Building Bridges: How to Have a Meaningful Coffee Travel Experience

By Peter Giuliano, Director of Symposium, Specialty Coffee Association of America

Coffee travelers come from a variety of places: most often it’s someone from a roasting company – whose job it is to buy coffee – taking deeper responsibility for their supply chain.  More often lately, it is a barista or shop owner who seeks to make a connection with the source of their main product, seeking a deeper experience with the product that captured their imagination and fuels their enterprise.  Whatever the specific occupation the coffee traveler has at home, when they set out to travel to countries where coffee is produced, they are engaging in a job that is equal parts diplomat, explorer, trade delegate, and purchaser; representing the consuming world to the producing one.  Most of us who do this work are not especially qualified when we begin; few of us have an international business background or have the opportunity to be mentored by an experienced coffee traveler.  We must then figure out the job for ourselves. I did, and I learned a lot.

Before I get into some specifics, allow me one diatribe.  The coffee industry is a livelihood for many thousands of people worldwide, many of whom rely on this livelihood for their families’ sustenance.  The work of the coffee traveler is therefore critical to increased transparency, energy, and progress within the coffee trade.

But it is work.  

Being a coffee traveler (whether as a buyer, ambassador, documentarian, etc.) is a professional pursuit.  It is a serious job, and it should be treated as one. Jobs can be satisfying to the person doing the work, but the work is the important thing, not the self-satisfaction of the worker.  In other words, it’s not about us as travelers, it’s about the task at hand.  The job of coffee traveler doesn’t exist so we can tell our friends and family what a cool life we’re living. It doesn’t exist so that we can fill our Facebook pages with all the strange experiences we get to have while other people sit at home, green with envy.  If we find satisfaction in our work, that’s great, and we’re lucky; but that’s not what coffee travel is about. It’s about being a professional and doing good work.

That said, everyone who gets started as a coffee traveler has dreams and goals about what it means to travel for coffee work: aspiring to build a direct relationship between a coffee farm and a roasting company, for example, or simply to see and taste and smell the farm where a favorite coffee originates, and thank the farmer for their work. This specific goal is important, and it’s critical to make this goal very clear before you begin.  This is coffee work, after all, not coffee tourism; and like all work it should be planned and budgeted, with the costs and benefits weighed before beginning.  If someone else is paying for the trip – and they almost always are, even if they are your customers – they are entitled to a set of objectives you seek to achieve during your travels, and a sense upon your return about whether you achieved these goals.  A clear objective is a huge benefit to the coffee traveler, because it helps to fall back on when things get weird— and they always get weird.  If you don’t have a specific objective, you might want to reconsider your travel.  Is it worth the expense (both in money and in carbon) to take the long journey? Are you valuing your own time and the time of those you plan to visit?

Once your central objective is clear, you can begin to plan your trip.  Here are some dos and don’ts, which will make your experience better, and will make your travel more meaningful:

DO: Be an ambassador. Coffee travel involves one of the most interesting and positive phenomena of the modern world: cultural interaction.  Sometimes, the coffee traveler is one of a small handful of people a coffee farmer has ever met from the global north.  The delicate exchange of cultural information can be fun and rewarding, and can be a positive force for tolerance and understanding between cultures of the world.  In this type of moment, you’re not representing only yourself, you’re representing the culture from which you come from.  Be prepared to share, to ask questions, and to be open-minded.  “Sharing” does not mean “teaching”, however. You’re not there as a cultural evangelist.  Carry with you a sense of humility- even if you’re proud of your culture. Be aware that pride can easily turn into arrogance.  This is the delicate dance of diplomacy.

DO: Learn a language. This may seem obvious. If you don’t speak a second language, it’s high time you learn one. Really, honestly, you are not qualified to be a coffee traveler if you do not speak any language besides your mother tongue.  It doesn’t take much time to develop a small vocabulary and polite phrases. You should make the time to learn. Spanish is obviously a great place to start, but Portuguese, French, Swahili, and Bahasa are other options.

DO: Learn about the culture in the place where you will be traveling. This is one of the great joys of coffee travel, and it is essential research.  What are the religious and social practices where you will be visiting?  When entering a private home, do you remove shoes, or keep them on?  What is the political history of the place you will be visiting, and is coffee part of that? A solid knowledge of culture and politics will keep you from saying or doing something stupid, and embarrassing yourself, your host, and everyone else in the coffee industry.

DO: Dress properly. This is one of the biggest ways coffee travelers blow it.  First of all, you don’t need to dress as if you’re going on safari, even if you feel like you are.  I know that the cargo pants, the indestructible mosquito-proof shirt and the hiking boots looked great at REI, but you’ll stick out like a sore thumb and feel like an idiot marching around like you’re on safari or something.  Conversely, the ironic pink sleeveless t-shirt that says YO MAMA and cutoff jeans might be ok where you come from, but it is likely your hosts will be wearing some of their nicest clothes to meet you.  They consider it a business meeting, and you should also.  Additionally, it is likely that you may wind up visiting people’s homes and places of worship; in which case covered arms and legs are pretty universally appropriate.

DO: Be a journalist. Because part of your job entails building a bridge between coffee producers and coffee consumers, using media is your best bet to make your audience at home understand the meaning and importance of your coffee travel.  Keep a journal, take good photographs and video, and use your storytelling skills not to tell a tale of your personal adventure, but instead tell of how other people live and work around the world; with the aim of connecting people to their coffee and to each other.

DON’T: Be a paparazzo. How would you feel if someone showed up in your backyard and started taking photos of your children?  Remember that coffee farms are often people’s private homes.  Many farmers are struggling with poverty (it’s one of the challenges of our industry) and may not feel comfortable with you documenting certain aspects of their lives.  Other places may have negative feelings about photography in general. I was nearly arrested one time for accidentally taking some pictures of government buildings in an especially politically tense area.  This is delicate; there is a fine balance between documenting and exploiting. Keep yourself in check, and think about every picture you take.

DO: Study your coffee. It is likely that you will be seen as an expert on all things coffee.  You should be prepared to answer questions, particularly about your area of expertise.  This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re a passionate, focused coffee professional.

DO: Be ready to learn. There is a lot to learn while traveling for coffee about varieties, processing, agriculture, history, trade, and a million other subjects.  Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open constantly.

DON’T: Give advice outside your area of expertise.  You might’ve read something about coffee processing or agriculture; you might be tempted – or even asked – to give coffee producers advice about farm management or milling or washing or whatever.  DON’T DO IT, unless you really know what you are doing.  I’ve noticed an upsurge in farmers doing dangerous things – from ripping out productive varieties to unusual processing techniques – based entirely on a thoughtless piece of advice from a coffee traveler.  Think through the implications of the advice you are giving- there could be repercussions.

And the final DO: Change coffee for the better.  As a coffee traveler, you have the ability to do that: to bring us closer, make quality better, and improve our trade. But wait. Scratch that. My final DO is: make the world better.  Because coffee travel can do that too.

Peter Giuliano has been working in the trade of Specialty Coffee for 25 years, beginning as a barista and working as a trainer, retailer, cupper, roaster, coffee buyer and business owner.  The SCAA has been a constant inspiration for him during this time, and he now serves as director of Symposium for SCAA, committed to helping cultivate and develop new ideas and leadership in coffee.