Creating Conversations Through Coffee

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

The Center for Coffee Research and Education at Texas A&M University aims to make College Station an epicenter for coffee.


Photo courtesy of the CCRE

It is important as a society that we continue to look for the things that unite us, not divide us.

One item that unites many Americans and Texans is coffee, as our country consumes 400 million cups of coffee per day.

With all the coffee that we intake, it would make sense that consumers learn how to drink quality coffee, right?

The Center for Coffee Research and Education (CCRE) at Texas A&M University (TAMU) prioritizes teaching people how to drink good coffee as part of their mission in ‘The Race to Save Coffee.’

The CCRE was established in 2016 as part of The Borlaug Institute; the center helps and supports smallholder farms across the world as they face disease, pests, climate change, low crop yields, and barriers to producing quality coffee.

The production of coffee impacts over 125 million people across its supply chain, with 80% of the supply coming from smallholder farms. Despite the massive supply, farmers struggle to receive a stable income.

Eric Brenner, the program coordinator for the CCRE, coordinates the research and education component of the CCRE. At the CCRE, they prioritize both components to properly teach farmers how to grow specialty coffee and show consumers why they should buy high-quality coffee.

“So, at the center, two things that we do is we work on the research component and we also work on the education component. Obviously from the research component, we are trying to help small farmers, which is the main thing that The Borlaug Institute tries to accomplish. At the same time, we try to educate people in coffee,” Brenner said. “Because one of the things that we have tried to do is by letting people drink good coffee, that is a way for small farmers to increase their incomes. See unfortunately with coffee, coffee prices are very low. It has been [that way] for years; and so, a good way for farmers to increase incomes is through specialty coffee.”

In their latest project, the CCRE worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to demonstrate how farmers in Central America can grow better coffee crops that yield better outputs and help fight against diseases like coffee rust. The ability to physically show farmers what is possible to grow on their land potentially enables them to stay home instead of migrating to different areas to find a way to support themselves and their families.

“We just wrapped up a project in Central America for the three Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, Guatemala, and Salvador, addressing coffee rust. Coffee rust is a fungus that attacks the coffee plant, and it has been devastating for coffee farmers. And that is one of the things that obviously affects migration,” Brenner said. “One of the reasons why the project focused on doing the demo plots from the farmer’s land, [was] because for many of these farmers, they do not want to adopt something new, because what that means is [an] investment. But the good thing about this project with [the] USAID, is that we did the demo plots from the farmer’s land. So, all their farmers were able to see [its] success.”

Through the demo plots, the CCRE introduced a new hybrid of coffee that is resistant to rust and has higher crop yields coupled with better quality. From the hybrids, farmers can make more money on their crops and have consistent outputs throughout the year. Even if their coffee costs us just a dollar more per cup, that difference in cost can dramatically enhance the livelihoods of these farmers.

“In this particular case, this hybrid, not only produces coffee almost after year one, [but] the yields are really good, and the quality is really good. So, farmers are able to see that return on investment, much, much quicker. They also get to sell at a higher price,” Brenner said. “Me paying for more expensive coffee is not the way we see it, it's not because you're a coffee snob, it’s because it translates [to] better incomes for farmers. Just an additional dollar a day for a farmer is monumental. For us, what a big deal, $2 versus $1, but to these people, it is the difference between eating every day or eating a couple of times a week.”

One thing that will help farmers is teaching Texans how to drink good quality coffee. If everyone who drinks coffee places a priority on supporting shops that roast high-quality coffee, then farmers can begin to see stability in their coffee outputs and revenue.

Rodrigo Chavez, former program director for the CCRE and owner of What’s the Buzz Specialty Coffee, began roasting coffee for himself whenever he moved back to Texas nine years ago. After his neighbors tried his coffee they were hooked. Instead of just roasting it for the neighborhood, Chavez set out to change the perception of coffee by purchasing What’s the Buzz in 2014 and joining the CCRE.

“If I was going to make the effort to roast coffee and somehow teach people to drink good coffee, I wanted to do it with the best quality possible. And that was what got me involved with the center for coffee research. The past director … hired me to help them with the teaching and education component from the coffee center,” Chavez said. “Now, we have a class … [that] teaches everything related to coffee, and then we started the coffee club at the university which there wasn't one; and after that, I was hired by the [CCRE] to lead the coffee project that they have in Central America.”

While Chavez focuses on running What’s the Buzz, he still collaborates with the CCRE on a variety of projects. The next venture Brenner, Chavez, and the CCRE are working on is the launch of TAMU’s own coffee brand, 12th Man Coffee.

“I'm still involved in supporting all their initiatives. But one of those initiatives is the 12th Man Coffee that we're going to launch in [June], which will support some of these coffee growers that we have worked with,” Chavez said. “The reason why we started working with the 12th Man Coffee, [is] because we want to be able to use some of the proceeds to go back to the university so they can use it for a good purpose. But we also are doing something different. I don't think there's a single coffee bag sold with the university or any other university name that is not commercial coffee. So, having an amazing coffee at a very reasonable price that can be offered; we [also] included instructions [for] how to brew on the side of the bags and other things to help teach people because, at the end, we're trying to merge that teaching with a coffee.”

The collaboration between TAMU, What’s the Buzz, and the CCRE made sense for each party to carry out their initiatives of supporting farmers, teaching consumers how to drink good coffee, and ultimately promoting specialty coffee as part of TAMU’s brand.

“It just made sense. We Aggies, we love to buy Aggie stuff. So, this particular brand of coffee, not only has a good purpose, at the end obviously with the revenue [that is] going to go back in the center, but number one, [it is] specialty coffee,” Brenner said. “So, what you're buying represents the university by what you're drinking. It's exceptionally amazing … there are different blends from different countries and different farmers.”

While the CCRE has been successful in its efforts to support small farmers across the globe, many Aggies still do not know that the university even has a coffee center. One of the goals of the 12th Man Coffee brand is to establish the CCRE as an essential destination for all those who visit Aggieland.

“Our desire is to get the center on the map, [so] that people know what it is. And why not? Just like people come to Texas A&M to see the George Bush Museum, why can’t they come to the center for one day?” Brenner said. “A lot of people have no clue that even the university has a coffee center. It is open to the public where they can come visit and we can teach them about how to drink coffee and the different methods. They can try different coffees from all over the world because we want to break out from the idea that coffee is just coffee because it's not, it's really not … we have the opportunity to sit down with them and tell them ‘no, it's not. But let me tell you why.’”

The impact of the work the CCRE, TAMU and The Borlaug Institute does will not only be felt by those in Texas but could potentially enhance the lives of millions of families across the globe.

“There are about 25 million families, not people, families, that are pretty much close [to] total poverty, and they are directly related to coffee. So, the impact of what we do specifically in coffee, it could be an impact of more than 100 million people. So, can you imagine if we could influence a quarter of the people in the US, I mean, it's a massive number. If we can teach [farmers] more about economics, you can [enhance] their wellbeing [to] a different level, [a] healthier [one], without needing to migrate to live near a city or to another country,” Chavez said. “There is huge potential not only to have better coffee, but to benefit all these millions of millions of families the right way and a positive way to be able to continue the teaching component, the learning component, the economical component, you know, and so on, that really evolves around coffee. That would be, to me, the ideal way for the center and The Borlaug [Institute] to be super successful in coffee.”

As far as the future of their work in Texas; Brenner, Chavez, and the CCRE will continue to work towards making TAMU and College Station a global hub for coffee.

“It's making Texas A&M, through The Borlaug Institute and the center, an epicenter for coffee. You know Seattle obviously and Portland, they're known for that. Why can't Texas, specifically College Station, become one?” Brenner said. “We are next to the port of Houston and Texas is a great place [that] has a huge coffee culture. We are doing the research component, but also the educational component. So, we are in a good position to do that. I'm excited and hopefully, we can get that to that point as we continue to seek funding for the center.”

To learn more about their current projects or for more information about the center, visit the CCRE’s website.

“It's not just coffee, but through coffee, you can have a conversation, you can have a peace treaty, you can have just about whatever conversation; it's an opening,” Chavez said.


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Video Courtesy of AgriLife Today.