Elena is the newest member of Ally Coffee’s green sourcing team, based at our new office in Bogota, Colombia. She takes us along her coffee odyssey from working as a journalist in Russia to fighting coffee leaf rust in Ecuador to honing her skills as a coffee quality expert.
My pathways into coffee began as a part time job. Many people start with mastering skills in a barista position and so did I, at a Russian coffee chain, called Chokoladnitsa, which may be compared, at least by the amount of espresso based drinks and their sizes, to Starbucks. It was a few blocks from where I lived, close to The Red Square [in Moscow], on the same subway line as my University.
Foreign language has always been a must to get a paying position in a coffee shop. I was probably among the few forwarders at the bar thanks to my fondness of English from high school and a one year Erasmus student exchange program at the University of Malta soon after it.
I started being a part of the coffee community around 2007, during my third year at the University of People’s Friendship [RUDN]. The idea of studying different cultures and empowering social non-profit projects in developing countries brought me to this choice of the institution. Unfortunately, there was no real division for that area of study, so I had to make a choice between marketing and international business administration or social studies. The first was offering a few extra credits in subjects related to liberal arts and economics of developing countries. I made the choice to study marketing. After a several years of balancing work and studying, following corporate protocols, attending meetings, and persevering through assessments and key performance indicators, I lost all interest in being a part of that white collar world. I opted for an extreme change of pace and with my university mates travelled to Mexico, surfed at Puerto Escondido, and spent two month in Sri Lanka [Ceylon] rethinking my perception.
Every journey turns into new opportunities; mine was a chance to participate in a prolific project with RT, Russia Today, a privately-owned news channel that also publishes in English and Spanish and has a bureau in Washington. I was invited to work for Business Edition and that was where I started meeting lots of entrepreneurs, start-ups, and writing about doing business in Russia, particularly with small businesses. It was an overwhelming experience which lasted for 2 years and brought me in to a fresh stream of community orientated start-ups.
That’s how I met an entrepreneur who was the first to foster the concept of farm to table in Russia, working with farmers and local small producers in everything from bread to poultry and dairy products. It was a perfect timing to move forward and leave RT after feeling quite disillusioned with the new board of directors and their policies.
I left RT and started working with the start-up, doing public relations, working with restaurant chefs, expanding the unique community and local responsible fully traceable consumption. We were among the first to be a part of building up the Omnivore Festival. After a few years of working, turning a project into a farm market concept with several grocery stores and a brick-and-mortar farm to table restaurant, in 2013, I met people who started a specialty coffee business called Double B Coffee and Tea. At the beginning, we just had a relationship as farm to table restaurant and market for clients who craved high quality farm to cup coffee. The passion with which their founder and roaster described coffee culture and diversity of lands where the coffee grows was so contagious and alluring.
They had one store and were opening their second. That’s where my fascination with coffee was reborn. It was a stellar project because they were coming from a big chain and they had a great vision for the future of specialty coffee consumption in Russia.
I left the farm to table project with a promise to my boss to ensure they will always have the best coffee first.
Double B became a newborn project for me. We were building small communities from scratch, and that was what I liked, and what I still love about coffee, that it brings people together. It’s a teamwork on one side and unique success stories on another. We all struggle towards the same target. When you do something tiny it’s part of this big industry, so it’s rewarding.
As with all new projects, I was multi-tasking. I filled my days off windows with shifts at the brew bar, polishing my skills from my part-time barista job back to university times. I was prepared to speak about coffee. My main challenge became a coffee shop business development, so I had more presence at the events, like Barista marathon, Russian Barista Days, Coffee and tea Expo and other coffee festivals. We were roasting at that time and building direct trade sourcing channels. I started learning about cupping and coffee production. I was very curious about all these things, not just the coffee itself but about production, it came from my previous experience in farmer relationships, so I had an idea how it works, but coffee was totally different. I started pushing myself to learn more and more from our production roaster, who is a national champion in all the categories.
In 2015 my husband and decided to move to his family roots in Colombia. We met each other at the university and passed through fire and water together for nine years. He has always wanted to get back to his native country and I just couldn’t wait to see the coffee landscapes and taste the coffee cherry.
My husband at that time had worked for a family-owned flower business and gotten a promotion from the Russian HQ to develop rose production quality protocols for the sister company in Ecuador, where they had plantations. I didn’t know what I was going to do in Ecuador. I had never heard of specialty coffee or even regular coffee from Ecuador. Now I see that it was always blended with Colombian or Peruvian coffees.
When I got to Ecuador I knew I needed to learn Spanish better. I decided to do a language course, which was more of a country immersion with history of Ecuador, about the regions. My Spanish teacher helped to find and organize my volunteer position at the association called Colinas Verdes in Vilcabamba, Loja. I spent a month living on the farm. The association was working on best practices for fighting roya leaf rust and coffee berry borer. There were a few people from Colorado who were also working on the same project.
After the full origin immersion, I returned to Quito and started working at a coffee shop, Isveglio, which was doing something close to specialty, sourcing from small producers, roasting themselves, and the guy who founded it was the first Ecuador national barista champion. When I started working, Diego M., who later became national champion, was also working at the shop. It was a dream team! We all were so excited by the boom in the industry and the interest among foreign consumers in all that coffee science, transparency, and the art of coffee. I helped Diego to choose the coffee and stayed late night training, filling score sheets and going through rules to make his presentation unforgettable at the WBC 2015 in Seattle. Four of us from the coffee shop traveled to Seattle for two weeks. That’s where I started meeting lots of people from the coffee community around the world — the celebrities of the coffee world!
When I was back I was excited to continue working in coffee and started exploring where I could work on the green side. A Colombian company, Virmax, was starting a dry mill project in Ecuador. I sent them my CV and heard back shortly asking me if I can meet the founders to talk about opportunities. They explained they were opening a mill and starting their own export operation and could offer me an internship that would bring me closer to the origin. I was able to travel all over Ecuador: from Northern highlands of Imbabura through lush mountains of Pichincha to the south of Loja, meeting with producers, holding meetings with MAGAP the Ministry of Agriculture, curating cuppings for buyers from Blue Bottle, The Verve, Counter Culture and Mad Cap together with Fred L. a country manager for Virmax Ecuador who became my best coffee mate ever.
While with Caravela/Virmax I was still doing shifts at Isveglio, training for newcomer baristas, and helping Diego for his next competition. While the mill was getting set up and a few more local people got hired to run the operations I was offered to stay and continue working on relationship side, nevertheless, me and my husband decided to move to Colombia as was planned from the beginning.
On the other hand, it was getting hard to find coffees in Ecuador because there was no labor force and it was hard to find people to work on farms. The Ecuadorian rural population is moving to cities and the rural population is more about mining. Native people are getting more into tourism than production.
When in Colombia, I was introduced to Azahar, a venture Colombian Coffee export company with ambitious message and endeavor of the start-up.
I was excited to start working with Tyler, one of the founders, and the Q-team. I became one of the first people in Tyler’s team of RSM, managing relationships, curating cuppings, and following up sales to Canada, USA, Australia and EU. It was a 24/7 workload with lots of time working on the road, in the air — when I got a frequent flyer status just in a month after starting. The best thing is that during that adventure I have met, learned, and worked with amazing people, pioneers of the industry, and famous producers. In April, after six months at Azahar, I took the Q grader course with Jorge Luis Martinez and seven more local industry professionals who already had a few years in cupping and sourcing and now are my coffee mates!
With Azahar I attended several Coffee Expos in Seattle, Atlanta, and Dublin, where I first met Ricardo Pereira and tasted some stellar coffee at Ally stand. Ally and I clicked with our vision for coffee. After a cupping in New York I flew to Greenville to better understand how Ally worked.
At the end of the year I announced my leave at Azahar and spent another few months mentoring a new relationship manager.
During the transition I visited my family in Russia. I could never have expected the flourishing coffee culture in Russia. The coffee shop where I started, Double B Coffee & Tea, had opened the doors of another 100 stores and two in the EU. The industry equipment providers were opening new rep houses in the country. Almost every second store had a roaster somewhere on the outskirts of the city. More small roasters were sourcing directly through origin trips! I knew that the community has always been stronger than the single trendsetter and my trip to Russia proved it.
I noted that the other side of the coffee industry like, buying, production roasting, and more practical approach to the consumer market has become a pinnacle in conversation with buyers, traders and roasters for me. The trends and consumer behavior are changing, there is always more and more competition and only those who build alliances of diverse approach turn challenges into opportunities.
I strongly believe that the future of coffee is reflected in Colombia’s improved security and a positive atmosphere for investment, where more and more people are traveling, exchanging knowledge, and establishing direct communication to empower direct trade.
The landscape is changing in Colombia. Places like Tolima are now more tranquil and people can travel to the farms with less danger. The relationships are more open. I came back to Colombia and did a bit of consulting for small farmers in the field of quality, export operations, and market access. At the Expo Cafes Especiales in Bogota, where I was coaching a former Azahar Barista for the Brewers Cup, I met with Ricardo and Bruno Tavares to discuss the Ally vision for operations in Colombia. A few months later we met again in Bogota to work out a game plan and set up for Ally Coffee office and lab in Colombia. It became a biggest challenge and responsibility for me and a benchmark decision for Ally! I have learnt from the pioneers and am ready to move forward the next generation.
It took a few months to establish the operations in Colombia thanks to the help and consulting of my good friends from the local coffee scene. Despite the obstacles and difficulties, we have made it all together and from now on when you are in Colombia either for a coffee purpose or just on a layover from another trip, pass by and get to know what’s new from Ally in Colombia!