Celebrating 20 Years of Coffee Labs
A Relationship of Love
by Brendon O'Brien, Longtime friend of Coffee Labs
One foot out of the 4x4 that bravely climbed the trenches of a dusty volcano-side in El Salvador, Mike & Alicia Love were met with prolonged embraces from the coffee farmer. This was Claudia Mathies Rank and the farm was Finca El Paraiso in the nutrient rich hills surrounding the Santa Ana volcano. From an onlookers perspective it was clear that a deep friendship was shared, this was no mere business transaction- no cold handshake among business associates looking to close a deal and never speak again. No, this was years of mutual respect and admiration for one another. This was the culmination of shared memories, laughs, and late-night meals.
It should come as no surprise that relationships of this type are not atypical for Mike & Alicia Love of Coffee Labs Roasters. Their 20 years at the forefront of the specialty coffee game in the serene Hudson Valley of New York is the fruition of making these friends along the way. The coffee that they serve, the baristas on their team, the countless customers turned coffee disciples are all proof of the love they foster. Coffee Labs has been an institution on Main Street in the river town of Tarrytown, where the Loves have their roots planted with relationships reaching worldwide.
As we strolled the coffee trees of El Paraiso, Claudia, beaming with the glow of old friends reunited, rushed to show Mike & Alicia the hillside where some of the finest coffee cherries had been harvested just days before. She spoke optimistically of the year's yield and remembered the Loves asking about specific farming practices on earlier visits that she had implemented with good results. As we climbed the steep hillside, Claudia told us how her grandfather’s house was once situated on this spectacular land, burned to the ground by the guerrillas of the civil war in the 1970s. She proudly boasted that the immense water well on the property had survived a bombing and continued to provide ample water to 4 large surrounding farms. The resilience of the people and the land- it all speaks volumes of the relationship they have with their families, tradition, and the ground they walked.
Claudia had prepared lunch for the Loves. A quaint picnic style setup under a trestle of old wandering vines, friends cheersing soft drinks and passing candy after a meal of modest sandwiches. A casual sit down that had the feel of stopping by your cousin's house when you are just passing through town. The kind of meal focused on the laughs you share rather than the thread count of the napkins you have draped on your lap. We sat surrounded by the zapota fruit tree, among the peppers, avocado and cinnamon flora encasing this beautiful property. In the shadow of the church across the street that was built by Claudia’s grandfather for the 30 or so workers, some of whom still climbed these hills, others descendants of. With bright eyes and fondness, Claudia asked Mike about Father Tim, a customer of Coffee Labs turned friend who accompanied Mike on a trip to the farm many years earlier. The human connection was firing on all cylinders.
Claudia spoke fondly of working the land, there was no big payday in this for her, it was more a point of familial pride. A carrying of the torch and tilling of the soil in the name of her family. A love for those that came before her and those that would appreciate the fruits of this land in a cup of coffee. She spoke of converting approximately 30 percent of the farm to grow teak wood for furniture, a necessity to continue the laborious love of coffee farming. A mere supplement to ensure the perfect bourbon varietal would continue to thrive from this parcel.
The story is fairly common for generations-old coffee farmers in El Salvador. The modern people at the helm are working this land because they love to. Our next farm visit was certainly no exception. An impossible climb that tossed the truck back and forth for the better part of an hour, ascended through the clouds and ended at Finca Kilimanjaro in the warm embrace of Aida Batlle. A woman who has made quite the name for herself in her 21 years steering the ship of her family's coffee farm. She jumped out of her truck to rush towards Mike & Alicia, a beaming smile and a rocking back and forth hug again awaited them. There it was again, the spark of old friends- separated by a few years of worldwide uncertainty and travel slowdown. Everything was right once again, the coffee farmers and the coffee rosters had aligned and the results were absolutely beautiful.
Aida provided the same sense of warmth and hospitality that Claudia had displayed the day before, visiting these farms with the Loves made you feel like you were traveling dorm room to dorm room in your college days, the radiant energy and enthusiasm around every corner that awaits and excites all good friends.
It makes perfect sense when you look at the numbers, Coffee Labs is currently one of only eight rosters worldwide lucky enough to work with Aida’s Finca Kilimanjaro. A true honor for any serious coffee person but even more symbolic of the relationship, is the fact that her Grande Reserve is split amongst Coffee Labs and one other roaster that shares a 20-year relationship with Aida Batlle. It's the equivalent of stashing an extra beer in the back of your fridge until your bestie can show up to the party, it’s the piece of candy you tuck away to surprise a loved one with, it's arguably…. Some of the best coffee in the world.
Aida herself at one point exclaimed “People don’t believe in relationships anymore.” What was once a growing practice in the specialty coffee world has reverted to business transactions and sterile emails in some instances. Even the mere illusion of a relationship to some means a photo op shared on social media followed by kicking up dust as the car hightails down the mountain. Real relationships are everything. They exist between farmer and roaster, farm worker and logistics personnel at the mill, they exist between coffee consumer and coffee connoisseur, and they exist between husband and wife.
This is another staggering relationship of love between Mike & Alicia. Now 23 years intertwined like the gnarly roots of a bourbon coffee tree. Imagine the entanglement of 20 years of business weaving its own threads in there. Talk about relationships, this is the very essence. Spoken to separately, Mike & Alicia both share that they could not imagine anyone else as their partner, in every sense of the word. There is no one that can complement and fill the role the other does for one another. Their bond is inseparable. They view the world as an extension of this bond. Fortifying relationships with people, farmers, employees, customers- until the web of coffee love is so bold that it is undeniable.
Our first day descending the steep slopes of the volcano, as the sun began to set and the parties realized it would be perhaps a year before rekindling the joy, Claudia looked back over her seat in the car and optimistically said “the next time you are here we will camp on the side of the volcanic lake before we go to the farm.” The kind of plans you shout out in those fleeting goodbyes between friends. Already mentally deciding on the picnic menu you will share in 52 weeks.
It's easy to see these samplings in life and shake them off as the mere better moments of the human condition. However, in my core I could feel it was something else. I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit my very own coffee journey had begun over 16 years before with Mike's guidance and support. Our very own friendship took on a unique journey where in my four jobs over that span of time, I managed to always work with Coffee Labs in some capacity through my employer. Something I took as a sign that the universe wanted me to have a relationship with them and wind up in El Salvador with the Loves documenting their passion for coffee and people. What else do you expect when you are wrapped up in the roots of this coffee tree called love?