The Explorer Embodied: Noushin Ketabi of Vega Coffee
Lawyer. Scholar. Co-Founder. And licensed Q Grader. Noushin Ketabi could embody any number of our personas, but it’s because she’s harnessed all of her talents to better the lives of coffee farmers in Nicaragua that we’re highlighting her work as a true Explorer today.
As founder of Vega Coffee™ Noushin works with local Nicaraguan communities to help them become entrepreneurs themselves and learn the business model behind coffee production. In the process, she’s also bridging the gap between farmer and coffee connaisseur through Vega’s coffee subscription service. If you fancy a cup, or a healthy serving of inspiration, continue reading for more of Noushin’s story and to learn how you can play a role in it.
Darling Magazine: Your academic background is extensive: a B.A from Berkeley with honors, a joint J.D./M.A. in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University, Fulbright in 2011 in Nicaragua on its renewable energy policy framework, and finally, past work with the Natural Resources Defense Council. How on earth did all of this lead to coffee?
Noushin: It all goes back to childhood. My dad was a big coffee fanatic and one of my favorite routines as a kid was going to our local roaster on the weekends — my dad would get his favorite extra dark roast, and I’d get my signature hot chocolate, until one fateful day, I finally graduated to coffee. Life hasn’t been the same since.
While in law school I met Rob Terenzi (my now-husband and co-founder), and we connected over our love for Central America — I had lived in Costa Rica, while Rob had just come back from two years in Nicaragua working with coffee farmers. Upon graduation, I left to complete a Fulbright fellowship in Nicaragua, while Rob started as a Silicon Valley start-up attorney. I returned and began working in energy policy and planning, but something was calling us both back to Nicaragua.
Finally in 2014, we started Vega Coffee with our longtime friend, Will DeLuca. When Rob lived in Nicaragua, he worked with coffee growers to build a local coffee company where they could roast and sell coffee in order to earn more income. After visiting Nicaragua in 2013 and seeing first-hand the devastation that the same farmers were experiencing due to the La Roya plague, we knew it was time to take that model to the next level.
DM: You are a certified coffee roaster and licensed Q Grader. What exactly does that mean and what did it entail to get to those credentials?
Noushin: As a certified coffee roaster, I learned the importance of quality roasting in unlocking coffee’s flavor potential. Once I had a couple of years of roasting experience under my belt, I set out to get my Q (or ‘Quality’) Grader license, which is a certification to grade coffee. Think of it as similar to a wine sommelier. I taste coffees according to a special protocol (developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America) — called ‘cupping’ — and judge their unique attributes, like fragrance, aroma, taste, sweetness, body, and acidity.
The training is fun, but also critical to Vega — as it enables us to deliver to our customers a consistently delicious, high quality cup of coffee, and it gives us an objective, industry-standard metric to pay our producers a fair price for their high quality beans.
DM: Why is it important that farmers also do the roasting and packaging? How is it different from those companies who do not have farmer-roasted coffee?
Noushin: Historically, small-scale coffee farmers who spend years cultivating their crops make barely enough to get by. Meanwhile, coffee lovers tend to pay high premiums on their coffee – mostly due to an inefficient supply chain with several layers of intermediaries that left farmers totally disconnected from the market and excluded from the profitable parts of the chain.
Vega Coffee represents a totally new way to experience coffee by connecting the world’s coffee lovers more directly with the world’s coffee growers. We train coffee farmers to expertly roast their coffee, and create a high-end artisanal product. By taking on more of the supply chain, our farmers earn four times more income per pound and become seed-to-cup coffee professionals. And because of our streamlined supply chain, we’re able to pass along savings to our customers, as well.
Vega Coffee represents a totally new way to experience coffee by connecting the world’s coffee lovers more directly with the world’s coffee growers.
DM: How has Vega coffee impacted the community in Esteli, where your roasting and processing center is located? Why do these subscriptions matter?
Noushin: Instead of exporting an unroasted crop, coffee farmers in Esteli now create quality, handcrafted roasted coffee that rivals the premium brands in the U.S. Not only does that mean that Vega farmer-roasters earn four times more income per pound of coffee, but in our roastery and training center, farmers are trained in all aspects of coffee production, including quality control and bean selection, cupping, roasting, grinding, packaging, and order fulfillment — skills that can pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
All of our training culminates in our ‘Farmer-Roasted’ coffee subscriptions that we sell at vegacoffee.com. We ship every two weeks, and it’s amazing — you can feel the pride and excitement radiating through our center when we pack up our shipping boxes full of freshly roasted coffee headed directly to our customers in the U.S, ready to open, brew, and enjoy.
DM: Why sell your coffee via subscriptions rather than in stores?
Noushin: We want to take care of our customers, and make coffee as satisfying and convenient as possible. Our subscription service enables us to deliver quality, delicious coffee as quickly and directly as possible, so that customers can enjoy it from the comfort of their home or office. Our simple farmer-to-cup supply chain sets up our coffee farmers to earn four times more income, while our customers enjoy top-quality specialty coffee at a value. It’s a win-win!
DM: A “Farmed & Roasted by Women” image makes an appearance on your site. Why is this significant to you and the company?
Noushin: At Vega, we know that women around the world are critical to building a prosperous future. Women tend to invest their income in their children and communities, multiplying wealth and well-being beyond themselves. Given that nearly half of smallholder coffee farmers around the world live in poverty, we face a call-to-action to forge a new, more sustainable coffee industry that actively includes women. Not to mention the fact that when women growers have equal access to resources, crop yields increase, as does productivity generally.
Vega invests in promoting gender equity and women’s empowerment at every step of our supply chain, from sourcing to training and processing. Over 90% of our farmer-roasters are women — we’re proud of that.
Over 90% of our farmer-roasters are women — we’re proud of that.
DM: Vega claims to be a mission-oriented company. What is the mission that Vega is founded on and how does it affect you personally?
Noushin: We’re on a mission to change coffee by connecting the world’s coffee farmers with the world’s coffee lovers. We truly believe that the closer you are to the makers of your products, the more fulfilling the collective experience.
On a day-to-day level, it takes a lot of juggling for us to pursue this mission. Between farmer training, product development, export and shipping logistics, and marketing and outreach, there’s never a dull moment. And that’s some of what I love the most about this work — the challenges and the triumphs. I feel as though I’m exactly where I should be, making our dream into a reality and creating a new future for coffee, and the people who grow and love it.
DM: Of course I’m curious, what is your favorite roast to drink that Vega produces?
Noushin: I love them all, and I promise that I’m not just saying that! At this moment, I’m enjoying some light roast, which is beautifully bright and refreshing. Every sip is a delight. On the other hand, our dark roast delivers on boldness, while complementing the inherent flavors of the bean. Medium hits the spot when you want a little of everything — a touch of tartness balanced with sweet caramelization.
A huge reason why each roast is so uniquely enjoyable is because of the quality of our beans. Our coffee passes through a rigorous selection process, sorted pre- and post-roast, so that only the very best beans make it to our customers. It’s a labor of love, which I truly believe comes through in the taste.
**Interested in trying and supporting Vega? Visit their website and use the code DARLING at checkout to receive 50% off your first shipment!**