This past harvest I visited the western part of Honduras twice, once in December with Jon, and again in February by myself. This will be our first year buying coffee from Honduras, other than a small lot we bought from the Cup of Excellence competition with Café Imports several years ago. We are a relatively small and young company, so being able to add offerings from new origins in this sort of in depth and relationship focused type of way is really exciting. More and more of our Central American offerings are coming from people we know, and places we’ve been. I believe travel really assists us in helping ourselves and our customers understand our coffee, and all that happened before it got to the cup.
Honduras is one of the largest producers of coffee in Central America. Quality-wise, there are definitely a lot of good coffees that have consistently come out of the country, but Honduran coffees have sometimes gotten a bad rap, or looked on less favorably than their northwestern neighbor, Guatemala, which has been recognized as one of the top quality producing countries in Central America. In fact, many Honduran coffee farmers used to smuggle their coffee across the border to sell as Guatemalan coffee for a higher price. One consistent argument I’ve heard (and experienced) is that the coffees lack longevity—once they get to a roaster and get into production they fade quite quickly. This overall bummer can be attributed to a few things, but likely it has to do either with what happens during the drying process, or in poor storage conditions with volatile humidity. With the right kind of infrastructure and support, however—this doesn’t need to be the case and a lot of knowledge sharing and quality focused organization can go a long way.
This year we began working with IHCAFE, (Institudo Hondureño del Café), which is a non-profit, now non-governmental regulation organization that works in the interest of coffee producers in Honduras. We have started working in the western part of the country, and will continue our focus there with the support of IHCAFE and Beneficio Santa Rosa. For a company of our size, (and really a lot of companies quite a bit larger than us) it is vital to find people within the countries we buy from to work with and support the producers we buy from in order to make any sort of “direct” relationship possible. Sure, in many cases it is the buyer who influences what people do, or things they will try—but I don’t believe we’ll ever be the whole supply chain. The nature of what we strive for and the type of coffee we want to roast and serve depends on the collective cooperation of many different people in different roles with different expertise. With travel, conversation and feedback, connecting all these people is what helps to motivate and drive this whole system.
In December we visited the far western departments of Ocotepeque, Copan and Lempira, which are the areas we’ve bought coffee from this year. Honduras, like many countries in Central America, was hit particularly bad with the coffee leaf rust fungus this year. Many of the lower grown coffees are suffering more, but the higher grown coffees are certainly not unaffected. For many coffee farmers, particularly in rural areas and already without abundant resources, this fast spreading fungus has seriously damaged their crop. Production will be down this year and for years to come as the necessary pruning and farm re-building happens. In other countries I visited on my trip in February, El Salvador and Costa Rica, many of farms are simply being abandoned. It becomes much more profitable to sell land to developers, than to burden the cost of the loss and recovery of the farm. In Costa Rica, many producers are simply getting out of the business—particularly in areas like Central Valley and many of the lower elevation farms—because the land has just become “too valuable” to grow coffee on. In Honduras this is rarely the case; the need to push through and recover is vital to coffee farmers’ livelihoods, and generally they will continue to find a way with coffee, rather than completely switching over to another crop or selling land.
Coffee tree on the left affected by leaf rust, tree on the right is Lempira variety.
Alongside massive pruning and fungicide, many producers have opted to plant more rust resistant varieties—generally Catimor types (a variety cross between Hibrido de Timor, which is part Robusta, and part Caturra, an Arabica type which is a mutant of Bourbon). In Honduras the most common one is called Lempira (yes, same as the department as well as the currency and probably lots of other things in Honduras. Lempira was a Lenca ruler in the 1530s.) The problem with some of these Catimor types is that the cup quality can sometimes be considerably lower than a 100% Arabica variety—but that that is certainly not always the case. With the right growing conditions, Catimors can cup out pretty well. There’s a greater risk to quality in choosing to plant “Arabusta” types, but there’s a great risk to overall production and the health of the farm choosing to plant low yielding or rust susceptible varieties in a place where the rust is a huge problem. I think folks need to be cautious about criticizing all Catimor type coffees, particularly if they are not familiar with the growing conditions and situations of the farmers in any one area. Quality cannot drive everything alone, but that’s a whole other conversation...
This year, we’ll be offering five different coffees from Honduras, all from the Ocotepeque region except one, which is from Copan (but nearly bordering Ocotepeque). More about each individual coffee will be available as they get released, but I wanted to touch on a couple here and share some more about our trip.
Finca Buena Vista
Juan Jose Alvarado and family own this beautiful little farm, located near the town of Yaruchel in Ocotepeque. The farm is just two manzanas large (about the size of three football fields) and is planted entirely with the Pacas variety of coffee. Fifteen years ago, the farm was planted entirely with potatoes (though no potato defect has been detected in the coffee. Har har.) The family was already in the coffee business with a much larger, lower elevation farm, when Juan Jose’s father (also Juan) decided he wanted to plant coffee at Buena Vista as well. A friend of his from El Salvador recommended that he plant the Pacas variety—that it was the best, and so he did. Many years later after the farm was producing a full crop, his son Juan Jose wanted to enter the family’s coffee into the Cup of Excellence competition. In 2012, their first year in the competition, they placed 9th and were the second highest bidding price per pound, which is how we found them.
We visited the Aruco mill, named after a nearby river, with Juan Jose (Jr.), where the coffee from Buena Vista is patio dried. Coffee from Buena Vista is processed at the family’s other farm and dried to 40% moisture—then brought to the mill where it is finished on the patio and dry milled. At the farm, we walked up to the top of the steep hill to look around—Buena Vista means “nice view” and it really was quite nice. In early December, they were still in the very beginning of the harvest there, so only Juan Jose “dad” and his two sons were picking what had already ripened. Luckily, the farm had no coffee leaf rust damage, and so far has none this year.
Our visit to the farm ended with a refreshing miller lite out of the cooler and high fives before we got in the truck to drive up to Belén Gualcho.
Belén Gualcho, Ocotepeque
The little town of Belén Gualcho is very peaceful. It feels very isolated, simple and balanced. I feel like it’s the kind of town I’d want to live in if I did live in a small town. There’s a few little stores, a “restaurant” which is more like someone’s kitchen, the town square, even a dive bar, and a gorgeous 300 year old church which stands at the top of the hill. I’ve always lived in cities, and I like nature, but I find that I’m drawn to the things within nature that indicate some sort of human presence. To find evidence of people in the most isolated areas intrigues me more than mountains or bodies of water alone. Even finding just a candy wrapper or a lost toy seems to enhance the experience for me, particularly in place you wouldn’t expect to find them. I felt the same way about visiting Huehuetenango in Guatemala, or wandering on an isolated beach in Java. The weird thing about these places though—more and more—is that the internet is EVERYWHERE. The way people in these isolated places and coffee growers begin to connect more and more to other towns and cities, their supporting organizations, their buyers, is really interesting.
The producers in Belén Gualcho are part of a cooperative—Cooperativa Mixta Belén Gualcho Ltda. (COMIXBEL). There are 36 coop members and each produces somewhere between five and ten bags of coffee per harvest. The group has sold their coffee collectively, but in recent years has separated various producer and variety lots to create “micro lots”, some of which have been entered into Cup of Excellence competitions and have placed. Belén Gualcho has quite a lot going for them. They’ve got a favorable climate, the altitude ranges between 1600 and 1950 meters or so, they are already planting varieties that have generally proven quality—mostly Bourbon, Caturra and Catuai. On my second trip in February, we brought cupping supplies up to the town and held a friendly coffee competition with the members of the coop. Most of the producers submitted lots, which were cupped by myself and other cuppers from IHCAFE. This little “competition” was definitely fun, and there were some really great coffees in the lots submitted—but the thing that really stood out to me amongst the coffees was what seemed to be an error in processing. Many of the coffees cupped out dirty, or had various levels of fermentation issues. This isn’t something to dismiss the entire area on, as these were just random day lots from each of the producers that they decided to submit (likely without tasting it themselves); but it did speak to the one issue the area seems to have. The cooperative members process coffee from their own farms on their own or share equipment. This is sometimes problematic, as conditions seem to vary from home to home—coffee drying out on the floor next to the kitchen or a fire, improperly cleaned equipment which leads to ferment problems etc. However, there is a sense of pride that comes from processing the coffee in one’s home in Belén. Quality problems that only stem from poor processing are something that can be learned and fixed with some education and support. Many of the producers in Belén Gualcho are beginning or have been doing some really impressive practices for the area—including parabolic dryers (covered, raised beds), monitoring drying times, and improving on their growing practices. IHCAFE is providing considerable support and education for the area it seems. On my second visit there, we visited Belén Gualcho again to see some of the education sessions being taught by IHCAFE agronomists and trainers. The Tenorio family (which we will offer some coffee from this year) offered their farm and space to teach workshops on pruning, pest control—specifically battling the broca, or coffee borer beetle—and battling coffee leaf rust.
As we visited many of the coop members’ homes in December, we saw that a few of them were making significant improvements to their coffee processing. Some had newly installed solar/parabolic dryers (raised drying beds with a protective cover), and in fact the prize for the winner of the local competition was a raised bed from IHCAFE. I think the progress to be made in this little area is happening and it’s going to be awesome.
During the first visit to Belén Gualcho in December, Jon wanted to go a little higher up the hill to an area called La Mohaga, where he did his Peace Corps stint several years back. The entire coop came with us, including the mayor of the town, and we had an amazing cookout in a field complete with some shots of the local moonshine made from blackberries. The enthusiasm and encouragement that comes from the parts of the chain connecting is really powerful both for the producers and for us, and I hope that it comes through to the people who drink our coffee!
Please look out for coffees from the following producers we’ll be offering over the next couple of months!
Finca Buena Vista, Juan Jose Alvarado – Yaruchel, Ocotepeque, Honduras
Francisco Esteban Mejia Rodriguez – La Labor, Ocotepeque, Honduras
Salvador and Christhian Tenorio – Belén Gualcho, Ocotepeque, Honduras
Edgar Enemecio Marquez – Belén Gualcho, Ocotepeque, Honduras
Irma Angelica Landaverde – Corquín, Copan, Honduras