In conversation with Cat Gutiérrez
On International Women’s Day 2021, we had the opportunity to go live with Cat Gutiérrez; founder and one half of Cata Export, who specialise in selling Colombian coffee. To celebrate the launch of our first coffee buy from Cata Export, WatchHouse Community Manager Faye caught up with Cat to chat about her story, and hopes for the future of her work.
Above: Cat, co-founder of Cata Export
Anyone who has had the chance to sit down with Cat will get the same sense of excitement. Her passion for the industry is abundant; Cata Export’s ethos is rooted in the belief that however hard it gets, it is work that needs to be done for the good of Colombia, coffee and the people at every step of the supply chain.
Cat started in coffee as a barista, when she came to London to study design at University of the Arts. “I did many jobs in small cafes, the usual coffee shop where you can get a sandwich and it’s not well known at all or they don’t even have speciality coffee. I used to work these jobs and think ‘I really want a job in specialty coffee’. I remember one shop using Union coffee, so I would go to Union’s roastery in East London. The guys were doing certain courses, in things like how to texture milk. And for me it was like ‘Oh my god this is amazing!’”
Like that Cat was hooked, and continued working in barista roles immersing herself in the UK’s coffee culture. She struggled however, to find a place that would offer her the opportunity to extend herself into a roastery setting, learning beyond her barista skills. So she took a giant leap of faith, and moved back to her home country of Colombia in order to establish Cata Export.
“I decided to be full time in Colombia. Sometimes I wish I could be doing sales and competitions and part of all the fun, because its really fun to be in the UK, to be part of the group of these baristas. I used to work for Rosslyn and all of it, the coffee preparation, everything to me is so interesting. Coming back to my home country and working from the fields is another industry, it’s another story. I feel that I’m learning so much and if you buy coffee from me, or you are part of one of my projects, I think that conversation starts being very productive for all of us at the same time.”
Cata Export’s work covers not only importing and exporting but creative projects and in depth work with farmers across Colombia, some of whom are producing speciality quality for the first time on their farms. Cat’s approach focuses on how buying green beans can facilitate the empowerment of Colombian farmers rather than restricting them with specific ordering remits. Offering the opportunity for roasters and consumers at the other end of the supply chain, to participate in programmes that could develop parity within the industry. The future of this kind of work it extremely important to Cat in her conversations with the wider industry;
“I think I would like to speak more about the future. I’m really worried that I might disappear because I’m in Colombia and I’m too small. If had a lot of money I would employ people, I would invest in marketing, I would do so much. But I’m trying to work so small in order to control quality, so that the quality speaks for itself and the work I do. I think I can hold tight with people in the UK to do a lot for the producers, and to get to know my brand.
Above: Cat visiting one of her coffee farmer partner's
Recently I was talking to Emma Haines - she’s a coffee trainer in the UK, involved with many social projects. She works towards empowering women, and producers. I was explaining to her all of the projects we have in Colombia, that I don’t talk about much or I don’t have the platform to talk about.
Emma bought three sacks of coffee from me from an Afro Colombian group of 200 women. She said; ‘You know what? I’ll buy three sacks. I’m not a coffee buyer but I’ll get three sacks and I’ll try to see what we can do with it.’ So the Kore Directive girls advertised a lot about it and many roasters united together to support me with it. I had a female roaster for Assembly Coffee, Girls Who Grind Coffee, Gentleman Baristas - these roasters roasted the coffee to support me. All the money that we raised out of these three sacks, with this community of people in the UK supporting us, we sent back to the producers and could tell them; ‘This is what’s going on! Specialty coffee is not only good quality but people supporting each other.' And so these producers told me - ‘what’s specialty coffee now, we want to pay attention to you. Thank you for the money - what’s going on?!’
I said to the producers - ‘I cannot believe you produce great coffee, almost 100% organic, you love growing coffee. But you sell the coffee to the CCF and you don’t know anything about what’s going on afterwards!’ And they got really excited. Now they’re asking the Colombian government for support. They need money to buy basic equipment to continue working on raising the quality.
By doing this, and this is why I talk a lot about people like Emma, we're able to break the wall into these parts of Colombia that have great people. That produce huge amounts of coffee, but it is really badly paid or the producer is disconnected. These women, imagine! 200 women united because of the war. All of them have been raped, many really sad stories, and they united to protect themselves. But what they have in common is that they produce the same crops. Sugar cane, plantain and most of them produce coffee. But they do it because that’s the only thing they know how to do. So I tell them - coffee is not like avocados, or like other crops. Coffee has something else. Coffee is like wine. And coffee has an amazing community backing up this product.
Having all of these roasters do so much with three sacks of coffee brings new projects, new ideas and we are growing long term. My idea is to grow long term. Three sacks was last year’s project and now we need to jump onto more education for these producers and form better partnerships.”
Above: Cat going through a fresh batch of harvested green bean coffee
Cat’s process in developing relationships, working with producers and developing her business has an organic approach. Like so many people in the speciality industry from creative backgrounds, her education and career as a designer continues to inform her work with coffee.
“For me it’s really interesting. My business partner Pierre is a musician, he’s a composer and we love to be surrounded by people like that because when we talk about exporting, we are always talking about numbers and talking to logistic companies. But when we touch the other end of the coffee industry, roasters and coffee shops, there you get the artists, people involved with music and design. That supports me, and helps me a lot to talk about ideas. Let’s talk about projects and topics that touch us in the heart and then its easier. That design process; that research that then translates into an object, I think we use it quite a lot in coffee.
Talking about logistics - I told Pierre we have to master that. To get that out of the way, because it’s the pragmatic things that are the easiest I think. You need to have a lot of attention to detail because if you make a mistake, that represents a lot of money. It’s stressful! But I said to Pierre let's focus on understanding transport in Colombia. A lot of my producers say ‘you want my coffee? I don’t know how to get it out of my farm’. So it doesn’t matter where they are, we need to solve those problems for them. Another issue is, we need to be able to reassure that the quality is there, so we can’t just leave it to the producer to haul the coffee for us. We have our own hauling centre that is specialised in preparing that coffee spot on. Another aspect where we take full control, is security and transport, from hauling centre to port, and all the things that are happening at port. When you’re getting to port, you have a lot of logistics and documentation. When the coffee is in the UK, we need to make sure we can import ok, and ensure the coffee can be delivered to every single roastery.”
Above: Cat visiting one of the farmers who use a natural drying process for their coffee production.
So what’s next? Capitalising on the momentum of the industry committing to Cat’s creative approach means we can expect more projects fostering working relationships that will have a hugely positive affect on both producers and consumers.
“What we want is to gather different roasters in the UK to launch a project that will be called something like ‘we sell cherry and you choose the process’. The roasters are not going to buy green coffee, they’re going to buy the cherry, and we are going to follow the whole process. We are going to start following each process at the farm and try to be more visual, and improve how we visualise this process so that the roaster can actually buy cherry and follow up. The roaster will have the opportunity to buy different profiles; so they want to buy this for house blend and it’s going to be a commercial coffee, or the roaster wants to buy something more funky with more developed fermentation. We’ll give some profile options, work from the farms. I think it’s fun, productive and really empowering for everyone.”
WatchHouse couldn’t be more excited to present the first coffee we’ve bought from Cat, going live today in stores and online for you to try. It’s the first speciality export outside the FCN by producer Alirio Galindez, from his farm in the Huila region of Colombia where Don Alirio has implemented agroecological practices, contributing to the conservation of the surrounding environment. Buying from Cata Exports has been a fantastic process, and we can’t wait to have the opportunity to continue showcasing her work, and the work of Colombian producers.