All Articles
All Articles
FOOD + DRINK

Intelligentsia's Geoff Watts

Our interview with a veteran green coffee buyer on building relationships with sustainable farmers

by Julie Wolfson
on 14 November 2011
Intelligentsia-interview-1.jpg

As the vice president of coffee for Intelligentsia and a green coffee buyer, Geoff Watts travels the world searching for the best beans, working to build relationships with the farmers that have helped make Intelligentsia a leader in the specialty coffee industry. We recently met with Watts in Los Angeles during their three-day Extraordinary Coffee Workshop (ECW), where we talked to the coffee guru about his tenure with the brand and the journey to select the best beans from around the world.

When did your work with coffee turn into a career?

In 1997, I came to a crossroads. Part of me wanted to go back to Berkeley to pursue a graduate degree in music. I was playing with two bands at the time and was working at Intelligentsia as a roaster. The bug was already deep in me because when I started as a barista, I learned how you have the ability to really change the way coffee tastes by the way you prepare it. Then I started roasting and entered a world of chemistry, a bridging of art and science. It's an endless learning experience. Coffee just won out. It was impossible to say no.

Intelligentsia-interview-2.jpg
Where was the first country you visited to see a coffee field?

The first coffee field was in Guatemala. That changed everything. After learning to roast and prepare coffees, I learned we are still limited by what is locked inside that green coffee bean. Going to Guatemala I discovered there were thousands of farms, little microclimates, and that even on a single farm there was a range of tastes and flavors being created there. I learned about how the coffee is processed and picked and that even the week's weather affects the beans. That was the moment when I realized how limited our vision had been in the beginning—when I would just pick from thirty bags of beans sent to me in Chicago. After spending just a week on farms in Guatemala, we discovered there was an opportunity to bring coffees into the market that we had never had access to before. We could shorten the route between the farm and the consumer.

I-Interview-workers-1.jpg I-interview-workers-2.jpg
How did you originally build relationships when you were the only buyer covering large territories in Mexico, Central and South America?

Part of it was abandoning the rest of my life and living out of a suitcase for about six years from 2003-2009. In 2002 we were just working with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Then we added Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. I would try to build my schedule around the harvest. Every year in January, February, and March I would be in Central America, then May, June, and July in Colombia and other parts of South America, with a few trips to East Africa thrown in there. We were really able to connect with some incredible people. In the beginning there was a lot of physical work to get things set up at the farms and work with the producers.

How did you express what you were looking for in a specialty coffee?

We did a project four years ago in Rwanda in conjunction with an NGO. The farmers there generally treated coffee as a cash crop and did not have a culture of consuming it. We'd learned so many times over the years, that if you are not consuming the product that you are creating, it is a lot harder to be motivated to pursue better quality. We started the program in Rwanda to teach coffee farmers how to prepare and consume their own coffee so they could be their own quality control. We built several hundred kits with little pans, a mortar and pestle to grind the beans, a sample of how the coffee should look when it was ready to brew, and an illustrated manual for coffee roasting in the local language. Then we did trainings in small villages. We taught the farmers to roast coffee over a fire. You can roast decently in a pan. It's not ideal, but you get surprisingly tasty results. For many of them it was the first time they had coffee, even though it was growing in their backyard for years. Others had tasted coffee, but not their own. It was a moment of revelation for them. Now when a buyer comes along and is talking to them about the coffee quality, they can actually relate. There is a common language now.

I-Interview-beans.jpg
Many of Intelligentsia's baristas say their favorite coffees are from Kenya. What is so special about Kenyan coffee?

The Kenyan farmers have figured something out. Their coffees are fascinating and complex. In 2004 I went to Kenya for the first time with a few other roasters. We asked, "What's the secret? Is it the soil? The variety?" Ultimately it's a mix of things. Soil has something to do with it, but I am convinced it's the variety. We have seen that with the famous Panama Geisha Esmeralda. It's a coffee grown in Panama that is grown with seeds taken from Ethiopia in the 1930s. Those seeds carried their taste with them. That is one of the most powerful examples of what determines what the coffee's real flavor character is going to be. Its potential is genetic.

The Kenyans use a cultivar seed called SL-28. The rest of the coffee world owes them a big debt of gratitude to the genius who cultivated that seed. The other thing is their coffee never gets exposed to high temperatures or humidity until it is on its way out of the port. Most of the mills in Northern Kenya are in areas that are cool. In many other situations coffee that is grown in the mountains has to come down to warmer dryer areas to get milled, bagged, and processed. It suffers from that change in temperature. But in Kenya and Ethiopia it stays at the perfect temperature and humidity and arrives with intensity and vibrancy.

Intelligentsia-interview-3.jpg
Several people from Kenya participated in the ECW, including Charles Muriuki. Tell us about him.

Charles Muriuki is one of the most impressive and admirable guys I have met in coffee. He runs a union of co-ops called Gikanda and works with thousands of individual farmers. Muriuki is like their great granddad. His job is to help them access better incomes. He's made all the right decisions. I see so many co-ops fail from bad leadership. You need the right people to keep it on track. In Kenya most of the co-op chairmen get elected, it can be a popularity contest. Most of them are short term. Charles has run Gikanda for about nine years. They keep bringing him back. They know it's hard to do better than Charles. He has steered them to a place where this year they had the highest rate of return to the farmers of any co-op in the country.

I-Interview-last-1.jpg I-Interview-last-2.jpg
What inspires you to keep going?

The goal that I have is to keep innovating with what we are doing. Coffee has a long way to go. For us and for me personally that's the motivation. There is nothing else we consume that requires so much effort. The number of different people who need to take care of quality along the way is staggering. It's like a relay race. The beans have to go through all of the steps at the farm, it takes four years from the time you put a seed in the ground to be able to harvest the cherry, then de-pulp them, ferment them, wash them, dry them, sort them bean by bean, then they get roasted [and undergo] a complex set of chemical changes. People think coffee is a simple thing, but there are close to 800 organic compounds in coffee, that contributes to flavor and aroma. That makes it the world's most complex beverage.

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue
Loading More...