February 7, 2003 - Litchfield County Times: Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal helps Central American farmers market their coffee
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February 7, 2003 - Litchfield County Times: Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal helps Central American farmers market their coffee
Guatemala RPCV Naren Sonpal helps Central American farmers market their coffee
Read and comment on this story from the Litchfield County Times on Naren Sonpal and his wife who sold their industrial distribution business in Thomaston. But rather than retire, they decided to pursue a project based on their shared interest in specialty coffees and teas. "I retired at 55 and then went into the Peace Corps," he said. "I always wanted to go to the Peace Corps." He requested an assignment working with coffee farmers, and the Peace Corps obliged, sending him to Guatemala in 2000. For the next year, he worked side-by-side with the farmers, who were growing and producing organic coffees in the high hills near the city of Coban.
When Mr. Sonpal returned home to Goshen, it was with a greater commitment to importing certified organic products and to helping the farmers' cause. The Sonpals launched Coffee-Tea-Etc. just two months ago and have already signed on a number of area stores and restaurants. Orders are also coming in from around the country through their Web site, www.coffee-tea-etc.com. at:
In Goshen, Coffee-Tea-Etc. Plays Fair*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
In Goshen, Coffee-Tea-Etc. Plays Fair
By: Sharon Hartwick February 07, 2003
Naren Sonpal is passionate on the subject of coffee. When he starts talking about beans, blends and roasting techniques, it almost seems as if he's a man on a mission.
As it turns out, he is.
Three years ago, Mr. Sonpal and his wife, Gun, sold their industrial distribution business in Thomaston. But rather than retire, they decided to pursue a project based on their shared interest in specialty coffees and teas.
They set out to become professional roasters and blenders, offering only 100 percent organically grown coffees and teas, to be sold locally and through the Internet.
While reading up on the subject, however, Mr. Sonpal learned of the plight of the majority of coffee and tea growers, which inspired him to first fulfill a long-held dream.
"I retired at 55 and then went into the Peace Corps," he said. "I always wanted to go to the Peace Corps."
He requested an assignment working with coffee farmers, and the Peace Corps obliged, sending him to Guatemala in 2000.
For the next year, he worked side-by-side with the farmers, who were growing and producing organic coffees in the high hills near the city of Coban.
Mr. Sonpal learned that many farmers suffer from poverty, lack of health care and education. And intermediaries, such as retailers, wholesalers and importers, often take advantage of the farmers' lack of resources and knowledge of the marketplace.
"The whole idea is [that] coffee and tea farmers are really getting the bad end of the stick. And right now, the coffee farmers aren't even getting enough to make it worthwhile to pick coffee, because they're getting around 30 to 35 cents a pound," he said.
The farmers he worked with, however, belonged to farming cooperatives and are helped by their association with Fair Trade, an international organization that ensures they are paid a fairer price. Mr. Sonpal only buys from coffee and tea farmers that are Fair Trade certified and pays about three times the going rate.
Organic coffees are also shade-grown and raised without chemicals or pesticides, unlike most coffees that are grown in full sun, which forces the cherries to ripen faster and requires the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
The result of the more exacting method is a better quality, better tasting product, said Mr. Sonpal. "When it is shade grown, it ripens slowly and it gives more juices to the beans."
When Mr. Sonpal returned home to Goshen, it was with a greater commitment to importing certified organic products and to helping the farmers' cause.
The Sonpals launched Coffee-Tea-Etc. just two months ago and have already signed on a number of area stores and restaurants. Orders are also coming in from around the country through their Web site, www.coffee-tea-etc.com.
They have every intention of making it a viable business, but they want the farmers to benefit from their enterprise as well.
"The whole project is not so much of a money-making endeavor. Our mission is to educate American people-consumers-about coffee, about tea and about what the farmers are going through, and what the current economic situations are. ... And to educate the farmers about how coffee is being used in the United States," said Mr. Sonpal. "And of course, it gives another project for the retirement and the income," he added.
The basement of the couple's home has been converted to the base of operations.
Large bags of green and brown beans, each marked by country of origin, were lined up along one wall. The Sonpals buy more than 20 different coffees from eight countries and know the farms they come from.
Rows of freshly filled packages of ground coffees and whole beans were arranged on a long table ready to be delivered or shipped. The couple also sells a variety of loose-leaf teas from tea gardens in India, Ceylon, Nepal and China.
On another table were some of the accessories they sell through the Internet, including home roasting machines, grinders, vacuum coffee makers and items for tea-making.
But the center of action was the industrial-sized roaster.
Mrs. Sonpal, who started roasting and blending coffees a number of years ago, now does it on a much larger scale. And her husband pitches in.
They can roast as many as 30 pounds at a time, but often do smaller batches to ensure the freshness of the product.
Roasting is a complicated process. And Mrs. Sonpal said the margin for error is slim. If the beans are overcooked by even a minute or two, or undercooked, the entire batch can be ruined.
"You pretty much have to stand there and look at it constantly," she said.
"It's like yoga. It's so concentrated that we don't answer the telephone. We don't do anything when we're roasting," he added.
They also like to mix blends from different countries, combining the characteristics from one with those of another-"to improve the flavor profile."
There are generally two varieties of coffee. The Sonpals only import Arabicas, which are grown in the mountainous regions, unlike the more common robustas, which are grown at lower altitudes.
"In general, the Arabicas are the specialty coffees and the robustas are usually the mass produced," said Mrs. Sonpal.
"Good coffee is grown in the mountains," explained Mr. Sonpal. "Arabica is very high quality and has a complex taste to it," adding that "coffee is very much like wines."
Mrs. Sonpal was born in Sweden and came to America in the late '60s. After getting an undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut, she got her master's in nutrition from the University of Bridgeport.
Mr. Sonpal grew up in India and graduated from the University of Bombay. He arrived in America in the late '60s and got his master's degree in chemical engineering from Wayne State University.
In many ways, his engineering background is an asset to the new business. Roasting coffees is part science and part art. And in demonstrating the vacuum-type coffee pot, he explained in quite technical terms how the pot is capable of producing such a great cup of coffee.
In Guatemala, he also shared his technical expertise with the farmers, working on various projects with them. He and other volunteers showed them how to do red-worm farming, so they could use organic fertilizers for their coffees.
And they helped build cisterns for many of the farm families, a project that was supported in part by Rotary International.
But Mr. Sonpal's pet project was setting up a museum for them, devoted to, not surprisingly, everything related to coffee. The people in the area are Mayan Indians and know little about what happens to their product once it leaves their farms.
Mr. Sonpal made a video for them, which he had translated into the Mayan language, and left them a television and VCR. He explained how coffee is processed, how it travels the world and how prices fluctuate.
He also brought a small roaster and coffee-making machine with him.
"I brought all these things from the United States to show farmers how coffee is being used, because they had no idea. Once they sell the cherries, they don't know what happens to it," he said.
"When I told them that we pay sometimes $3 [for] a cup of coffee, you should see their jaws drop," he added.
Last spring, he traveled to India to research coffee and tea production first-hand. He backpacked through the country for two months and visited some of the tea gardens his company now does business with.
The company offers a variety of teas, including Irish Breakfast, Earl Grey and Darjeerling, as well as Chai Marsala, a tea spice.
The Sonpals sell green beans for those who want to do it themselves and many kinds of roasted beans and ground coffees, including the Breakfast Blend, French Roast Blend, Inspiration Blend, Espresso Blend and Decaf Blend.
Mr. Sonpal said he prefers the Inspiration Blend, an excellent "all day coffee."
Mrs. Sonpal favors the French Roast, which has "more oomph to it. ... I'm a good Swede," she added.
Coffee-Tea-Etc. products can be found at area health food stores, including The Good Life Natural Food Center, Nature's Health and Natural Life in Torrington, Amazing Grains in Litchfield, New Morning Natural Foods in Woodbury, Bank Street Natural Foods in New Milford and Four Seasons in Lakeville. The Village Market in Goshen, The Wandering Moose Café and Baird's General Store in Cornwall, among others, also carry the company's products.
A 12-oz. bag of coffee costs around $7.99 to $8.99. Tea prices vary.
For more information, the number to call is 491-9920.
More about Coffee-Tea-Etc
Read more about Coffee-Tea-Etc at:
Our venture was inspired by a passion for the highest quality coffees and teas of the world. Our passion led us to study the industry from seed to cup. What we learned painted a bleak picture of the lives of coffee farmers. The changing economies have forced the farmers to abandon their age-old practice of growing coffee under a canopy of rainforest trees without the use of chemicals. To increase production farmers have cut down these trees and now grow coffee fully exposed to the sun while using various chemicals at different stages of the growing cycle. This increase in production comes not only at the expense of the quality of the coffee but also of the health of the farmers and the environment.
Isolated on top of a beautiful mountain is the home of a farmer living a very harsh life. I stayed with them for a few nights. Chickens, cats, dog, three kids and husband and wife all in one room full of smoke from the cooking fire. Here I am with the kids. One had polio. The only toy was a torn up plastic football that they played with all the time. Hard to imagine such a harsh life in such a wonderful setting. They followed Indian rituals and had great late night laughing sessions with friends that came to visit.
As successful business owners for more than 18 years, my wife and I decided to pursue a more personally satisfying career. We sold the business in 2000, and I joined the Peace Corps. Working in Guatemala as a Peace Corps volunteer with five cooperatives of coffee farmers I learned first hand about the production and processing of coffee beans. I also witnessed the desperate plight of the farmers.
After returning from the Peace Corps, I visited India to research the production of coffee and tea. After a careful analysis, we decided that a business of roasting coffee and selling coffees and teas would be an ideal endeavor for us. It gives us the satisfaction of being active in educating consumers and helping farmers while offering great products.
Having dinner with the host family. For most people breakfast, lunch and dinner are the same. Corn tortillas and beans. Sometimes only tortillas and salt. They drink the worst coffee that cannot be sold. Very weak and sweet.
We purchase our products from carefully selected farmers and their cooperatives. We pay them a fair price for their product, a price that will allow them to live with dignity and provide for their families and communities. Most of our coffees and teas are:
1. Fair Trade Certified - products that assure producers fair prices.
2. Certified Organic - to protect the farmers and the environment from harmful chemicals.
3. Shade grown - to protect the natural wintering habitat of birds and to produce more flavorful products.
When you drink our coffees and teas, you enjoy the best quality and help farmers live in dignity and health.
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Guatemala; Service; Special Interests - Coffee