Steve Hawthorne doesn't just buy beans for Milwaukee's Stone Creek Coffee Roasters. He could do that by phone or by e-mail with most of the world's coffee farmers. But until Hawthorne sees these farms first hand, in person, he can't know for sure that they meet his company's exacting standards for quality and ethics.
You could say Hawthorne takes some very expensive field trips to make sure Stone Creek's coffee is exactly what it says it is.
Hawthorne, the company's vice president and green coffee buyer, most recently traveled to Tanzania and Ethiopia on one such scouting mission. Before that, he's visited Latin America and Indonesia on coffee trips.
"We buy maybe 300 bags a year between Ethiopia and Tanzania, so we're approaching the point where I want to have a direct relationship with somebody," says Hawthorne.
Visiting the farms he will eventually buy from is how Stone Creek fulfills the first tenet of its four-step philosophy: Grow responsibly. Not only are Hawthorne and his team looking for coffee that meets its high quality standards, he's also looking for verification and documentation that the farm meets social, environmental and economic standards that are part of their Socially Responsible Coffee Certification.
"I can call a guy in California right now and have this whole building filled with coffee in three days," says Hawthorne, "but I travel because I want to meet the people who make the coffee."
In other words, Hawthorne is part coffee taster, but also part detective. He recalls a time in Guatemala, for example, when he spotted an artificial fertilizer at a farm that claimed it was completely organic.
"I was like, 'Hey, what's that?' I don't go to try to catch people, but I do verify that if I'm telling you this coffee is organic, then I can actually attest to the fact."
Traveling to Africa, of course, is serious business, and is not without danger.
"You have to exercise your common sense, and I don't carry a lot of cash with me, but coffee is one of their top exports. The farmers that I'm working with are generally a pretty protective people."
Still, on his most recent trip, the 1975 Land Cruiser he was traveling in broke down in the middle of the Serengeti desert, and Hawthorne found himself in a precarious spot.
"The driveshaft fell out of our Land Cruiser, right outside a Masai tribal village. Our local guide had his Blackberry, which worked perfectly, and called into the closest town six hours away, to get a mechanic to meet us. All these Masai kids had knives on their belts, and while I don't think they were going to attack us, we felt a little uneasy.
"Whenever I travel," says Hawthorne, "I bring toy Matchbox cars to give to kids. They stayed with us the entire time we were there. I want to believe they were protecting us as the sun went down, which is when lions hunt."
Of course, technology has made these trips much easier. Hawthorne says his cell reception in Africa was better than it was in the States, and he was able to FaceTime his daughter from Tanzania, too.
But considering how expensive these trips are, does Hawthorne find them valuable?
"They are," he says. "We're able to identify the needs of the farmer. One farmer we buy from in Brazil has a school on the farm grounds for the kids of the harvesters. In buying coffee there, we've negotiated a 10-cent premium on top of the price of the coffee that funds the school."
Says Hawthorne, "Unless you're there, walking around, seeing (farmers) talk about their operation, you don't always know what they may or may not need, and they don't always know to ask."
In terms of evaluating the product, itself, some of the farms provide Hawthorne with beans straight from the trees and process them on the spot, so he can get an idea right there if the coffee is up to snuff.
But Hawthorne looks at the condition of the farm and how farmers treat their employees, too.
"It's really about relationships, supporting the right people who are doing the right thing," he says, adding that buying direct doesn't actually save much money.
And personally, these trips just so happen to be pretty thrilling, too.
Hawthorne, who started as a roaster at Stone Creek, takes a lot of photos on his trips and considers these missions personal payback from never backpacking through Europe as a teenager.
"I've met so many people and had experiences I would've never had (without) Stone Creek," he says. "I can't explain what it's like to be driving down the road and see a giraffe gnawing on a tree. You could reach out and touch it ... if you want."
At the end of the day, the experience is personally enriching, but more importantly, Stone Creek is becoming partners with these indigenous farmers, and Hawthorne thinks this will bring better coffee into Milwaukee customers' cups.
"I try to think of people we're buying coffee from as more of partners than vendors, and it takes a little while to get to that point," he says.
"Coffee buyers like me have been all over place. A guy in El Salvador doesn't have the same opportunities to travel to Africa and see what the rest of the world is doing. It's cool to be part of that process."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.