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  • Belén Gualcho, Ocotepeque, Honduras

    On every trip to Honduras I am welcomed warmly in Belén Gualcho and always treated with great respect—from the first visit and with each subsequent trip. I think I might be in love with the place. I’ve written about it in previous blogs, it’s a serene town with a small population tucked into the mountains in Ocotepeque, the farthest western region of Honduras. The people are of Lenca descent, the indigenous people to this part of Honduras and the eastern tip of El Salvador. A towering, three hundred-year-old white colonial church is the structural focal point, juxtaposed against humble, mostly one level homes and businesses. On my last visit, the outside of the church was being restored—the domed tops with new paint in bright colors. I love eating at Comedor Raquel, a dark cozy dining room lit by the light of the doorway and a fuzzy TV in the corner. She serves typical food, which usually includes a simple chicken broth soup with yucca and corn, a part of most farm meals across Central America. The tortillas are thick and small, just bigger than my palm, and there’s this soft salty cheese called cuajada—a common, really simple milk curd cheese. I particularly love the consistency and texture of this cheese in western Honduras. I usually eat a lot of it alongside of a bottle of vinegary, blackberry wine. The pace is slow, which in some sense is not that great for the progress of coffee, but it does give a place a cultural calm.

    Coffee is a large part of the economy in Belén, which is why the push to increase quality is increasingly important. There is concern for the future here, but a lack of urgency when it comes to planning ahead, which is cultural but not immutable. Some type of cultural shift is necessary if the community wants to use coffee as a way to improve lives and create stability. I have seen coffee progress in this community in the three years we’ve been trying to buy. The people of Belén are already hard working, I imagine that the community can continue to change to meet the speed and diligence of a new way of coffee and still maintain their calm way of life.

    To effectively convince coffee producers interested in specialty to take a risk, make an investment, or change what they’ve been doing for decades is to show that the risk pays off—and maybe a few times. Our first year in Honduras and the following, we bought a really tiny amount of coffee from Edgar Enemecio Marquez, the coop president at the time. Really, just a few bags. Between that year and the next harvest, he built a large parabolic dryer (a covered area of raised beds to control the coffee drying process) to improve the quality and longevity of his coffee. That year we also asked him to separate out his Catuaí, Typica and Lempira varieties partway through the season, but agreed to buy the lots he had already blended with Lempira (a lower quality catimor type) for a lower price. This year, he separated from the start, rehabbed his fermentation tanks, and we were able to buy all of the coffee he offered us. These practices seem like a no brainer for quality and compiling information about a farm or process, but if it hasn’t been in regular practice for a whole coffee farming life, it’s not so easy to implement.

    Consistency is one of the principle issues for Belén Gualcho and much of it is centered around processing. This was part of the reason we had difficulty getting repeatable lots from the same producers each year. Lot separation and good record keeping are still relatively new practices and the ability to connect a defective cup to a specific action is difficult, especially when the producers aren’t cuppers. The lab might be able to tell them specifically how the defect was created, but by then the coffee may have already been blended into other coffees, or the problem may have already been repeated several times. Right now, everyone processes coffee in their homes or with shared equipment and every situation is different. There are cleanliness issues with depulpers and fermentation tanks and inadequate drying and storage space. Many of these problems can be addressed with education, which Instituto Hondureño del Café has been providing and pushing, but the cultural shift to change still has to come from within. A handful of producers have built parabolic dryers which is an investment and a step forward, but I’ve seen a number of situations where they weren’t using them properly because they didn’t know how. The education component of progress is just as important as the tools. You can’t buy a Stradivarius and expect it will make you excellent at violin without lessons.

    I really wanted to increase our volume with the Belén coop, but it was difficult the way we had been buying—tiny, tiny lots from individual producers. My hope was that we would find enough of these lots to keep separate so that we might buy a decent quantity from this community and be able to highlight each farmer’s individual stories. I thought that the way we could show other producers in the community that certain practices were working was to keep these farmer specific lots separate and really celebrate the work of one producer or family. That perhaps a producer seeing her peer celebrated and paid well for good coffee would motivate her to want that too.

    I began to better understand the community and the coop. My ideas about how I should approach this coffee shifted. The people of Belén Gualcho are a community, and the coop does matter. There is no ego. When one producer does well—sells some coffee, wins a competition, the success is embraced by the whole community, not only the individual. The only way we were going to be able to get some volume from Belén Gualcho that was consistent and balanced was to blend the top scoring producer’s coffees together. What a genius idea! (Note: Intended sarcasm.) The ability to increase our buying volume overall was going to have much more of an impact on the producers in Belén than what we had been doing. We put together coffees from five different producers—some of them scored in the 86+ points and some of them scored in the 84 point range. Instead of only accepting coffee from the highest scoring coffees we blended so that the lower scorers that we thought had potential could be lifted by the higher scoring coffee and we could create a larger, balanced lot. It’s sort of amusing and a good reminder for me that it’s not possible to just jump into a place steps beyond where people are. I know this, and it applies to everything we do in specialty coffee.

    A month ago I rewrote our outdated “sourcing” page on the website. I feared sounding overly romantic or trite—of course we try to develop relationships, of course we care about producers, of course we want people to be paid fairly. Every coffee company trying to be successful in a niche and socially conscious consumer market aims to do these things. Our basic approach doesn’t make us different from our peers, but it does make us different from the larger global coffee trade. I tried to think of not what makes us “different” but what the core ideas have been as our sourcing program developed and evolved. There are a lot of things about the sourcing in Belén Gualcho that reflect an important part of our approach—beyond the obvious aspect of seeking out quality. I think what we do is balanced, and that we are not afraid of taking on risk in order to take a chance on someone and grow from the ground up. We do that with our wholesale customers too—there’s no requirement for existing excellence, only that they want to work to get there. We’ve been fortunate that others gave us the benefit of the doubt in the very beginning, and that early support rewards both ends long into the future. If we can continue to see the big picture in whatever sector of the specialty coffee industry we’re in, I think we’ll bring a lot more people into the fold.

    Buy our current offering from Belén Gualcho here.

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