Honor Society Coffee takes it name pretty seriously. “We work with producers who treat their coffee like a craft… [and] we strive to do justice to its unique heritage in everything we do,” its states on its web site. Co-owner and roaster Liz Pachaud is equally eloquent when discussing the respect that she and partner Brandin Myett have for the products they represent, the producers who create them and global systems they’re inevitably a part of. Here, Liz discusses her desire for integrity and accountability, and what she saw in Peru, while visiting Genuine Origin suppliers.
Genuine Origin: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and about Honor Society?
Liz Pachaud: I’ve been in coffee for about 12 years, and I’ve been a roaster for the last five of those. I was roasting for a company in Detroit, and I traveled a bit to origin, and I reached the natural point where I felt like I wanted to branch out and roast under my name. I wanted the chance to take those relationships and make them for myself, not as a proxy for someone else’s mission.
GO: You were ready for the next step
LP: Yeah. There wasn’t any resentment — everything was great. It was just time for me to grow. So I moved back to Seattle, which is where I grew up, and I started Honor Society in the spring of 2014.
Back then, it was just me, doing pop-ups and trying to get funding together. Then in 2015, my business partner, Brandin Myett, and I formally launched our wholesale program, and in September 2016 we opened our cafes. And this coming September, we’re expanding our space to become a daytime-into-evenings place, with beer and wine.
GO: So, more of a food program.
LP: We essentially run a restaurant right now, out of our café, which was kind of expected. When we opened, we tried to diminish the role that food was going to play in our café environment, because it’s so much work. But ultimately, we couldn’t do without it. It’s really taken off — in terms of sales, it’s neck-and-neck with our coffee. It’s cool to see people responding to it.
GO: We were thrilled that you and Brandin recently went with Teresa von Fuchs, our head of Sales and Marketing, to see our colleagues in Peru and some of the farms. What was your hope for that trip?
LP: Developing relationships at origin has always been part of our plan. We just weren’t sure how soon we were going to be able to accomplish it. This trip came up at exactly the right time and with exactly the right components. In terms of my purchasing, it’s really, really important for me to have some tangible, tactile relationship with the people that produce the products that we care about.
We work with farmers here in our café, for example, that provide produce for us, or provide other products like spices that we use, etc. It’s always an important tenet of our structure that we know the people who are producing those products and that we work with farmers that we trust, and that we spend what little resources we have supporting the models that we respect and that reflect the community that we want to see around us. Coffee purchasing is exactly the same, it just happens over longer distances.
GO: Was Peru in particular a draw for you?
LP: I’ve tasted a couple of really excellent coffees out of there, but I feel like they’ve been a little more rare to come by. So that was one of the more interesting parts of the trip, just learning about the specialty history in Peru and the work that farmers are doing, especially with the aid of Genuine Origin and other producer-support programs, to really enter the specialty field in a way that’s sustainable for their long-term economic viability.
I was genuinely surprised by the specificity of some of the programs, in terms of problem-solving with the farmers. And also by the number of people on the ground with those relationships with the farmers, and how they’re working with them in a way that’s really reflective of the different farmers’ actual needs.
For example, if your farm is at 2,000 meters, up a winding dirt road, and the nearest town is three and a half hours away, that’s a logistical issue. It doesn’t matter if you grow the best coffee in the world up there, if you can’t actually get it down the mountain.
I was expecting to learn about the investment that Genuine Origin is making at the farm level, and I was interested in that. But I was more than blown away by the level of work that we saw being done there.
GO: It really is one thing to hear us talk about what we do, and another to see it.
LP: I had several pretty honest conversations while we were down there, about essentially my skepticism over buying coffee from such a gigantic company. Frankly, my skepticism was rooted in this belief that any company that’s as large as Volcafe, that trades in the commodities that it trades in, at the level that it works at, cannot possibly have done so without getting their hands a little dirty. And I find Genuine Origin to be a really fascinating experiment in what happens when you take that money and that logistical supply chain success and you apply it to a conscience. And you apply it to sustainability.
I’m a firm believer that none of the stuff we talk about in terms of ethics and sustainability are actually important unless we have the resources to put them into practice. I wanted to learn more about what the relationship really was between Genuine Origin, the specialty boutique wing of this larger company, and its other players in the marketplace. And I was really impressed by what I saw, and I feel completely comfortable purchasing the coffees that we purchase through you guys. And I say that as a person who is pretty much constantly tied up in knots over the smallest dents that we can be making and their global impact.
We’re a tiny company — I thought it was hilarious that Teresa said the classification for companies that do the volume that we do is… enthusiasts.
GO: Enthusiasm is good!
LP: Absolutely! I was like, ‘You know, we are enthusiasts!’
But that also means that our purchasing power is so small, and the effect that we can have on the ethical supply chains that we care about is so microscopic, that it really makes a difference when we can leverage our tiny position through a larger company that is doing the important work.
GO: Healthy skepticism really is a perfect phrase. Whenever a company says they’re doing what no one else does, skepticism is a pretty healthy response.
LP: Completely. And the other element about this is the sort of commodification of the farmer relationship… Are we careful enough that we’re not using these trips as a way to further this narrative that you, white person in this café spending your three dollars, are saving the life of a child in Guatemala.
Teresa put it well. She said, “No, this is a business. Genuine Origin exists because it’s good for business. Is it also good for farmers? Absolutely. But we’re not a charity.”
And I really respect that. None of it’s a charity. We’re all doing this for money. But part of doing that work, I think for us, is investing in, and knowing the product inside and out. And sometimes that means going and feeling the soil, and eating the food that grows there and seeing the coffee on the tree for yourself. •
Shop Genuine Origin Peru Chonta.
*All photos courtesy of Honor Society Coffee.