Back from the Road: Honduras y La Serie Profesional
Tim and I just returned home from Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, where we spent last weekend in the company of 20 of Counter Culture's coffee-grower partners from Central America at the first-ever supply-side Professional Series – La Serie Profesional en español – talking about experiments (and those of you that know the two of us will recognize that I love to talk and Tim loves to experiment so, needless to say, we had a great weekend!).
Experimentation was one of the event's two main topics, alongside organic agriculture practices, but the concept of experimentation frames the whole event, which was something of an experiment in and of itself. Sure, Counter Culture has taught labs for more years than I have worked with the company and coffee education comes in all shapes and sizes, so in some sense this event was a logical extension of our strong supply-chain relationships and our dedication to sharing information. At the same time, La Serie Profesional represents our first foray into formal coffee grower education, so I felt the nervous excitement that accompanies a good experiment as I prepared for the event over the weeks leading up to it.
Here's what I was thinking: we work with knowledgeable and talented coffee growers all over the world, and, due to all sorts of circumstances, some growers have more expertise in certain areas of coffee production and other growers have more expertise in other areas. In the Coffee Department, we do our best to make recommendations to curious, quality-driven farmers based upon what we see, but often we lose track of important details or find ourselves unable to answer specific questions because we lack personal experience in the area that we're reporting on – like, say, building a compost system or a bed for drying coffee. It would be great if more growers visited each others' farms! I decided, and set about trying to make farmer-to-farmer exchanges happen between growers with complementary areas of expertise in close geographic proximity to one another. The more that we tried to encourage exchange, the more obvious it became that our conversation would benefit from more voices, and thus began the planning for La Serie Profesional!
Central America is unique among coffee-growing regions for the large number of growers and groups we work with; for having a single, dominant language; and for the relative ease of transportation between farms, regions, and countries. We invited growers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua to centrally-located Santa Rosa de Copán, where we work with a miller and exporter called Beneficio Santa Rosa, for a two-day workshop on topics we chose for their relevance to all parties, in this case organic agriculture and quality experiments. As cars (mostly trucks, really) pulled up to the mill from all over Central America and growers began to introduce themselves to one another, I had my fingers crossed that we had chosen our topics and our group wisely.
We kicked things off with a session on organic agriculture which built on the personal testimony of Roberto Salazar, I introduced him as "the worm guy," since that's what we have called him around here for years, little knowing that I would stick him with a less-than-ideal nickname among his peers. The health and stable production of Finca Pashapa's coffee plants was one of the factors that inspired this event, and I wanted to share his successes in order to get conversation off on the right foot, but I needn't have worried: before Roberto finished talking, half of the growers in the room had interjected questions, begun to describe their methods, and suggested that they could work together on developing better solutions. The energy of the room carried us all through almost three hours of discussion, compost show-and-tell (we asked everyone to bring samples), and, finally ,a call to action by Orlando Arita, a grower from nearby La Labor, Honduras, who suggested forming a committee to collaborate and share best practices.
Session two shifted focus from soil to cup-quality experiments, which is an area where many of our partners in Central America have made great strides over the past few years – adopting East African fermentation and soaking techniques, for example, or separating coffee varieties – but which others of our partners have barely begun to consider. Moises Herrera of Finca El Puente recounted their family's journey from creating a single, undefined lot of coffee to this year's experiments with varieties, geographic area sorting, and post-wash soaking, with all the twists and turns along the way. Although many of the assembled growers foresaw challenges to experimentation and lot separation on their farms and in their cooperatives, they all agreed to think about which experiment they might undertake and to talk about it in the next day's small-group discussion. That night, as we walked to one of my favorite restaurants in Santa Rosa de Copán for a delicious and meat-filled dinner, I felt gratified to eavesdrop on conversations between Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans who continued to reflect on the day's discussions and trade tips long after the sessions had ended.
Saturday began with a fantastic and thought-provoking cupping of four coffee pairs, each pair containing an example of a quality experiment and a sample we called normal (while recognizing that every coffee is a different version of normal, of course). Tim and I decided to keep the origins of the coffees a secret in order to avoid getting hung up on which coffees tasted better, and instead focused on the differences between coffees in each pair, whether it was a separation by variety, by process, by ripeness, or some combination of the three. As we slurped, I marveled at the number of producers cupping but also at the conversation that the cupping inspired. Having introduced these concepts and looked at photographs the day before, we all had context for what post-wash soaking meant by that point, but tasting the same coffee in soaked and non-soaked iterations grounded that newly-learned practice in a cup-quality difference that every attendee could perceive.
If the first session on organic agriculture spoke to the day-to-day life of the attendees, the last session, on the interest of the market (and by that I mean our customers, since these growers all work with Counter Culture), pushed the boundaries of most of their experience. I worried that I might lose their interest with the breadth of the subject – not to mention that no one ever has quite the energy on the second day of an event as on the first – but, in fact, the consumer perspective is very much on the minds of our producer partners and one even suggested that consumer interests could be a topic for the next Serie Profesional. Speaking of suggestions for a follow-up session, we have a whole list of those after ending the event with small-group discussions on how to implement changes this year that will bring every producer and group closer to shared goals of sustainable organic production and better-tasting coffee.
I have always felt that we work with amazing people and the more years we spend working together, the more I appreciate the relationships and coffees we have built together. One thing that distinguishes us as a company, and it came up in discussion at the event, was that we don't just want to find great coffee in our supply chains through cupping, we want to create it through collaboration. I felt so gratified to be able to tap into the network of knowledge and skills of these 25 producers in this first Serie Profesional, and I can't wait to see – and taste – the long-term results!
Origin Pro Series Launches in Honduras
Baristas have it kind of easy when it comes to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing: Most folks can get to a local TNT or barista jam by hopping on a subway car or putting their bike pedals to the metal. But what about coffee producers? What kind of opportunities exist for farm owners and crop managers to gather in a room and share ideas, ask each other questions, and maybe even commiserate a little?
Hopefully, that sort of thing just got at little easier – at least for a select group of producers in Central America.
Last week, our Sustainability & Producer Relations Manager, Kim Elena Bullock, traveled to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, to host the first-ever "Origin Pro Series," which she describes as a kind of "grower's summit on soil fertility and quality experiments."
Kim Elena said the idea sprung from a kind of intellectual match-making that she and Tim Hill, our Coffee Buyer & Quality Manager, had long been trying to arrange between two of their most experimental and quality-obsessed producing partners: Aida Batlle of Finca Mauritania in El Salvador, and Roberto Salazar of the Honduran farm Finca Pashapa.
"Aida wanted to learn about Roberto's organic composting success, and Roberto expressed interest in Aida's quality systems," Kim Elena said. "And, the farms lie less than four hours from one another by road!"
The relative geographic closeness of the two farms, as well as both growers' enthusiasm for learning more from one another, got Bullock thinking: "It occurred to me that other growers and co-ops would also benefit from Roberto's knowledge of soil amendments and Aida's experience with quality experimentation. So what if we got a group of Central American producers whom we know to be capable of creating great-quality coffee into a room to talk about the issues that we hear the most questions about, namely, organic agriculture practices and quality development?"
Kim Elena and Tim, along with Counter Intelligence manager Lydia Iannetti, developed a two-day curriculum geared toward providing a group of Counter Culture's Central American producing partners – from growers to co-op leaders – a chance to learn from one another in person, rather than having to hear anecdotes or conduct isolated research on their own.
"We buyers, who visit farms regularly, see certain farmers excel at different areas of coffee growing and processing, and we do our best to cross-pollinate and share best practices between them," Kim Elena said. "[Our] lack of personal experience on … topics where we find ourselves giving advice definitely limits the extent to which we can address concerns; other growers with years of successes and failures can much more effectively help their peers find answers to these questions."
Kim Elena & Co. decided to focus this inaugural program on two prominent issues facing small farmers and co-ops: organic soil fertility and the risk-reward balance of conducing quality-based experiments. Kim Elena explains, "We are unusual among quality-focused coffee companies for our commitment to organic certification, and one of the most common issues that certified organic farms face, especially small farms, is the availability of certified farm inputs that will help them to maintain consistent yields and fertile soil.
Our second topic – quality experiments – complements our dedication to sustainability with our pursuit of new, different, interesting flavors in coffee. We want growers to experiment with varieties, processes and lot separation and offer price incentives to encourage that experimentation, but many growers find it intimidating because it's a risk, and they have only heard tell of these experiments, never seen them or met growers that have succeeded at producing exceptional results."
Around 20 growers and co-op representatives from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala took part in the first incarnation of this program, which has an open-ended future. "I feel confident that in addition to encouraging practices that increase productivity and improve quality, this event demonstrates Counter Culture’s commitment to our partners and will in turn strengthen their commitment to us as a buyer," said Kim Elena. "It's not the only event to bring producers together to share experiences – from Let's Talk Coffee to Ramacafe to EAFCA, there are plenty of grower-focused conferences – but it is unique for its focus on only two topics, intimate class size, and single-language presentation."
Check back for Kim Elena's full report on the program.