Barista Magazine

OCT-NOV 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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I was so excited (and nervous) that Erna's love, John Rapinchuk, was supportive of her joining us. I didn't know Erna well at the time, and she was larger than life to me. In all of her long history in coffee, this would be her fi rst time to visit smallholder farmers. I was worried about being responsible for this treasure of a wom- an—at 83 years young—in the hinterlands of a place I'd only visited half a dozen times at that point. What would I do if something hap- pened to her!? Not to worry—we were in the hands of Fatima Ismael Espinoza and the incredible women of SOPPEXCCA. It's not an understatement to say that Erna was an amazing travel companion and set a very high bar for everyone else on the trip. Early departures, long days, bad roads, bouncing along in a repur- posed U.S. school bus—she had no complaints at all. This elegant, lively woman even opted to use the outhouse when the need arose during a fi eld visit. We spent two days visiting women farmers, having lunch around the table in cleanly swept, dirt-fl oor homes, discussing their lives, their challenges and aspirations, and of course, their coffees. Our fi nal day was a more formal meeting with all of the women for them to share their work, progress, and ideas with us. They were so excited about our visit, and especially to have Erna as part of the group. They presented her with a handmade banner that said: "Wom- an … light that grows with each new dawn." Even though we didn't share a common language, through our many exchanges, the bond was nevertheless so clear. At the end of the day, after the Nicaraguan women responded to our many, many questions, one of the visitors asked them if they had any questions for us. The response came: "Can we have a hug?" We all jumped to our feet and exchanged hugs, laughs, and tears. Every woman hugged every other woman; the bond was cemented, we were all women in coffee. Though unspoken, the realization of that moment was clear—we were all the same in so many ways. [We] shared dreams and aspirations for a better life for all, and that connecting women to women was something special. There was not a dry eye in the room. When Erna mentioned this visit in her acceptance speech for the SCA [fka SCAA] Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 as one of the greatest experiences of her life, I choked up, and I still do. That exchange day with the women of SOPPEXCCA became the seed for the International Women's Coffee Alliance (IWCA), and while the entire tour was unforgettable, that day remains one of the great- est experiences in my life too. Thank you, Erna." Ted Lingle, fi rst executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America from 1991–2006; Long Beach, Calif.: "I was working at Lingle Bros. Coffee, Inc., a family-owned cof- fee-roasting business in Los Angeles started by my grandfather and his two brothers in 1920. I had been in the coffee industry less than a year, but my dad insisted I fl y up to San Francisco to meet Erna Knutsen, an importer who was selling us some of the specialty coffees we offered to our customers. I met her in her offi ce at B.C. Ireland in the morning, and we cupped coffee with her business partner, Vern Aldridge. She had some great coffees on the table. She was particu- larly proud of the 'blueberry fl avor' of her Kenya coffee that she was buying from Dorman's in Kenya, but she also had exquisite coffees from Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Colombia. The cupping lasted about an hour, then we did her favorite thing: We went to Jack's for lunch. Jack's was about a block from her offi ce, so we walked. As soon as we entered the restaurant, I knew she was an institution at Jack's. Not only did the owner know her well, she had her own table. The owner did not even bring us menus, as he knew exactly what she wanted to order, starting with the drinks. Lunch was delicious—crab cakes—and the wine was even better, a Sauvignon Blanc. The stories she told me were amazing, starting with her beginnings as an import- er selling a few bags of specialty coffee out of her desk drawer, as no one in the offi ce wanted to deal with less than container-size lots. Two hours and two bottles of wine later, we fi nished lunch. By that time we were best friends, and I will never forget walking back to her offi ce, hand in hand, knowing I'm going to love this industry." Donald Schoenholt, owner, Gillies Coffee Co.; New York City: "It was 1973, and Erna hated the burnt-rubber smell and raw-peanuty taste of the cheap EK-1, and 20/25 grade Robusta coffees then fl ood- ing into the West Coast to feed the big roasters of canned supermar- ket coffee served by Ireland. She wanted to sell coffees she had faith in to the few who she believed would develop faith in her if she offered them quality beans. She found a Sumatra that made her eyes light up; her passion was ignited, and she went about peddling the Mandheling to the small startup roasters that were beginning to appear on the West Coast. She built a reputation as a woman on a mission, with a skilled palate, an infectious laugh, and items that others did not offer. She called them 'specialty' coffees, and after being quoted using the phrase in a 1974 Tea & Coffee Trade Journal piece, the name stuck to the class of goods, and in time she came to accept her position as the empress of coffee specialties. In 1991, I was asked to draft criteria for awards that [the] SCAA would be presenting annually to worthy industry members. One award was special, a Lifetime Achievement Award, to be given not every year to a trade member of extraordinary merit who would be carried shoulder high as an exemplar of specialty coffee's highest ideals. When the fi rst Awards Committee met to discuss who should be fi rst to receive the honor, the choice was obvious and unanimous. It was Erna Knutsen." Ric Rhinehart, executive director/CEO, Specialty Coffee Association; Long Beach, Calif.: "Rather than an anecdote, I thought I might offer a refl ection about a couple of ways that Erna impacted the course of the coffee industry, and how meaningful they are today. For many in specialty coffee, the fi rst association of Erna to our world is that she is credited with introducing the term 'specialty coffee' to our discourse. In my mind, the actual greatest contribution that Erna made lies in her shifting of two mind-sets that has endured to our great benefi t. The fi rst is that coffee can be extracted from its commodity roots by differentiating quality and by changing the unit of sale from a 'contract' or container, to a smaller unit (a bag, or even smaller in our current landscape). That such a shift ever had to happen may not occur to new and recent entrants to coffee, but it is a critical change in perspective. The second is much more profound and deserves recognition and celebration, as well as a renewed commitment. Erna was throughout her career a pioneer as a woman in the world. She fearlessly, and without limit, navigated a workplace that was overwhelmingly male dominated, and that was and in some respects [still is] incredibly slow to change. Her presence and success in the trading of coffee opened doors for other women in meaningful ways, and her grace, per- sistence, and most of all competence forced a change in the thinking of the men who had so long closed their world to women." 111 www.baristamagazine.com

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