MANAGUA – When New York native Paul Katzeff was first named president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1985, he considered himself to be a businessman in search of good coffee to make a handsome profit.
But when that quest led him to Nicaragua and – unknowingly – into the middle of the war that was tearing apart the country at that time, Katzeff cut his teeth as a revolutionary roaster, which has defined his life and company ever since.
Katzeff admits he had no idea what he was getting himself into when a friend of a friend told him that a Nicaraguan coffee farmer was in town and was interested in addressing the Specialty Coffee Association’s 1985 conference in California. Katzeff agreed to meet with Francisco Saenz, and was taken to a local safe house run by the Sandinista underground, “where everyone was dressed in red and black and there were lots of guns lying around.”
Still, Katzeff says he was clueless about what was going on in Nicaragua and only saw an opportunity to cash in on a $160 million Nicaraguan coffee crop that – for some reason – no one else seemed interested in.
So Katzeff invited Saenz to come address his group about the wonder opportunity of Nicaraguan coffee. Saenz invited all 75 members of the Specialty Coffee Association to come visit Nicaragua in 1985, but only Katzeff took him up on the offer.
“The rest of the group was freaked out,” he remembers. “But I was totally detached from what was going on in Nicaragua. I didn’t even know there was a war going on there.”
On the plane to Managua, Katzeff looked around and realized he was the only businessman on a flight full of solidarity brigade members. Katzeff said that once the plane hit Nicaraguan airspace, everyone aboard except for him broke into the revolutionary song Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, and he realized it wasn’t going to be a typical business trip.
But the experience on the plane moved him and made him reconsider his motives for coming to Nicaragua, he said.
Once on the ground, Katzeff was pushed into the limelight by a Sandinista government that was eager to showcase a big U.S. investor who had came to help the revolution and the economy. Upon stepping off the plane in Managua, Katzeff found himself giving his first press conference to a gaggle of journalists awaiting his arrival.
The following days changed his life. Katzeff saw his first coffee plantation and witnessed the grinding poverty of coffee pickers who were struggling to feed their families. It was in the mountains of Nicaragua, he said, that he learned that “coffee is about people.”
Katzeff also realized the political implications of what he had stumbled into when Sandinista comandante Victor Tirado asked him in front of a group of 100 campesinos in Matagalpa if he were “willing to die for the revolution.”
Die he didn’t, but fight he did.
Katzeff says he left Nicaragua as a revolutionary, committed to buying Nicaraguan coffee at a preferential price and marketing it in the United States as the first social justice coffee with the slogan “Not just a cup, but a just cup.”
He even agreed to donate $.50 per pound of the coffee he sold back to the revolution, totaling $25,000 over the following years.
That solidarity effort did not win him many fans in the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who declared an economic embargo against Nicaragua shortly after Katzeff decided to start importing Nicaraguan coffee.
The embargo forced Katzeff to export the Nicaraguan coffee to Canada, where it was toasted and thereby technically transformed into a “Canadian product” to be imported into California. Katzeff also sued Reagan and former Vice-President George Bush for the embargo and fought for two years to get the case as far as the U.S. Court of Appeals.
After the war and the embargo ended, Katzeff was again re-elected president of the Specialty Coffee Association, which had grown considerably. He began to bring other coffee buyers to Nicaragua to try to “break through the wall that exists” between growers and roasters.
“I brought everyone I could,” Katzeff said. During a trip here in 2001, Katzeff said he was meeting with coffee growers in the north when it occurred to him to ask how many of them had actually tasted their own coffee.
Not a single hand went up in the room. He was baffled and frustrated with an economic model that he claims was based on “keeping the campesinos poor and ignorant without knowledge about the market.”
So Katzeff proposed that coffee-cupping laboratories be brought to the rural countryside to help create a coffee culture on the plantations to help farmers learn the difference between and good cup and a bad cup. By learning about coffee, Katzeff said, the farmers can improve quality, which will increase demand and prices for their product.
A representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) overheard Katzeff talking to the coffee growers about his dream of building cupping labs for them, and told him to write up a proposal.
Katzeff, who had previous experience writing proposals, quickly put a pen to a legal pad of paper and wrote up a one-page proposal that he handed to the USAID representative and forgot about. Two years later he got a call from USAID telling him he had won $400,000 for his cupping-lab grant.
With that money, Katzeff funded the construction of eight cupping labs at coffee farms in northern Nicaragua. They were the first labs of their kind to exist on rural coffee farms anywhere in the world.
“Now they have cupping labs and they can taste their own coffee,” Katzeff said. “Not every farmer strives to have the best coffee, but no one wants to have the worst.”
At the recent Ramacafe coffee industry meeting in Managua, representatives from several coffee cooperatives in the rural north of the country trekked to the capital to thank Katzeff for the labs and to tell him how they had contributed to an improvement in the quality of their coffee.
“That’s the magic of coffee,” he said.
Selling a Message
Katzeff ’s initial experience selling social justice coffee from Nicaragua has since expanded to other countries. His company, Thanksgiving Coffee, which now does $5.3 million in annual coffee sales, also sells “Gorilla Fund Coffee,” to raise money to protect Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda;“Mirembe Kawomera Delicious Peace Coffee,” to raise money for an interfaith cooperative in Uganda; and “Song Bird Coffee” from Guatemala, to help raise funds for conservation efforts by the American Birding Association.
Katzeff also sells “End the Embargo Coffee” from Cuba, to help raise money for Global Exchange.
Yet despite his global coffee project, Katzeff still has a particular fondness for the people and coffee of Nicaragua. He says a good cup of Nicaraguan coffee is better than a good cup of coffee from anywhere else in the world, and 25% of his coffee purchase still comes from Nicaragua.
From the 225,000 pounds of coffee Katzeff buys each year from Estelí and Matagalpa, Thanksgiving Coffee selects eight to 12 individual harvests to promote as part of its “Campesino Estate Coffee.” Those limitededition coffee bags, sold at fair-trade prices, feature the names, stories and faces of the individual farmers who grow and pick their coffee.
“This is the only coffee in the world where the individual farmer’s name and face is on the bag,” he said. “We are trying to educate people in the United States that cooperatives are made up of individuals.”
That commitment to Nicaraguan farmers has not only defined Katzeff ’s career as a roaster, but has helped to brew a whole new coffee culture on the farms where he buys his coffee.