“A Few Questions With…” is a series featuring some of Ally’s partners across the globe. Our goal is to get to know the people who make coffee happen a little better, to talk about their work, and to look forward toward their vision of where coffee is headed. We’re thankful for these relationships that we get to be a part of, and excited to have the opportunity to let these folks tell you about themselves in their own words.
The following responses have been edited for clarity.
Fuadi Pitsuwan is the co-founder of Beanspire Coffee, a Thai coffee exporting company based in Mae Kha Jan, Chiang Rai, Thailand. Coffee farming is a relatively new industry in Thailand, and Fuadi and his business partner Jane Kittiratanapaiboon are part of the young generation moving the Thai coffee industry forward. Our partnership with Beanspire coffee began in 2019, and we’re proud to continue seeing the relationship grow as we work together to connect Thai coffee producers with roasters abroad.
Jane Kittiratanapaiboon and Fuadi Pitsuwan at the Beanspire Mill in Mae Kha Jan, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Ally: Where does your mill/company name come from?
Fuadi: This is actually quite complex and I rarely get to tell anyone about it.
Firstly, we want a name that makes people feel happy when drinking our coffee. So we came up with 'Beanspire' which we hope will remind people of the word “be inspired”.
Secondly, I started the company in 2014 when I just began my PhD program at Oxford in the UK. The city's nickname is “City of Dreaming Spires”, so Beanspire fits with that too. As it turns out, I focus a little too much on coffee, perhaps more than my academic work. It's been 7 years now and I still have not finished the program. I am still a student after all these years with multiple deferrals and suspension as I need to juggle both lives. But of course, there's now Thai coffee served at a local cafe in Oxford! That's my achievement as a student there, not so much on the academic side.
And thirdly, we hoped that the word “spire” would signify the summit of the mountain where we grow Thai coffee. If you notice in our logo, there are three mountain spires in there too. So, it is really an amalgamation of reasons for why “Beanspire” seems fitting.
A: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
F: As I mentioned above, I am still a PhD student in another country. I have been based in Thailand full time for two years now. But before that, I operated remotely in the off-season with the help of my co-founder, Jane Kittiratanapaiboon, who is in Chiang Rai on the ground. During the harvest seasons in the past, I would be back in Thailand. Luckily, the harvest season in Thailand is from December to March, which overlaps with a large chunk of my school's Christmas holiday. So I got to be in Thailand for the majority of the harvest seasons for the past many years to oversee the production and take care of potential buyers. So as you can imagine, I don't feel like I've a lot of spare time. It is mostly balancing between these two hats. I do hope the studies will finish in 2022 so I can focus more on coffee!
Doi Saket, Chiang Mai, Thailand
A: What’s your favorite meal to have with coffee?
F: Coffee, at least in the specialty sense, isn't really part of traditional Thai culture so this question is a tough one. But we consume traditional Thai coffee, which is basically dark roasted defective coffee mixed with condensed milk. I drink this sometimes with Thai meals such as Pad Thai, Fried Rice, and Chicken Basil. They complement each other well!
Now, you might think that this kind of coffee has no role in the specialty industry. In fact, it is crucial to specialty coffee production. Because every coffee needs a home, there is no farmer who would make enough income relying on specialty production alone. These defects are sorted out from the lots that we export, but they found a home in traditional Thai coffee and that means income generation. This symbiotic relationship between specialty and traditional coffees allows farmers to keep doing specialty coffee, because to a lot of farmers producing specialty alone would just be enough to cover the cost. It is the defects that have to be sold in its entirety in order for farmers to realize the profits for that year.
A: What does coffee mean to you?
F: Coffee has taught me so much. It serves as a tool for me to understand my country. My country has been plagued by polarization and political conflicts for many years. There are many cleavages such as the urban-rural divide, income disparity, age gaps, among others. Coffee has taught me to understand and witness all these as it connects with everyone.
I moved to Chiang Mai full time in 2019 and Chiang Mai has a different political leaning than the upper middle class in Bangkok. Working in agriculture has allowed me to understand the problems of the Thai agricultural system and how capitalism for the bottom isn't really working (though coffee farmers are doing relatively better than other crops). Coffee connects young and old and it's been a great tool for me to connect with people with different preferences and understand my country that way.
Milling equipment in Beanspire Coffee's dry mill
A: How has your work changed over time as a result of your relationship with importers and roasters?
F: I realize that Beanspire's role has morphed a lot over time. I started getting serious about coffee in 2012 after having studied in the US and lived through the booming of specialty coffee there. I have this dream of seeing Thai coffee at top roasters around the world. But then I realized that Thai coffee wasn't good enough to get exported. So, it took two seasons to search for the right area and to work on the right coffee that has the potential to fit into the global specialty coffee expectation. Once we successfully exported the first few lots, the Thai coffee quality overall started to improve rapidly thanks to the local demand that has pushed the quality upwards. After that initial quality improvement to get up to world's standards, we became focused on building our dry milling facility. Now, in 2022, it is actually not too difficult to find high-quality coffee that the roasters find palatable. I have said before that we have passed the point of being “good” and “bad” coffee. It's about whether the particular roaster would like it or not, or find our coffee fitting in their offering line-up.
So in 2022, what I have realized is that our role is really about being a financial solution to the farmers, the local roasters, and to some extent the importers abroad. By this I mean, we finance farmers' operations during the harvest season in order to buy coffee cherries to process, and clear their full payment before we finish exporting the coffee or delivering the coffee to local roasters. This may sound like nothing exciting, but it's actually a social and financial innovation. We are financing the supply chain. We pay farmers first so that the roasters don't have to pay a lump sum, upfront. For the Thai roasters, we function very much like how Ally operates in the US. We stock the beans and help the local roasters manage their stock and help financing it so they can manage their cash flow better. This last point is actually an epiphany that I have just come to terms with. It is that Beanspire isn't just doing coffee. Coming to think of it, we're much more like a bank for the coffee supply chain.
A: What has changed in your perspective as a coffee professional over the past five or ten years?
F: It is that I have come to a realization that my love for getting farmers to produce the best quality coffee has a lot more to do with other things than just the knowledge and passion for coffee. There is another half of Beanspire that I should not neglect to mention. Jane Kittirattanapaiboon (and her brother) is handling all the things that I am not good at such as accounting, financing, mill management, among others. I am thankful for their support. And I think the next phase of growth for Beanspire will come not from my knowledge or new techniques on coffee processing, but it's how we manage these other related issues that make the relationships among farmers, processors, Beanspire, importers, roasters, and cafes work in conjunction.
Scenes of coffee processing in Doi Saket, Chiang Mai, Thailand
A: What is one message you’d like to share with the coffee community?
F: I have two things to say.
First, I would like to emphasize our humility in bringing about change through specialty coffee. We do the best we can, but we are profit-driven and farmers too are for-profit driven. It is a much more equal relationship than most of us realize. I have learned so much from the farmers that I work with. They tell me if my processing idea would work or not. They tell me if the prices offered are too low to implement those experiments. If you notice, I have never marketed 'poverty' and I think we need to move away from that and treat their human capacity the way it should be treated.
Second, I feel that many roasters tend to over-market their contribution towards societal change without recognizing the role of other players in the supply chain (like exporters and importers!). When we talk about direct trade, I don't think it really exists in the strict sense and roasters tend to forget that they too are middlemen and middlemen with the large margins as well. They need to realize that even defects have values, which allow them to actually buy the high-quality coffee that they like. Sometimes I do feel that our roles as middlemen have been demonized and looked down upon. But I really do believe we bring values and we make the least margins!
A: What do you hope to see for the future of your mill/company? What do you hope to see for the future of coffee more broadly?
F: For Beanspire, I would want to focus on professionalizing our financial solutions practice. Farmers do not have access to cheap enough loans to carry out their production. If they go to commercial banks, the loan will be exorbitant. If they go to Thai-government owned development banks, the loan size will be too small for most farmers. I think there is a gap to be filled here by providing cheap enough loans to allow them to retain profits and want to keep doing coffee. I hope we can do that not just with coffee, but other agricultural products as well.
For the Thai coffee community, I think the next 5-10 years will be about planting new varietals and improving the quality that way. We have come a long way with processing and I feel that the contribution from processing techniques in improving the cup scores are plateauing. I think the next jump in the quality, and I am talking about Thailand producing 90+ point coffee, will be from our ability to find the new specialty varietals that can thrive in Thai coffee farms. In fact, the Specialty Coffee Association of Thailand is starting a project to identify these locally grown varietals to see if we have any localized heirlooms, like Bourbon, Java, or other Ethiopian landraces, that have the potential to tolerate our climate, while producing extremely high cup scores.