Antigua, Guatemala Sourcing Trip and Direct Trade Process

In conversation with Russ Prefontaine, president and co-owner of Fratello Coffee, about his most recent sourcing trip to Guatemala

Bright red cherries hanging off of shady coffee trees are a beautiful sight for coffee enthusiasts. But that wasn’t what brought Russ Prefontaine to Antigua, Guatemala this past February. The Fratello Coffee president and co-owner has been sourcing coffee at origin for the past 17 years, and he’s seen it all. At this point, he’s after one thing: great coffee.

Coffee Cherries

But great coffee isn’t just about flavour; it starts with great people. We sat down with Prefontaine to chat about his most recent origin trip to meet the producers at San Miguel Coffees in Antigua and check out their coffee farm. He was impressed with what he saw, and tasted. 

Apart from producing some of the world’s best coffee, Antigua, Guatemala is a popular tourist destination. It’s a Unesco World Heritage site, with wonderfully preserved Spanish colonial architecture. In Antigua, you’ll find enchanted cobblestone streets with candy-coloured buildings, ancient church ruins, views of the surrounding volcanoes, and the ever famous pastel-yellow Santa Catalina Arch. Not to mention, incredible authentic culinary favourites, like tamales, sopas and caldos (soups and stews), fried plantains, and spiced mangoes to name a few.

Prefontaine got to bring his two children, aged 8 and 10, along for the ride. When he wasn’t busy cupping coffee and observing the operation of the farm, he was taking his kids to enjoy the essential tourist sites, like riding up the volcano on horseback and roasting marshmallows over red-hot lava. 

But tamales and marshmallows aside, Prefontaine was on serious business. He spoke about the ethos behind visiting the origin and meeting the producers, what he looks for, and what direct trade looks like to him. A healthy coffee community not only puts care and passion into growing and processing, but takes great care of its farmers. 

Fratello Coffee: Why is it important to you to visit the origin before purchasing?

Russ Prefontaine: I visit origins when I want to start establishing relationships. When I start getting more serious about sourcing larger volumes of coffee, I want to really find out who they are as business people. I consider coffee a very important business, and I want to work with people who see it the same way. The producers are passionate, they’re knowledgeable, they’re educated.  

FC: Why do you have direct relationships with these producers? Why don’t you just entrust a third-party importer to the job of sourcing? Why do you have to see it with your own eyes?

RP: You can look around and see the overall organization, the cleanliness.  Are they taking care of the environment? Are they taking care of waste water, the trees? How does everything look? We can have conversations about their overall operations, if they have programs within their operations that benefit their employees. Do the people look happy? I get an idea of who they are and if they are running the operations in a way that we can trust working together and get a consistent product. 

I like to see education programs where the producers have schooling systems on their farms. Because these farms are very remote, accessing education is almost impossible for the people that live around there. Schooling is mandatory, but not always enforced. What you might see in coffee growing communities is that families aren’t encouraging their kids to go to school because they don’t have a way to get them there. So when you’re driving around the towns near the farms, what are you seeing? Do they have any services? Do the people look healthy? Is there a store around there? What is there for them? 

I like to see healthcare programs. San Miguel has a dental clinic and a healthcare centre right on their facility. So you start to see differences between producers who are truly investing in the people and the community to improve it. My job is to support the people who are doing that. I have the choice. I can work with nice people! [Laughs] I get to work with people who are passionate about coffee, business people who get this. 

I feel great about who we’re buying from. They’re taking care of any wastewater and environmental issues that they can. And the coffee tastes great! When everything’s working together, I say, “Now I consider you a direct trade partner.” But it doesn’t happen in a year. It’s a very long process to build that trust. 

Anyone can just throw “Direct Trade” on their bag. All you have to do is fly down there and take a couple of pictures, and there you go. 

FC: Do these producers face any of the common hardships of coffee producers, ie. leaf rust, financial difficulties?

RP: Every year there’s something. In Brazil last year, they had huge floods followed by frosts that they’ve never had so bad.  This year, winter season is just starting in Brazil (end of May), and already they have had mild frost damage. Last year it destroyed approximatly 30% of their coffee harvest.  Within Central America, more and more, leaf rust is showing up at higher elevation, which is unique. Initially it was just a lower elevation where it was really warm. But what that's showing is that the overall temperatures are increasing, creating the possibility for rust to enter a higher elevation. So that really affects the coffees that roasters like us are purchasing.  In addition, fertilizer costs have sky-rocketed more than 3 times the regular price this year alone.



Giving Back to our Local Community

Coffee With a Conscience

Did you know that your friendly neighbourhood coffee roaster has been silently donating to local charities for decades? Fratello Coffee Roasters is heavily involved in the Calgary community, donating funds and supplying hundreds of pounds of fresh coffee every month to a host of different charities whose causes range from homelessness, to food insecurity, to addiction. 

Fratello Coffee

Co-owner Russ Prefontaine says it’s a way to give back to a community that has supported the company from the start.  It was his father, the founder of the company, that started the tradition. “We were raised with the attitude of giving back […] it makes us feel good.  If we want the local Calgary community to support us, we should then be the first in line to be supporting the local community when we can. That is what it truly means to Support Local….it needs to be a full circle.”

Roasting and sourcing ethically has always been top-priority, but the company’s generosity is yet another reason you can feel good about drinking Fratello coffee. Here are just a few of the wonderful causes the company donates to every year. 

CBC Eye Opener

Every year, Fratello takes part in the Calgary Food Bank fundraiser in partnership with the CBC, which happens around the holidays. The Calgary Food Bank is the city’s main charitable food hub, serving families, individuals and organizations. Their programs include emergency food hampers, food linking (making sure food gets to the people who need it), and rescuing perfectly good food that would otherwise go to waste.

Fratello has taken part 10 years in a row, and has donated close to $300,000 total. In December of 2021, they donated 1,400 bags of coffee and raised just over $59,000 in coffee sales.

The Calgary Dream Centre is an organization dedicated to helping people overcome addiction and homelessness, two interrelated issues. They offer resources specifically geared towards men and women, and their approach is to pair individuals with case managers who guide them along their journey. The programs include mindfulness training, professional counselling, and life skills mentoring (cooking, driving, and job interview preparation). They also work hard to provide transitional and community housing to homeless and precariously housed people. 

Mustard Seed

The Seed is a Christian non-profit organization founded in 1984 on a mission to care for individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty. They cover basic needs like emergency shelter and meals, and also offer programs for health & wellness and employment guidance. The organization also has a waiting list for supportive housing. Fratello has been making significant coffee donations to this organization for 30 years.

The Alex

The Alex is a food program offering free healthy meals on a drop-in basis, and hosts an affordable produce market every Friday morning. Their New Roots program is geared towards new immigrants facing food insecurity and hosts culturally themed affordable food markets. Other programs include cooking and gardening classes for kids and adults, and community projects to advance Truth & Reconciliation. 

https://calgarydropin.ca/ 

The Calgary Drop-in serves adults at risk of experiencing homelessness. They offer emergency shelters, meal programs, health clinic services, permanent housing, and hygeine and laundry services. In addition, they offer the Free Goods program, where new and lightly used goods (such as furniture, clothing, electronics and cookware) find their way to low-income & no-income Calgarians. 

Calgary Drop In

Iced Vietnamese Coffee

Iced Vietnamese Coffee featuring our French Saigon Dark

There’s no treat more elegant than Vietnamese coffee. Strong coffee is brewed directly over sweetened condensed milk, stirred, and poured over ice in a rocks glass. It’s a small but mighty pick-me-up that’s at once indulgent and sophisticated.

It’s time to dust off this classic coffee recipe–we’re bringing it back! For Vietnamese coffee, you’ll want to use a full-bodied dark roast. We recommend our French Saigon Dark blend. Its full-bodied smoothness and dark chocolate notes compliment the sweetened condensed milk perfectly. It’s our oldest blend, pioneered in 1985 specifically for iced Vietnamese Coffee, and it remains one of our bestsellers to this day.

Iced Vietnamese coffee history

Coffee was first introduced to Vietnam in 1857 by French settlers. Since then, Vietnam has taken off as a major coffee producer, and today is responsible for 20% of the world’s coffee production. Coffee culture is massive in Vietnam now, and ca fe sua da (which translates to coffee with milk and ice) is a common order at coffee houses.  

Because fresh dairy is not readily available in Vietnam, canned sweetened condensed milk has increased in popularity due to its long shelf life and easy transportation.

 

Traditionally, Vietnamese coffee is made with a coffee brewing tool called a phin, a metal contraption with several filters. This ensures a slow brew time and a strong coffee.

Make sure to get a head start on the warm weather by perfecting your Vietnamese coffee game. Before long, everyone will want one!

How to make Vietnamese coffee using a phin (single serving):

 

  1. Measure a heaped tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk into a glass. Set aside. Weigh 20 grams of Fratello French Saigon Dark, and grind fine (as you would for an Aeropress). Boil water to 93-96 degrees C. 
  2. Place the filter plate over the glass containing the sweetened condensed milk. Place the brewing chamber on top of that, followed by the ground coffee. Then, drop the press filter (the piece with the handle) on top of the grinds.
  3. Pour about 20 grams of hot water over top of the press filter to bloom the coffee grinds. Let it sit for 30 seconds.
  4. Slowly, and in concentric circles, pour enough water into the chamber until you reach the top. Place the lid on top, and let the coffee slowly brew until it stops dripping.
  5. When it stops dripping, set your phin aside, and stir the hot coffee with the sweetened condensed milk until well combined. Fill a rocks glass ¾ full of ice, and pour the coffee-milk mixture over the ice. Enjoy!

 

If you don’t have a phin or you can’t source one, you can simply sub out the phin for the Aeropress method instead. Pour a heaped tablespoon of sweetened condensed milk in a glass. Prepare an aeropress coffee, and plunge the coffee directly into the glass. Stir and pour over ice. If you want a frothier consistency, you can pour the coffee-milk mixture into a cocktail shaker full of ice, along with a splash of hot water. Shake for one minute, and pour into a tall glass with a metal or paper straw.