Buena Vida Organic Coffee: The Bean-to-Brew Movement Is Here

First, there was farm to table, then there was dock to dish, both known for supporting the small producers who grow and farm and fish sustainably.

Now, there’s bean to brew.

Globally, about 1.4 billion cups of coffee are being consumed daily. Because of the high demand, coffee is one of the most pesticide-sprayed crops in the world. And coffee is big business, baby.

If you’re a coffee snob, you probably already knew that. So, you buy organic coffee, right? As of now, that’s only about seven percent of all the coffee beans harvested in the world. (Organic coffee can be found at many of the carefully curated cafes on the East End, but we are in the lucky minority.)

Then there’s also fair trade — making sure those who work the coffee farms are paid a living wage. Maybe you’re good there too, but the choices are getting narrower.

Compostable packaging? Narrower still.

How about a company encouraging small coffee farms — most in Central and South America — to switch to farming organically by promising to buy their entire crop?

That’s a new movement brewing, and Gally Mayer is leading the charge.

Mayer — a co-owner of Sag Harbor and Southampton’s Tutto Il Giorno, with her husband, David, and Gian Paolo and Gabby Karan de Felice — is on the frontlines of buying entire crops from small organic coffee farms in Costa Rica, while incentivizing others to put down the pesticides and join the cause.

Her company, Buena Vida Café Organico, is as much about education as it is about business. “My big picture is to educate the consumer about coffee, period,” said Mayer, as we sat on the grounds of a beautiful coffee farm in the hills above San Jose. “Because the world has been taken over by companies that can buy very cheap beans and highly roast them and take all the flavor, take all the soul out of them.”

That’s right, folks. That corporate dark roast you think is so strong and flavorful? You’ve been burned. It’s actually the weakest, caffeine-wise, since the coffee can be massively over-roasted to hide lower-quality beans.

Buena Vida, on the cutting edge of the bean-to-brew movement.

You are not alone. Until I got schooled by Gally, I loved my dark roast. The darker the better. But now that I have gotten used to a lighter roast (which at the beginning tasted, well, weird), a corporate dark roast just tastes WRONG. Like seriously burnt bacon. And chemicals.

America, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Re-educating the consumer is an uphill climb for Mayer and her team. Consumers are loyal to their coffee brand, either because it’s easy to make or because it’s always consistent, she said.

There are as many flavors in a natural coffee bean — depending on where it’s grown, when it’s picked, how it’s fermented and roasted, among other reasons — as there are colors in the rainbow. Or rather, colors on the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, the multi-chromatic touchstone for professional coffee tasters . . . clearly the greatest job ever.

The tasters, who sip the coffee quickly and loudly, sort of like a reverse whistle, look for notes like fruity, floral, berry, pepper, with smaller sectors — what kind of berry or floral notes? Blackberry or strawberry? Is there a flavor of jasmine or rose? How about earthy, herbal, chocolate, nutty, or spicy? That’s only a few of the flavors that those lucky pro coffee sippers seek.

Buena Vida’s beans for its specialty single origin coffee are harvested in Tarrazú, a region where 70 percent of its farms are located. The area is known for its abundant fertile soil, and a terroir that provides unique flavors and great complexity on the palate. Flavor notes include cacao, blackberry, brown sugar, and citrus. Buena Vida’s special blend uses beans harvested from more than five regions in Costa Rica, and flavor notes include caramel, plum, dried fruit, and tangerine.

Gally Mayer and Manuel Valverde. Photo by Romina Kullock

In addition to the coffee being tasty, it can also improve your health. Mayer sees coffee as a plant medicine. “New benefits are being discovered all the time. For example, it combats Alzheimer’s disease, it’s an antioxidant, it lowers blood pressure.”

Was coffee always a passion for her? Not at all. Her “a-ha” moment came when Gian Paolo de Felice, already partners with Mayer at Tutto for more than 15 years, suggested that she find some good coffee for the business. “You live in Costa Rica, he said, go find me good coffee,” she said with a laugh.

That’s when Mayer — mother of five, a former investment banker and philanthropist with a long trajectory in the not-for-profit sector — started hunting for the best beans and the best farms from which to purchase.

“I thought, well, if I’m going to find him good coffee, I want to find organic coffee. I only serve my kids organic in the home. And I care about the planet, but I never really understood what it takes to make an impact. I always thought, leave that to the people who can do solar panels and alternative energies and deal with eliminating fossil fuels. I never thought I could make a difference until I saw the film ‘Kiss The Ground,’ which was life-changing for me.”

The movie, about regenerative farming, has become a beacon for those seeking to avoid depleting the soil of all of its nutrients while supplying a high-quality, organic product and also mitigating climate change.

And Mayer realized, as she met and talked to coffee farmers, that maybe, just maybe, she could effect a global change, one coffee cup at a time.

She saw, firsthand, coffee companies might turn a profit for the higher-ups, “but the farmers are definitely not improving their lives. They have all of the risks and make very little. For everyone to benefit, the whole value chain has to change. So many people talk fair trade, sustainable, recyclable, but they don’t know what it really means,” she said. “But that’s what sells. It’s greenwashing. And the big coffee companies, almost none of them cares about the small farmers. They’re making a killing on coffee. Why would they care?”

And that is when Buena Vida Café Organico was born. “So I thought, ‘Okay,’” said Mayer. “‘Let’s just make this a solid company that helps the farmers.’ And then we discovered that less than one percent of coffee is organic in this country. I was in shock.”

Buena Vida is not just organic; it’s part of the Kiss The Ground and Regeneration.org movements, producing coffee in a healthier and responsible way for the planet, without carbon-producing and soil-destroying monocultivation. Economically, the company helps provide farmers with proper financing and assists them in ensuring their concerns are represented with local government. In it for the long term, Buena Vida helps create systems for the farmers to maintain their growing organic production for a lifetime.

“I look at today’s society, at humanity as a whole,” said Mayer. “There’re a lot of companies very worried about their bottom line, but not worried enough about their environment. And I don’t just mean climate change. I mean everyone around them, and other companies that are trying to make a living in that space.”

Mayer, a self-proclaimed cappuccino lover, teamed up with Manuel Oviedo Valverde, “who founded the company,” said Mayer. “David and I, and Gian Paolo bought into it as partners.” Valverde — who also joined us at Finca Rosa Blanca that day — is a chemical engineer, an advocate of organic farming, and a surfer. He loves his morning routines, experimenting with different coffee methods, and organic specialty bean varieties.

“We’re aiming to change the normal use of coffee as just a commodity,” Valverde said. (You know, like when you wake up in the morning and mumble, “Need coffee.”) “We want to change that and see organic coffee as a promoter of good taste, environmental traceability, and social impact. We work really hard on the science in the roast to not over-roast it, because we don’t want to hide the quality of the beans. People need to understand coffee better to appreciate a really good quality coffee,” he continued.

“So, we ask them to taste it and then ask them what they think, and then we tell them all the work that we do,” he said. “We think that the customer needs to understand where their coffee comes from and what they’re paying for.”

Right now, Buena Vida is buying up, and selling, about 14 tons of organically grown, sustainably harvested, farmer-friendly coffee in compostable packaging annually, but they want to get to 50 tons in the next few years. Working with over 30 small farms (and growing), Buena Vida is forming a sort of coffee collective, where the farmers can share costs like organic certification. And they’re hoping to expand and convince other farmers to join.

The company is small right now. Mayer, Valverde, and a couple of other people are doing all of the daily grind, from meeting with the farmers, packaging the coffee, and boots-on-the-ground — going from restaurant to café to store educating businesses about their brand and sales opportunities.

In addition to supporting and empowering organic farmers in Costa Rica, Buena Vida also donates a portion of all proceeds to Futbol Por Mi País, a non-profit focused on using soccer to engage, inspire, and empower Costa Rican youth, by providing tools and connections that drive change.

As of now, the new Tutto Il Giorno Café in East Hampton, and the two Tutto restaurants, carry and serve Buena Vida coffee, along with Harbor Market in Sag Harbor, but Mayer is convinced that more stateside places will follow, as the story of Big Coffee rises to the surface.

“The farmers are not just our suppliers,” said Mayer. “They are part of the Buena Vida family.”

There’s more to learn. If you want something to pour over — I mean, pore over — visit linktr.ee/BuenaVidaCafe, follow @buenavidacafeorganico on IG, or Buena Vida Café Organico on FB to educate yourself about coffee. For more information about Futbol Por Mi País, visit futbolxmipais.org or IG @futbolxmipais.

Bridget LeRoy

Bridget LeRoy co-founded The East Hampton Independent and the Children’s Museum of the East End, and has been honored with over fifty awards for editing and journalism from various press associations. Follow LeRoy on instagram @bridget_leroy.

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