Sure, we all have our favorite single-origin, fair-trade-certified coffee, but what is like to actually be the one deciding what beans to put in that high-design-yet-eco-friendly bag?
To find out, we talked with Kim Elena Ionescu, the brand-new director of sustainability for the Speciality Coffee Association of America, and who, for 11 years prior, worked as a coffee buyer and sustainability for Durham, North Carolina-based Counter Culture Coffee. She shared what it’s like to be a coffee buyer, and to travel three months a year to source the best beans available from Latin America, Kenya, and the DRC.
Your job in a nutshell: My title at Counter Culture was coffee buyer and sustainability manager. But that means a lot of different things—it’s a small company. On the supply side, I worked with coffee producers and farmers primarily in Latin America, but also in parts of Africa. The company wants coffee that tastes wonderful, absolutely, but it also wants to be the best coffee partner that a producer could want: They pay good prices for good coffee, while aiming to improve the environment and livelihoods in coffee-producing communities.
Three words you live by: Empowerment, transparency, responsiveness.
Last trip you took: An 11-day trip through Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC.
Favorite recent memory: While in the DRC, we traveled by boat across the Lake Kivu to a former plantation (now a community meeting house) to meet with farmers. Waiting on the shore of the lake were these young dancers—from 5 years old to high school-aged—dressed in white grass skirts. There were drummers in the background and, as soon as we got off the boat, we were flooded by these young people dancing, twirling around. It was beautiful—and not a common thing.
Must-have travel coffee accessories: I was actually four months pregnant and not drinking coffee at the time of this trip, which made for an easy decision not to pack anything, but I’m usually torn as to whether to bring brewing equipment with me. On one hand, I’m not at all picky when I travel and I’m happy to eat and drink whatever is served to me, including terrible coffee or, as is more common in East Africa, milky tea. On the other hand, I love bringing an Aeropress and a Porlex grinder, along with a bag of coffee from the farm or co-op I’m visiting, because it allows me not only to make coffee for myself, but to make coffee in the style that we consume it stateside (usually stronger than in coffee-producing countries) and share it. It’s a great icebreaker.
Most recent challenge: The official language in Burundi is Kirundi, but most of the farmers speak some French. My French isn’t great, though I try to use what little I know. On this last trip to the region, I had to give a talk to the farmers, in French, which was then translated to Kirundi. I felt exhilarated to pull it off and one step closer to the farmers than if I’d relied on English, which would then be translated to French, and from there to Kirundi.
Biggest challenge, professionally: Politics have complicated coffee buying. When conflict compromises infrastructure—especially in smaller, less stable countries—there’s no way for farmers to get it to a mill or a washing station.
Coolest recent coffee find: Counter Culture’s Idido beans, which is really bright, floral, and citrusy. And it makes amazing iced coffee.
Perks of the job: Seeing (and tasting!) the world’s coffee get better, and watching kids grow up over many years of visits. When I started traveling, I got the most excited about going places I had never been before, but after years on the road, the allure of newness wears off and relationships deepen, which makes going back to the same places and seeing the same people far more meaningful and special than even the most exotic, unknown destination.
Photo by Kim Elena Ionescu