Sunday morning coffee harvest today. I picked coffee from just one specific tree, a Garnica Arabica variety. We have about 14 different Arabica varieties growing on our small Costa Mesa coffee farm. The Garnica tree was full of ripe, sweet fruit, of which the seed is the bean one makes coffee from.
The Garnica variety is a hybrid that was developed in Jalapa, Veracruz, Mexico in the 1960’s. That region is now the only place it grows commercially.
We are told it is a hybrid of Arabica varieties, Mundo Novo, and Caturra. Its fruit is particularly sweet, which inspired me to do an isolation on it so that in about four to six weeks when it’s ready I can roast and cup the results to see exactly what the Garnica tastes like. The coffee needed to come off the tree anyway, because the tree is setting up for a massive flowering to produce next year’s crop. One wants to have the tree able to focus it’s energy on the next crop, not the previous. In the meantime, this morning’s three pound picking yield is now fermenting. In about 48 hours I will wash it, then sun dry it for a week. Another two weeks of resting, then it will be ready for roasting and cupping. More later………..
We have been a bit remiss in chronicling our Kean Coffee origin trips over the past several years…just too darn busy roasting coffee! At some point we will backtrack and share more of our adventures. But here, at least, Shawn Anderson, our wholesale division roaster, has shared some of his experiences on a recent trip he and Martin made.
My First Origin Trip
When we (Martin Diedrich and I) arrived in Guatemala City the first evening, I had no idea what to expect. After all, this was my first origin trip and, as I would soon find out, Guatemala City is in no way a fair representation of Guatemala and the beauty it holds.
Our first day began with meeting our wonderful host, Renardo Ovalle (of the Vides family which owns the La Bolsa farm in Huehuetenango). Renardo and his lovely wife own Genera Café in Guatemala City. After a tour and cupping at Genera Café, we took a tour of the impressive facilities at ANACAFE (Asuncion Nacional de Café), the headquarters of Guatemala’s National Coffee Association. Then we were on our way to Huehuetenango to visit the La Bolsa farm.
Huehuetenango was the most distant and remote region we were to visit on this trip. It took us an entire day of driving through some of the windiest and roughest roads I’ve experienced to reach the La Bolsa farm. Located in the Cuchumatan mountain range, these coffees are gown in the highest elevation the country has to offer. Though the drive was long and rough, it was well worth it. I couldn’t have asked for a better farm or hosts for my first coffee farm visit.
The La Bolsa farm is breathtakingly beautiful and seemingly secluded from the world. It was getting dark when we finally arrived, but we were still able to take in the stunning view. Nestled in the Cuchumatan Mountains, the farm manages to be both vast and humble at the same time. The Vides family has a lovely little home built on the same patio where they dry the coffee. Standing on the patio, surrounded by mountains filled with coffee trees, I couldn’t help but feel blessed to be there.
Our first day on the Farm began early, with a delicious home cooked breakfast and a walking tour of the farm. We saw the coffee being laid out to dry on the patio after being processed as well as the actual wet mill where the processing occurs. We then hiked through the mountains to see the coffee trees themselves. I had no idea how hard these farmers work until I was actually there. Just getting to the trees can be exhausting and I wasn’t even working! The elevation is extreme and the slopes are daunting at best. Each and every tree at La Bolsa is visited at least 15 times a year; 3-4 times for fertilization, 3-4 times for pest control, 3-4 times for pruning and at least 4 times for the actual harvest. Everything is done by hand. Everything. The same can be said for every other farm we visited on this trip.
The following morning we met up with colleagues from other coffee companies to continue our tour into Atitlan: Ian Kluse from Olam, Darrin Daniel from Allegro Coffee and John D’Roucco from Mr. Espresso, among others.
Our drive through the hills of Atitlan provided us with stunning views of the three volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan: Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro. As we drove through the countryside on our way to Lake Atitlan, we had the pleasure of visiting a few very small farms in the Atitlan region. Each of these farms worked together to form a Co-op. We met many of the farmers and villagers, posing for photos, answering questions and just getting to know people. We then reached Lake Atitlan and Finca La Providencia, owned by the inspiring Juan Francisco Pura.
Juan Francisco began his coffee career at the area’s wet mill, which he still owns and operates, before he purchased Finca La Providencia. Located directly beside Lake Atitlan, this farm is beautiful and unique. Unlike the La Bolsa farm in Huehuetenango, there are no drastic slopes to overcome. The farm is flat and easily accessible.
We walked with Juan Francisco through the farm, looking at the different varietals he’s growing as well as some very interesting, new growing techniques he’s trying. I believe the fact that he entered into farming from the processing side of coffee has given him a unique approach to his work and an innovative spirit. After our tour, we drove to his wet mill and cupped some lovely coffees from both his farm and the local Co-op. He also showed us the new raised drying beds he’s been experimenting with. 45 pounds of coffee are in each raised bed, all of which are micro-lots. Juan Francisco and his friends joined us all for dinner before we turned in for the night.
The next farm we visited was as beautiful as it was massive. Ran by Andres Fahsen who jokingly refers to it as a “Natural Reserve which happens to have a coffee plantation on it”, Santo Tomas Pachuj is basically just that.
Pachuj (which means “Place of Mist”) is a stunning 370 acres, 70 of which holds the coffee farm itself. Each coffee tree on this property is visited once a week, which is incredible considering the fact that the 70 acres of coffee are not all together, but sprawled out amongst the total 370 acres of land). Though all the work is done by hand, workers drive 4 wheel drive trucks and a giant old Mercedes UniMog to access their coffees and wet mill.
Like La Bolsa, there are many steep grades on this property. To support the trees and soil, they plant grasses between the rows of coffee. The deep roots of the grass help stabilize the soil. Once the grasses grow tall, they’re cut down and left as mulch for the coffee trees. It’s a simply but ingenious approach.
Santo Tomas Pachuj scored an almost unheard of 97 points with the Rain Forest Alliance and won’t rest until they become the first farm to score 100. Besides the 300 acres of natural reserve, they have 400 bee hives on the property which produce some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted. They also manage to produce 100% of their electricity from solar power. Their commitment to preservation and sustainability was truly inspiring.
The last farm Martin and I visited was Bella Vista in the stunningly beautiful city of Antigua.
Antigua sits in a valley enveloped by the Agua, Fuego and Acatenango volcanoes and coffee farms scattered throughout the foothills. It is one of the most renowned coffee producing regions in the world due to the volcanic soils and climate.
The Bella Vista farm and mill ran by Luis Pedro Zelaya, a fourth generation coffee producer, miller and exporter. Bella Vista is a massive facility with a farm, wet mill and dry mill on the property. It was here, on our final day, that Marin and I really got serious about cupping coffees. Over the course of the day, we cupped 60 different coffees, with nothing but a small lunch break midway through. For me, the cupping was a combination of intimidation (due to the quantity, seriousness and the fact that I was cupping with Martin), excitement and well… just plain hard work. Luckily, we found some exceptional coffees and were lucky enough to secure 274 bags out of our favorite picks.
I embarked on this, my first origin trip, with a bit of trepidation not knowing what to expect of what I would get out of it. I came home with more knowledge than I could have hoped for as well as a newfound passion and excitement for the work I do. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to meet the people who labor year-long to produce the coffees I’m so lucky to roast every day. I’ve spent the last 5 years roasting the coffees produced by these great people and it was an honor to finally meet them and see the life of these coffees before they get to me. These people live and breathe coffee every day. They put their literal blood, sweat and tears into their craft and, without them, I wouldn’t be here.
It’s easy to take coffee for granted. We don’t expect people to understand that 450 pounds of coffee cherries only produce 80 pounds of green coffee to roast and that those 80 pounds will only yield about 67 pounds of roasted coffee. It’s easy to forget how much work goes into providing the “convenience” of coffee. It’s something I’ll never overlook again.
This origin trip was truly a life changing event for me. I have always been proud to be a coffee roaster, but I never felt as much responsibility to be great at my job as I do now. Seeing how difficult it is to produce these amazing coffees, I can’t imagine letting any of their potential go to waste by not roasting them to the best of my ability. I’ve never felt more inspired or motivated to perfect my craft and I can’t wait for my next trip to origin.
Mike Richardson has been with Kean Coffee since our doors first opened in late 2005, first as a barista, then becoming a manager and barista trainer. Mike is passionate about coffee and about what he does, and has participated in several barista competitions- three times competing in the Western Regional Barista Competition and the Ultimate Barista Competition, and once judging the WRBC. Below is his fascinating account of the trip to Costa Rica he went on this past April along with our roaster Ted Vautrinot, who was invited to judge for Costa Rica Cup of Excellence. Enjoy!
Everyone has been asking me what I did in Costa Rica. Where do I begin?
Well the first full day was amazing. I was introduced to the Cup Of Excellence (COE) program where they take the top 38 coffees from all over Costa Rica and judge them on a scale of 1-100. However, only coffees rating above 84 get into this program. At the end, most of the coffees scored over 87 points and the best coffee was scored just over 93. Amazing.
So there was a judges’ calibration on Monday where they break down all the tastes into shot glasses and you get a basic feel for Mallic acid, citric acid, salt, sweet and everything in between. It was really cool to see how this is done.
Our roaster Ted Vautrinot at Kean was one of the 24 judges for the COE and they stayed in the hotel and judged all 38 coffees for 3 days in a row. I on the other hand was able to travel around Costa Rica: sweet.
So Tuesday I got together with Francisco Mena from Coffees Exclusive and checked out their lab where they test, package, and export the best Costa Rican coffees to the rest of the world!!! We cupped (tasted) the top 24 coffees from all over the country’s regions. There were some great coffees from central Valley and some wonderful fruity coffees from Tarrazu. Later Tuesday I joined the judges from the COE program at a new microfarm where they break down all the coffees into microlots to insure complete traceability. Much like wine, when we track exactly which coffee from a specific location on a particular farm tastes a certain way, then we can create much more scientific data for producing better quality. This was really eye opening for me and many other of the coffee buyers, and the coffee farmers.
On this evening, all the big coffee farmers also joined us at the “Jardin de Aromas” and we had a nice little get together. Good food, some music, and some amazing coffee. It was hard to communicate with many of the farmers since not many of them spoke English, but I was able to talk to many of them about where I work and what coffees our customers love the most. Here I was also able to ask about how the different processing methods of the coffee change the flavor profile. Many of the farmers have had their farms for decades if not generations, but in the last few years are now starting to experiment with honey process, micro farming and micro milling.
More on that later.
Wednesday was a day I was not expecting. I traveled up to the mountains of Tarrazu with Francisco Mena, Yoshi a gentleman from Japan, and Sasha a guy from Germany. Up here in the mountains is where the real lifestyle of coffee is shown. We went and checked out a farm by the family of Juan Chutes where they are starting to micro mill their own coffee. Before micro mills there were only a few dozen big mills where the coffees would be pooled from all over and processed, then sold together. Now with micro mills the farmers can seperate their best crops and sell them separately from their lesser high quality coffees. Most of the coffees from these farms are very good, but there are some, like peaberries or other specific types of plants (varietals), that can taste considerably better. Since the farmers know their better quality plants and coffees, more care can be taken to ensure these higher quality coffees get put aside and sold for a higher price.
On this beautiful Wednesday afternoon, we also stopped by the La Lia brothers farm. Each one of these coffee plantations are very similar, but each one has a different specialty. This family is working on cross-breeding a varietal plant from Kenya! In this effort we hope to see some amazing new characteristics and balanced flavors that before could only be created with a blend of coffees. Now instead of a blend at the coffeehouse, the flavors can be created in the plant itself. Wow, that blew my mind. I never would have thought this much care and experimentation had been put into every coffee that I had been drinking.
Wednesday night Yoshi and I were dropped off in the middle of a small town at a nice little hotel and told we were going to be taken out to dinner by Oscar from the La Lia farm. Francisco and Sasha headed back 65 miles to San Jose where all the other COE judges were staying. I was out in the middle of nowhere with a guy from Japan who spoke less English than he did Spanish; so we conversed in broken Spanish the whole time. Oscar picked us up in his beat up Mazda SUV and we had a nice night of talking about coffee, family and hobbies. Sadly, the restaurant owner heard we were into coffee and tried to push some terrible coffee on us. Keep in mind, Costa Rica exports most of their best coffee; not to mention people throughout the world haven’t been introduced to specialty coffee. We had a nice little laugh about this, but in all seriousness we know that it is our duty to forward coffee awareness across the planet. That discussion really made me proud of what I am doing in the coffee industry.
Thursday was another amazing day out in Tarrazu. Yoshi and I got picked up by a young man named Pablo, he and his father work for the Don Mayo farm. We spent the first half day at their farm where I got to see some of the mills actually running! The thousands of pounds of coffee being processed is a breathtaking sight. The way the machine separates the great from the good from the bad (defects) just by weight and density was cool to see. Here we also did another cupping in their tiny little office/lab. Most of the morning two mini roasters were running, so Yoshi and I could sample their best six crops! Later Pablo’s wife made us a delicious home cooked fish with a spicy ceviche and some delicious sweet bean concoction. And that was just lunch. After that Pablo took us up to a few more farms. It was cool to see that the farmers get along so well, where I thought it would be more of a competition. We went up to the top of the mountain where there is a road built so you can see for miles on both sides. Santa Clara farms on the right and Santa Carlos on the left. Just coffee as far as the eye can see. We headed over to Los Angelos farm. This is the family who won first place in the 2011 Cup of Excellence of Costa Rica. As humble as they were, they didn’t hesitate to show the awards they received. Here we also talked more of the risks of honey processed coffee. These processes include a Black Honey where the coffee beans are fermented in the whole coffee cherry; Red Honey where the outer skin of the cherry is peeled in a machine; and Yellow Honey is fermented in the husk of the cherry. Each one of these processes are carefully selected for different coffees that are grown at a different altitude, in a different soil content, or even from how much sunlight it has seen throughout the year. Choosing the right coffee for the right process can make or break the flavor profile of the coffee. Hence the risk is high, but the output is groundbreaking! Farmers here in Costa Rica have only started this process in the last few years, most coffees of this region are only wet processed. The whole Los Angelos family was here to hang out and celebrate our arrival with a delicious alcoholic coffee beverage. Almost like a white Russian but with a very sweet rum-like alcohol, coffee and milk. Mmmmm, I’m gonna have to recreate that beverage at home!
We ended the day by stopping by the Candelilla farm whose coffee we (at Kean) have carried before. Here the farmer told us how many crazy experimental demands from buyers on how to grow his coffee. Sometimes the farmers choose what they are going to do and sometimes the farmers are told what to do, interesting. It all boils down to the market I guess.
After the long day we joined Pablo’s father and Pablo’s farmer friend for drinks at a nice restaurant.
Friday I was supposed to be back to San Jose at 8am to participate in the top ten COE cupping. Unfortunately with some confusion we didn’t get in town ’till 10, however I got to hear the cupping notes of the top ten. Here I found out that Ted is truly one of the best cuppers in the program. Since Ted has a refined palate he can find specific distinctions between exotic flavors. Most judges would say orange, lemon, or lime, but others with a more refined palate would say tangerine, Meyer lemon, or key lime, and each judge will have his own indigenous flavors to refer to.
Friday night the awards ceremony was held at a place called Cicafe where they specialize in different scientific experimentations of coffee. All the producers were dressed up and many of the judges dressed up too. I wore my blazer, bow tie and put my mustache up; got to please the press! The awards started with the bottom (27th place) and worked its way up. So as we worked our way up to the top ten, the farmers were getting more and more excited. I didn’t recognize the number one winner, but I was happy to see the La Lia brothers won second, the Los Angelos family got fourth and the Don Mayo family won fifth. After spending so much time with these families I got emotional along with them. After the awards we ate and drank and had a wonderful time. I would have liked to take more pictures but everyone else was taking pictures too!
Later that night I went and partied with all the judges. Kate and her coworker John from Parisi in Missouri, a German roaster named Eyston, Jeff Babcock from Zoka and his friend Jared from another coffee shop in Seattle as well, Yoska from Switzerland, several judges from Hong kong and some from Japan. A true melting pot hanging out in Costa Rica for some drinks, dancing, and coffee love!
Saturday we shuttled downtown to the Don Mayo family opening up their own coffee house! These are the first farmers to open their own store. These coffee growers complete the cycle by becoming roasters, baristas and coffeehouse owners! An awesome end to a beautiful trip. Here everyone enjoyed the best crops of last year and some amazing new peaberries from this year. It seemed everyone who helped me make this trip amazing were there to thank and wish a warm goodbye to.
The steep, rugged Haraaz Mountains of Northwestern Yemen are a world apart from the rest of the country. The terrain is dramatic, wild, rocky, and often inaccessible.The area has resisted the modern world and in the hinterlands one can still feel the pulse of medieval times. Ancient fortified hilltop villages of stone houses cling to the steep slopes, creating a near bibilical panorama.
Rocky mountain slopes are carved with ingenious centuries-old stone terraces to preserve the scarce soil and precious rain in this dry region, in order to grow coffee.
Approximately 500 families, living throughout the region, continue an unchanged tradition of coffee farming that goes back well over a thousand years.
Yemen is the origin of Coffea Arabica, which derives its name from Qahwa Arabiyah. For centuries, Yemen was the world’s only source of coffee which was exported from the Port of Al Makha and when permanently lent the name “Mocha” to the coffee of Yemen origin.
A FAIRLY TRADED AND ORGANIC COFFEE
The small holder farmers that grow the Yemen Haraazi Supreme that we are offering for 2011 are being rewarded for their coffee quality and efforts with a fair price. They are also getting agronomic and technical assistance to support the production of quality. These efforts and the fair prices are also supporting new wells, water treatment facilities, access to health care, and education in these communities.
Though not certified, this coffee is 100% organic. Coffee farming in Haraz is organic by default because there is no convenient availability of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The coffee is farmed in traditional ways that have been practiced for hundreds of years – all by hand. This is in part why the coffee is so unique.
April 26, 2010; Ocotal, Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua. Twenty four judges, all coffee professionals, focus beyond the 90 degree heat and humidity in the classroom/cupping lab to give their undivided attention to flight after flight of the very best coffees Nicaragua has to offer. Every detail is scored to a strict protocol on the journey to find the ten absolute best coffees in Nicaragua this year. The event is Cup of Excellence Nicaragua, and I am one of the international judges discovering these often stunning coffees. The panel hails from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Central America, and the United States. Our purpose is to identify the best examples of Nicaragua coffee for the international market to bid on at auction, which gives the local producers a clear idea what extremely high quality specialty coffee is, and their impetus to produce this is the higher prices the top coffees are awarded at auction.
At the end of each day of cupping we travel out to the country to view the coffee production firsthand. The first evening we toured a Benificiado (coffee mill) where the entire cooperative’s coffee is dried on basketball court-sized patios and African-style raised beds. It’s then milled (removing the parchment covering from the bean) in towering three story machines; graded by size, color, and quality; bagged in jute and stored. The facility was pristine and well-organized by certification; organic, fair trade, and organic fair trade. This cooperative is committed to raising their standards of quality to meet the demands of the specialty market so their members can earn a good wage to care for their families. We shared a Nicaraguan meal of beans, rice, pork, and blood sausage with the farmers and operators that had come out to meet us and share ideas about our common passion- coffee. Back at the Hotel Frontera (4-star by Nicaraguan standards, think Motel-6) we sat by the pool and shared our own personal experiences and coffee stories until late in the night.
Next morning we are back in the hot, humid lab for round after round of cupping. No discussion is permitted while we are scoring, we save that for the breakout after each flight of 9 or 10 coffees. Then we share, and sometimes defend, our scores for each coffee. These are skilled coffee experts, all with strong (sometimes varied) opinions on what separates very good coffee from excellent coffee. The Nicaragua national judges spent the previous week weeding through the 300+ entries that weren’t good enough to make the final cut. Our job is to sort through the top 60 fine coffees to determine the 10 best. We’ll choose the top 30, cup again to find the top 10, and cup yet again to rank the 10 winners. By the time a coffee has reached the finals it will have been scrutinized on six separate occasions by exacting, discriminating judges.
One evening we travel close to the Honduran border to visit Finca Santa Lucia and walk through the rows as the Patron explains which varietals of Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, and Pacamara are doing well and why. We trudge down river a bit to view the nursery where 20,000 tiny coffee plants are beginning their life, to be transplanted into the finca in two more years. The Patron also describes the trapping methods they’re using to suppress the pests that attack and devour the ripe coffee cherries. The trapping is less expensive and less harmful to the environment than pesticides, and seems to be very effective.
Cupping begins with evaluating the dry aroma of the precisely roasted ground coffee. Each table has 4 examples of each of the 9 or 10 coffees in the flight- inconsistencies within the samples of a particular coffee are penalized. The hot water is then poured, four minutes later we’re ready to “break” the crust of coffee that’s formed at the top. A rush of aromatics bursts up and we discern and score that. The coffee is still too hot to taste so we wait another few minutes, then the real tasting ensues. Aroma, flavor, acidity, body, balance, sweetness, and finish are all evaluated and recorded. Sometimes only half a point will separate two superb coffees (out of a possible 100 point score). Is the body in harmony with the acidity? Does the aroma match the sweetness in the cup? Having one or two great qualities isn’t enough; the coffee must be excellent in every area to advance to the top ten. We continue cupping for 45 minutes, noting and scoring the changes as the coffee cools, then turn in our scores and retire to another room to discuss.
Another evening we journey to Dipilto to see how the cooperative and USAID are assisting the coffee producing community. A school has been built to support the children of the region, some travel up to 12 miles each way for the opportunity to attend. In many families the elementary school children bring home health and sanitation education that would never otherwise reach the family. The goal is to create a healthy, sustainable life for these families so generations can continue to thrive while producing the fine quality of coffee the market demands. The children were sweet and shy, the teachers were proud to present the programs they were teaching and the rising test scores the children were achieving. More children than ever before are matriculating their grade and they are staying in school longer. Later at dinner we chatted with exporters about the political climate in Nicaragua and some of the slight-of-hand movement of lower-grade coffees from Honduras and Nicaragua to Colombia to fetch higher prices and fulfill contracts. I am grateful for the transparency we insist on at Kean Coffee, we know exactly where our coffee comes from.
Next morning we’re back to the selection rounds, scrutinizing each coffee again to determine the top ten. Between rounds our head judge Paul Songer shows us the statistics on our scoring. Not surprisingly, our scores tend to group together by geographic region. The cuppers have tastes that are specific to their own part of the world. Generally, the Japanese/Koreans seem to favor a very bright acidity, the Scandinavians favor a medium body, and the Americans favor a deep sweetness. Because the scoring is compiled on a curve only a truly exceptional coffee will achieve a high score, because individual preferences will average each other out. The level of concentration is intense, these are all wonderful coffees and only the slightest nuances separate them. When we submit our final scores after four rounds all the cuppers are spent, and our tongues are a bit raw.
That afternoon six of us have been invited to join a local producer, Sergio Ortiz, to visit his finca and view his methods. Sergio is a super-passionate young man committed to producing the best quality coffee. He’s one of the few producers with a Q-cupper certification, and he’s constantly tweaking his methods and tasting the results to produce better coffee. He’s hot-rodded a Brazilian pulping machine to separate the ripe from not-ripe cherries better, and has an air-conditioned storage room for his pulped coffee to slow the fermentation process. Sergio was like a mad scientist as he clambered up and down the three-story machine pointing out the modifications and adjustments he’d made. We traveled back down the hill to Ocotal to a local beneficio to cup the 6 different production variations, as well as 14 coffees from other producers in the region. The different variations all had distinct flavors, the time Sergio spends refining his methods are making a noticeable difference. By the end of the day we had cupped 53 different coffees, our brains and tongues were ready for a rest.
On our final day of cupping we had the 10 finalist coffees; our job was to determine the order of placement. The entire group of judges was fired-up and focused, this was the reason we came to Nicaragua. Every single coffee was wonderful, and we bent to the task with relish. We spent the next hour becoming intimate friends with each coffee, listening to what it had to tell us about where it had been and how it had been cared for. I left the table confident that I had given my complete attention to every offering and been open to what each had to present to us. As always, we compared and discussed our scores afterwards, but we wouldn’t know the final results until that evening.
The Awards were held in the local sports arena downtown, all the Finalists were present to see who would place well. After all the opening remarks and adulations, and a sweet, moving folkloric dance presented by a children’s group, the winners were announced one by one. The capacity crowd cheered and supported each contestant; this was a big honor for each producer to place in the Cup of Excellence. As the top eight scores were read the crowd applauded louder for there were an unprecedented 8 Presidential Awards (scores above 90 points). This was a truly outstanding showing of dedication and hard work for the year. Picture after picture were taken afterwards, families beaming proudly, friendly rivals shaking hands, winners displaying their awards. Eventually the celebration moved down the street to a local hall where food, drink and music flowed freely. The students from the region’s coffee college who had spent the week assisting us professionally and stoically were there, dressed to the nines and ready to cut loose. The entire community was bound together by their passion for excellence in coffee and celebrated their achievements that night.
The next morning we said our good-byes, some judges leaving for home while I stayed on with a small group to visit some fincas in Matagalpa, about 4 hours drive away. Our band was hosted by Dr. Miersch and his family, one of the top 3 winners in the competition. Over the next three days we toured half a dozen fincas owned by the family and I got an in-depth education on varietals, grafting, land management, and the care and respect the family show the workers that live on the fincas and husband the land. A few fortunate villages have small hydroelectric generators installed on the streams that flow down the mountains, providing lights, and amenities unavailable even a few years ago. As we drove the few hours it took to get to each finca I got to listen to Paul Songer discuss with Erwin Miersch the changes in the countryside and the techniques being employed to produce the coffee at each location. The family’s operation is well-considered and thoughtful, trying various methods and keeping all the best. We toured a few miles of hillside on horseback; hardy, strong cowponies used to negotiating the muddy terrain. Our attempt to rescue a young cow that had fallen doubled over into a ravine failed, we eventually got her pulled out but she couldn’t stand on her dislocated hip. Dr Miersch told us the hands would come back later to put her down and distribute the meat to the village. There is little waste in this part of the world.
The country is beautiful and green, yet still hard and unforgiving. Plantations left untended were choked and overgrown in only a few years time. The work of pruning, caring, and tending is never ending; it is a way of living for the people who do it. A few pounds of coffee on our retail shelf is the result of years of careful labor by the people that live in this rugged paradise, I try not to forget to be grateful for the effort they put forth generation after generation. My journeys to origin have forever changed the way I see a 132 lb bag of green coffee on the roasting floor.
Lush mountainous rainforest, beautiful warm people, countless hectares of coffee, miles of rutted dirt roads, stunning Mayan antiquities; I experienced all these just days ago on my trip to Capucas, Honduras. I made the journey to view the coffee production firsthand and evaluate this year’s production at the cooperative. I found people that live a life I’d never imagined- difficult yet joyful and built on a commitment and love for producing coffee that continues to improve in quality.
Little Feet, a non-profit whose mission is to provide soccer equipment and instruction all over the third world, made the trip possible. The private label coffee we roast for Little Feet is from this particular cooperative in Capucas. Trevor, Brittany, Errol, and Akrom brought the soccer, while I brought my cupping spoon.
De-planing at San Pedro Sula, we piled into a minivan for the six-hour ride to the village. Capucas rests at 1,100 meters (about 3,500 feet) elevation in a mountain valley 15 miles from the nearest paved road. I could feel the heat and humidity fade with every meter we rose. The last hour we pitched and bumped along the dirt track to Capucas, a true Honduran massage.
A walk through the village the first morning revealed a collection of low-slung homes, many with dirt floors, each with a concrete drying patio set aside for coffee. Inside the women cooked on wood-fired stoves, grinding the corn for masa and making tortillas for each meal all by hand. Domed wood-fired ovens for baking (delicious pan dulce) stood behind most homes. The children crowded the fence of the school courtyard to catch a look at the gringos and ask about the soccer equipment. Although these people are also butchers, builders, and teachers they are first coffee farmers, the entire focus and economy of Capucas is centered on coffee.
The harvest was mostly finished at the lower altitude of the village, so we set off for Pablo’s, up in the mountains, to cut (pick) some coffee ourselves. Carlos took us to the end of the track in his pickup, the ubiquitous Toyota 4-wheel drive. From there we’d have to hike in, four miles of steep, muddy, slippery trails over two rickety suspension bridges. I marveled at the realization that to deliver his coffee to the cooperative, Pablo hikes this same dangerous trail while leading a mule loaded with four bags of parchment beans. Every brick, board, tile, and piece of equipment that makes his home and living on the mountain was walked up the same way. The solar panel on the roof provided just enough juice for a portable radio and Pablo’s cell phone, his only link to the village below. After a much-needed rest and some soccer for Pablo’s two adorable daughters, 5 and 3, we left the hospitality of his wife and family to cut coffee, about “five minutes away”.
An hour later found us finally at the harvest, Catura coffee growing wild on the steep mountainside under the dense canopy and choked with brambles and fallen timber. It was a challenge to remain upright, much less to maneuver close enough to select the red, ripe cherries from between the green cherries not ripe yet. An hour of concentrated cutting yielded us ¼ of a small basket of cherry each, while the eleven-year old girl cutting along with us nimbly bagged three times as much in the same time.
Returning to Pablo’s home, we loaded the cherry into the pulper and cranked it by hand, he uses a small gas engine for larger amounts. The fruit and skin fell into the compost pile while coffee beans, still in mucilage and parchment, dropped into the wooden tank for fermentation. The next day he’d wash the beans and begin the drying process. Our afternoon’s work would yield about 6 pounds of green coffee for the five of us combined.
We slogged our way back to the trailhead where Carlos’ twelve-year old son Carlitos waited with the truck. With his 4’6” frame, his feet barely touched the pedals, yet he had no difficulty negotiating the twisting rutted track while talking on his cell phone and calling out to the local girls simultaneously. Western culture is making inroads.
Back at the cooperative the pulping process was humming along, huge mechanical pulpers spitting beans into concrete-lined fermentation tanks for a day, then releasing them into washing channels before being spread onto the ½ acre of drying patio to be hand raked and dried. For extremely wet weather there were two mechanical dryers, but they weren’t needed today.
In the lab the cupper and roaster, (another) Carlos, had prepared a cupping of six micro lots and one mélange for us. The coffee was still quite new and not rested, yet cupped out quite nicely with chocolate and caramel sweetness and mango and apricot acidity, with one exception- Carlos snuck in one example of a two-year old coffee just to make sure we were paying attention and scoring honestly. We discussed with Omar (the leader of the cooperative) and Becky (the peace corps volunteer) the challenges facing the farmers, the biggest being the need to impress upon them the importance of picking only the completely ripe cherries to unlock the depth and sweetness inherent in their coffee. Each year Capucas coffee has improved, and this year’s harvest shows fine potential.
The next two mornings found us on the local soccer field, organizing 150 excited kids into groups for basic drills, fast-thinking exercises, and pick-up games. The kids were delighted and eager to please, following Omar’s translations of Akrom’s instruction energetically, and sometimes comically. The kids, and adults, seemed completely grateful for the attention and the scores of balls and equipment distributed. Our last night Britt and Trevor organized a bonfire, teaching the kids to roast marshmallows just the right amount to make S’mores (the amazing norte-americano delicacy), while Errol and I jammed on guitars we’d brought with Luis and Luis. At the end of the night we said our good-byes and Errol presented the guitars to our musician friends to keep. Luis, the pastor of one of the two churches in the village, was particularly touched by the gift.
The next morning we headed out early, the rest of the group for the airport at San Pedro Sula while I jumped out half way there to catch a ride to the Mayan ruins at Copan. I spent the entire day soaking in the energy of the beautiful, massive architecture and intricate hieroglyphics of a culture that rose, flourished, and faded over 1600 years ago. The early temples became the foundation for the next, larger temples as the structures grew in size and complexity over 400 years’ time. The Hieroglyphic Stairway stretched upward imposingly, the largest single collection of written history in all of Meso-America. Just a hundred years ago the entire complex was still swallowed by the jungle around it, years of patient study and restoration have brought it back to a shadow of it’s former splendor. Meditating quietly, I could easily picture the throngs of Mayan people inhabiting the courtyards, playing at the ball courts, worshipping at the temples, breathing life into the huge stone edifices.
As the plane left Honduras late the next day I reflected on the people whose labor make this country and their coffee. Their warm joy and enthusiasm permeate all they do, and I am grateful for the opportunity to share a taste of their experience.