Seabrook company pioneering future of commercial importing
Books and movies bring mythical mariners such as Capt. Jack Sparrow to life with tales of seafaring treasure hunting under star-laden skies, marveled at through rum-hazed eyes. But real-life sailor, Capt. Joe Butcher, prefers coffee to rum, and a bag of beans to a chest of jewels. A taste for adventure, however, is something Sparrow and Butcher have in common.
Joe Butcher and his wife, Terry, are the owners of El Lago Coffee Co. in Seabrook. They sell hand-roasted Central American coffee by the bag or cup in their store, which doubles as an antiques shop and collectors’ paradise. They also sell products online and through a few retail outlets and restaurants in the area, including Arlan’s Market and the Seabrook Waffle Co. The Butchers reside aboard a permanently docked 45-foot cabin cruiser in the Clear Lake area with their two dogs, Dodge and Boats, and are frequently asked about a particular oceanic adventure for which they have become quite famous in the Gulf region.
The story begins Christmas Day 1914, the last time coffee was commercially imported by sail power into the United States. Fast forward to 2007, when El Lago Coffee Co. opened and the Butchers quickly realized they could make more money buying beans directly from farmers in Central America and by doing something they loved — sailing.
In December 2008, Capt. Butcher and his crew — brother Doug, wife Terry and dog Skipper — set sail from Galveston to become the first such importers in nearly a century. After arriving in Ambergris Caye, Belize and loading their 42-foot steel hulled ketch, RedCloud, with 10,000 pounds of Guatemalan coffee beans, they cast off for their trip back to Galveston on Christmas Day.
The RedCloud was just 130 miles off the coast of Galveston when a violent storm ripped a fatal gash in the hull and forced Butcher to send a Mayday distress signal. Although Butcher had fought the storm for more than a day and night, 35-foot swells ultimately overwhelmed the ship.
In a harrowing U.S. Coast Guard helicopter rescue, all aboard, including Skipper, the company mascot, were soon safe on dry land. Despite Butcher’s highest hopes, the ship might somehow stay afloat and some of her cargo salvaged after the storm passed, RedCloud sank later that night 2,000 feet to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the 10,000 pounds of fine Central American coffee.
Today, with his contagious optimism, Butcher, 52, is a living example of how to cope with setbacks and disappointment and has by no means given up his dream of importing coffee by sail. His current plan includes a scale model of the 79-foot schooner he’ll build, complete with a cargo hold exactly proportioned for one large commercial shipping container such as those seen on oceangoing freighters. Each trip will move 50,000 pounds of coffee with a minimum of two trips required each year to sustain the business. Finding a company, bank or investor willing to provide $650,000 needed to build the ship hinges on having a contract with a high-volume coffee retailer such as H-E-B or Walmart and is taking longer than expected.
Butcher insists his coffee is better in quality than that offered by the big importers, largely because smaller quantities allow for a more controlled selection process.
Working at sea for most of his life — for the U.S. Navy and the oil industry — Butcher isn’t a strict environmentalist. But he does point out that of the many advantages of using wind power to transport coffee beans, zero emissions is an important selling point.
It’s been nearly seven years since the RedCloud went down. And although Butcher is patient, he concedes to hearing the call of the sea and longs for the day when his dream will be realized.
“It’s the perfect job,” he said. “Sailing up and down the coast, good fishing, beautiful sea, beautiful weather, tropical breeze and, of course, a good cup of coffee.”
El Lago Coffee Co.
1206 Moskowitz Ave., Seabrook