At the end of a bumpy road in the Melrose neighborhood of East Oakland, less than two miles from the Oakland Coliseum, and sandwiched between Interstate 880, a glass factory and several auto body shops, an experiment in sustainable coffee production is under way.
On Nov. 7 Heirloom Coffee Roasters officially opened its Regenerative Coffee Research Lab in partnership with Berkeley-based Bellwether Coffee and the California Energy Commission.
Through a CEC grant, Heirloom purchased 16 of Bellwether’s low-carbon, ventless, electric coffee roasters. By moving the coffee roasting from traditional machines that use natural gas and produce carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, the lab is forecast (based on California’s mix of energy sources) to reduce the carbon footprint of Heirloom’s coffee roasting operation by 92% — the equivalent of reducing annual carbon emissions by 517 metric tons.
The project is a significant step toward Heirloom founder and CEO Hovik Azadkhanian’s goal of making the company a leader in sustainable roasting. Heirloom was founded with the objective of exclusively using coffee beans from regenerative agriculture, a holistic approach to farming and ranching that seeks to improve overall soil health through a variety of processes, creating more productive and biodiverse land.
Coffee is the most consumed beverage in the world outside of water, and 19 billion pounds of coffee are roasted annually. The coffee roasting process alone, which accounts for 15% of the carbon footprint of the industry, generates an estimated 47 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Monitors have been installed at Heirloom’s facility to track electricity consumption and the gas usage of its current, traditional roaster, which will still handle a portion of the product. The changes in Heirloom’s carbon output and energy consumption should be evident fairly quickly, but if the experiment truly pays off, the impact will be felt 4,000 miles away.
Camilo Enciso, manager of an organic coffee cooperative in Tolima, Colombia that goes by the acronym ASOPEP, was in attendance at the Heirloom event to share the on-the-ground impacts of climate change for coffee growers.
“It used to be that the main thing we worried about was better access to markets and improved commercial opportunities,” Enciso said. “Now, in the last decade, climate change has become the primary concern.”
As average annual temperatures have increased, it has wreaked havoc on coffee-growing regions. By 2050, according to a study published in 2022 in Plos One, up to 50% of the highest yielding growing areas may be unsuitable for coffee production.
For three years, Tolima has seen above-average, unrelenting precipitation, resulting in a 40% drop in coffee production.
“I witness every day how coffee growers are at the forefront of defending the environment and natural resources,” Enciso said.
Still, even if climate change has usurped market access as the chief concern, coffee farmers continue to seek a more equitable system. There are roughly 125 million coffee farmers worldwide, 80% of whom live in poverty, according to nonprofit organizations Fairtrade and TechnoServe. Heirloom and Bellwether are also taking steps to improve pay and expand the number of buyers for sustainably grown, unroasted coffee beans.
Bellwether’s electric coffee roasters are about the size of a refrigerator and do not require as much infrastructure to operate as a traditional roaster. By making it possible for more cafes to roast their own beans, and creating more buyers for green coffee beans, the hope is that the number of buyers will grow and coffee farmers will see more competition for their product. Higher wages mean more stability, and the means to reinvest in the farm, including more sustainable practices. Bellwether has also launched the Green Coffee Marketplace to support improved terms with farmers, including a living wage.
“There’s a big gap between the consumer and the farmer, especially with coffee,” Bellwether founder Ricardo Lopez said. “When the producer is thousands of miles away from the consumer it’s very difficult to understand, or I should say it’s pretty easy to look the other way and not understand what’s going on at the farm level. I think coffee can be the poster child for sustainability.”
The coffee research lab serves as Heirloom’s main experiment in converting to electric roasting, but it will also be a place where farmers can collaborate with others in the industry and develop roasting recipes.
“I feel like for the first time with the regenerative coffee movement it’s not a marketing scheme, it’s actually a solution to a problem,” Azadkhanian said. “It’s a verifiable, measurable solution to a problem. I love the fact that consumers can hold the producer, distributor, roaster the brokers responsible for what they claim. I think the language will start to change around sustainability and there will be less fluff and more meat. And, I think it will impact everyone in the supply chain all the way down to the farmer.”
Can the changes happen fast enough for coffee farmers like Enciso? Azadkhanian thinks so.
“Changing an industry is not easy,” he said. “… To make the impact, to change an industry and have a real, measurable change, you have to do something different and you have to get your hands dirty. You have to get out of your comfort zone.”
Heirloom is technically only two years old, but Azadkhanian has been in the coffee industry for more than 30 years. His father, Alvin Azadkhanian, who immigrated from Northern Iran to the Bay Area in the 1960s, found his version of the American dream when he dropped out of school to open his own cafe in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. The family got into roasting, and Azadkhanian was hooked on the family business from the first time his father let him operate the roasting machine at age 8. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he ran a fairly traditional coffee roasting business, producing beans for both his own brand and other companies. At the onset of the pandemic, Azadkhanian and his team cooked up a new business plan with a focus on sustainability, specifically sourcing from regenerative farms. It will take more producers, roasters and distributors jumping on the sustainable bandwagon, and he believes conversion to regenerative farming can have a profound impact.
“I’ve seen as little as one year of regenerative farming practices completely change the outlook of a farm,” noting that improved soil health can have myriad impacts including greater water retention and increased fertility.
One of the coffee producers Heirloom works with, Pacayal in Honduras, recently received its regenerative organic agriculture certification.
“A decade ago, that farm was dead in the water. The farm was dried up,” Azadkhanian said. “In a five-year span it’s gone from nothing to producing some of the most awarded coffee in the world.”
He also noted that it is a good sign that large, global companies are getting behind regenerative agriculture, not just smaller operators like Heirloom. Nestle has announced a $1.3 billion investment to support regenerative farming practices among its suppliers.
“If we had jumped on the train a decade ago, I believe the effects would be palpable now,” Azadkhanian said. “The clock is ticking.”
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