When describing the nuances of a fine wine, a winemaker might be inspired to use the words, “brilliant acidity,” “medium body,” “sweet citrus,” “caramelized sugar,” “fine chocolate” and “impeccably balanced.”
The above, however, describes the flavor profile of La Minita coffee made from estate-grown beans hailing from Hacienda La Minita, a plantation owned by Distant Lands Coffee in the Tarrazu region of central Costa Rica.
“It’s one of my favorites; it’s so balanced, rich, smooth and consistent,” says Greta Schuil of Schuil Coffee Company in Grand Rapids, which roasts and sells La Minita beans as well as other top-tier Arabica beans from Central and South America, Mexico, Hawaii, Indonesia, Jamaica and Africa.
Schuil reveals that the specialized traits of a particular coffee, just like wine, can be traced to its terroir — the location, soil and climate that form the flavors and give a bean its singular identity.
“Some of my favorite coffees are African,” she continues. “Beans from one African country can have a very different taste (spicy, earthy, chocolate-y) than another. The different soils and climates make it so fascinating.”
Schuil, president of the company begun in 1981 by her parents Gary and Gladys Schuil, proudly asserts that theirs was the first specialty coffee roasting company in the state. After tasting “a fantastic cup of coffee” while overseas in the ’70s, her father — already in the import business, a tradition begun by her great-grandfather — began purchasing specialty beans.
As part of the first wave of specialty coffee importers and roasters, the Schuils needed to educate their wholesale and retail customers about quality coffee, a passion that continues today.
“We have only ever bought the top two grades of Arabica coffee beans,” she notes, explaining that there are several different Arabica grades. “If I ask you to name the top three designer suits, our coffee is the Armani suit.”
According to Schuil, Arabica beans are grown “in altitudes” within 1,000 miles of the equator, and the trees, which are “very carefully tended,” take several years to produce fruit. In contrast, she says, Robusta beans, an entirely different species, grow on wild and leafy plants and yield a product used in lower quality coffee brands.
She tries to visit one of these equatorial farms each year to meet the growers who supply them with their unroasted beans.
“I really fell in love with the coffee industry, its extreme management of the green product and the roasted product,” she shares. “We don’t just look at coffee as a commodity, but as something specialized. We’re passionate about the product and the people who grow it and we have wonderful customers.”
For Schuil, the quality of the bean must be matched by the freshness of the roast, and the company commits to a 72-hour turnaround time from roaster to shipped product. A drum roaster produces dark roasts and an air roaster creates medium roasts with more nuanced flavors.
Schuil sells estate (single origin) coffees and coffee blends (two or more estate coffees). The company also offers custom blends and private label, fair trade and organic flavored coffees and coffee samplers. Attached to the roastery is a European-style coffee and tea house, where all coffees can be smelled and tasted before purchased.
Here, customers can enjoy sipping specialty coffee drinks made using an espresso machine, as well, which the company has done for over 30 years. Everyone is welcome, all ages and all demographics, because — as Schuil expresses — “We have the best coffee, but we don’t have an attitude that goes with it.”
A much younger enterprise (founded in 2002) with no less commitment to quality, Higher Grounds Trading Company (HG) in Traverse City also sells a range of global specialty coffees — all organic, Fair Trade and shade-grown. HG is a member of and purchases its coffee through Cooperative Coffees, a North American importer that buys directly from the growers, eliminating the middlemen, according to a statement on the company’s website.
Chris Treter, co-founder and director of HG, is a social activist and also serves as Interim General Manager of Co-op Coffees.
Treter replied to questions via email messages and texts from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he spearheaded and participated in his On The Ground non-profit collaborative’s latest fundraising project, “Run Across Congo,” to (as onthegroundglobal.org states) “support sustainable community development in farming regions across the world.”
“The idea for runacrosscongo.org came about as a means to draw the attention of the United States to eastern DRC — the epicenter of Africa’s great wars that have left nearly 6 million dead in the last 20 years. And (to its) amazing potential for specialty coffee (from Eastern Congo growing communities,” Treter shared.
During trips to DRC, he also organized the Saveur du Kivu, the first-ever specialty coffee cupping (tasting) competition for coffee co-ops in the DRC, with the participation of coffee companies from around the world.
As for his personal, preferred “taste,” Treter shared, “My favorite coffee is our Muungano from Congo — site of the last day of the Run. (It) reflects our view of what the future of coffee should be with every origin — circular economics, direct import, above fair trade/organic, highest quality, and community-building at (the) roaster, (and) community-building, awareness-building development at the co-op.”
In blog post from the Congo, Treter wrote: “Meanwhile, our coffee-growing friends remain resolved to continue down the path of staying out of the conflict and working to rebuild their communities. And therein lies the inspiring part I hope to learn more about: In the face of such turmoil, history of oppression and exploitation, the human spirit remains resolved to always aim for a better future.” And a better cup of coffee.
Freelance writer Pat Stinson divides her time between Leelanau County and Fort Collins, Colorado.