November 20th, 2014


Co-Founder and CEO, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Founder & CEO, Thanksgiving Coffee Company

Chief Chocolate Maker, TCHO Chocolate


Coffee, beer and chocolate – while it would be a stretch to call them necessities, many Americans refuse to live without them. But how is global warming affecting the companies that produce our beloved guilty pleasures?  

Paul Katzeff, co-founder of Thanksgiving Coffee, says global  warming got personal for him recently, while visiting suppliers in Uganda:  “I was going to be working at 6,600 feet.  That’s a pretty cool climate and mosquitos generally don’t hang out up there,” he remembers. “But on the last night I was there, underneath my mosquito tent, I heard a bzzz…five days later, I’m in California General here with Malaria, and eight days in critical condition. Climate change really almost killed me.”  

On a larger scale, changes in climate are affecting both location and growing  season for the crops that brewers rely on.  “A lot of the traditional hop growing regions in North America have been seeing climates shifting to temperatures that do not facilitate some varieties from yielding very well,” reports Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.  “So it is affecting what varieties will grow where, and farmers are taking notice that what had been a traditional harvest window is now moving quite a bit.”

Katzeff says the warming temperatures have given rise to la roya, a disease that affects coffee trees.  “La roya is moving up the mountainside from low altitudes to high altitudes.  And farms are being devastated, people are losing their trees…farms all over Central and South America are facing these problems.”

The discussion at the Commonwealth Club soon turned to corporate responsibility and sustainability.  Ken Grossman says that when they founded Sierra Nevada, sustainability wasn’t about helping the environment. “We pretty much built everything from old dairy equipment,” he relates. “But back then, you had to figure it out, you had to build it yourself.  So we were sustainable out of necessity.  

“And then as we’ve grown, we’ve invested resources to try to do as good of a job as we can to manage our resources and our inputs.  So we were an early adopter of fuel-cell power and ten years ago we put in megawatt fuel-celled plant, one of the largest in the country.  We’ve done a lot around water conservation and energy savings, and it’s been a focus of ours for quite a few years.”

Paul Katzeff says that for the coffee industry, the move towards sustainability was a slow one.  It started back in the 1980’s with environmental concerns. “The trees were coming down to grow coffee in the sun,” he recalls. “This is not good for birds, migratory songbirds, it wasn’t good for monkeys, it wasn’t good for spiders, it wasn’t good for anything.

“A couple of years later, I recognized that the environment wasn’t the only issue, that there were issues with social justice, that the coffee industry was harming people.”  

Next came the Fair Trade Movement, in the late 1990’s. “So economic justice became an aspect of the Environment Committee. And…the next generation of people in the coffee industry renamed it the Sustainability Committee.”

For all three companies, the commitment to economic and environmental justice extends to their buying practices.  “We buy cocoa beans from Ecuador, Peru, Dominican Republic and West Africa and Ghana,” reports Brad Kintzer of TCHO Chocolate. “And we’re really committed to organic…reducing the use of unnecessary pesticides, chemicals in the growing process.  We also have made the choice to actually keep the processing done at country of origin to reduce overall carbon footprint.  So we do of our roasting down at origin.”

And fostering relationships with growers is a high priority. Host Greg Dalton was surprised to learn that until recently, many cocoa farmers had never tasted chocolate.  It was the same for coffee farmers, says Brad Kintzer.  Until about 25 years ago, “coffee farmers had never tasted a cup of coffee, yet they were for generations growing coffee beans.  

“And so when you actually connect, when cocoa farmers or coffee farmers actually understand how what they’re doing on the farm level directly impacts the quality,” he continued, “you’re immediately creating a better feedback system where you can really get a better quality cocoa, a better quality coffee, whatever it might be.  And that directly leads to a better profit for farmers, and more sustainability.”

Sustainability is more than good stewardship, agrees Katzeff – it’s good business.

“I believe that quality of coffee and quality of life go hand in hand.  You don’t have to be a starving artist to produce great art, and you don’t have to be a starving farmer to produce great coffee.  Actually, it’s better if you’re not starving. So the concept of quality improvement is also the concept of value improvement.”  

“When you’re trying to empower people or you’re hoping to empower people, democracy starts at the bottom up.  So supporting fair trade and supporting small scale farmer cooperatives is all about supporting democracy and empowerment.  And that’s more important than the minimum price.”  

Will it take a shortage of craft beers, chocolate kisses or mochaccino latte’s to finally wake Americans up to the dire consequences of climate change?

Hard to say. But Paul Katzeff believes that, as producers of three of the world’s favorite flavors, they have a rare opportunity to spread the word.  As he puts it, “we can use our companies as bully pulpits, as educational devices, to change the world.”


- Anny Celsi
November 20, 2014
Photos by Sonya Abrams
The Commonwealth Club of California