Sustainability and the Best Cup of Coffee
From farm to table, the trip your morning brew takes may be more complex than you think. This is how Rothrock Coffee serves the best cup of joe in Central Pennsylvania and why the dollar cup of coffee shouldn’t exist.
As I’m on the phone with Ronnie Napolitan, co-owner of Rothrock Coffee in State College, PA, flashbacks of Elf’s infamous New York City coffee shop scene come to mind. Although Ronnie doesn't have the iconic "World's Best Cup of Coffee" neon sign out front, I still feel like Elf, glazed over with excitement. Let me be clear, Ronnie isn’t just trying to produce the best cup of coffee in Central PA, he is actually trying to make the world’s best cup of coffee.
Our phone conversation began with Ronnie telling me about an origin trip he took a few years back to the mountains of Colombia, in search of the very best coffee beans to procure for Rothrock. The attention to detail and pursuit of perfection required here is
something Ronnie learned in his other career, one that allowed him to travel around the world doing what he loves: BMX Biking. It was on these trips to major cities that Ronnie realized, just like extreme sports, coffee is an art form. Coffee shops that have mastered their craft make sure to do everything the right way; they source their beans from the best farms, roast them at the precise temperatures, and craft drinks that enhance the natural flavor profile of each and every bean. Unfortunately for Ronnie, the truth didn’t set him free, but rather sent him into a frenzy to bring his knowledge to the Central Pennsylvania community, thus creating Rothrock Coffee.
“80% of people don’t understand how coffee is grown,” Ronnie told me, and after our conversation, I realized I was definitely part of that 80%. Coffee beans are grown on a tree that produces a fruit identical to a cherry; in fact, that’s what the bean-encasing pods are called.
Believe it or not, each cherry has to be hand-picked, and each cherry only produces two beans. Those two facts alone opened my eyes to the effort required to produce even a single cup of coffee, let alone the 400 million cups cosumed every day in the United States.
With all the human labor required for production, I was curious about what sustainability meant to Ronnie in relation to the coffee industry. “The dollar cup of coffee just shouldn’t exist… sustainability to me is paying well over the fair trade price and keeping the livelihood of the producer at its highest potential”. In other words, large corporations are exploiting foreign labor in order to get their prices so low. Granted, the quality of the drink also suffers, but with that said, it just isn’t realistic for small-scale farmers to pick and ship beans for as cheap as they do. Paying above the fair trade price (which is essentially the bare minimum you can sell for, and fluctuates like the stock market), can be costly, but is something Ronnie sees as essential to his business.
Paying a respectful price for labor can be seen as a bold strategy, but this is business, and connections are everything. When I asked Ronnie to tell me more about his experience in Colombia, he reminisced as if he were talking about the birth of his firstborn child. “The hospitality was amazing. Every day we tasted 50-100 different coffee varieties and were cooked 3 meals per day on an outdoor wood stove.” This treatment showed Ronnie how much he meant to the farmer, a man named Rodrigo who operated 4 farms together with his family. In turn, Ronnie left the trip believing he was going to “continue buying coffee from Rodrigo for as long as he sells it.” That is the definition of building a business connection, and the definition of sustainability. A symbiotic relationship formed and that means Rothrock is always going to have the ability to source the world’s best coffee beans.
Going into my call with Ronnie I was already a huge coffee drinker, but when the call ended and I looked down at a desk without a mug it was like seeing a teenager without a cellphone in their hand—something just didn’t seem right. Before you could blink I got in my car and made the trip down Atherton street to find out what I was missing.
No, that isn’t Will Ferrell, but let me tell you, there should definitely be a neon sign in that window that reads, “World’s Best Cup of Coffee”. From the strip-mall exterior you would never guess what’s inside; a down-to-earth coffee shop that invites you in and says ‘hey I know we’re not in a big city but that doesn’t mean I can’t give you a cup of coffee made with love.’ It’s just as I was imagining while on the phone with Ronnie; there are glass cases of fresh pastries, an assortment of Rothrock merch, wood engraved menu boards, and an array of expensive looking coffee makers.