The Future Is Young: a story of Colombia, Chattanooga and coffee.

The distance between Medellin and St. Elmo is not as far as you think.

The Future Is Young: a story of Colombia, Chattanooga and coffee.
Coffee roasting, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tennessee

"Coffee is more ... than a can in the grocery store."

" ... in Colombia, female coffee farmers are responsible for 70% (if not more) of coffee's fieldwork ... they also are responsible for almost all the household chores, an endless list: cooking for the family and workers, cleaning the house, taking care of the children, and more." – We Belong, by Lucia Bawot

Best guess, I've drunk, say, 20,000 cups of coffee in my lifetime. Two and a half cups a day, each day, for 20 years = 18,250, give or take. Add in that spell where our kids were newborns and there's 20,000.

With 19,999 of those cups, it's a basic process: two or three scoops into my machine = morning coffee. I am unaware and unconscious of the farmers, land, weather conditions, altitude, growers or roasters that exist to produce this cup. Instead, I just drink.

Two weeks ago, that changed forever.

We're sitting at Goodman Coffee Roasters in St. Elmo. I am drinking my 20,000th cup of coffee. To my left, Sofia Cuadros, a 26-year-old Colombian and leader within a co-operative of coffee farmers.

Their land grew the beans that became this cup of coffee.

David Cook, Sofia Cuadros, Goodman Coffee Roaster, St. Elmo, Tenn.

To my right, Ian Goodman, a 50-year old Chattanoogan responsible for shaping coffee culture in this town.

He roasts the beans that Colombian farmers – and farmers across the globe – grew and harvested. His coffeeshop prepares the coffee we're drinking now.

Ian Goodman, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

Between us: the coffee they – and 100s of others, from pickers to packers to dryers – are responsible for creating.

I am spellbound as suddenly, things get very clear: the enormous distance between my coffee cup and them – farmers, producers, roasters – shrinks gloriously.

It's all right here.

"We're closing the distance between them and us," Goodman says.

Colombian coffee, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

Cuadros is a Colombian who represents other coffee farmers and producers near Medellin. She's a distributor, middlewoman and producer who bridges the gap between Colombian coffee and American coffeehouses. She's also splendidly kind, vibrant, encyclopedically smart.

Instead of coffee farmers producing in a silo – harvesting coffee and then the process vanishes from them – they are now connected with American roasters.

Sofia Cuadros, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

"We’re working on a more collaborative supply chain for the long process of bringing coffee to another country," she said. "We’re in the middle as a bridge between producer and roaster."

That's why she traveled to Chattanooga.

Sofia Cuadros, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

She's here to meet Goodman, her friend, roaster and fellow coffee revolutionary.

And the gap between Colombia and Chattanooga shrinks.

Coffee beans, Ian Goodman, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

When the gap between us and them shrinks, something fills that space.



And love.

"That’s the story we are trying to share," Goodman said.

Ian Goodman, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

Goodman was only 22 when he opened Greyfriar's Coffee & Tea Co. on Broad Street in the mid '90s. A Covenant College senior at the time, Goodman laid the foundation for coffeehouses in this city. Today, he is an expert in this city, overflowing with coffee-comprehension and a generous vision for the future of local coffee.

"Coffee is more," he said. "There's more to it than a can in the grocery store."

In high school, he traveled to Sumatra, working with indigenous tribes to build water supply lines. Something clicked: the gap between his coffee and their Sumatran experience began to shrink for him.

"I made the connection," he said.

A coffeehouse job in St. Louis and transformative book, simply titled – Coffee and Tea – followed by time in coffeehouse-boom of Seattle in the early 90s led to realization: I love coffee. I love roasting. I love all of this.

Today, Goodman owns two locations of Goodman Coffee Roastersit's good, man – while working closely with producers and farmers across the world.

Three years ago, he traveled to Colombia, working with Cuadros and other farmers to build trust and understanding. He learned from them and they from him. Goodman helped build raised beds and offered crash-course business classes.

In a moment of illuminating friendship, he shared with them Goodman coffee – roasted from their beans. So often, coffee growers never drink the final-product coffee that originates from their farms.

"We spend time developing friendships and relationships," Goodman said. "That's really important to me. We know what their needs are and they know our needs."

Goodman's trip made a loud statement, Cuadros said: There are roasters interested in your coffee.

"Coffee should be $100 a bag when you look at all the time goes into it."

He's traveled to Java, Bali, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua. Going to Costa Rica this month. Planning for Kenya and the DRC. Wants to find a way into Yemen.

"I want to get people to look at coffee like they look at wine," he said. "If you monetized coffee appropriately, it would be way more expensive. Coffee should be $100 a bag when you look at all the time that goes into it."

Goodman says this not as an elitist but a realist, knowing intimately that the coffee process requires "lots of hands, lots of people, lots of time."

Which brings us back to Cuadros.

In Colombia, Cuadros, her brother Lucas – she credits him for inviting her into this work – and a group of farmers formed Unblended Coffee: a co-operative uniting farmers and producers in the bean-to-cup process.

"We consolidate different orders and provide coffee quality control," said Cuadros.

"We believe coffee is more than a drink," Unblended declares. "Drinking coffee is a ritual that connects us to our deep-rooted customs of finding great pleasures in beverage and food."

In Colombia, Cuadros work closely with farmers like Carolina Ramirez – seen below – a coffee farmer in Andes, near Antioquia.

If you drink Goodman's, there's a good chance you're drinking coffee that Ramirez grew.

On coffee farms the size of six or seven hectares, these farmers – mostly young, many women – grow and harvest the coffee others roast and we enjoy.

Coffee is a fruit. Or, rather, coffee is the seed of a fruit. Coffee trees produce berries which are harvested by hand once or twice a year.

Pickers and farmers work all day, picking berries that are later judged by color and size.

"They sort by color," Cuadros said. "They harvest when the berries are red."

Altitude affects taste. So does the harvesting process. Amount of rainfall. The ripeness of the fruit.

Food as a Verb thanks Main Street Meats, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Main Street Meats is a modern neighborhood butcher shop and restaurant in Chattanooga’s Southside deeply committed to animal care, local farms and land stewardship that promises an experience “as farm-to-table as it gets.”

I'll let Goodman take it from here:

"After the cherries are picked, they are then sorted to determine which are under-ripe or overripe or any defect to the fruit," he said. "Coffee is processed in two main ways: washed or natural. The method that the farmer chooses to use has a dramatic effect on the way the coffee tastes."

He continues:

  • Washed coffees: Once the cherries are sorted, they are sent through a de-pulper to remove the skins.  Then, the fruit are left in big tanks to ferment usually for 12 to 36 hours. Seeds are washed in fresh water to remove the loose mucilage, then moved to patios or raised beds to dry over several weeks being turned several times a day until the coffee reaches the desired moisture content.  Then, it is sent to the drying mill.
  • Natural Process:  The cherries are sorted to remove any that don't meet standard, then the cherries are placed on raised beds and allowed to totally dry on the seeds.  The cherries have to be monitored closely during this process and turned frequently to prevent any cherries from rotting.  Once the cherries are dry, the skins are broken off the seed and the coffee in parchment is sent to the dry mill.
  • Honey Process: Cherries are sorted then sent through a de-pulper to remove the skins, still leaving the mucilage of the fruit on the seed.  The seeds are then laid out on drying beds allowing the mucilage to ferment and dry.  For the first 48 hours or so, the coffee has to be turned very often so there is even drying all around the seed.  The length of time this is allowed to go on determines which honey process it is, white being the shortest and black the longest.
  • Extended and experimental fermentations:  This has been one of the biggest changes in coffee processing over the last 20 or so years.  A common one? Anaerobic fermentation. Coffee is put into sealed tanks, either whole cherry or de-pulped, and allowed to ferment for anywhere from 60 to 300 hours.  After the fermentation, the coffee is removed from the tanks and placed on raised drying beds to be dried for several weeks and also have to be turned regularly during that time.  There are many other processes and ways this is done as well: lactic fermentation, malolactic fermentation, alcoholic fermentations and co-ferments with other things.

You soon realize: most of the work is done before it ever reaches Goodman.

"The only thing I can do is pull out the flavor," he said.

Dried green beans are shipped to roasters around the world. Each country has its unique export container. Many are burlap bags with signature artwork and design. Jamaica's is actually a drum.

Colombia's coffee motto?

The Future Is Young.

From his St. Elmo shop, Goodman imports 70,000 pounds of coffee each year from 15 different countries.

Beans arrive at port cities from Houston to New Jersey then shipped to St. Elmo where the roasting process begins.

Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

The roaster is like a giant convection oven. A rotating drum spins the coffee while Tyler Sowrey, Goodman's roaster, controls the heat – up to 417 degrees – and air flow.

Roasting coffee, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

"It's like a rotisserie," he said.

Coffee roasting, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

All the types of roasts – medium, light, dark – are produced by varying degrees of heat and air flow. Sort of like a steak.

"Well done. Done. Rare," said Sowrey.

Tyler Sowrey, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

Then, Goodman invites us to participate in a taste-test ritual known around the world among coffee roasters, producers and connoisseurs.

"Cupping," said Goodman.

There are eight cups of coffee before us, laid out in the dignified process reserved for professional tasters, producers and people who know what they're doing. (This is not me.) Someone hands me a heavy spoon wrapped in plastic. I stand up a little straighter. Like a sommelier, I think to myself, but don't say this out loud.

Cupping, Ian Goodman, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

Delicately, with great heaps of concentration and high-antenna olfactory powers, Goodman, Cuadros and Sowrey move through a sensitive process that judges and evaluates coffee on five measurements:






"In words, you describe this," Cuadros said. "And you grade it. An 83 to 84 is not very complex. An 89 is really good."

As you sip — slurp, actually – you're asking your palate a series of questions:

What type of flavors in smell and taste? How balanced is it as an overall experience? How long does this linger?

"You feel each attribute in your mouth," said Cuadros.

First, we smell.

Or, rather, they smell. I'm just inhaling, trying to smell whatever they smell. It's massively difficult. Come on, nose.

"I smell a little caramel," she said. "Also, yellow fruits, like passionfruit and peach. But very subtle."

Yes, I nod. Subtle. So subtle.

Then, we taste.

Ian Goodman, Sofia Cuadros, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

One of us here is not like the others. Cuadros and Goodman are in the Louvre; my tongue is painting by numbers.

Goodman gives advice.

First: it's ok to drink, rinse, and spit it out, especially on the days when you're cupping 150 different types of coffee.

"You get overloaded," he said, "shaking after 30 or 40."

And second?

"Slurp it real hard," he said. "That gets all the senses and hits the olfactory in the back."

Colombian Unblended, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

I sound like a shop-vac. A shop-vac with a first-grade vocabulary. I simply don't have the words, or, if I do, they are most basic. Cuadros tastes rainforest; I taste ... earth?

Umm ... sweet earth?

"What type of sweet?" she asks. "Caramel? Dark chocolate? Or like blueberry?"

Yes, I nod. (Nobody's buying it.)

"Do you taste the sugarcane?" asks Cuadros.

Well, no. But the larger point:

There is so much here than I ever, ever realized.

And when I open up to it, my world changes.

Cupping, Sofia Cuadros, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

We move down the list of attributes:


"You feel it stronger in your mouth," she said. "The sugarcane. The sweetness."

Shorter? Longer?

"You swallow it and that’s it," she said. "Or, this remains in your mouth longer. And that is a good attribute."

Here in the back roasting room at Goodman's, the circle feels so full, rich and complete.

The roaster is here.

The grower is here.

The coffee – their coffee, our coffee – is here, too.

Goodman Coffee, St. Elmo

And within that coffee?

A world of people.

And places.

And families, earthworms, sunlight, rainfall, callouses, lunch-breaks in the shade, laughter, birdsong in the trees and the way life manifests in this one beautiful drink.

"I taste a little bit of mango," Cuadros said. "A very ripened mango. Like a very yellow mango."

For now, I taste one thing above all others. And it is sweeter than the sweetest mango.

I taste connection.

Sofia Cuadros, Ian Goodman, Goodman Coffee Roasters, St. Elmo, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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