support and respect the work Emmanuel is doing!

Whose Name is it Anyway?

At the same time, we do recognize the inherent stickiness that comes with selling a story - especially when the realities of agricultural labor are murkier than what The Name on the Bag might lead you to believe. As an example, I (Peter) recently saw Baho coffee sold under the label "Emmanuel Rusatira" in a cafe. Had I not known otherwise, I would have definitely assumed this was the name of the person growing the coffee. While I think Emmanuel is making a materially positive difference in his corner of the industry, I don't really think he's out there picking cherry every day.

Named coffees are very popular with specialty coffee roasters. While it doesn't change how much the farmer gets paid, I do think Emmanuel's own perspective (above) is worth considering! How would he feel about his name on a bag of coffee? How would the producers feel? To be clear, JMV didn't actually pick every single cherry himself. Coffee, like most things, is the product of many anonymous workers spanning continents. If we wanted to accurately name a coffee after its producers, it would take a preeettty big label.

Workers Deserve the World

To be clear, we're not critiquing anybody here - we're specifically trying to move on from a framework that places all the praise (or blame) on an individual moral actor. Nobody is autonomous - we're all just out here living in the conditions! All of the coffee we love and believe exists in an inherently exploitative market. Still, asking yourself "who does the work" is a really good practice. On one level, there's real meaning to be found in making something! We feel it, I'm sure you feel it, and it absolutely motivates coffee farmers too. Chatting with the growers we know, there's a comradery formed around the mutual commitment to making something beautiful, despite literally oceans of space between us.

On another level, asking "who does the work" is a useful starting point for analyzing economic structures (or maybe relations of production for those keeping track at home). Learning who does the work is an essential first step of developing class consciousness, as we can also ask this about our own work. Probably, you do the work, which gives you something in common with JMV, those picking cherry on his farm, and those packing shipping containers onto freight ships. Maybe less so in common with politicians (even your faves), business owners (even some local ones) or landlords! Something to think about :)

More Baho coffee coming in July! Maaaaybe just the juiciest coffee of the year. Attached is the JMV info pack and cute pics of him and Ben from Sundog

<3 -S+P