July 26, 2019

Raw Materials: Using Spanish as a Coffee Buyer

By Jamie Isetts
Raw Materials: Using Spanish as a Coffee Buyer

In our Raw Materials series, Merit's Director of Green Coffee Jamie Isetts writes on green coffee, origin, and the finer details that make our coffees and partners so unique. Have a question? Email info@meritcoffee.com.

Spanish proficiency is a major asset for a green coffee buyer. The majority of what we roast at Merit comes from Latin America, and the combination of English and Spanish unlocks almost the entire Western Hemisphere.

For me, speaking another language has always been about going to more remote places. Outdoor gear helps you see new places in nature; language allows you to explore new places in culture. The personal depth of your native tongue will never be matched, but the fun is in the process of learning.  Foreign languages represent a never-ending path toward mastery.

Getting There

Me on the left in 2012, during a short stint harvesting figs in Spain. 

I started learning Spanish on a goat farm in Southern Spain. I was just out of college, doing a farm work exchange with a bunch of other travelers from different parts of Europe. I had never taken a Spanish class. Talk about being thrown into the fire! The locals in that rural area spoke in Andalucía’s notoriously garbled accent, with a slang I would never use again without people scratching their heads. The Italians, Germans, and Poles that lived on the farm had their own quirks that I later discovered were not the way everyone spoke.

Studying Portuguese gave me a head start, but the more I progressed, the more it got in the way. I’ve always been a person who expressed myself through words, and not being able to communicate well made me feel dumb. It was humbling, lonely, and exhausting—and it motivated me to learn fast.

Eventually, with great patience on the part of others and a lot of advanced charades, I could speak well enough to make friends.  I learned to talk less, listen more, and take my time. The entire experience had a huge effect on the way that I travel today, forcing me to accept situations where I did not have control. This ambiguity sharpened my intuition about who I trust based on their demeanor and body language. I drew on the meta-understanding of how I learned a second language to begin learning another.

The Day-to-Day

Getting to know a family of coffee producers we buy from in Southern Huila, Colombia.

People often ask me if I’m “fluent.” Definitely not! I make grammatical mistakes all the time, misspell words, and get tired speaking in Spanish all day. While fluency is something to strive towards, it is absolutely not necessary to make connections. With a good attitude and some humility, you can make friends at a pretty low level of proficiency. Bump that up to an intermediate level and add in some professional vocabulary, and you can work in that language, too.

Getting comfortable talking to other people—and making some mistakes while doing it—is the skill I use the most.  Preoccupation with perfect grammar can sometimes distract you from your role as a listener in a conversation. Not only does this limit your experience with the other person, it can cause you to miss crucial details that are relevant to the business that you need to do. Listening is much more important to my work than talking.

Doing Business

Talking with Maria Eugenia Pérez about the details of the natural process on her farm, Finca La Senda.

Over time, I built up a professional vocabulary specific to coffee production. These words are key--the difference between the volume in pergamino (parchment) and oro (green coffee) is a big one! I’m aware of my handicap in my non-native languages, so I’m careful to clarify important details like price, volume, or farm processes. Sometimes I discuss in person, and then confirm in writing later. I have never had something go wrong in a purchase because of a language barrier.

Understanding even 80% of what's going on is hugely enlightening and saves tons of time. Even the most savvy translator may not realize which details are meaningful to you. Logistically, repeating every phrase cuts the conversation in half—or more, if we’re translating across more than one language. On a recent trip to southern Ethiopia, a farmer described her practices through two other people to translate her words from Oromic to Amharic to English.

With the extra time, I leave space to let the people I’m visiting express themselves. I aim for each visit to be part of a long collaboration, so I relish learning about the producers’ personality. Hearing a farmer’s story in her own words is priceless. Many of the people I visit welcome me into their homes.. Being able to have a conversation is the least I can offer in return. After all, the most important phrase in any language is "thank you."