For our monthly series “Meet The Kitchen Purveyor,” we sat down with Mark Glenn of Conscious Coffees to get to know him a little bit better. Here’s what he had to say:
Where are you from?
Pennsylvania, Bethlehem, the Lehigh Valley. I went to school in Philadelphia and graduated with a communications degree from West Chester University.
What brought you to Colorado?
The mountains brought me here. It was pretty simple. I left Philadelphia, went to the Pacific Northwest, and spent a couple of months hitchhiking up and down that coast. Then in 1993, I was invited out to Nederland. I flew in, and as soon as I got to Boulder I knew something totally different was happening here. Coming from Philadelphia, people don’t smile at you. I stayed in Boulder for a few months, then someone invited me to a disco night in Breckenridge. I got up there, and I was like, “WOAH!” I immediately moved to Summit County and lived there for fifteen years.
What were you doing up there, in the high country?
I was living in Frisco, working at a natural foods store. I got to know this husband and wife with a little coffee shop, they had a tiny roaster and they were roasting on-site. I became a barista, and I met the whole town. I got to talk to everyone. It was great, very clear conversation. That’s what got me into coffee; the clean social connection with my community. I started roasting a little bit, and I was like, “Wow, this is a craft.” I met my wife Mel and we’ve been married for fourteen years now. We’ve been together for almost twenty.
When did you start your own business?
The wholesale business started in 1996, and by 1998 we had our first Boulder account, which was Lolita’s Market. My second customer was the Brillig Works bakery up on the hill.
Why did you move back to Boulder?
We’d had enough of the winters up there. We then had a baby and wanted to raise our child in an environment that was more realistic. At the time, we were creating a coffee trade system to get consumers to recognize that farmers are the poorest people in the world, and together we can change that. We’d built wonderful relationships in Boulder with people who were on board helping push this movement. So, all of those things came together, and it was just like, “You know what? Let’s move to Boulder.”
What’s going on at Conscious Coffees?
Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world after oil. There was a crisis in the late nineties where the price of coffee went down to historical lows, and created massive problems that have been here since. Twelve or thirteen years ago in Chiapas, I met roasters from Canada and the U.S who were starting their own importing group. I joined that cooperative, called Cooperative Coffees. It’s a beautiful organization with relationships in thirteen countries with twenty different producer groups. We write our checks directly to the growers, we visit them every year, we work with them and learn about their challenges.
And your beans?
There are two ways to process coffee. One is called the washed way and the other is called the unwashed way. Washed involves fermentation of the seeds before drying; unwashed is picking the cherry off the tree and drying it in the sun. The washed coffees have beautiful refreshing acidity, especially in the appellation of Yirgachefe, in the state of Sidamo. These coffees have beautiful floral tones, fresh peach and nectarine, bergamot notes, it is their trademark. I just love that so much, and in the cold brewed form is sensational. Then we have the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the relationship that I’m so excited about. These coffees are incredibly wild. They are bright. Either you love it or you hate it. It’s like fresh rhubarb, pomegranates and cranberries. After that smacks you in the face, it turns into a raisin flavor, like a port, it’s so beautiful, so different. Uganda is very different from both those coffees, juicy and chocolate.
How did you link up with The Kitchen?
Eleven years ago, I was still living in Summit and I had some accounts down here. One was on Walnut, Sidney’s Coffee. It was the second oldest coffeehouse in Boulder, it was an institution. By that time, Mel and I had pulled out of all restaurants, because in restaurants coffee was an afterthought. Kimbal and Hugo were having their meetings at Sidney’s, and told my friend Digger that they wanted to use my coffee. I said, “Digger, just tell them that I don’t do restaurants.” He’s like, “Yeah, but I think they’re different.” One day, I was delivering coffee to Digger, and he introduced us. Hugo and Kimbal told me what they were going to do, and I said, “We don’t do restaurants because it kind of takes a lot. You’ve got to commit to a lot of stuff; equipment, and training sessions and all.” They were like, “Done. Let’s do this.” So, we put the equipment in, they stuck to all the training, and they’re actually walking the walk that they’re talking. We’ve been with The Kitchen since day one, and I feel strongly that The Kitchen could have been responsible, certainly in our five state region, but perhaps in a bigger part of this country, to turn the direction of coffee in restaurants. Last impressions are the most important. Coffee can reside on the palettes of your patrons as they walk down the street away from your restaurant, and it can taste like chocolate, it doesn’t need to be chalky or sour. I send everyone to The Kitchen. I’m like, “Look, if you’re interested in our coffee for your restaurant, if you haven’t been to The Kitchen, please go. Just sit at the bar, have an espresso, a cup of coffee, have a croissant, whatever.”
What are some of the greatest challenges facing growers today?
Right now we have the biggest agricultural crisis in coffee, I think perhaps ever. Because of climate change, there’s a fungus that’s been affecting the shrubs in Central and South America called La Roya, which means “the rust.” It’s devastating. La Roya is one of the top 5 most severe agricultural plagues in history, and no one’s ever heard of it. Cooperative Coffees started a Roya Fund to distribute money to our growers with the support of USAID and Green Mountain Roasters who have matched us. We’re not sending money down to our farmers to improve their quality so they can make better coffee; we’re sending money down so they can secure food; so that famine doesn’t kick in sooner than later. It’s critical. We are in crisis mode. I received zero coffee from El Salvador this year and half of my coffee from Mexico is not coming. It’s happening all over Central America and into South America. Our farmers have been telling us about climate change for over ten years. They’ve been saying, “Things are changing, things are not right.” They live it. They breathe it. They smell it. They’ve been telling us forever that they can’t grow coffee anymore at certain elevations, or their yields are going down, and now with La Roya, and all the dead shrubs, its tough.