Coffee culture is on the rise. However, with great popularity comes controversy, as evidenced by the drama Starbucks has stirred up over its red cup design earlier this week. Now, there is a company near Orlando steeped in rich history and no stranger to controversial coffee.
Breyting Community Roaster is pursuing a lofty goal to produce a first-class line of coffees while combating unrest in Southeast Asia. They’re making mission-driven coffee, if you will.
Breyting, which boasts a 4,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in DeLand, is led by a team convinced that making profits and making a difference aren’t mutually exclusive. Ric Coven, chief brand officer and the driving force behind this approach, says the catalyst for his involvement came when the Clinton administration lifted the embargo on imported goods from Southeast Asia.
Given his background in hospitality, Coven knew there was a market for coffee, especially organic, ethically sourced coffee. Propelled by the desire to be the first American company to have an export license and to build relationships with farmers in Laos and Vietnam, Breyting was born.
As for why he chose coffee, Coven says: “Coffee seemed to be something everyone could connect with because it creates community. In the future we want to offer nuts like pecan, almonds and walnuts, but for right now it’s just coffee.”
The vision has not been without its setbacks, of course. As with most international partnerships, history from decades or even centuries before can still carry connotations to this day. This can make seemingly straightforward tasks an exercise in diplomacy. Consider the naming of their flagship line of coffee: Snake Bomb.
It sounds clever, edgy and potentially appealing to long-time coffee connoisseurs and millennials alike. But, turns out the Vietnamese found it extremely offense, believing it was meant to place blame on them for the Vietnam War. They felt so strongly about it, in fact, that they set 40,000 bags of the coffee on fire and sent the video of the bonfire to Coven. He flew to Vietnam to repair the relationship.
Additionally, the relationship has been fraught with regulatory challenges, and because Laos is a communist country, they are only allowed to export one container per year. Coven says he is only now beginning to see a return on the investment (in the form of coffee yield) he made years ago with approximately 160,000 farmers.
By default, the coffee from Laos is organic because they don’t chemically treat the crops to produce higher yields. U.S. retailers and organic food distributors don’t recognize fair trade in places like Laos and Vietnam, and U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet accredited Southeast Asian organic certifications. This makes it virtually impossible to get organic certified coffees from Southeast Asia – at least not in enough volume to supply a U.S. retailer.
“Many companies that are thought to be organic certified are dealing with processors rather than farmers directly. We work with 130-140 single family farms in Laos, but in Vietnam, farmers are required to sell through the processors,” says Coven.
The name, Breyting, is an Icelandic moniker for Coven’s intention, meaning “change.” He explains that, “I didn’t want to go with something like eco-conscious, ethical or sustainability because I figured why start coining a new term for words we already know the meaning of and see all the time? I wanted something that was different and more comprehensive.”
The facility, which had its grand opening on Nov. 7, is capable of producing more than 3.4 million pounds annually in two custom-built 2,400-pound roasters. Right now, the business model is geared more toward business to business, selling to hotel chains and major retailers. But consumers will be able to enjoy the proprietary roasts beginning in 2016 when the plant is fully operational.
There are currently four roasts available, including Fred Schneider’s (of the B52s) Monster Blend, Snake Bomb, Reserve and Caffeine Snatchers. Snake Bomb is so-named for the coffee farmers who migrated higher in the mountains to escape Southeast Asia’s conflict and bombing.
“The bigger agenda is to make $600,000 to $800,000 per year to hire lobbyists to petition governments to remove the bombs that are left in Laos and provide humanitarian/aid support… [but] we have to pressure the Laos government to use the funds for the intended purpose,” says Coven. He continues, “We want to align each blend with a cause.”
Likewise, Jimmy Sherfey, a coffee enthusiast studying fair trade and specialty coffee at its origin and in consumer markets, says “Social entrepreneurship can serve an important purpose in coffee. I would love to see strictly high-quality coffee grown and managed across the industry, but at the end of the day certain origins suffer from damaged infrastructure, at times as a direct result of negative foreign influence like we’ve seen in Laos.”
Currently, Breyting roasts are being sold to a network of 246 distributors, ranging from Ashland, Ore., to Athens, Ga., in the southeast. With the opening of the plant in DeLand, Coven intends to localize the movement, creating jobs for Floridians, increasing demand for products made in America, and potentially, creating a meeting space for nonprofits.
He says, “I have worked with two companies that were forced to leave America and go overseas so I would like to see purchasing groups develop incentive programs for 1) companies that buy American and 2) smaller companies to tag on to larger companies to make costs – like shipping – more equitable.”
Of course, the Southeast Asian coffee would be the exception to this rule, but he is quick to point out that everything else will be made in America, including mugs, boxes and packaging.
“Companies like Breyting that deal in high-demand commodities while supporting repair and development projects could provide an important opportunity for producers looking to gain footing in the market and more stability to their community,” adds Sherfey.
It sounds like they’re brewing up a winning strategy.