Newsletter | Vol.1 April 2016

A visit to Onyx in Guatemala

Here in Canada, a love of coffee involves you in a long-distance relationship; all the coffee we consume comes from far away. That distance leads to a fundamental question for our company: if what we do is so much about connecting people, how are we to connect to the people who produce coffee if they work halfway around the world? Members of our community may have considered the origin of their grain or milk as they drive past a dairy farm in nearby Abbotsford or a grain mill in Chilliwack, but they're less likely to have stepped foot anywhere near a coffee farm. In the case of coffee, our decisions about how to source and who to buy from end up having the most impact on how people up in Vancouver are linked to producers spread around the globe.

We like to control as much of our operation as possible - we've opened a bakery to produce our own bread, we take our own photos, we clean our own floors. However, like most other roasters of our relatively small size, we need to use middlemen to connect us with coffee farmers. The specific arrangement varies country to country, but in most of Central America the governments allow companies to form relationships with importers and exporters as they like. Taking one country as an example, when importing coffee from Guatemala we choose to work with Onyx, neighbours of ours operating out of Seattle.

Onyx was started after the owner, Edwin Martinez, had worked in the coffee industry for years – in cafes, competitions, and as an importer and wholesaler of coffee equipment. He grew up with one foot in the world of producers – raised part time on his father's farm – and one foot in the world of North American baristas. When Edwin began to market his father's green coffee, his work experience made him uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between Guatemalan growers and North American roasters. As demand outgrew supply he found other farms in the area run by people with similar values and exceptional coffee.

Ties between Matchstick and Onyx go back to before either company actually existed. Edwin and Spencer met at Spencer's first barista competition, where Edwin was a judge. When Edwin launched Onyx, he sent samples to Spencer, who was finally able, years later while opening Matchstick, to become a green coffee customer. We have been purchasing from Onyx ever since.

Our trips to Guatemala are one big side benefit of working so closely with this company, and have opened up another layer of participation in the coffee supply chain. We've met amazing people, like Paty Perez, who took over the family farm from her father; Petronilo Martinez, who married into a coffee family and became a dedicated producer; Petronillo's brother-in-law Aurelio Villatoro, who trained as a mechanic and also manages the marketing of the coffee produced on his own farms and that of his neighbours.

These are the people who grow our coffee, and it's by working with importers like Onyx that we are fortunate enough not only to meet them, but to share a beer together while we watch a World Cup match in their living room. Knowing producers personally also means they're more likely to be open to you when you want to try out something new, like splitting up what was once a large lot of coffee from one hillside into smaller lots from distinctive areas (something we've been working on this year with the farm Aguacatal in Guatemala.)

Small business owners know: it's tough sometimes being small, but it's rewarding. The way we do things doesn't provide much of a safety net, but there's more intimacy in it, which has huge value. When you're small, you don't have the power of a huge annual budget, or a massive staff, but you do have the ability to listen to and invest in the people you work with, and to choose to do things in a way that may not always be the most profitable in the short term, but feels right in the larger picture. This is how we want to approach buying coffee: whenever possible, investing in the relationships behind our beans, letting producers know that we're ready to talk, that we're interested in what goes on in their lives and at their farms. Working with other companies, like Onyx, who operate on these same principles, we get stronger together. Our goal in purchasing green coffee is to be buying from the same producers now that we will be in 5 years.