Back from the Road: Sustainable Quality at Finca Mauritania12-23-09
I arrived in El Salvador two weeks ago on the first day of the coffee harvest at Finca Mauritania! It was purely coincidental, of course, but I like the correlation because it reinforces the feeling that we have gotten the year off to an auspicious beginning. Speaking of beginnings, this trip was my first to El Salvador and to the venerable Finca Mauritania, if you can believe it. I met Aida Batlle on her first trip to visit Counter Culture in 2004, only a few months after I joined the company, and since that time Counter Culture's relationship with Aida has become a model for relationships we have constructed elsewhere in the world. Various Counter Culture Coffee employees and customers have visited Aida's farms over the years to learn about the work that goes into producing her extraordinary coffee, so I headed to El Salvador with high expectations. Thankfully, I was not disappointed.
Our first order of business was to visit Aida's farms. We stopped by Finca Kilimanjaro and Finca Los Alpes before making our way to Finca Mauritania, where we arrived just as the pickers congregated to weigh and sort the day's coffee harvest. As I crouched to take photographs of the pile of beautiful, ripe coffee cherries, it occurred to me that I felt like I already knew the farm manager, Adonai, and his wife. I have seen countless photos of the perfectly-picked cherries at Finca Mauritania, and I have shown these photos to other coffee producers from around the world, only to watch them gape with disbelief: they can't believe that anyone would invest the effort in picking such uniformly ripe coffee! I hate to echo other trip reports, but it bears repeating that Aida's dedication to quality and perfectionism is unsurpassed (and maybe unsurpassable).
Different versions of coffee perfectionism were on view at two other farms we visited in other parts of Santa Ana: first, on a farm owned by Alejandro Duarte, we saw a plot of "BLC," or Bourbon Low Caffeine, planted for the famous Illy company. The experimental variety was technically a secret until about a year ago, and if you're wondering whether I got to taste it, the answer is no: this coffee is Illy's property through and through, and, in fact, if the company decides to pull out of the experiment, the producer must destroy the plants! The second version of coffee perfectionism was yet another experiment unlike any I have seen in coffee, this time in grafting: at a lower-altitude farm owned by the J. Hill Company (which owns the mill where Aida processes her coffees) they are experimenting with grafts of Bourbon-type coffea Arabica plants onto coffea Canephora, or Robusta, roots, in hopes of improving the Bourbon's drought and disease resistance. Again, I can't make any judgments on cup quality, but I felt lucky to get a sneak peak at these experiments.
But back to Aida's coffee! This year's crop of Finca Mauritania will be the seventh that Counter Culture purchases from Aida, and each year we work together to broaden the scope of our coffee experiments and to deepen our commitment to one another. This year, Aida and I picked December for a visit because the coffee harvest is not yet in full swing, and we have an unusual new coffee-related project to work on: carbon.
About six months ago, after conversations here at Counter Culture and with Meredith Taylor of Washington, DC's Peregrine Espresso (who had just begun a long-distance, sustainability-focused internship with Counter Culture), I approached Aida with a proposal to calculate the seed-to-cup carbon footprint of Finca Mauritania's coffee and to plant trees that would sequester the carbon produced at each step in the chain. Though I couldn't give her many details—at that point, I hardly even knew what I was asking for—Aida good-naturedly agreed to let us make Finca Mauritania the carbon guinea pig and to help me however she could. Meredith and I spent months learning about carbon, researching carbon calculators, testing carbon calculators, talking to carbon auditing organizations, and following just about every lead you can imagine that has the word “carbon” in it, before creating a worksheet of our own to quantify the energy used at each step in the creation and preparation of Finca Mauritania's coffee, right up to the brewing. From gallons of diesel to therms of natural gas to kilowatt hours of electricity, I haven't done this much math since high school! As we neared completion of the energy-consumption puzzle, we realized that the most challenging information to obtain was that information coming from our supply-chain partners at origin.
Beneficio Las Tres Puertas is the mill to which Aida brings Finca Mauritania's coffee for processing—that is, everything from removing the skin of the cherry to drying, sorting and bagging the coffee for export. Understanding their operation is crucial, both from the perspective of cup quality and from the carbon-footprint perspective. The mill manager, Mario Mendoza, walked us through the ecological features of the mill, including a wastewater treatment system more extensive than any I have ever seen and a unique energy generator that burns the skins of coffee cherries for fuel. It is always important to Counter Culture to meet and build trust with everyone in the supply chain, since transparency is one of the criteria for Counter Culture Direct Trade and our model relationships. This trust becomes all the more important when you're asking for something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what I was there to do: we needed to know how much energy was used to wash, dry, and prepare Finca Mauritania's coffee for export in order to calculate the total pounds of CO2 generated in that process, and Mario was eager to assist us.
Interestingly, I have found that when I tell most people about the carbon-counting project that Counter Culture, Peregrine, and Aida are undertaking together, they are really excited to hear about it and happy to get involved. When it comes to calculating a year's worth of data for the electricity used in one of our training centers or the total gallons of fuel used in transporting the coffee from El Salvador to New Jersey, sometimes the process gets a bit stickier! I keep reminding myself—and telling all of the many supply-chain participants who do the legwork of finding the information I ask for—that when we do finally fill in the blanks, find the total carbon footprint of this coffee from seed to cup, and then plant trees to sequester the carbon we collectively produce, then we will, as a group, have made an inspiring step in the direction of real sustainability. And this group includes everyone at Counter Culture Coffee. The number of miles driven and flown by Counter Culture employees contributes directly to the footprint calculations, while energy-conservation behaviors can help reduce that footprint. It is all connected.
Likewise, we are all participants! Everyone who has had a cup of one of Finca Mauritania's coffees—including Pulp Natural, Pasa, Espresso—has already become involved in this project, and that, to me, is amazing. I raise a cup of Aida's Grand Reserve to all of us in recognition of the dedication, trust and support that makes such amazing things possible!