Brewing a difference


Borough native’s nonprofit launches coffee line

Casa Blend is one of several coffees sold under Simply Smiles Coffee brand. –SIMPLY SMILES
Casa Blend is one of several coffees sold by the Simply Smiles Coffee brand. –SIMPLY SMILES

In the remote mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, Bryan Nurnberger noticed bags of coffee beans used as improvised furniture instead of as the basis for a morning brew.

While the Naugatuck native was working with his nonprofit Simply Smiles to improve the lives of impoverished villagers, Nurnberger heard the same story. Many locals used to be coffee farmers. Coffee still grows in the rich soil and ideal climate. But rather than selling their beans in the global marketplace, farmers were sitting on their beans, quite literally.

“Globalization destroyed their ability to (sell coffee),” Nurnberger said. “Nobody is going to hike up the mountain and buy two sacks of coffee from Jose when you can buy it from a big farm.”

For large coffee makers, it is too cumbersome to buy small amounts of beans from individual farmers like those in Oaxaca. Instead, they rely on larger growing operations, leaving farmers like those in Oaxaca out of the economic loop.

Soon, however, those farmers’ beans will make it to market anew under the Simply Smiles Coffee brand. The coffee will flow partly through a cooperative of several thousand farmers whom Nurnberger recruited.

In December, the first of the farmers’ beans will be harvested, then carried out of villages and put on trucks. The fair-trade beans will be shipped to the U.S., and then transported to a Plainville roaster to be primed for consumption. They will be sold online, sent to consumers in shiny silver-and-blue bags with the Simply Smiles label. Nurnberger is negotiating with large grocery chains to sell the coffee in stores

Nurnberger said a year’s worth of work cultivating and harvesting coffee beans typically yielded $60 or $90 for a farmer. He hopes the cooperative will help farmers earn more, although it is unclear by how much. Additionally, some proceeds from coffee sales will funnel back into the charity, allowing it to continue offering food and services to the region’s people.

“The goal for the farmers is self-sufficiency,” he said. “That’s what keeps families — children and the elderly alike — alive there until we can have the infrastructure to bring that coffee to market (on a larger level) … They need the coffee market and income diversification.”

Even though the first of the local farmers’ beans have yet to be shipped, Simply Smiles Coffee is already dripping through filters. Simply Smiles started selling five other blends of fair-trade, organic and Rainforest Alliance certified Mexican and Columbian beans from other sources in late June. They include regular and decaf brews, dark roast versions and French vanilla. A 10-ounce bag sells for $9.99.

“It’s been very successful. We’re selling coffee online every day,” said Nurnberger, who has spent the summer expanding humanitarian work to a Native American reservation in South Dakota. “The goal is a viable, fair, coffee market. It’s super-direct trade. We buy it from (farmers) for a fair price and the profits get pushed right into the villages, from schools to sanitation facilities.”

Nurnberger formed Simply Smiles about a decade ago after what he thought would be a brief stint helping at a Mexican orphanage morphed into something much larger and life-defining. Since 2003, Simply Smiles has spent nearly $1.5 million on projects, including at that original orphanage and on other initiatives for the poor and needy in Mexico.

Beyond dollars, Nurnberger’s connections back home proved invaluable, with thousands of volunteers donating many thousands of hours of help — including groups that traveled to Mexico this summer from Shepaug Valley High and Choate schools. While Nurnberger devoted most of his summer to the new Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation project, he managed to find time to launch the coffee line.

Simply Smiles Coffee is a separate, but related, venture. Nurnberger and his father, David, formed what he called the first benefit corporation to operate in Connecticut. All profits will be poured directly back into the coffers of the charity, which has pledged 30,000 meals this year in the coffee-growing region.

Under the banner of Simply Smiles Products, they plan later to sell crafts from Lakota artists from the reservation who were awarded microloans. Any profits will be pumped back into humanitarian projects, too.

But beyond doing good, Nurnberger said it remained paramount that their product taste good.

Simply Smiles Products worked closely with Plainville-based Sun Roasters to create the blends. Ultimately, a sixth blend will be added using beans from the Oaxaca cooperative.

“It’s a very distinct taste, and it’s something we have to be conscious of,” Nurnberger said. “While it’s delicious, it’s different.”

And it’s an easy way to “fold charitable giving” into everyday life, Nurnberger said.

“I want [people] to realize they can make a difference through something they’re going to do anyway,” said Nurnberger. “Almost everybody drinks coffee, and we want people to make the choice because it makes positive change in the world.”

For more information or to order coffee, visit