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Haiti's incredible coffee

La Colombe’s founder means to create demand for amazing beans.

Todd Carmichael of La Colombe with coffee: “This could grow into a billion-dollar industry for Haiti.” (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Todd Carmichael of La Colombe with coffee: “This could grow into a billion-dollar industry for Haiti.” (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

In early April, two weeks before she opened her latest restaurant, Talula's Garden, Aimee Olexy, crowned royalty of the region's culinary scene, met with her coffee supplier to choose beans she would serve at the end of each finely tuned meal.

He'd brought her usual favorites from Nicaragua, Brazil, and Africa. But a stranger in the cache caught her eye.

"What's in that little unmarked bag?" she asked.

The supplier didn't answer. Instead, he brewed a small batch and poured her a cup.

"I loved, loved, loved it," Olexy said. "It was like a coffee I dreamed of in the morning." Unlike so many that seduce you with aroma, then disappoint with a slap to the tongue, this coffee was true to its promise. "The smell matched the taste," she said, with hints of caramel and butterscotch and a toasty finish.

She ordered it - an entire shipping container's worth, about 33,000 pounds.

A month later, Nelson Robinson, 34, a Haitian coffee farmer, stood in the restaurant weeping grateful tears.

The coffee Olexy had fallen for, Haitian Blue Forest, came from Robinson's home in the destitute mountains of southeastern Haiti. The beans had been handpicked from semiwild vines that his great-grandfather and neighbors had planted from heirloom seeds linked to ancient Ethiopia.

Robinson told Olexy and her staff how, as a child, he had watched his father burn most of the family's coffee plantation. Although Haiti was once one of the world's major coffee exporters, politics and economics had conspired to kill off the trade. Precipitous drops in the price along with rising oil costs made the vines more valuable as a fuel source and the land more useful for growing peas.

After finishing college, Robinson had the chance to emigrate to Canada. Instead, he returned home to the family farm and worked with a coffee cooperative, Coopcab, representing 5,000 families.

They were barely getting by when, in January, a tall, odd American loped into the village - Todd Carmichael, cofounder of La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based roasting company.

Since he started the business 17 years ago, Carmichael has traveled around the "planet," as he prefers to say in his caffeinated disquisition, searching for worthy plants and deserving farmers. The 47-year-old coffee savant and world adventurer (he holds the world record for crossing Antarctica solo) says his motives are almost as pure as his product.

"Not that I'm one of these people who believes that business is the answer to everything," he said. "But the absence of business isn't good either."

La Colombe deals directly with farmers, Carmichael said, avoiding middlemen who pocket the profits and leave growers with only pennies on the pound. Haiti's situation was particularly sad.

Japan had been a reliable trading partner for years, buying premium beans at fair prices, said Marcel Duret, Haiti's former ambassador to Japan. Most of the rest of the crop, however, was sold far below its potential value.

Intermediaries paid Haitian coffee growers for an entire harvest up front at very low prices, then transported the goods illegally into Santo Domingo to be blended and sold at a substantial profit.

Eighteen months ago, Carmichael knew little about Haiti. But during a visit to the Library of Congress, he made a discovery. "I was looking at shipping records from the 1700s," he said. "I'm a typica [coffee bean] junkie, and I wanted to know what they were drinking back then." The typica variety has a richer, more authentic flavor, he says, unadulterated by commercial agricultural methods.

The documents Carmichael found showed that in the 1800s, Haiti grew 45 percent of the world's coffee. "So I started calling coffee traders. There are a handful who bathe in this stuff. They move thousands and thousands of containers of it."

Carmichael learned that somewhere near Thiotte in Haiti, a group of farmers was producing spectacular coffee. In January, he hopped a plane to Santo Domingo, rented a truck, and headed for the Haitian countryside.

Cannily blogging for Esquire and videotaping, Carmichael chronicled the 10-day expedition from beginning to end. Bald and lanky, the former long-distance runner looks as if he had stepped out of Outside Magazine in his white T-shirt, jeans, hiking boots, and worn baseball cap. Manic on the good-natured edge of cocky, he hands the video camera to a stranger on the Dominican-Haitian border and has him film the bustling marketplace. Then Carmichael looks into the lens and says, "All this commerce, not one single bag of coffee." He points toward the mountains and vows, "That's going to change."

By the end of the trip, he had found the typica vines growing in as natural a state as he had ever seen. "Each plant produces about 2 to 4 kilos," he said. "Compare that to the big commercial hybrids that can produce 30 to 40 kilos per plant. It's like they're on steroids." He had also tracked down Nelson Robinson and presented his plan.

"They were receiving $1.60 a pound for most of their coffee," Carmichael said. "You can barely survive on that. I'll pay what I believe it to be worth." The best of the coffee, which he would help them process properly, would fetch $5 a pound. "That makes it one of the most expensive green coffees in the world."

For the rest of the crop, he would pay between $3 and $4 a pound, and guarantee to buy 40,000 kilos every year for the next three years. He also invested $100,000 in a state-of-the-art coffee dryer from Brazil to help boost the processing capacity, particularly during rainy season.

Carmichael is not the first American to try to revive the Haitian coffee economy. The difference with La Colombe's plan, he says, is that it works to create demand first.

"I want people to covet this coffee."

Carmichael arranged for Robinson to attend a marketing course the World Bank gave in May, and to visit restaurants and cafes that would serve Haitian Blue Forest: elite places like Ai Fiori on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Vetri and Talula's Garden in Philadelphia.

Olexy's decision to put Haitian coffee on her menu was quick but not rash. Preparing for the dinner crowd last week, she brewed herself a French-press carafe full and spent the next hour attending to details. Linens, potted ferns, and cheese presentation.

When Robinson visited, she invited him to her daily staff meeting. Listening to her chefs and servers praise his coffee, he was overwhelmed.

"I am so thankful," Robinson said last week back in Haiti. "It's true that we produce a sacre bon cafe." That, he'd known since childhood, he said, but what moved him was the realization that so many others now know it, too.

"It's the best coffee I've ever tasted," said Carmichael. "I think this could grow into a billion-dollar industry for Haiti."