Serious Eats: Drinks
Small-But-Mighty Coffee Roaster: Thanksgiving Coffee Company
Every day is one of gratitude for the folks at seminal Mendocino County, CA roasters Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Thanks to founders Paul and Joan Katzeff's vision to create a responsible, artisanal coffee resource in me-centric 1970s California, Thanksgiving has enjoyed a long reputation of leading industrywide innovations in giving back as much as we take—from the earth, from the farmers, and from each other as professionals.
We recently caught up via e-mail with Thanksgiving's president and director of coffee, Ben Corey-Moran, to get some insight into the hits and history of this small-but-mighty roaster.
What was the inspiration behind Thanksgiving Coffee Company, and how has the roastery changed over the years?
Thanksgiving started with the mission of providing great fresh-roasted coffee to our community, and a livelihood for its owners, Joan and Paul Katzeff. That was 1972, and a lot of what we assume in coffee [now] wasn't yet known. There were essentially no micro-roasters, there were no single origin coffees—let alone the brokers, importers, and exporters to procure them. Joan and Paul built this company one year at a time. We've learned that great coffee is not a simple thing, and we've learned that producing it requires relationships with farmers, innovation in trade models, sustainability in an ecological sense, craft, e-commerce, art, bottomless portafilters...The list goes on.
What does "sustainability" mean to you guys as a roasting company?
We've been deeply influenced by our surroundings here in rural northern California. Understanding the implications of an exploitative industry is something that we saw firsthand: I used to see redwood trees ten feet wide being carried away to to mill on the way to school. Witnessing the destruction of a place that you love changes everything. It changed my life, and it changed Thanksgiving Coffee's understanding of what it meant to be in the coffee industry. The parallels to coffee are pretty clear: Generations of farmers have been at the losing end of an economic transaction that's been destroying the basis of quality and productivity. In the long run, consumers were unwittingly harming themselves by demanding cheap coffee. The alternative is to figure out how to come together...to create a thriving and prosperous industry for years to come. Quality is the cornerstone of that industry because it differentiates us from the bulk of the swill that's out there, and because it creates a basis upon which we can negotiate fair prices for increasingly valuable products. In the vocabulary of business, we're creating a different definition of value—we're trying to create shared value: A kind of prosperity that builds itself in to the functioning and productivity of each partner in the supply chain.
Can you tell us a little about your role in the company, and how you were first drawn to work for the roastery?
I was born and raised on the beautiful coast of northern California, in a small town about 20 miles south of Fort Bragg, Thanksgiving Coffee's home. I grew up in the late 1980s and early '90s surrounded by a struggle for sustainability and a battle that pit loggers and fishermen against environmentalists. It was a time that defined the future of this area, and a transition from exploitation of nature towards a deeper understanding of what was is required to live off and with the land for generations. I watched my parents and my neighbors struggle to understand that we were fighting over the disconnect between our economy and our earth. This same struggle informed Thanksgiving Coffee and its understanding of the need to create a business model that created value and prosperity and shared it all along the supply chain. I've been with Thanksgiving Coffee since 2003. Early on I played a lot of different roles, as you often do in a small company. I delivered coffee, trained customers, wrote ad copy, and shared my opinions in the cupping lab. Over time, I moved deeper into operations and buying, and have been running our green coffee sourcing for the past four years.
What is something you think the average consumer can or should be aware of in terms of buying responsible specialty coffee? What do you think all specialty-coffee roasters should be obligated to do in order to be responsible?
This may sound cynical, but I think it's worth saying that consumers should always maintain a healthy distrust of companies. The dissent that's sweeping our country right now...is really an expression of our collective desire for a transparent, accountable, and trustworthy political and economic system. [R]oasters need to be held accountable to the same high standards. Independent, third-party certification is and should be a hallmark of our industry. I hope more and more companies take the lead in setting this high bar, and I hope that people who love great coffee ask for this and support companies that follow through.
What are you most thankful for this year?
Things I'm thankful for this year—delicious coffee, and the farmers who make it possible. A moment in time where people are hungry for change and excited about the possibility of a better future. Of course family, friends and community, the people who fill our lives with fun, love, and happiness.