Jason Ambrose learned to drink coffee as a college freshman. “Then it was more about function than flavor,” he admits.
These days, Ambrose starts his morning with a French press. He heats milk for his son Jackson, who is not yet two, and water enough to make two big mugs of Ethiopian-grown coffee for himself and his wife Julie (Dertinger, ’94).
It’s a far cry from the cafeteria cups he first sampled back at WSU, he says.
Moving to Seattle after graduating from Washington State University in 1999, Ambrose couldn’t help but get caught up in the coffee culture. Today the 33-year-old Starbucks employee has a vast knowledge of coffee. He can tell you about the earliest plants grown in Ethiopia. He can tell if the cup in front of him is an Arabica or a Robusta. He lists the attributes coffees from different regions offer. Sipping a cup, he may even be able to identify the region where it was grown.
Last year his coffee knowledge won him a place on an expedition to visit coffee plantations in Costa Rica. Through a program co-sponsored by Starbucks and Earthwatch, a non-profit environmental organization, Ambrose and ten other travelers took a two-week tour of the farms of the Coope Tarrazú coffee cooperative.
“I love to travel,” says Ambrose. He had never been to Costa Rica and was eager to visit.
This was no vacation, though. The group was there to work with scientists collecting data from nearly 40 different coffee farms within about a 30-mile radius. The coffee produced in this interior region is called Terrazu.
Each day, they rose early and drove up roads carved out of the region’s steep hillsides. The elevation is ideal for good coffee beans, says Ambrose, but not great for roads.
Coffee has been grown in Costa Rica since the end of the 18th century. It quickly surpassed cocoa and tobacco as a major commodity. For a time the country was led and influenced by coffee barons.
Most of the contemporary farms Ambrose and his new friends visited were often only a few acres in size and the oldest was 60 years old.
“Still, we met some third- and fourth-generation farmers,” he says.
The Earthwatch team worked on the slopes of the plantations, taking leaf and soil samples and counting coffee berries on the trees. “The hope is that the work will provide some good field-level information to the cooperative and help the farmers continue practices of growing sustainable coffee and reducing the impact the production has on the land,” says Ambrose.
In the past, for example, the coffee bean hulls were simply dumped, causing pollution downstream, says Ambrose. “It didn’t make sense to do that,” he says. Now, instead, the hulls are used as organic matter for fertilizer, “a solution that benefits the members of the cooperative and does some great things for the coffee and the soil as well.”
Back at the cooperative, the group sampled some of the coffee that had been fresh-roasted from beans harvested from the plantations. Coffee from one farm in particular was phenomenal. “It was lively. It sort of danced in your mouth,” says Ambrose. “And it had intriguing characteristics–nut, fruit, floral, earthy pieces. It made you re-evaluate all the other coffees you had ever tasted.”
While he filled his head with coffee knowledge, Ambrose deepened his awareness of how the behaviors of his employer and coffee consumers can affect the health and economics of the communities where the coffee is grown. “I’ve always considered myself a bit of an environmentalist. How can you live in this state and not be aware of the environment around you?” he says. “But now I’m more aware of all the pieces that are put into play to have coffee in your cup.”
Ambrose valued his time in the landscape, and even more so his exposure to the farmers and their families. Every day, the team had lunch provided in the field. One of Ambrose’s favorite meals was delivered wrapped in banana leaves. “So much care went into preparing it,” he says. In the evenings the team often went to farmers’ homes for supper. “Not only did the people of the area really take pride in their coffee, they took pride in hosting us there.”
Ambrose has come a long way from the money guy he thought he’d be when he graduated with a degree in finance and a minor in economics. After leaving Pullman, he went to work at a boutique financial services firm in Seattle, then moved on to Microsoft. He landed at Starbucks in 2002, but left the financial division for a new challenge in the marketing department where his focus is experiential marketing. Coffee now is his thing.