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Perk On Main explores roots of its coffee

Many coffee drinkers do not think too much about their coffee. If it’s hot and has caffeine, good enough.

Katie Hughes recently took a trip to Chiapas, Mexico, the country’s southern-most tip, to examine both the literal and figurative roots of the coffee served at her cafes Perk on Main of Durham and Perk on Church of Guilford.

Equal Exchange, Hughes’ coffee importer took her, and five other cafe owners, on the trip to explore the origins of their coffee and see up close the impact of Equal Exchange’s policies.

“I love coffee,” said Hughes, who jumped at “the chance to go with Equal Exchange and become more intimate with it and really understand how it starts and how it gets in to your cup.”

The Chiapas region was a five and a half hour trip from Mexico City, mostly on dirt roads, and brought Hughes to an area of the world far different from suburban Connecticut. She saw impoverished areas and the effects of limited opportunities. Equal Exchange deals in Fair Trade coffee and tries to improve the lives of the coffee farmers. The company charges 30 cents more per pound than the market standard and then gives that money to farmers’ co-operatives where the money is used “to better the life of the farmer,” Hughes said.

The group visited a co-op called Comon Yaj Noptic, which roughly translates as “We consider all of it.”

Comon Yaj Noptic had used some of the Equal Exchange funds to open a small school, monitor the health of the coffee trees, train medical screeners for cervical cancer, which is more common in coffee regions, and as micro-loans so farming families could start small businesses.

The mother of the family Hughes stayed with used one of those micro-loans to run a small store out of her home’s pantry.

While the visit was a new experience for Hughes, it was also new for the village. The children had “never had a foreigner visit their village. They are so cute they were just enamored with my blonde hair and were touching it. They’d never seen anything quite like it,” she said.

When they found out that Perk on Main made crepes, villagers collected the ingredients so Hughes could make some. For the batch of crepes, the hosts set out to collect flour, a rarity in the region — “Apparently all the flour they had in the village,” she said.

Cooking for the village with the last of their flour produced her first work nightmare. However, she said, “The crepes actually turned out pretty good.”

Hughes sampled coffees, toured quality control facilities and tried a new way of brewing — “slow coffee.” A technique that might show up at Perk on Main.

There was also a surprising experience that came about while drinking coffee in the coffee growing region. “I don’t even need coffee anymore and it is because they drink the worst coffee. They send all the good coffee out,” Hughes said.

The farmers also drink it “cowboy coffee” style, produced by boiling, a method not likely to show up in American cafes.

One of the more moving moments for Hughes occurred during an outdoor conversation with a group of farmers within sight of the Sierra Madre mountains. One of the cafe owners asked what difference the farmers had seen since switching to organic methods. “I don’t speak any Spanish, but I could understand what they were saying because they were [motioning] ‘The birds and the butterflies are so plentiful.’”

Organic methods produced benefits in water quality and in soil retention. Farmers also told Hughes, “You hear life in the environment.”

Hughes spent a day picking with the farmers picking beans from coffee trees. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she said.

She finished with about a half a pound. Farmers average about 100 pounds of coffee picked a day and then have to carry the harvest back to the village. In the village where Hughes stayed, that meant an hour and a half walk.

Those coffee beans eventually make their way north to become the “Mind, Body, & Soul” house blend at Perk on Main. The impact of buying that coffee makes its way south in the form of better education, responsible farming practices, and a higher quality of life for traditionally impoverished farmers.

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