Interview with Brendan Adams of Semilla
How can we make coffee completely traceable? That was the question that got Brendan Adams into starting his own coffee importing company in 2019.
Adams is behind a lot of coffees that we feature in the pack and we wanted to learn more about the process of importing coffee. We were curious, how can importing coffee improve the industry for the better?
-So, what can you tell us about Semilla?
Semilla is a small coffee importing company that started in 2019. The basic idea with Semilla is that, after years of working as a roaster and a green buyer, I started to spend more time in coffee-producing countries. There were certain things that I saw that were holes in the supply stream of how we were doing things.
With Semilla, I wanted to find some way where we can import coffee in a way that really truly added value to the entire ecosystem of coffee. For us, that starts with the producer but it also includes the roaster. How do we also share as much information between the two things in order to ensure that the buyer and the roaster are both empowered?
-What role does the importer play on the producer side of things?
On the producer side, our main goal is that we only work with groups who have no access to the specialty market or even no market at all beyond commercial coffee. A lot of coffee growers were born into coffee-growing families. A lot of these coffee farms will grow the cherries and then sell them raw. Someone will pay them a price per hundred pounds in local currency.
These farmers don’t know what happens to that coffee, they just get paid for the raw agricultural product. This has been and continues to be a very problematic system. Obviously right now with the market being higher, those cherry prices can be quite high. But generally, in the words of many producers we work with, it’s a type of slavery. People are producing raw materials and getting paid the price of whatever it is the day of, usually it’s below the cost of production, and it leaves them without any access to a market. They just have to sell it to whoever they can sell it to.
So, a lot of people we work with, when we started working with them, that’s how they did their work. They just sold the cherries to whoever would buy the coffee. What we do is identify these groups and work with them to introduce their farm to specialty.
That means we’re really starting from square one and saying, 'so you have a raw product that could be good, this is what you need to do to get it to a parchment level so we can buy it from you as an exportable green coffee and make sure that it’s quality.'
This includes teaching them how to process their coffee, how to ferment their coffee, what their clients want, what cupping scores mean, and so on. But we’re always really trying to be led by the producer, so we really try to focus on autonomy and consensus. We’re not trying to go to the farmer, build their value then take it away, we’re trying to work and let the farmers see the value of what they already have. We’re trying to help them build more autonomy, and allow them to work on what they need to get better in consensus. We’ll figure out what price they need to get paid, what support they need, and how they see us supporting their group.
We don’t think that you can get every grower to care about specialty coffee. There are a lot of producers who aren’t going to take the time and effort to learn and that’s their prerogative. We’re not going to tell every coffee grower in the world that they have to do it this way. As much as we want to think that coffee is going to save the world, it’s really hard work for these producers. It’s risky, so it’s understandable why they can’t be bothered.
-What are some other benefits with this model of importing?
Not only are we interested in helping the small producer gain access to specialty, but we also want to learn about how we can get more Arabica into the specialty coffee world. Coffee leaf rust is decimating Arabica, especially at high altitudes. There are still hundreds of producers, even thousands, who are producing high-quality Arabica and don’t even realize it. It’s kinda wild to think about how much high-quality Arabica gets sold to an intermediary, who just uses it to blend into another coffee and then sells it to major coffee chains.
So I think that’s the big distinction with Semilla compared to other importers. We don’t wait for empowered local stakeholders to bring us great coffee, we want to find people who have the desire to get better, and then help them accomplish that.
-How do roasters benefit from this?
The benefit of this as a roaster, is that many roasters are trying to tell people they buy coffee at a fair price with transparency. When I was working as a green buyer for a major roaster, my experience was that most importers couldn’t provide me with that information. A lot of them would send me a fact sheet with a blurb and that was it.
For Semilla, this was never satisfactory. With the roaster, the value we’re trying to add is that you’re buying into these relations when you’re buying with us. When you buy from us one year, that coffee will be there next year because we don’t work with other people. We only work with the same communities. I don’t go to Guatemala and buy from Mataquescuintla one year then go somewhere else the next, we work with the same people. Their coffee is guaranteed to be sold the next year, not just with us, but with other roasters like This Coffee Co., Escape, or Dispatch. The roasters that purchase from us will buy from the same producers year after year, and all we do is keep in touch with both parties and make sure we’re supporting them.
That year-after-year consistency is still rare, even with producers who are established. I’ve known many specialty coffee producers who have recognition in North America, who still don’t know if their coffee is going to be sold at fair a price each year, or sold at all.
So that’s one thing that we’re trying to solve. On the roaster’s side, this gives people more information so that you can buy with confidence. In our info packs, we break it down extensively. The farm details (MASL, varietal, processing) are just the beginning, then we break it down to who’s the person we bought it from, what’s the local economy like, and what are some factors involved in it. For us, transparency is a lot more than just the price paid and a name on a piece of paper. There’s a lot more context behind it.
We want to teach you about the history of the country, the history of these people and their families. We want to humanize these coffee farmers and try to share a little more insight so roasters and buyers know the story behind what they’re buying.
-So in Issue #6 we featured a Rwandan coffee that you sourced. Can you tell me the story behind sourcing it?
I met Emmanual Baho, owner of Baho coffee exports in 2018. We actually first met on Instagram, and then just started talking via Whatsapp where I learned more about him and the work he was doing in Rwanda.
Essentially, Baho is the only Rwandese-born exporter that exists in the country, so I was really excited to work with him. In Rwanda, you have a lot of people managing washing stations, or exporters buying and selling coffee, but never the ones who manage the entire structure. These facilities are often run by Rwandese people but owned by European entities. Even to this day, 60-80% of the coffee industry in Rwanda is owned by multinationals
To me, the coffee in Rwanda lacks access to specialty, and it’s still very hard to find in North America. When you do find it, the coffee often has generic profiles and there's little understanding of what the country is like, what the different growing regions are like, and what the reality is for coffee growing in the country.
So I was really excited to be working with Baho. From day one, he really had this desire to grow and learn and expand the Rwandese market. We usually work one-on-one with producers (in Honduras and Guatemala for example). Through this method, we’re working with Baho to work with a small network of producers.
With Baho’s help, we’ve been able to start identifying geographical indicators, like with this Rwandan coffee for example. When we first started buying this coffee, the washing station would just name it “Muzo Lot 20”. Baho helped the washing station organize the information so that we’re able to differentiate between different coffee-growing groups that are in different geographical regions. This allows us to return to these same groups year after year.
For the longest time, the washing station would just do washed coffee, but we were able to show Baho the value of different processing methods. He started pushing natural processing, honey processing, and experimenting with fermentation.
When we first bought these Rwandan coffees three years ago, they were solid but not amazing. Now Baho is producing some of the most beautiful East-African coffees that I’ve ever heard of. Three years ago, I didn’t think this would’ve been possible. I think a lot of this success comes down to having this collaborative relationship where we’re really trying to work together on things. But most importantly, I think this success comes down to Baho’s incredible energy and focus.
-We also featured the Reiniel Ramirez into our Issue #6 Classic Pack, what can you tell us about that one?
We connected with Reiniel Ramirez through people we were working with in Honduras. He comes from a long line of coffee farmers and was in his very first steps of producing coffee. The Ramirez farm is a perfect example of a coffee farm that grows incredible varieties, but the field is tucked away in the mountains and nobody knows about them.
For years, they would do crazy things like taking their coffee cherries on a donkey’s back to walk a day to the nearest city to sell them. They were also at the mercy of the free market and faced volatile price fluctuation on any given day. That’s basically how this family was doing business up until 2019.
2019 was the first time they sold anything into specialty, which basically just involved the realization that their farm had good altitudes and varietals. The family grew Typica and Bourbon varieties, which in Honduras is quite rare! Those varieties typically don’t thrive in a lower altitude country like Honduras and aren’t resistant to coffee leaf rust, which is really bad in the region.
So for there to be these heirloom varieties that are not disease resistant at that altitude producing beautifully is pretty interesting.
In that first year, we went to visit the Ramirez family farm and were really impressed with what they were doing. Their coffees were solid, but I don’t think they realized the potential of it. They dried and processed their own coffee, but didn’t know about fermentation or cupping or other things that can make it better.
We struggled to sell the coffee at first because most people thought the coffee was just fine. With time and investment, and the consistency of knowing there will be buyers waiting for the coffee, things improved. We can’t even keep their coffee on the shelf because it sells so well.
It took this family just one year to produce some of the best quality Honduran coffee we’ve ever tasted and three years to develop a market where this coffee keeps selling out. I mean, we have roasters asking about it all the time. This is from a farm that has been growing coffee for nearly forty years.
It’s been really beautiful to see that it really doesn’t take much. You just have to find someone who has the good raw material and is willing to take the time and effort to learn.