Left Hand Roasters works with communities across northern Thailand to help them increase their revenue streams and become self-reliant, while elevating the quality of Thai coffee on a local and global scale.
It is not just coffee, though. The brand also produces byproducts such as coffee blossom and cascara by repurposing them in a productive way and creating additional revenue for the farmers. The main goal being, empowering of people behind the product, while highlighting the potential of Thailand’s coffee bean and its byproducts.
Guru By Bangkok Post speaks to chief operating officer and founder at Left Hand Roasters, Dustin Joseph, to learn more.
How and why did you get into coffee?
My first interaction with coffee and the agricultural side of things was in Mae Hong Son in 2005, when I moved up there to study Thai cooking and wanted to be in nature. I realised that they were growing coffee, but they didn’t know what they were doing with it. There was no one who was collecting the ripe cherries, so the disconnectivity of producer to distributor wasn’t just there. I researched a bit and found out that it was an alternative cash crop of opium connected to all these different individual refugee groups and people that have been displaced. Coffee was being used as sustainable living for these communities. This is when I choose to work with coffee.
How did this lead to Left Hand Roasters, which only came into existence in 2018?
From 2005 to 2018, I was still working with farms and opening restaurants in the US [as a consultant]. I opened a boutique hotel called Reverie Siam Resort in 2010 in Pai, and opened a small Mexican cafe called Cafecito, where I was roasting local coffee and producing local, like Mexican brunch food with local ingredients.
My dad designed and built a roaster for Cafecito in 2008-2009, which is now in Bangkok. Originally, I was roasting for my own business because I was sourcing coffee from the local villages. Buying it, drying it and trying to deal with processing, understanding the breakdown in science behind the bean. I started distributing it to restaurants and people that I knew.
When the idea came to create a coffee brand, I didn’t want to be just another brand. I wasn’t looking at becoming a member of a monopoly or a franchise. I feel like that’s outdated and not a responsible way to run certain kinds of businesses, especially when it relates to people and their livelihoods.
How would you describe Left Hand Roasters?
The name comes from a couple of things. I chose it because my dad is left-handed and he built the roaster. Also, I grew up in a place called Left Hand Canyon in Colorado, which is part of the Arapaho Native-American tribe. That connects to the Native-American culture and paying homage to people behind the scenes.
Left Hand also refers to the left path, which is being non-conventional. I also use it as a vessel to discuss other important issues; issues faced in food systems can be discussed over a cup of coffee. Coffee is something that crosses borders, it’s international and widely consumed. It is not grown in most places that are the biggest consumers even though it is produced there. This means that there’s no direct connection to the agriculture or to the understanding as to what makes it valuable. Places that produce the most coffee in the world are also places with the most interesting tragic and war-driven issues.
We look at Africa, South America, Myanmar, Thailand and Lao and in all these places, coffee is always the alternative cash crop being used to fix a problem and provide a living for these communities.
What exactly does Left Hand Roasters do?
We first analyse Thai coffee as a whole, working with various farms across the north of and then figure out how we can elevate and how we can raise the bar for Thai coffee to become truly self-sufficient for the people producing it. We work with processing, with direct relations, connect clients and producers to purchases. We work beyond coffee when we work with farmers. We connect our coffee farmers who produce tea, stone fruit, cacao and other produce to hotels or restaurants.
We work with small farms who can’t afford organic certification, we consciously select all our beans and only work with environmental-friendly farmers. Although, if some of our beans are organic certified, it will be specified in the product profile.
Ultimately, as a coffee brand we curate and work directly with customers, who believe in what we believe in. We also build our coffee programmes so that they are transparent and local. For eg, if you go to a coffee shop serving our coffee, we can tell you where it’s coming from and where it is grown in elevation, the people behind it and even how much they’re being paid.
We are also building a quality-driven company and we prefer to work directly with clients, who also want high-end, quality, single origin coffee. We only sell beans.
Apart from the single origin coffee beans, what are the other types that Left Hand Roasters sells?
Sometimes we blend things to create a special blend. We have a community blend, which is from multiple farms. Left Hand works in five provinces, Nan, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Tak, with 15 farms.
We don’t believe in capping so a lot of the farms are already well-known and work with multiple people. We might have been the first brand they worked with but have now become popular. We’ve connect them with big names in town and people behind those names.
This sounds like Left Hand is a networker for coffee and not just a brand that sells coffee beans. What else is under the Left Hand umbrella?
It really depends on the individual farms and what they’re doing because everyone needs a different perspective. Some people already have their processing quality but they need help with curing and packaging to make sure it gets to their customers in a fashion that preserves the quality. Left Hand visits these farmers and works with them because we have the know-how and are happy to share.
Left Hand stresses on being community-driven. How does this trickle down into the community?
We have a couple of ways. We work with Sati, wherein we have a Sati blend and profits from those sales go back to developing infrastructure for certain communities where the coffee comes from. Be it water systems, school education, etc. Covid pivoted and changed direction, as we are a small company, and we weren’t able to do some of the impactful things we wanted to.
A huge part of Left Hand is the transparency. We’re very open about where we buy our coffee, who’s producing it, how to contact them, etc. We put people on display and let people know if you want this, you can reach out to them directly.
How sustainable is Left Hand?
It depends on what part of sustainability we talk about. Are we taking about the environment or are we talking about human sustainability? Left Hand is more about understanding and vetting the people we work with. Knowing that the coffee cherries are being bought at a fair rate, the farmers are taking into consideration what they’re putting into the soil and how they mitigate or work directly with compost. We make sure people aren’t using chemicals or getting too greedy or trying to out people in the villages, which is common.
I don’t believe there’s any form of 100% sustainability. We try to source the best biodegradable packaging we can or as close as possible. We try to work with farms that we know and trust and we can we can understand their intentions, their people and business.
What is next for Left Hand?
We want to continue to gain stability locally. Now, we have a lot of hotels, like the Four Seasons Bangkok and hotel groups like the Intercontinental, serving our coffee. We also want to dive into the social side of things; like how do we continue to grow the infrastructure in communities we partner with.
We’d like to invest in things beyond coffee, things that could bring more revenue to the communities. Like cascara, which got a bad name because it’s a byproduct, but it still needs to be handled correctly to be sellable. Even if it’s waste, it needs to let people know the value of it. We are working with cascara to create sodas and other things. We want it to become a mainstream product that could be on supermarket shelves or at the 7-Eleven.
We are also working on branded products like drip bags and biodegradable packaging.
We are looking for partners who believe in what we’re doing. It’s a slow growth model, since it is an independently run company. We need to start investing into forms of traceability, technology, utilising things that we have at our fingertips that could potentially make a difference in the way we consume and work.
Left Hand Roasters culture
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Single Origins are most often best for filter coffees, pour over and can even make an awesome espresso if your into unique and bright flavours!
Blends are honest and can be versatile when it comes to different extraction methods. Great for people who enjoy switching up their methods.
Espresso blends are designed especially for espresso, building layered flavours with just the right amount of acidity and sweetness.