Kempner: Can Georgia-grown coffee take root in Helen?

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At first it might not seem as ridiculous as it really is.

Scott Augustine wants to sell you some Georgia-grown coffee. Which, if you pause mid-sip, you’ll realize can’t be. Because coffee grows in places like the tropics. Not Georgia, right?

And, yet, he showed me the coffee plants he acquired. (There were fewer than he initially estimated to me and most were shorter than me, which is short.) In the back room of his new Helen, Ga., coffee shop, a plastic canister of coffee beans included a blend of 90-percent Honduran-grown beans and 10-percent Georgia-grown beans from those plants.

Augustine, 55, gave up his job as a barista for a coffee shop across the street to jump into the business earlier this year with his wife, a kindergarten teacher. They’ve put more than $75,000 of their savings into it, which is hinged to the idea that coffee can be raised in Georgia, not just roasted and guzzled here.

“It’s almost like growing an orchid in the middle of Alaska,” said the former Kodak sales executive, who’s originally from Buffalo. “You just have to be real careful.”

He told me it’s the only commercial coffee-growing operation in the United States outside of Hawaii and an upstart effort in southern California. Though given its tiny scale so far, “commercial” might overstate the endeavor.

Welcome to another wrinkle in the era of food marketed as locally grown, even in the tiniest of quantities.

At one time it seemed ridiculous that Georgians would start wineries and vineyards. Now gobs of them offer agritourism. (Though they often rely at least in part on out-of-state grapes.) There's also the push to market Georgia-produced olive oil, like we're Spain or something.

Coffee is the big Kahuna. More than three-fourths of American adults succumb to it, according to the National Coffee Association.

(Disclosure: I don’t enjoy drinking coffee. Primarily because I was born with a tongue. So I’m not a good judge for the quality of Yonah Coffee. But a couple customers insisted it seemed fresher than other brews.)

Back to my point: It's become a thing that consumers perk up when they hear something was grown down the road or made by hand around the corner. I guess it is pushback against mass production and sameness. Locally-grown has come to sound like a synonym for fresh, authentic and special. It's part of the reason why craft breweries are taking off.

More than three-fourths of Georgia consumers surveyed last year said they were willing to pay more for products with a “Georgia Grown” label. More than a third were willing to pay a premium of at least 5 percent, according to polling by the University of Georgia’s Center for Agribusiness.

Organic production and locally sourced buying is still dwarfed by the rest of agriculture, according to Joshua Berning. He’s an agricultural economics professor at UGA.

“People love the idea,” Berning said, “but most people still buy the cheapest apples, the cheapest fruit that they can.”

Still, Augustine hopes some people will consider coffee beans from Habersham County more exotic than those from Honduras.

“There’s a lot of real coffee geeks out there, people who have to try anything different,” he told me.

Short supply of beans

The problem is, he doesn’t have much in the way of Georgia-grown coffee.

The 50 plants he bought are just a few years old and in the latest harvest produced maybe 20 pounds. While Augustine keeps one plant in his shop, much of what he sells are other drinks and coffees made without the Georgia beans. The shop opened in time for Helen’s beer-and-brats-heavy Oktoberfest.

He bought the name Yonah Coffee and the plants earlier this year, after having served the brand for a few years at the coffee shop where he was a barista. Most of Yonah’s coffee is and was made from beans grown in Honduras.

Augustine said he was drawn more by the story behind the coffee than by the taste of early iterations.

Dick Stafford, who has taught journalism and communications at various universities, started Yonah Coffee with Kevin Candelario Arita. He had taught Arita while picking up extra money giving a theater course at a Gwinnett County public school.

Arita grew up working in Honduran coffee fields but crossed into the United States at the age of nine in search of his mother, Stafford said.

The teacher wanted to help Arita stay in the country and eventually visited Arita’s hometown in Central America to retrieve a birth certificate that might help with the process. Stafford also returned with paper bags filled with Honduran coffee seeds, which he covered with roasted beans.

“I don’t know that I did it illegally; I just did it secretly,” he told me.

Grown in dappled light

The seeds became plants growing in the dappled light of woods behind Stafford’s home in Cornelia, Ga. He and Arita planned to turn it into a business that one day might fund college for Arita. They supplied coffee to small shops, mostly using Honduran-grown beans roasted locally.

As it turns out, Arita got scholarships and other assistance to go to Texas Christian University. Yonah Coffee eventually faded after he left for school, and earlier this year Stafford sold Yonah Coffee to Augustine.

Apparently, the big rub with growing coffee in Georgia is the cold. You need greenhouses with heaters and backup systems to keep temperatures above 34 degrees.

“You can grow it here. It’s just how costly it is,” said Berning, the UGA agricultural economist.

“There are always people looking for niche products in places where they don’t usually grow,” he said. But will customers pay the premium it takes to produce it?

Berning sounded pretty doubtful. Though he said the agritourism potential could be interesting.

That’s the idea that you’re not just buying coffee but a whole experience being around coffee production. Augustine is a long way from that, so far.

But he’s got ideas. Like eventually selling coffee seedlings with gift packs. And, more immediately, opening another shop in north Georgia soon.

“Life,” he told me, “is too short for bad coffee.”

I’ll have to take his word for that.

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