3. Let's Stay Connected - Nossa Familia Coffee
Let me tell you a story.
A person gets interested in coffee - maybe their curiosity is sparked by a particularly good pour over. “What is that flavor? Blueberries?” Something special about it makes them pause. They start exploring microroasters in their town. The collection of brew devices on their kitchen counter starts to grow.
They start to read about where coffee comes from, learning about far-away climates and economic systems. One day, they bring home a small bag of green coffee beans from Latin America and they start to experiment with roasting. Some batches are terrible and they keep trying.
One day, they roast a batch that’s… tasty. They do it again. Maybe they start giving roasted coffee to their friends. Their friends are excited and give them encouragement. So our roaster grabs a few people and they set up a booth at a local farmer’s market. Maybe they start selling cold brew and filter coffee. Maybe they buy an espresso cart. Maybe they move into a warehouse space and start expanding, buying a big roaster and bringing some more folks on board. Maybe they open up a cafe and start selling their coffee to wholesale accounts and grocery stores.
Maybe this is a story you’ve heard before. There’s absolutely zero “correct” ways to build a coffee business, but this story is a pretty common one.
Luckily, it’s not the only one.
When I walked down NW 13th Ave and stepped out of the hot day, I was greeted by friendly baristas and a life-saving coldbrew coffee from Nossa Familia.
Their little espresso bar is refreshingly utilitarian - nothing flashy or intimidating. The doors open up to a loading dock space, a perfect vantage point from which to watch the changing city. (Construction workers were in the middle of tearing down the old PNCA building across the street). Next to bagged coffee on the shelves sit family portraits and a photo album proudly presenting all the folks in Brazil for whom Nossa Familia’s coffee blends are named. Windows in the shop open onto Nossa’s roasting and production space, colorfully printed burlap bags of green coffee stacked in view.
I sat down with Nossa founder Augusto Carneiro to hear about how it all came about. Remember our stereotype of the kitchen counter-top roaster-turned-barista? Toss it out and start directly in the sun-warmed soil of a Brazilian coffee farm.
Augusto grew up in Rio and all of his summer holidays were spent on his family’s coffee farm. He moved to Portland to study at PSU and began work in his chosen field as an engineer.
He hated it.
Taking a break, he spent six weeks visiting family in Brazil and it was his cousin who encouraged him to get a coffee import project started. “We already had a connection to a farm,” he says, so the very beginning of the project seemed simple. For many North American cafe or roasting businesses, farm relationships or visits to origin come very late in the chain. Augusto and a colleague invested $400 USD each for the first shipment of roasted coffee from the family farm in 2004. He told his grandpa that he’d pay him back for the full shipment in twelve months: “I paid him in 11.5 months so I can still visit home!”
But he didn’t know anything about being a barista or how to brew a perfect cup of coffee.
“We started by FedExing the first shipment of roasted coffee. I didn’t know anything about coffee going stale - I was so naive!” he laughs and goes on to explain all the challenges of their earliest years.
They brought a pallet of coffee by boat and it arrived eight weeks old. Air freight wasn’t viable, as coffee is too heavy. He knew that this wouldn’t work when other people were roasting locally and delivering fresh coffee the very next day here in town. So they brought in green beans and the idea was to sell green coffee beans to local roasters.
“But what happens if I sell to another roaster? Their name’s gonna go on [the packaging] and the story’s gonna get lost! ... I really want to tell the story of what my family is doing.” The link to the farm remained an essential focus for them - the coffee had so far to go from crop to cup and too much could get easily lost along the way.
For a time, they collaborated with Kobos Coffee: a roaster on the Kobos staff did the roasting and they released a private label coffee. But the Nossa crew didn’t feel comfortable saying that “we” were the roaster in that process: “we didn’t want to be disingenuous about that.”
The kept building their coffee business with wholesale accounts around Portland and decided to set up a roasting facility in 2012, opening the adjacent espresso bar the following year. The loop was now closed and connected: the Nossa Familia crew was roasting the family’s coffee in-house. Their roasting program is built upon their farm relationships: “Let’s make all the relationships a family relationship! … We set a rule for ourselves that we have to visit [the farms] and have an authentic relationship.”
They continue to build their operation with the vibrant, entrepreneurial spirit that got them started. We stopped by the roastery for a First Thursday event and everything was opened up and welcoming for the party. A few of their collaboration beers with Lompoc (and cold brew coffee!) were on tap, craft food and drink booths were nestled among the burlap coffee bags, and a folk band was playing in the corner. It felt much more like a house party than a business event.
One of the first things Augusto mentioned was that “Portlanders like to know the history or the story behind the product.” Coffee bags on a fluorescent-lit supermarket shelf seem so disconnected from the soil of the farm! When you interact with the Nossa Familia crew in their cafe and production facility, you get an immediate sense of their story and begin to understand how everything has been sewn together. Here, maybe Brazil can be a little bit closer to Portland.