On the Road to Quality

By Kristi Willis
Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo and courtesy of Zhi Tea, Casa Brasil and Cuvee Coffee

Most craft producers will go to great lengths to acquire the finest ingredients possible for their customers, and those that practice direct trade go that extra mile—often literally. Direct-trade businesses buy straight from the farmers, minimizing—if not eliminating—the middleman from the equation. In this model, the grower gets paid a higher percentage of the sale, the buyer knows that the product is being produced under a particular set of standards and the customer gets a high-quality product from a trusted source. Austin has a number of businesses that have chosen the more challenging path of direct trade—among them are coffee roasters Cuvée Coffee and Casa Brasil and tea importer Zhi Tea.

When Cuvée Coffee opened in 1998, they offered a laundry list of coffees from a variety of producers, most of whom they’d never met. Eight years ago, though, owner Mike McKim changed their business model to include buying more coffee directly from fewer people. He felt the change could improve quality, build stronger relationships and have a bigger impact on the individual farms. Cuvée now works with growers in over a half dozen Central and South American countries. McKim visits each grower at least once, and up to three times, a year and brings their partners to Austin every other year so that customers can meet them personally.

direct6Photography courtesy of Casa Brasil


“At the end of the day it’s all about quality,” says McKim. “Without the quality, everything else is irrelevant, and by buying larger volumes of coffee from [fewer] people we can secure our long-term supply of really high-quality coffee.”

For Joel Shuler of Casa Brasil, the attraction to direct trade was an extension of his love of Brazilian culture. Shuler lived in Brazil for three years playing competitive soccer as a teenager. As an adult running a Brazilian cultural center in Austin, he happened into the coffee business while on a mission to prove that there was better Brazilian coffee out there than what was being sold in the United States.

direct7Photography courtesy of Casa Brasil

“I went to a local roaster and asked for some good Brazilian coffee. His response was, ‘There is no such thing,’” recalls Shuler. “I knew that wasn’t true.” To prove the point, Shuler spent over six months in Brazil doing internships and getting his Q Grader certification—a rigorous exam conducted by the Coffee Quality Institute. He developed relationships with producers, and because he is fluent in Portuguese, he was able to easily connect with some of the best coffee growers.

direct8Joel Shuler of Casa Brasil by Jo Ann Santangelo

Shuler now buys from a dozen farms and visits Brazil about four times a year, sometimes staying over a month. In the interim, he stays in touch by e-mail and social media to keep up with how the crops are doing.

Jeffrey Lorien of Zhi Tea has traded with growers from Taiwan for years and recently added China to his direct-trade routes. For him, one of the keys to successful direct trade is taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Through connections via a friend, Lorien began selling Pu-erh, a fermented tea from the Huangshan mountain range in eastern China. When the new contact offered him a seat in his car for an upcoming trip through the region where Pu-erh is produced, Lorien jumped at the chance to travel with someone who knew the area and could introduce him to the best producers.

direct2tea courtesy of Zhi Tea and Jeffrey Lorien by Jo Ann Santangelo

“People say it’s great for your brand to show that you are direct sourcing,” says Lorien. “But to be able to make the connection…that’s what is important. To say I picked the leaves, to know what they feel like, what they look like. Only in person do you learn the fine point between very good and excellent.”

That personal experience is a major component in building strong relationships with partners. When meeting a potential supplier for the first time, McKim says it’s important to be watchful for information that doesn’t quite mesh. “If I get in a car and there is chicken poop on the dashboard, then they probably don’t take really good care of their farm,” says McKim.

direct3Mike McKim of Cuvee Coffee by Jo Ann Santangelo

Shuler looks for things like the size of the patios where the beans are dried because it’s the type of detail that’s difficult to assess in pictures. “One of the keys to coffee is you need to dry a homogenous lot together so that you get the same maturation level,” explains Shuler. “If they have a huge farm and a small patio you know there is no way they can properly dry the coffee.”

All say that the trips to visit their suppliers have provided interesting memories while navigating the various rural areas and cultural rituals. McKim says that he’s belted out Bon Jovi songs during karaoke in Costa Rica and cooked out on the beach in El Salvador to get to know his trade partners better. And one day on the way to a farm in Honduras, he and his hosts came upon a man on the road selling meat to passersby. A drunk driver had hit a cow and the farmer, not willing to let it go to waste, had started a roadside butcher shop. “There is always something interesting happening,” McKim says.

direct4photography courtesy of Cuvee Coffee

Lorien learned the hard way on his most recent trip that the road to remote destinations can be harrowing. His group hired a driver to take them to a village in the mountains. After four grueling hours on a bumpy dirt road, they happened upon an accident—a truck hadn’t quite made the turn and was hanging off the side of the mountain. With no way to get around, they had to back down the mountain for a mile before they found a place wide enough to turn around. “It was the most terrifying experience of my life,” says Lorien.

Of course, as much as McKim, Shuler and Lorien all say they enjoy the cultural aspects and connections associated with direct trade, in the end, it’s really about good business, not social causes or adventures. “Everything revolves around commerce,” says McKim. “None of this is charity. The people that we work with are going to get paid a premium for their good product and they can take that money and reinvest back into the community, whether it’s helping build a medical facility, soccer field or garden. Through good commerce good things will happen.”