Jeff Taylor and Fred Polzin co-founded PT’s in 1993 after Taylor couldn’t find the “better-than-average” cup of coffee he craved in Topeka. They opened a coffee shop or two but quickly realized that to get good coffee, they’d have to roast it themselves.
PT’s began roasting coffee in 1997, but even that wasn’t enough. To get the best coffee, Taylor decided, he’d have to go to the origin. So in 2001 he began traveling regularly to meet with coffee growers — in 2012, Taylor spent eight months on the road, visiting farms and family and studying Spanish.
He’s not the only one. Coffee roasters began trekking into the 50 or so coffee-growing countries in the 1990s to cultivate relationships with coffee farmers and cooperatives, find the best beans and support farmers’ efforts to make them even better. What they were doing then is now known as direct trade, but the term remains loosely defined.
Here’s what it means to PT’s : exceptional-quality coffee; a verifiable, premium price paid directly to the farmer or local cooperative; farmers committed to sustainability, environmentally sound practices and responsible community practices; regular farm visits; and financial transparency.
Buying coffee is about more than business, though. When Taylor visits farms, he’s visiting friends, and he’s committed to helping his friends produce the best-quality coffee possible. He helps train workers to pick only the ripest, reddest cherries (what the fruit of the coffee tree is called), crafts processing experiments to see how different methods affect flavor and discusses every other aspect of the operation.
“You’re learning together, and that makes for better coffee,” says Taylor, a former photojournalist who is quick to share pictures of the farms and producers he works with.
PT’s sources about 80 percent of its coffee through direct trade relationships, Taylor says. The company roasts coffee daily for its own cafes and online sales, as well as wholesale clients across the country at its plant in south Topeka. Maritza Suarez-Taylor oversees quality for the company, often cupping 20 or 30 coffees a day to ensure consistency. She certainly knows her stuff — the Colombia native worked for the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation and Germany’s Neumann Kaffee Gruppe before marrying Taylor and joining PT’s.
The company’s still small, with just 25 employees, but it’s earned an outsized reputation. PT’s this year won a Good Food Award for its Ethiopia Nanno Challa Heirloom coffee and helped host the 2013 Big Central Regional Barista Competition in Kansas City. It’s trained scores of visiting baristas, held latte art throw-downs and other events and hosted coffee producers such as Rachel Peterson of Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda, renowned for its Geisha coffee.
It’s all about building relationships that get better coffee into the market, Taylor says.
“I just hope we can inspire the next generation, inspire the next small business to do great thing,” he says.