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SANTA ELENA ESTATE, Costa Rica —

Jim Stewart ranks high among Seattle’s coffee elite. He founded what is now Seattle’s Best Coffee in the late ’60s, when only a handful of U.S. roasters envisioned coffee as a gourmet drink.

But when he travels to Costa Rica with his wife, she is the coffee maven.

“I was born in a coffee tree,” says Luz Marina Trujillo, who hails from a coffee family in Colombia. She has worked the past 22 years turning a mediocre coffee farm in Costa Rica into one of the country’s most respected coffee estates.

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Trujillo decided early that she wanted to sell directly to roasters, negotiating with them on price and quality. Direct trade has become fashionable because it cuts out a middleman — often putting more money directly into farmers’ hands and helping roasters forge long-term relationships across cultural boundaries.

Popular Northwest roasters like Stumptown Coffee and Caffé Vita publicize their buying visits to coffee farms, sharing coffee discoveries through online photos and customer events. Vita even posts online videos accompanied by the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno.

Many say direct trade beats fair trade, a formal program that tries to ensure fair prices to farmers. To slap a fair trade label on coffee, you must pay fees to a certifying agency, something the informal direct trade model does not require.

Trading pioneer

Few had heard of direct trade when Jim Stewart started doing it in the late ’70s, because he was tired of the mystery that some brokers created around coffee buying.

“Every time I’d buy a bag of coffee, they acted like there might never be another bag of coffee. It had the aura of a fraternity,” he said.

With a suitcase and a high-school grasp of Spanish, he flew to six coffee-growing countries in Latin America and Indonesia using tickets he won in a divorce settlement from a Pan Am flight attendant.

Stewart did not tell the farmers he was coming, and was not even sure the phone numbers he had for exporters were current.

One of his first stops was Costa Rica, where he got off a bus in a rural area expecting to see a sign for the exporting company he sought. Instead, there was a town square and, luckily, a policeman who was kind enough to drive him three miles to the exporter’s office.

In six weeks, he visited Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and Indonesia — and formed bonds that still last.

At the time, Stewart owned a small roaster with a popular shop on the Seattle waterfront called the Wet Whisker. He sold coffee, but not espresso.

He did not have the clout of a coffee powerhouse like Folgers, or even a chain like Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee & Tea today. But he liked the people he met and their coffee, and he started buying directly from them in 1977.

Stewart’s move into direct trade ensured his supply of high-quality coffee and helped him build a company that eventually became Seattle’s Best Coffee, which is now a chain of 350 cafes owned by Starbucks.

On a personal level, Stewart gained friendships that were held together by great coffee and gifts of Northwest salmon — and eventually, in the case of one particular Costa Rican farmer, by marriage.

Charm and a ponytail

Trujillo’s first taste of direct trade came at a Seattle’s Best Coffee party in Costa Rica.

She was busy turning around a coffee farm that had brought her Colombian coffee family joy and heartache.

Her father and uncle had fallen in love with the farm, Santa Elena, in 1978 and bought it as a place for their families to spend working vacations. Trujillo visited often, and was there in 1985 when her father died from a sudden illness. Her uncle died the same year.

In 1989, she and her six siblings bought out their cousins, and Trujillo took charge of Santa Elena.

A newcomer in a country that was not her own, and a woman in a male-dominated industry, Trujillo dug in. She improved the flavor of Santa Elena’s beans, whose reputation had suffered, by making sure they were not fermented or mixed with subpar coffee from other plantations.

Then she took free samples to local brokers, one of whom said he never did business with women.

“I’m going to be the first,” Trujillo told him with a smile. He quickly became one of her biggest buyers.

Next came her campaign to meet U.S. coffee roasters, a way to gain recognition for her farm’s particular coffee and sell it at prices above the commodity market, where coffee is pooled together.

Trujillo was thrilled to be invited to the Seattle’s Best party, where she met Stewart briefly. The gathering was more an occasion to shake hands than do business.

But in Boston shortly afterward, where she flew to meet more U.S. roasters at a coffee convention, she had lunch with him and they began to keep in touch regularly, talking by phone about coffee growing and roasting.

They met again in Colombia, where Stewart traveled on coffee business. He met Trujillo’s family, toured their farms, and won them over with his charm and ponytail.

Cutting out the middleman

Buying coffee directly from farmers is not as simple — or as dreamy — as it sounds.

Roasters wax romantic about their trips along bumpy roads to coffee plantations in the tropics, the only place coffee is grown. They love the warm weather, the welcoming people and the passion they share with farmers for great coffee.

But trading also means the roasters have to figure out how much coffee they need, how much they will pay for it and where to store large volumes — things they paid brokers to do before they were bitten by the direct trade bug.

Direct trade is still a young movement; most roasters continue to go through brokers, who do not seem to mind when a roaster decides to negotiate with growers directly.

“It is possible that we are losing some business, but there is still plenty of coffee to be sold,” said John Cossette, vice president at Royal Coffee in the Bay Area. “If we are the importer on a direct trade deal, we still have to charge a fee for our services.” If a roaster wants to be more involved with pricing and quality, Cossette said, “It’s all good, as they say!”

Direct coffee buyers also have to monitor quality, because even though they feel close to the growers, it can slip over time. Starbucks has an 18-person department in Seattle, Costa Rica, Switzerland and Rwanda tasting hundreds of cups of coffee a day to ensure they meet its standards.

“I shake my head at what I didn’t know until I started growing coffee,” Stewart said on a visit to his own small organic coffee farm on the slopes of Volcano Poás in Costa Rica.

Stewart considers his farm — Finca El Gato — a real-estate investment and a way to learn even more about the coffee business. Conversely, he set up a small roasting room and coffee-tasting area at Santa Elena to help his wife’s employees understand his side of the business — and to help her judge the quality of each batch of coffee she produces.

“I know it’s good”

“We didn’t used to cup,” Trujillo says, using lingo for a formal tasting. “Jim said, how do you know if it’s good or not? If you cup, and someone tries to make an excuse [about quality] to lower your price, you can say, No — I know it’s good.”

Although Stewart is a big deal in Seattle coffee circles, to Trujillo’s employees he is just the boss’s spouse.

When he was setting up the roaster, Stewart recalls, “Everything I said, they’d call her to see if it was OK.”

At Santa Elena, Trujillo makes the rounds every day of the harvest, which runs from late fall until early spring. She visits hundreds of coffee pickers and makes sure the processing facility runs smoothly.

She also keeps her cool, even when dark clouds appear, heavy with rain — once unheard of during the harvest, but now an increasing threat as Costa Rica’s climate changes.

“I don’t care for this weather. It makes me nervous,” Stewart tells her repeatedly during an afternoon swing through Santa Elena. “I guess that’s why you’re the farmer.”

Trujillo barely registers his distress. Instead, she enthuses about how full of ripe coffee the trees are, punctuating her comments with frequent endearments of “my love” for Stewart.

Even a major landslide — another increasingly common harbinger of climate change — can’t get her down.

Santa Elena’s recent landslide took out three acres of coffee and the face of it is, everyone agrees, the image of the Virgin Mary.

“She’s looking at everything, so we are protected,” says Trujillo, who has no plans to replant there.

In his soft voice, Stewart wryly notes, “She’s the only person in the country who’s happy about her big landslide.”

“He’s the coffee god”

Stewart and Trujillo got married when she was 45 and he was 50. They had spent years dating long-distance, including a lot of time on the phone — calls in which Stewart described views of the moon and Mount Rainier from his hot tub on Vashon Island.

“The only thing missing is you,” he would say, and finally Trujillo came to Seattle.

“I told him I was tired of so much independence,” she recalls. “I was thinking about the most important things in my life — my family and Jim — and they were not in Costa Rica. So I decided I should go back to Colombia or get married.”

Now she spends about half the year running the farm in Costa Rica. Stewart makes what he calls a “conjugal visit” for her birthday in November, then returns in January for a few months.

He tends his farm on Volcano Poás and makes the rounds with her at Santa Elena.

Stewart has also brought in some business, through consulting work with Seattle-area roasters including his brother Dave, who owns Vista Clara Coffee in Snohomish and the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, which is in the building where Stewart used to roast coffee for Seattle’s Best.

Gary Smith, who owns Mukilteo Coffee Roasters with his wife, Beth, asked Stewart for his counsel a couple years ago and inquired about buying direct. As a result, the Smiths now buy about 80 percent of their coffee directly, some from Trujillo, but also from growers as far away as Indonesia.

“The quality Jim has access to is unbelievable,” Gary says. “With brokers, you’re leaving it up to their palate, and sometimes they don’t know what the coffee tastes like — they just move it.”

His admiration goes beyond business to the help Stewart has given many coffee communities that grew rich during his Seattle’s Best Coffee days. Stewart set up the Vashon Island Coffee Foundation, which helps build schools and provide emergency aid after earthquakes and mudslides.

“In a lot of countries, he told them to invest in their villages to make their lives better,” Gary says. “He’s the coffee god, and they all love him.”

Indeed. A grower at Santa Elena in Costa Rica is herself particularly smitten with this coffee god from Seattle.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com