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Coffee and a Chat with Hanna Neuschwander, World Coffee Research

This month, we catch up with Hanna Neuschwander, Director of Strategy and Communications at World Coffee Research. WCR works to create a toolbox of coffee varieties, genetic resources and accompanying technologies and to disseminate them strategically and collaboratively in producing countries to alleviate constraints to the supply chain of high-quality coffee.

Hanna is the author of over 50 magazine articles on coffee and of the book Left Coast Roast. She works closely with organizations across the coffee value stream to think about how to strategically align and communicate long-term sustainability investments. We’ve been WCR members for over five years, so it was great to sit down and chat about their work over a brew.

Hey Hanna!

Tell us a little about you.

I’m an extroverted optimist with insatiable curiosity. I love literature, science, and all the other ways we humans have developed for trying to understand and explain the world around us. I have, objectively, the best job in the world at World Coffee Research, where I get to interact with scientists and think about how to explain their work and its urgency to audiences ranging from coffee roasters and buyers and CEOs to governments.

Tell us about your journey in coffee.

Like many people who have ended up with lifelong careers in coffee, I started as a barista. I worked for a small family-run business, called Extracto Coffeehouse, in Portland and I started there right when micro roasting and “third wave” coffee was really taking off the west coast in 2006. I also worked at the local alt-weekly newspaper. I naturally started writing about Portland’s coffee scene for the paper, which led to writing a guidebook on coffee roasters on the west coast, which led to writing for other magazines and newspapers. Through those experiences, I built some wonderful relationships in coffee and an okay reputation for myself, which ultimately landed me at WCR, where I have been since 2015.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? If you had one day to spend in the city you live in, what would you do?

I moved a lot as a kid. I was born in New Mexico, spend my early childhood in numerous small towns in Eastern Washington, and then moved to the Washington, D.C., suburbs for middle and high school. Despite all the moving, my extended family is based in the Northwest (I am almost an 8th-generation Oregonian), and in 2006, my husband and I settled in Portland. Now we have two kids, a dog, and a lot of tomato plants. I love Portland, warts and all, and my perfect day here would probably just revolve around eating at as many of our incredible restaurants as I can stomach (my record for a single day so far is 8).

What were you doing before you joined WCR?

I worked as the Communications Director for teaching and counselling graduate programs at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, while also keeping a side hustle writing about coffee. Most folks in coffee only knew me as a “coffee writer,” but my professional background is strategic communications. I loved being able to bring that skillset into my role at WCR.

What is WCR’s main focus for the year?

We work across four program areas—Breeding, Trials, Nurseries/Seed Sector, and Global Leadership and have active projects in all four areas. Because tree crop research takes a long time, most of our projects run for many years (sometimes even decades). For example, the first trials sites for our International Multilocation Variety Trial were installed in 2015 and that program will run until at least 2030. Our biggest and most exciting new program is the launch of Innovea, a global arabica coffee breeding network that includes nine countries. Seeds of new crosses are being shipped right now and the field trials will be installed in 2023-2024. We will make and distribute the next round of crosses in 6 years, and then every 3 years after that –the network could run for up to 30 years or even longer. This year, we are beginning to scope out the development of a similar network for Robusta breeding, which would likely launch in 2025.
Another huge focus this year is driving attention and awareness to the huge gap in investment facing coffee agricultural R&D and working to increase it. We just published a white paper that calculates the gap at $452 million/year for the next 10 years if we want to have a steady supply of coffee from diverse origins and meet our climate and sustainability goals as an industry. To state the obvious: That’s a big gap.

What project do you find most exciting personally?

That’s like asking which is my favourite child  But I’ll bite. Innovea is such an important program for the future of coffee and its development took years, building on our entire first decade of work. I can’t wait to see what comes of it.

How have you seen the engagement with science change over your time in coffee?

One thing that’s been consistent in my experience is people’s enthusiasm for and acceptance of science. I think the biggest change I’ve seen is just in the understanding of the climate crisis. When I started at WCR in 2015, we still spent a lot of time explaining why global warming was going to be a massive problem for coffee farmers and for origin diversity; I don’t have to do that anymore – people understand that climate change is here and already causing huge impacts on farmers and the supply chain.

Has working with WCR evolved your views on what you think is important in coffee? If so, then how?

Over the last decade, I’ve learned so much about the origins of coffee – its biological and genetic origins, its agronomic origins (how it grows on farms, and the impact that different environments have on the plant), its sociological origins (how our relationship to it has evolved over time), and about the institutions and systems necessary to support the global coffee trade. When I first started out in coffee I had no awareness of or appreciation for the role of institutions in this sector – the role of national coffee research institutions, coffee export and trade boards, the ICO, and even business associations like the Specialty Coffee Association. These institutions play massive roles in determining our experience of coffee – what types of trees are grown, what support farmers have, what laws and regulations govern trade, etc. A great example are the new EU deforestation regulations, which are going to have absolutely huge ripple effects on roasters, importers/exports, farmers, and coffee-producing countries as a whole. It’s easy to dismiss the role of institutions—bureaucracy is not usually the sexiest stuff—but we can’t ignore them and we can’t survive without them. We have to engage with them as productively as we can.

A baby F1 hybrid propagated via microcutting

What is the most common question you get asked at WCR?

The most common question from farmers is: “Where can I get XX variety?”

Where do you see coffee in a decade? Are there any projects WCR is working on towards sustainably producing coffee?

All of our work is geared toward securing long-term supply from diverse origins and meeting the industry’s sustainability goals. We focus on the role of variety innovation (e.g., better plants) to address both. For example, if coffee needs to shift toward more agroforestry production models—which it absolutely does—you need varieties that are higher-yielding under shade. You also need higher-yielding varieties if you want to reduce the carbon emissions from coffee agriculture and reduce deforestation pressure. If you want to reduce the use of agrochemicals you need varieties that are resistant to diseases and pests, to reduce the need for farmers to spray their trees. In short, WCR doesn’t have one project that targets sustainable coffee agriculture – our entire body of work is geared toward it.

We cannot meet the world’s growing demand for coffee without better varieties, better agronomy, and better disease/pest management solutions—in other words, without agricultural innovation. The need is massive – we are sitting on top of a $452 million/year investment chasm.

What is your favourite coffee varietal and processing method?

I hope this isn’t a disappointing answer, but I truly don’t have a favourite. One of the beautiful things about this moment in time is the incredible profusion of options for beautiful coffee.

How do you take your coffee? 

I’m a plain Jane, black filter coffee girl – give it to me straight.