An Unlikely Collaboration
Eight and half years ago, Tyson Adams backpacked through Southeast Asia on his first-ever trip outside of America. There, a dream changed the course of his life. He dreamed he would import coffee from Laos to America to fund education projects for the children living in those same coffee-growing communities. He awoke and wrote in his Moleskine what spawned into Jhai Coffee House.
As the dream evolved into a business idea, Adams traveled 24 hours south to the city of Pakse, where Lao coffee originates. On a motorcycle, he climbed the 1300 meters to the Bolaven Plateau where he met an English speaking JCFC member in Phou Oy village. It was there that Adams learned of a coffee company in Fort Bragg, CA, called Thanksgiving Coffee Co: an early partner of the JCFC.
He wrote down the name of the company, said farewell to the co-op, and continued journeying south. While in Vietnam at a noisy internet cafe, he emailed Paul Katzeff, Thanksgiving Coffee’s Co-Founder, to learn more about the partnership. What he discovered was quite the story.
Thirty two years after the Vietnam Conflict, American veteran Lee Thorn stepped on the ground in SouthEast Asia: "I tasted Lao coffee on my first trip here in 1998 and it changed my life."
At the height of the war in 1966, Thorn was a U.S. Naval serviceman, loading bombs onto planes on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in the Tonkin Gulf. Many of those bombs landed on Laos, and still to this day 500-pound explosives are still dug up in the coffee region on the Bolaven Plateau.
As a peace activist and philanthropic entrepreneur, Thorn then saw that, "Coffee can be a symbol of reconciliation." And so, he contacted Katzeff and together they began helping to rebuild Laos by creating a market for Lao coffee in America. Their strategy was to use nationwide Veterans for Peace chapters to sell coffee to their members.
Thanksgiving imported coffee over three years from the JCFC, seeing it improve year after year. However, on the fourth year something didn't go as planned. Katzeff's son Jonas who was living in Cambodia visited the JCFC and could not locate the two contracted containers of coffee that matched the samples Thanksgiving had cupped. It seems that someone had outbid Thanksgiving Coffee and the relationship died quickly with the on-the-ground partners fleeing Laos without explaining themselves on what happened.
In April of 2010, Adams returned to Seattle and, over the course of six months, developed a business plan to sell JCFC coffee through a fundraiser model. He called Katzeff and ran the plan by him to thoroughly vet the idea. Thankfully, Katzeff was inspired and agreed to proceed as an advisor with the startup. A beautiful friendship was born.
Adams still needed financial and branding support to bring this dream to life. In early 2013, Adams won a contest put on by Misfit, Inc., which provided the resources to crowd-fund a non-profit coffee roaster and cafe in Laos. Still, Adams knew little about roasting and brewing coffee, so Katzeff invited him to the Thanksgiving Coffee's headquarters in Fort Bragg, CA. Head-roaster Jacob Long took Tyson through the basics of roasting and Katzeff shared highlights of his four decades of coffee experience. The message Adams heard loud and clear from Katzeff was, "If you want to improve coffee quality in Laos, you must allow farmers access to roasting and drinking their own coffees."
This conversation had a major impact on Adams’ decision to build the roaster and cafe in Paksong, which opened in October of 2013, with the help of Michael Gomez Wood and Cana Little of Filanthrope. Several months later, green coffee samples were sent to the Thanksgiving team and Katzeff decided to take a leap of faith for the second time by purchasing Lao coffee and beginning all over again.
The Jhai Coffee Farmers Cooperative had been reborn.
In April of 2014, Nick Hoskyns, owner of Etico, stepped in to import 8.5 tons of JCFC arabica typica coffee for the Thanksgiving team. The coffee at that time was 80 point coffee -- not the specialty grade it would soon become -- but it was a major step in building out a new region of specialty coffee in America for the Lao people.
Today, eight and half years since Adams had backpacked through Laos -- thirteen years since Jonah first learned of the JCFC -- Lao speciality coffee has been born. Filanthrope, Jhai, Thanksgiving Coffee, and Etico have committed to a long-term partnership of bringing single-origin Lao coffee to specialty roasters in the USA and Europe.
Ten and half tons of Lao specialty coffee -- with the majority cupping over 85 points! -- has just landed on the west coast.
Let the roasting begin!