Merisa is the Northeast Account Manager for Ally Coffee Specialty in the US, based in Connecticut. She shares her background in coffee roasting and origin travel and coffee’s role in carving new human connections.
I used to be a barista for Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea, just during college winter breaks and during the summer. Willoughby’s has four cafes, two in New Haven and two on the shoreline in Connecticut, with a roasting plant in Branford. I used to work in the two cafes on the shoreline, just to make a little extra cash.
I studied political science at the University of Connecticut. After college I wasn’t sure what I was going to do — maybe law school, maybe join the Peace Corps, but I was very interested in the non-profit sector or working for NGO’s, humanitarian work mostly. I spent a month outside of Accra, Ghana working for an NGO called Volunteer Partnership for West Africa and I taught at an orphanage. It was a very eye-opening experience. Anytime you travel you learn a lot about yourself. I had traveled before, but that was the first time I had been somewhere alone and been somewhere that foreign to me.
It was terrifying, but as the days went on I felt like I was growing, learning, appreciating being outside of my comfort zone. Seeing that much poverty makes you think about a lot of things you take for granted. I knew I wanted to stay in that humanitarian vein, but my love for politics was also a driving force behind what I wanted to do. From all that I had studied about international relations and global trade and I really felt like even a little town in Connecticut could have a voice on the global spectrum.
But, still having no idea how I wanted to proceed after college, I called up Barry Levine, who’s my godfather and the owner of Willoughby’s, and I said, “Can I work as a barista until I figure out what my next step is?” Then I got some LSAT books, did some research, started volunteering for another non profit. Barry said, “No we don’t have any positions for baristas, but we need someone in the office.” I didn’t want to work in an office, but I’m not going to turn down a job!
At first it was basic administrative stuff, and I remember the first time I heard them cupping coffee. I thought they were blowing their noses! I had no idea what they were doing so I went into the other room and they were like, “Oh, we’re just tasting coffee.” I thought, this is very bizarre and I have to watch. I was very intrigued right off the bat; there’s something about this industry and I have a feeling there’s a lot to learn. I started slowly asking questions and my curiosity grew.
In 2012, a year after I started in the office at Willoughby’s, I went on an origin trip to Costa Rica, and that was where my love for coffee really bloomed. I got to meet the producer Ricardo Perez from Helsar de Zarcero, and that was one of the first coffees that I really liked, and getting to meet him was like getting to meet someone who’s famous — who didn’t know they were famous! I’m selling their coffee, reading and writing about it, and then I get to meet him. Turns out he studied political science in school too and we really hit it off; I got to meet his dogs and his family. I realized coffee is really just a community. You might be continents apart and you might not speak the same languages, but there is some basic human connection that is a common thread throughout the industry. My love for global trade really came full circle, and I realized that I think I can stay in coffee and still help the global landscape.
The first coffee I fell in love with was a Natural coffee from Elida Estate in Panama. At that time Willoughby’s had a Washed, a Natural, and a Honey from Elida, so Barry’s like, “Ok, I’m going to explain [processing] to you.” Then, years later in 2015 I went to Panama to be a guest cupper for Best of Panama, which really was just cupping with the producers with coffee in the competition, which was one of the most terrifying experiences! I visited Elida Estate and again got that human connection of getting to tell Wilford [Lamastus] that he had grown my favorite coffee ever. He took us around the farm and I got to walk the grounds that grew my favorite coffee. It was another full circle experience that completely lit me up.
I worked with Willoughby’s for seven years, having started knowing nothing — not even really wanting to start — and now learning everything that I know from the experiences I had and from Barry mentoring me. Seeing the relationships he has maintained; in the 80’s no one was roasting specialty coffee. They were one of the first roasters in New England to be doing specialty, to have a roaster in their store, and to have the traceability to the farms.
I remember being in Panama and having Hector Vargas of Finca La Milagrosa saying that Barry was his miracle. Willoughby’s was the first US buyer to have Finca La Milagrosa and Hector Vargas is now pretty renowned, and being able to be associated with someone who has made lasting impacts on people’s lives is astounding.
Willoughby’s was ahead of the curve on the “direct trade” model of purchasing. It wasn’t anything Barry or Willoughby’s put out there as a selling point, it was more like, “This is ethical; this is the way you should do it. This is a relationship to maintain with farmers and producers.” Lasting relationships are good for everybody, but now everybody has direct trade coffees. Seeing that trend evolve has been interesting, knowing that Willoughby’s was doing it not just to have a seal on their bag but because Barry and his late partner Bob really cared for those people. They were doing it for the right reasons not for the marketing.
Now there’s a lot more importance on traceable food, ethically sourced everything, and to see people only wanting to buy fair trade or organic, but knowing that not all producers can pay to have that seal. So it’s a little sad to see people who will only buy coffee with a seal on their bag when the producers are doing it because they don’t want to use chemicals or pollute the earth that’s been so instrumental to their lives, but can’t pay the premium on that certification. People are always looking for labels and coffee goes so much farther beyond the labels.
From a roaster’s perspective, I’ve always been interested in the green side of the business, but never really knew what that entailed. It’s exciting to see the other side of the coin at Ally, the structures behind everything. Now I’m able to speak the language of the roaster and relate to a roaster; I understand the issues they have on their end. I understand the difficult issues you encounter as a roaster trying to sell a product to a consumer, some of whom are very interested in where the coffee comes from and some who just want a cup of coffee because they have to go to work at six o’clock in the morning and they have to wake up.
It sounds silly, but when you’ve been to origin and you see someone raking coffee all day — when you’ve been there for four hours and they’ve been walking back and forth for those same four hours — to see the attention to detail and tedious detail that goes into it really opened my eyes. Processing terms can sound so vague, “oh, it’s a washed process,” but seeing what actually goes into that is a lot of long hours and hard work. I took away from that, when you get back and see a Washed or Natural coffee on the table, remembering wow, somebody had to rake that or turn cherries on a raised bed for that many hours. Getting to see processing on the farm level made a lot more sense and I was able to appreciate that coffee that much more. The feeling you have when you drink that coffee and sell that coffee is so humbling. You want to shout from the rooftops, “drink this coffee” because you know the whole story and you just want to spread the word and share the story; so everyone knows where and from whom it really came from — to connect people on a human level.