We sat down with our production manager, Alek Bergquist, to discuss his recent trip to Kenya with Amanda [our green coffee buyer] and Devin [our head roaster].
VCR | What is your name and current role in the coffee supply chain at Verve Coffee Roasters?
Alek | My name is Alek and I’m the Production Manager, IE the resident cat herder for the production crew, at the Verve roastery in Santa Cruz, CA.
VCR | You just came back from Origin. Where did you go?
Alek | I traveled to Kenya to run around and drink coffee with Amanda [our green coffee buyer] and Devin [our head roaster]. It was crazy; tons of coffee, tusker ale, and amazing people.
VCR | Were you prepared to cup that much coffee?
Alek | I felt okay about it, it wasn’t that bad. It took a bit to calibrate to Kenyan coffees specifically. Our exporter, Raphael cups all day so he’s used to it. He, Amanda and Devin just dove in. I was jet lagged and half awake but had a moment where I just had to be like, “Alright. Let’s go.” By the end of the cupping, we had all landed on some group favorites and it felt really good to all be on the same page. I feel super calibrated with Kenya now. Because we drink amazing coffee all day I haven’t had much exposure to some defects, I still need to dial in on a few specifics and get up to Amanda and Devin’s level. It’s not like drinking coffee normally, you’re slurping coffee out of a spoon for eight hours and analyzing it from every angle. It was intense and great. I just had to check in and remind myself to eat occasionally [laughs].
VCR | Did you have to do any scoring?
Alek | We did it the whole time. The three of us scored through full tables which had around twenty plus coffees per table. We would taste the full table and go back through and go over each coffee individually and see where we were at with each coffee. It was really beneficial for me to rotate through so many coffees with Amanda and Devin. Cupping with them is always great, they’re a wealth of knowledge and it helps elevate my understanding. Those tables specifically highlighted some defects and details in coffee grading. That was pretty rad.
VCR | Now that you’ve been there during a cupping, do you wish that you could have been there when it was harvest and prep time?
Alek | Totally. We went to a few factories, Kenya has an interesting system but all the co-ops run the wet mills which they call factories. There wasn’t much happening at the wet mills because all of the crops had already been processed and passed along to the dry mills. We mobbed all over the countryside and would show up and talk to the mill director and check it out but we only hung out for about 20-30 minutes because there really wasn’t much processing going on.
Cupping at Dormans was pretty rad. Their specialty coffee rep, Raphael, setup over a hundred pretty awesome coffees for us to cup. During peak season, as all of the coffees from co-ops and estates process their coffees for sale and auction he’s cupping a few hundred coffees a day.
VCR | What was the best thing that you ate?
Alek | We traveled to this little town called Naivasha which is by Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley. The lake had hippos in it so you couldn’t get in the water and there were some sketchy spots around the lake but there was wildlife everywhere which was awesome. We went to this little local spot our driver knew on the lake and Amanda ordered some tilapia straight out of the lake and it was about the size of a dinner plate. It looked like all they did was gutted it and throw it on the grill and then put a bunch of spiced sauce on it. I got half a chicken which was served in the same way, big chunks of chicken that had been thrown on a grill. They asked me, “Do you want the fancy chicken or the regular chicken?” I said, “Whichever takes less time.” They make it on the spot because they don’t have great refrigeration so what that meant is the chickens running around the yard were the “fancy” version that they would have have to spend some extra time slaughtering. ---All of this being said that was hands down the best meal of the entire trip!
VCR | Did they kill the chicken in front of you?
Alek | No. I didn’t go for that option because that would have taken an hour and a half which wasn’t an option. They would point to certain chickens running around and say, “Do you want that one? Or that one?” I said, “Whatever’s easier.” They were ready to grab a chicken and break its neck in the yard with kids running around. Devin’s vegetarian so he got to try some crazy greens and this stuff called Ugali which Raphael called the "Bowl of Matter". It was ridiculously dense and sometimes they’d add greens and corn to it (Irio) and it was like crazy dense green mashed potatoes.
VCR | At any point of the trip, were you outside of your comfort zone?
Alek | Kenya is a super cool country with great coffee but it was also a totally new place with a specific culture I hadn’t ever been a part of. So, the entire trip was outside what I’m used to living in our little surf town [Santa Cruz].
Driving around Nairobi was pretty crazy, millions of people live in the slums and it’s a densely populated city. Our driver told us a couple times not to have our phones out and would roll up our windows at certain points. He explained that people could run up or ride by on motorcycles and snatch things out of cars stuck in traffic. Nairobi’s traffic made the SF traffic look tame; thieves can just disappear into the sea of cars.
Even when there’s no traffic driving around can also be pretty nuts. There was a 2 lane mountain pass when we were coming out of the Rift Valley which had tons of semi trucks and people would just pass them into oncoming traffic. They didn’t care if there was another car or semi coming at them, they would just go and if the oncoming traffic gets close they just flash their brights continuously and play a game of chicken. It almost got hairy a couple times [laughs].
VCR | For those reading who don’t know the Kenyan coffee supply chain as well as you - now - do. Can you briefly review the stages coffee goes through from being a cherry on a tree to setting sail towards California?
Alek | Super tiny farms. Subsistence farming. All the farmers typically grow a bunch of different crops so they can sell throughout the season to different industries so that they have a constant income. You get all of these little farmers providing to centralized cooperative mills which they call factories. A bunch of farmers bring their coffee to the wet mills and their coffees are mixed together. After the process at the wet mills, the coffee is then sent to drying beds which are lined with parchment. They end up going to the dry mill. One of the cooperatives recently built their own dry mill in the last year. We met the director of the co-op who was running three wet mills. The one we went to was the centralized mill and they had a dry mill there. They were so business oriented. They were shaking our hands and saying, “You want to buy coffee now?! How much are you going to buy?” After the dry mills, they typically go to an exporter who will then sample roast, taste, and distribute accordingly based on grade to different companies depending on what they’re looking for.
VCR | What surprised you most about the coffee supply chain?
Alek | It was interesting seeing the co-ops and wet mills, it’s all so communal in Kenya. In Latin America, you have these farmers that take tons of pride in their heritage and family names associated with the farms. In Kenya, there is a certain detachment from the individual farmer. There’s a different understanding of the system due to the smaller size of the farms and the role of the wet mill cooperatives. Most of the farms are really small and the farmers are subsistence farming with a variety of crops like bananas, corn, greens with coffee mixed in. This way they can rotate through harvests and have a perpetual income. This smaller supply from the majority of farmers leads to mixing of all of their coffee crops at the wet-mills. Whoever happens to be bringing in coffee cherries one day will end up mixed into the same crop as which one of their neighbors decided to come in that day as well. It’s just an interesting mental shift from how things work in most Latin countries.
VCR | As one of the first people to travel to Farmlevel this season, what should future participants know prior to embarking on their origin trips?
Alek | That’s a great question. Amanda doesn’t sleep, she’s a machine. Try and keep up with her. [laughs] but really I think she’s assimilated to traveling really well so she sleeps wherever she can. She easily went to sleep on the 16-hour flight while Devin and I would be there sitting there trying to go to sleep and I just couldn’t do it. Also, get ready for cupping a ton of coffee. When we were at Dormans we got to try all different grades of coffee from all over the country. Being at Farmlevel, you get to try all these different coffees that could potentially have issues and aren’t necessarily as good. It’s cool to figure out where the line or the distinction between what we want and what has the potential to be a really good coffee and what might have some potential defects for a wide variety of reasons. A specific part of that is figuring out how Amanda’s palette works. She’s really on it. She’ll taste it once or twice and be ready to go. It took me a little bit to calibrate to that.
VCR | What were some of the best coffees that you tasted?
Alek | We had a few places that we were very excited about; Gakuyu-ini, Ruthagati and Karimikui, to name a few. I feel like we’ll have some super strong Kenyan coffees this year.
VCR | Can you describe one person on your trip, what their name was, their role in the coffee production chain was, and what was it about them that resonated with you?
Alek | Timothy gave us a tour of the Central Kenyan dry mill and then the next day he gave us a tour of the wet mills. He helped run the logistics and daily operations of the dry mill. They had their own sample roasting and it seemed as though he had his hand in a little bit of everything. He was a pretty quiet but welcoming and no matter where we went, he seemed to know every single person. He would walk into a mill and be able to interact with everyone at each facility that we visited.
VCR | What cultural differences did you experience?
Alek | There were a lot of traits I saw that matched things we really value in the US. The work ethic in Kenya was incredible, everyone there was super hard working and entrepreneurial. There was a super palpable ambition that everyone seemed to have, they seemed to constantly be trying to improve and do more, it was motivating to see.
As far as differences, their public transportation system is completely different than ours and way cooler. Each bus driver pimps out their bus and every single bus is totally different. There was a Laker’s bus, there was a bus with giant fairings and a crazy body kit. Another bus was covered in Waka Floka Flame and they were bumping LA rap over massive speakers and had have LED lights everywhere.
Something that surprised me was we met tons of people who were not only aware of world politics but they knew exactly what was happening in the Kenyan government at the time. We were talking to this Masai woman in the middle of nowhere in a shack made out of branches with a trash bag roof and she asked me if I was sad to see Obama leave office… it was really inspiring. Devin and I should be getting emails from our older Masai guide about their elections and politics in the coming months [laughs].
VCR | Is there something that you wish you had brought on the trip?
Alek | A pen. I swore that I brought a pen. It’s one of those crucial little things that you never think about. We were exchanging a lot of business cards and writing email addresses down and grading coffees and a pen would have been awesome! I still feel as though I brought a little bit too much even though I only brought a backpack.
VCR | Your role is integral in our roasted coffee supply chain. Has witnessing first-hand what goes into producing and exporting coffee impacted how you’ll approach your job, here in Santa Cruz? What will you do differently?
Alek | It’s definitely impacted it but I think it actually reinforced some of the things that I really value, especially about Verve. All of the people that we work with are my motivating factor every day. That’s one of the main reasons why I’m stoked to come to work every day. Being able to visit the massive Central Kenyan dry mill and seeing a community that’s been built between all the workers. It was cool to meet people along every step of the way and to see the international supply chain which we can be hard to see sometimes. It’s great to remember where we get our coffee from and that specialty coffee is only made possible through careful and conscious handling of the coffee every step of the way. It was cool to make those connections and it reinforced the importance of real people in coffee. Everyone who works at Verve just reinforces how important every single hand in this process is.
We believe the coffee experience is our responsibility from seed to cup. Coffee is our craft, our ritual, our passion. It drives us and inspires us. With this simple truth and responsibility we are bridging the gap from farmlevel to streetlevel. We are verve. Made in santa cruz.