Bob Shallit

Farm to cup: Sacramento chef goes 3,000 miles to buy specialty coffee beans

Honduras coffee grower Luis Nolasco, center, holds bags of coffee beans that were roasted in Sacramento. With him are Jason Griest, left, of Old Soul Co., and chef Patrick Mulvaney.
Honduras coffee grower Luis Nolasco, center, holds bags of coffee beans that were roasted in Sacramento. With him are Jason Griest, left, of Old Soul Co., and chef Patrick Mulvaney. Catracha Coffee

Sacramento chef Patrick Mulvaney routinely travels to meet and strategize with the farmers and ranchers who supply fresh ingredients for his popular midtown restaurant.

But the pioneer in this area’s farm-to-fork movement late last month took that idea to a geographic extreme.

He journeyed to a remote region in Honduras to get acquainted with the farmer who supplies the beans for the coffee served at Mulvaney’s B&L.

“It’s maybe surprising I went that far,” Mulvaney said of the one-week trip he took along with Jason Griest, co-owner of Sacramento coffee roaster and retailer Old Soul Co. “But (not) the idea I’d meet with a farmer, shake his hand, look in his eyes and see his procedures. That’s what I do.”

The farmer, Luis Nolasco, is part of a 6-year-old specialty coffee cooperative called Catracha that is selling beans directly to people like Mulvaney, and getting much more money for its cash-strapped farmer-owners by bypassing the middlemen who control most of the wholesale coffee business.

Griest, who travels internationally at least one month a year to source coffee beans for Old Soul, discovered Catracha last year and ended up buying Nolasco’s entire crop – about 1,800 pounds – and roasting most of it for Mulvaney.

This year, Mulvaney opted to come along on Griest’s 3,000-mile return trek to the town of Santa Elena, a coffee-growing center in western Honduras near the El Salvador border.

They stayed two nights with Nolasco and his family in a home with no electricity or indoor plumbing and talked about ways to help the farmer improve his growing, harvesting and drying techniques.

“He produces really good coffee now,” said Griest, who described the product as sweet and well-balanced with peach, toffee and chocolate flavors. “And hopefully by getting more money he’ll be able to make great, great coffee and we can pay him even more.”

For Griest, these sorts of trips are all about developing sustainable relationships with coffee growers in the same way Mulvaney cultivates ties with tomato and beet farmers in the Sacramento Valley.

“You’re developing a trust that you’ll come back (to buy product) every year so that they can feel comfortable investing back in their farms,” he said.

There’s also a big social component in helping bring cash and development to places like Santa Elena – a town Griest called one of the most impoverished he’s ever visited.

“If done right, coffee growing can truly be a powerful lever for change,” he said. “It can be an economic tool that helps raise (people) out of extreme poverty.”

He said he’s eager to help connect other Sacramento chefs with growers, giving the farmers more income and providing restaurateurs with a product they can legitimately brand as exclusively their own.

“That could be the next step in all of the cool things that are happening” in Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement, Griest said, “with chefs here taking it to the next level and going to the origin.”

For Mulvaney, the trip was an opportunity to learn about coffee production – “a world I didn’t know anything about” – while generating goodwill by conducting a cooking class in Spanish and preparing a lunch from local ingredients for 150 kids attending a Catracha educational event.

It also was a chance to further his own mission of “doing well by doing good.”

He said he was able to see the economic impact the Catracha project already has had in Santa Elena, with more houses getting roofs, windows and electricity.

At a more personal level, he saw how the program is helping Nolasco, who now has enough income to get schooling for his two teenage daughters.

During the trip, Mulvaney and Griest presented the farmer with two small bags of his own beans – each bearing Nolasco’s name – that had been roasted in Sacramento. He had never seen, or tasted, his product in its finished form.

“That was the high point,” Mulvaney said. “You could see the pride in his eyes as he said to his daughters, ‘This is what your father does and this is how you can go to school.’ ”