At the 2015 SCAA Event, we tasked Sprudge contributor Emily MacIntyre with a series of interviews, highlighting coffee professionals from across the United States making their own subtle marks on the nation’s coffee culture. This week, we’ll be bringing you a new interview every day, each one a snapshot of the men and women behind American specialty coffee.
C.J. Speelman, Tanager Coffee, Portland, Oregon
C.J. Speelman doesn’t look like an LA boy. I’ve described him before as a “graceful bear of a man”—toffee-colored curls tumbling from the ubiquitous beanie, plaid flannel shirt stretched across his shoulders, a self-effacing grin. Still, the Tanager Coffee journey began in the desert of Victorville, California, when Speelman helped found the nonprofit Wrench Raiders, dedicated to fixing bikes for people who live outside. “We would sit around talking and sharing stories, and drinking coffee together. One day, I realized that by buying Folgers coffee, we were just adding to the cycle of poverty in growing regions while we worked for justice for our friends here in Victorville. So we started buying Fair Trade coffees, and then we all started paying more attention to the coffee. That piqued my interest and I began to dream about owning my own coffee business that was really dedicated to telling people’s stories…and so Tanager was born.” Six years ago, the Speelman family (wife Tisha plus two bairnies) moved Wrench Raiders to Portland, where Speelman got his first barista job and started the process of conceptualizing his business and learning about roasting, sourcing, and forecasting.
The tanager is a family of birds found in North America, with annual migrational habits to Central and South America. Speelman says, “For us in Portland, it’s really an intimate metaphor, because the western tanager lives in this area and migrates down to Central America where it lives on coffee farms, eats the bugs, and helps with fertilization. Just like the tanager bird, we want to be intimately connected with the Pacific Northwest and also rooted and invested with coffee farms and producers and their communities. That’s what pushed me to go to origin and begin building direct relationships long before it made sense financially for me. My main goal with Tanager is to never stop learning and always honor the farmers. Like with the Las Cruces Project.”
There’s a run-down soccer field at the Las Cruces school outside Santa Ana, El Salvador. With the importance of soccer in the area, it’s a central gathering place for thousands of local people, including workers from nearby coffee farms. As the saying goes, “In El Salvador, it’s never too early for soccer or too late for coffee.” In collaboration with Cuatro M cafes in El Salvador and the Timbers Army (the local supporters group for the Portland Timbers, a Major League Soccer team), Tanager is rebuilding the field and facilities, one retail bag of coffee at a time. Speelman says, “On this end, we don’t really think of how much work goes into the cup of coffee we enjoy in the morning, and 90% of that is done at origin. This is a way for all of us to show our appreciation at a deep level.” 100% of the profits on Las Cruces coffee sales go to the project.
When asked whether he has a personal coffee ritual to sustain it all, Speelman at first says no, then he laughs. “Well, on my days off—I still work as a barista—I will enjoy a cup of coffee on my front porch when no one can order from me and my kids can’t get to me. It’s important to separate drinking coffee from professional evaluation and just take it for what it is…and be satisfied with it.”