About a year ago, Behmor creator Joe Behm was on a panel during a coffee industry event with specialty coffee pioneer George Howell, and one snippet of that discussion resonated with Behm more deeply than anything he’s heard in his nearly 20 years in and around coffee.
“George mentioned something that absolutely floored me,” Behm said. “He said all these small farmers, many of them had never tasted their own coffee.”
Despite the fact that Behmor had previously explored some Central American distribution for its signature Behmor 1600 drum roaster — a steady, popular performer in the U.S. home roasting segment — this realization led Behm and the Behmor team to chart a new charitable course designed to honor and benefit the people who grow the roasted coffee that so many people in the industry take for granted, Behm recently told Daily Coffee News.
“I’m certainly not rich. We’re not Bonavita money, we’re not Cuisinart money; but I do see that what I sometimes I call a stupid idea I had back in 1999 has a real ability to change people’s lives,” Behm said of his roasting machine, hundreds of which have already been shipped to coffee growing and milling operations as part of what’s now called the Behmor Inspired program. “It’s an opportunity for me to give back to the men and women who make all of this possible. Without these men and women we don’t have what we do.”
Behm said his hope is that, with some assistance from partner organizations on the ground, the roasting machines can be used to help farmers and others in the production chain begin to better understand their own product in order to work toward quality improvements and more premium market access.
For the program’s first partner, Behm turned to Guatemala’s Anacafé, with whom he had established connections. The group helped distribute roasters and brewers throughout its own producer network, offering for many coffee farmers, a first opportunity to roast and sample the fruits of their own labor. Roasting machines along with Behmor Brazen coffee brewers have since been sent to El Salvador, Costa Rica and Burundi, and may soon be coming to Ecuador. To be clear, this is is a charitable endeavor, with Behmor providing the machines at no cost, and in most cases offering to cover international shipping.
“Too often, people have a hook on this stuff and there is no hook on this,” Behm said. “To be candid, when I first went down to Costa Rica, they said, ‘What do you want out of us?’ But I just said nothing, here you go.”
Behm describes the opportunity to give his products directly to facilities accessible to thousands of coffee farmers as not particularly smart business sense, but rather as a personal obligation to the countless coffee farmers who have allowed him and his partners to succeed in the consumer market.
“I’ve been very blessed with what I have. I’m not shy about this; I’m a recovering alcoholic. I was poor, and I was poor because I was making poor decisions,” said Behm, who despite years of working construction found himself in March of 1988 with $20 to his name and described himself as then destined to die. “These people are out there busting their ass and they can’t feed their family.”
Behm, now 28 years sober, added, “The roasters in the United States and other parts of the world are making a killing and other people are barely able to keep their own families alive. This is personal for me.”
As long as business continues to chug along on the home front, Behm said he plans to indefinitely expand the Behmor Inspired program, to donate more equipment to as many farmers and farmer organizations as possible. He estimates that the 235 roasters donated thus far have benefited more than 30,000 farmers, and the immediate goal is for the program to impact 100,000 farmers.
While Behm had been keeping the program quiet, he was urged by members of Anacafé to brand and promote the program to help it grow. “This has been just part of my own personal life journey,” Behm said, adding that he is continuously inspired by the farmers he meets at origin, who work disproportionately long and hard to bring coffee to market. “Without these men and women, we don’t have a business.”