STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. Let's continue Coffee Week on MORNING EDITION. This morning we're exploring specialty coffee.
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INSKEEP: You can smell the beans now, can't you? As more people pay a premium for superior beans, it's changing the lives of farmers who grow coffee. This story takes NPR's Allison Aubrey to a farm in Central America.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Coffee farmer Miguelina Villatoro doesn't get the chance to show off her farm very often because it's so remote. To get here we drive hours from Guatemala City along a curvy highway. And the way other drivers pass us, it feels like a game of chicken. Whoa. Near-miss, huh? In the final stretch, we navigate a steep gravel road up the mountain to the entrance of the farm. All right. We're finally here.
MIGUELINA VILLATORO: I love it every time I come here.
AUBREY: Her farm sits right on the Guatemala-Mexico border in the region of Huehuetenango. It really is truly spectacular up here.
VILLATORO: And the view is beautiful.
AUBREY: As far as the eye can see, it's lush and green. Volcanoes dot the horizon. And one reason this is such a great spot for growing her Arabica coffee is the altitude. We're at pretty high elevation here.
VILLATORO: It is.
AUBREY: It's why the air is a little thinner. We're both breathing a little heavy. At more than 5,000 feet above sea level, the cool nights and the warm dry days here stress out the coffee plants, and that helps build rich character in the beans. Miguelina walks me to the tip-top of the mountain, where her best beans grow.
VILLATORO: Over there, that's the best coffee.
AUBREY: As we watched workers handpick the red cherries that contain coffee beans, Miguelina says this is just the first step of a really labor-intensive process. The pickers haul the heavy bags of cherries down the mountains to a wet mill on the farm. Here the red cherry pulp is removed and the best beans are separated from the rest.
VILLATORO: See? This is a good one and this one is no good.
AUBREY: So the heavy ones sink to the bottom. That's how you know you're getting the best.
AUBREY: The beans are then dried and sorted before they're milled again to remove the papery skin known as parchment. You can see the entire process from cherry to cup in a slideshow online at NPR.org. Now, the coffee business has really changed over the last decade. Back in 2001, Miguelina, as well as lots of other farmers, were on the verge of going bust. You see, back then the global price of coffee had sunk so low that it almost wasn't worth picking the beans. After paying workers to harvest, farmers were losing money. So it wasn't even worth harvesting it?
VILLATORO: Oh no, no.
AUBREY: Miguelina says they made it through, but it was tough. She came so close to going bankrupt. She knew she needed a new way to do business. Now, at the time, she, like many coffee farmers, had only one way to sell her beans, and this was to local brokers in town. She says she had no leverage. If the brokers didn't give her a good price, she was stuck.
VILLATORO: And I said, well, what I'm going to do? What can I do?
AUBREY: Turns out there was something to do. You see, about this time, the specialty coffee market in the U.S. was just beginning to take off and buyers were looking for quality beans. This gave farmers like Miguelina a new opportunity. Instead of lumping all their beans together and selling them to a local broker, they could separate out their best beans and start competing on quality, if they could connect with specialty buyers. But this proved to be a real challenge.
VILLATORO: It was a bad time for me but we didn't stop working.
AUBREY: Finally, Miguelina entered her coffee in a tasting competition, and to her surprise she did really well.
VILLATORO: I got the ninth place.
AUBREY: Ninth place out of hundreds of...
VILLATORO: Out of hundreds. Oh, I was so happy.
AUBREY: This caught the attention of a coffee roaster in Portland, Oregon named Mark Stell. He was enthusiastic about expanding the specialty market. He was in Guatemala scoping out lots of farms and he added Miguelina's to his list. He chartered a helicopter to get there, which he recorded.
MARK STELL: As we were landing, it was almost comical because everybody came out of the woodwork.
AUBREY: Coffee pickers and farmhands, dust was flying everywhere. Miguelina says she was awestruck. She remembers cutting a branch from a tree to make way for the landing.
VILLATORO: Oh, it was all exciting. Everybody was all shocked.
AUBREY: Now, as Miguelina walks me to the place where the helicopter landed 13 years ago, she says she had no idea how momentous the day would be. So this is the spot right here?
VILLATORO: Right there.
AUBREY: Looking back, cutting that branch didn't just open up space for the helicopter. It was as if she was opening up access to a whole new world. You see, Mark was impressed with her beans.
STELL: And we kind of always look for, like, a diamond in the rough.
AUBREY: So what happened next is that Mark decided to directly import her coffee to the U.S. And he could offer her much better prices than the local brokers. Mark explains usually after coffee leaves the hands of local brokers there are a few more middle men involved before he buys it.
STELL: There's so many people involved in the middle. So you know, when we met her, we said, you know, here's what we're going to skip.
AUBREY: Mark says by buying directly from farmers like Miguelina, he thinks he has more control over the quality of the beans, and she gets more money. Miguelina says it's been a game changer.
VILLATORO: I really don't know how to explain, but it was the most great thing that happened in my life.
AUBREY: This spring the commodity price for coffee has sunk to about $1.40 a pound, but Mark's paying her 2.50 a pound. So the farm's doing all right. And she's not alone. As the specialty market has grown over the last decade, increasingly more small farmers in the mountains of Guatemala are producing the high-quality beans that roasters want. The premiums that come back to the farm can go a long way. For starters, Miguelina says she can make life a little better for her workers.
MAURO: (Through translator) It's better now. There's more money.
AUBREY: That's 26-year-old Mauro, who lives on the farm with his wife and two kids during the picking season. He points out that they now have filtered water and a stove with a chimney - small luxuries.
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AUBREY: Once Miguelina's beans leave the farm here, they're shipped in containers to L.A. and then go by rail to Oregon. When the shipment reached Portland, we caught up with Mark.
STELL: All right. So this is straight from Guatemala. This is product of Guatemala. This is Miguelina's coffee.
AUBREY: And this is an important moment. Will this year's crop live up to his expectations? With so much competition in the specialty coffee world, there are lots of coffee producers who'd be happy to elbow Miguelina out.
He cuts open the burlap sack with a razor and as he puts the beans in the grinder, he gets his first whiff.
STELL: Smell that. It smells amazing.
AUBREY: And when he tastes it?
STELL: I'm going to take a spoon here, and there's only just a little bit of coffee in the spoon. And I'll slurp it. This coffee is amazing. The flavor alone is phenomenal.
AUBREY: He says it's bright, full-bodied.
STELL: Nutty, almond-y, caramel kind of smell.
AUBREY: Within a day of roasting these beans, a local cafe called the Rain or Shine Coffeehouse is brewing them.
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AUBREY: Owner Claire Teasdale says she wants her customers to know about farmers like Miguelina.
CLAIRE TEASDALE: Knowing a little bit about the hardship and, you know, how it's grown, it makes the whole experience of enjoying the coffee a little bit better.
AUBREY: Increasingly in the specialty coffee world, roasters aren't just selling us a good cup of coffee, they're also selling us the story behind it. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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