Written by Mark Bray, Owner of Airship Coffee. Commonly referred to as the fellow who Steers the Ship.
The most frequently asked question that I get from customers and friends is “How did Airship get its name?” The second most frequently asked question is “How did you get into the coffee business?” I’m not sure why the latter doesn’t precede the former from a frequency standpoint. It seems backwards to me, but so do a lot of things in my life as compared to most societal norms. Nevertheless, each time I’m asked these questions, my response is the same, “I’d love to tell you that story, and if you have time for another cup of coffee, I will.”
It was the year 2000 and thanks to the failure of Y2K, the world hadn’t ended yet. Amber and I were living in Fayetteville, Arkansas on the south side of town not far from the Razorback baseball stadium. I was working as a stonemason and a pizza man—laying stone by day and slinging pies by night to put food on the table and pay the rent, while Amber finished her nursing degree with hopes of securing a stable income and perhaps some insurance for our little budding family.
It was the first week of June and we were driving up Razorback Road in front of Bud Walton arena, the university’s basketball venue. It was the annual Walmart shareholders meeting, a time when Walmart associates from around the world descend upon the venue to hear the vision for the companies future and be entertained by someone famous. The parking lots were full of cars, and people were everywhere, crossing the streets in droves, funneling into the arena. Not unlike any other normal day, we were driving down the road and our daughter Rainy was in the backseat of our minivan, a Mazda MPV – the original crossover vehicle. Rainy was only two years old at the time. Driving past the arena, with the backseat window rolled down, her rosy cheeks and little red locks blowing in the breeze, she sticks her arm out the window and points up to the sky and says “Da Blimp, Da Blimp”. Amber and I looked at each other with a bit of amazement, you know that look on your face when you pull your head back - double chin - eyebrows up, lips curled, as if to say, do what? We were both a little stunned at the fact that she knew about the giant football floating in the sky, much less what to call it. So, Amber in her sentimental fashion, to commemorate this meaningful moment, purchased a small Christmas tree ornament at Hannah’s candle factory (locals know) that was in the shape of a blimp. So that was the year 2000.
FAST FORWARD six years and 2 more kids later to 2006. Amber had completed nursing school and was working nights and weekends to help me finish grad school with a masters degree in Horticulture. Grueling work, but we were young. Right out of college I landed a job, the first of its kind, as the horticulture extension agent in Benton county. This was a great job. I was tasked with providing horticulture education in the local community. I loved that job, but truth be told I felt like I spent too much of my time behind a desk answering calls about why your trees are dying. Even still, not a bad gig that I had going; a wonderful wife, beautiful healthy kids, and a paycheck with benefits. We had made progress from the days of slinging rocks and stacking pizzas for a living. And although I was thankful for the stability, there I was suffering from a case of soarassitus. No, not an itchy skin disease of the rear end, but rather a much more serious condition, a lack of adventure in my life. Now that I think about it, maybe those are the same conditions after all, or at least one is the symptom of the other. Since my days as a field researcher on the Buffalo River (different blog post), I’ve always been ok with stepping up to, and peeking over the edge, but not so interested in walking along the edge for too long. I’ve always benefited from an occasional brush with risk. Without it, my soul seems to lack a certain drive towards greatness. It’s a way to push me beyond my comfort zone – a “place” I prefer.
About that time, a friend, and business mentor shared an opportunity with me to help out a missionary living in the mountains of Honduras working with indigenous communities. This man wanted to provide sustainable agriculture education in his community to help alleviate hunger and poverty. After years of resistance from local villagers, to the point of being chased down the mountain with machetes, the locals skeptically agreed to work with him. Being an agronomist and looking for adventure, I thought that this opportunity sounded like a fit, and at the very least possessed the potential to break up the occupational boredom I had found myself in. So, that May I set out to Honduras to check out the situation.
After a long day of travel and finally arriving at my new missionary friend's farm late that night, we enlisted a local guide named Pedro, made a plan for the next day to travel to one of the villages and meet the leader. Pedro and I left the farm early at 4am driving in an old 4x4 pickup headed for the mountains. We drove two hours through the pouring rain, up steep winding roads, across make-shift bridges with nothing but two fallen trees, one for each tire, between us and a hundred foot freefall. The road got narrower and narrower until eventually the windshield of the pickup was pushing back the tree branches. The road was now a trail, and we were making it. I remember asking my guide, Pedro, “Does this mean we’re lost?” His response was “No, this means we’re here.”
So we pulled off the road, strapped on our backpacks and started hiking up the mountain. We hiked for another couple of hours through the driving rain. In Honduras your destination is always “just over the hill”. As we approached the top of one of those hills we met two local teenage villagers who were hiking down the mountain. One of them had a small hand held radio. Pedro, my guide stopped him, and in Spanish, asked him a couple of questions. I heard the villager, the one with the radio, say the word, HUR-A-KAHN. My guide repeated the word as a question but with a sense of urgency, “HUR-A-KAHN?” The local guy replied, “Si,HUR-A-KAHN.” So they headed on down the mountain and we kept going up. My Spanish was about as good as my guide's English, but I was curious so I did my best to ask him about the conversation. I said, “Que es HUR-A-KAHN?” He said, HUR-A-KAHN?” He could tell that I was confused. He pointed at the sky and then waved his hands around and said — HUR-A-KAHN —. With more emphatic annunciation, I repeated HUR-EH-KANE!? “Si HUR-A-KAHN!” Cool, we were hiking in a hurricane. I guess I had found my adventure.
If you recall, earlier in the story I mentioned that I had arrived late and left early on the trip to the mountains. That meant that we didn’t have time to brew coffee that morning. So here I am - hiking through a torrential hurricane in the mountains of Honduras, there’s literally coffee trees all around me, even touching me as I walked along, but I haven’t had a drop of caffeine to drink. And I’m feeling the screaming demon on the back of my neck. If the saying is true that every man has his vice, then I had just found mine.
Finally, after hiking 4 hours through the driving rain we made it to a small village nestled on the top of the mountain. There were six or seven tiny mud huts with thatch roofs with smoke seeping out of the sides. The rain had let up a little and we were greeted by Santos, the leader of the village who we had come to see. After exchanging greetings with Santos, he pointed towards his hut and said, “Vamos a ver Mariajuana en me casa.” Again my Spanish is not that great, but I did hear something recognizable. Did you say maria-juana? Well it’s not coffee, but at this point I’m thinking what the hell? When in Rome, right? So, we follow Santos into his adobe style hut, ducking my head to enter the short doorway into a small, dark room with thick smoky air. There’s a dirt floor, a couple of wooden benches, and in the corner, a fire pit with a glowing orange bed of fire from which a steady stream of smoke made its way out of the thatch roof. Santos’ wife is standing by the fire. Santos says “Presentarle mi esposa, Maria Juana!” A bit puzzled, the reality came over me. Oooh, I get it. Mariajuana is your wife!
We exchange greetings and she goes back to the fire where she’s roasting coffee beans on a cast iron plate. The rich aroma of freshly roasted coffee is filling this little hut. She finishes roasting then grinds the beans by hand in a stone bowl, places the ground coffee into a cloth sock and pours steaming hot water over the coffee grounds through the sock and into a metal cup. My senses are fully activated at this point. I’m a little overwhelmed cognitively. There is a conversation going on and I’m in a staid trance. I see their lips moving, but I can’t even hear the sounds of their voices. All I can see is this cup of steaming hot, fresh coffee resting on the hot iron of the fire pit. Everything else is a blurr. At that moment, suddenly like someone had just changed the tv channel unexpectedly, I snapped out of my trance and saw a worrisome expression come over Maria Juana’s face. She was clearly frustrated and acting like something wasn’t right. She glanced to the ceiling where I saw the handle of a machete sticking out through the thatch. She looked at me with a blank stare. I watch her, and as if in slow motion, I see her reach up towards the ceiling with her right hand and grab the handle of the machete. With her left hand she reaches behind the firepit and in one motion pulls out a three foot-long stick of fresh sugar cane, lays it on the fire and then with an aggressive downward swoop with the machete from above, chops the cane in half, sending fresh sugar juice across the room. With both hands she then squeezed the cane and the sweet, pure cane juice dripped directly into the hot cup of coffee. Then she looks up at me, and with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen, she walks it over to me as if she somehow knows how amazing the gift is and offers it up to me. To this day, and of all the incredible cups of coffee I’ve enjoyed — that’s the absolute best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
As I sipped this heavenly goodness, I listened to Santos and Maria Juana tell me that their greatest challenge wasn’t in fact related to agronomy and growing food, but rather their greatest struggle was having someone who would pay them fair wages for their cash crop, coffee. The one buyer that they had access to would only pay .25 per LB. I had come there to work on sustainable food production, but the real need was solving for market access. That’s when I knew I was going to be in the coffee business. My immediate purpose was to build a supply chain out of the mountains and create demand for their coffee and along the way we would work together to make it better. I imported my first container of coffee from Santos and surrounding farms a year and half later. Now we had a business and that business needed a name.
It was now Christmas 2008 and time for the annual family tradition of trimming the tree. Amber and the kids had pulled all the Christmas tree decorations out of the attic and were starting to hang ornaments on the tree. I was obsessing about naming this new business. If you’ve ever launched a new business, then you understand how consuming this process can be. I had spent way too many hours in the home office scouring the interwebs in search of inspiration for the name for our new business. And true to form, Amber came to my rescue with the answer. She’s unpacking the Christmas ornaments and gets to the one with the Da Blimp. She walks into the office with the blimp ornament in her hand, raises it up, looks at me and says, “What about this?” I replied, “Da Blimp? I don’t think Da Blimp is a very catchy name for our business”. “No”, she said. “Not Da Blimp. What about Airship? Everyone knows what this is. Even a two year old knows what a blimp is. It’s recognizable, it’s iconic”. Just like the first time I saw her, things seemed simple. It made sense. We trimmed the tree and Rainy hung Da Blimp ornament high and proud. That moment launched me into a study of humans’ attempts at first flight. I read the stories of legendary explorers, pilots, who would climb into a basket attached to the belly of a blimp the size of a football field, fill it with helium gas and then cut the rope that was tethered to the ground and basically go whichever way the wind blew. This risk/reward mentality really captured the same pioneering spirit that motivated us to trail blaze a coffee supply chain in direct connection with farmers out of Honduras, then Guatemala, and five other coffee producing countries. That’s how Airship got it’s name and we’ve been flying high ever since.
The Airship represents an Elevated Perspective, a viewpoint from above that allows you to see where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you want to be. It’s the there and then, the here and now, as well as what is to come. It’s being separated from the situation just enough to see what’s really going on, while being present in the moment to hear the real need, in order that you might create a better way for the future.
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