Hello from the Road: More from San Ignacio, Peru!
To pick up where I left off last week, I spent Friday in Jaen doing training at Cenfrocafe's new coffee shop in the morning, and yet again, I was impressed by a 100 percent Peruvian espresso blend and by the unabashed enthusiasm of the shop's baristas to learn more and improve their craft. In the afternoon, we cupped a bunch of samples in Cenfrocafe's lab with their crack team of cuppers. We were pretty calibrated last year, but it's always good to take advantage of opportunities to talk about coffee profiles and to taste other coffees from the other regions in which Cenfrocafe works. Of all the samples, my favorite was the one from San Ignacio, followed closely by the sample from Chirinos (Intelligentsia's producer partners). We build our lot from the coffee tendered to Cenfro in July and August, so the process is really just beginning.
Saturday, I headed back to San Ignacio for a meeting with representatives of a program called Pro-Santuario that is working to strengthen conservation projects in the Santuario Nacional de Tabaconas-Namballe (the Santuario of our coffee's name). Their means to achieving these goals include building stable economies for the communities of the region and fulfilling basic gaps in infrastructure, because in the absence of stable economies and basic infrastructure (water) drive people to exploit the protected sanctuary for their survival. We strategized about how quality coffee can help foster healthy soil, plant diversity, and a culture of environmental sustainability. It's fair to say that our grower partners in Peru are pioneers in sustainable agriculture as they strive to grow great coffee in harmony with the natural environment but also commit themselves to conservation on a larger scale as stewards of the Santuario.
I spent the next two days in Alta Ihuamaca, the village that Peter and I visited in September. Sunday afternoon is the time of the week to see and be seen in the village, so after some time among the coffee plants in the morning, we spent the rest of the day between social visits and the weekly cockfight. I shared our photographs, coffee bios, and "Source" bags all over the communities, but in Alta Ihuamaca I had the pleasure of presenting one of our "Source" postcards to the grower who appears in the photo (his name is Silvio). He blushed and smiled, then commented that he wished he had shaved that day! As in the other communities I visited, the farms here look great: healthy, well-fertilized plants with lush, abundant shade. Drying coffee is a challenge in this misty climate, even with the raised bed systems that Cenfro has helped the farmers construct. We will focus some attention on this issue over the next couple of years in order to further overall crop quality.
One of the farms I revisited was that of Zacarías Neyra, one of our three microlot producers from last year. Like Aquino Huachez, Zacarías goes the extra mile to produce quality: varietals, harvesting ripe cherry, attention to detail in processing and constant farm improvement set him apart even in this field of great growers. Zacarías has made himself a leader and set an example for quality among the growers, and I expect that he'll continue to take on more responsibility within the co-operative as well as continuing to improve the quality of his crop. After dinner on Sunday, Zacarías and few other farmers and I stayed up late into the night discussing dream interpretation, witchcraft, and fate by candlelight. As I walked home night under the stars, I couldn't help feeling that this little valley is more than a little bit enchanted.
Leaving Alta Ihuamaca on Monday meant beginning the long, slow trip back to the States. I had one final meeting with Cenfrocafe on Tuesday to talk about project possibilities for the future, and today I'm back at Café Verde in Lima.
I miss you all and I look forward to seeing all of you soon! Until then, que les vaya bien.
From the Road: San Ignacio, Peru!
Hi from Jaen, Peru!
Jaen is a bustling city in the Cajamarca region of the north, known for rice and coffee (depending on your interest, I suppose). It's the gateway to San Ignacio and the farms of Valle del Santuario and a natural stopping point in the multi-part journey to the valley.
I arrived in Lima early on Monday morning and spent the day hanging out at Café Verde, a coffee shop founded by our friend K.C. O'Keefe and staffed by a crack team of roasters, cuppers and beautiful-shot pouring baristas. The dedication to quality, freshness, information, and coffee culture at Café Verde really raises the bar for consumers in Peru – their all-Peruvian espresso is delicious – and is one of few of its kind anywhere (you've all heard my complaints about the coffee consumed at origin in Latin America). Sarah Kluth from Intelligentsia and I led the baristas in a latte-art throw down, which I did not win. They have some good baristas, but, in fact, I did pretty poorly by any standard. Oops, sorry guys!
But lest I wallow in shame, let's get back to the reason I'm here: the farms! We flew to Chiclayo later that day and crossed the Andes to Jaen in the dark, which was beautiful in a whole different way from the drive I recalled from last year: as we reached the top, the moon and stars seemed impossibly bright on the mountainsides as we looked at the dark valleys below. On Tuesday morning, we met with the president and other representatives of Cenfrocafe, the second-level association of farmers to which the first-level co-ops of Valle del Santuario
belong. We discussed our shared goals and some potential for joint projects in the farming communities, which I will be following up on with their project manager in another meeting this weekend. The best part of the meeting, however, was getting to show the leadership of the association how we promote our coffee and projects through our website. It's unusual to have access to the internet with anyone on the farming end, so that was a treat, but when I pulled up the Valle del Santuario page
and showed links to the Google map, our trip reports, photographs, CCDTC standards
and the coffee-person interview with Elmer
, my heart almost burst with pride.
After the meeting, it was back to the tried-and-true white Toyota Corolla for the last leg of the journey: north through San Ignacio to the valley itself, where I arrived in the town of Las Mercedes at the home of Aquino Huachez Huachez, one of last year's microlot winners! Exhausted from two days of travel, I fell asleep that night to the sounds of Aquino's five children laughing and the rain beating steadily on the tin roof. Wednesday began with a meeting of the five community associations to discuss the past year and our and hopes for the future. Rising costs and the falling value of the dollar puts pressure on all of our relationships, so although this is one of the relationships we are most proud of for the prices paid, the quality produced and the transparency we have across the supply chain, it's still full of challenges. Thankfully, navigating those challenges makes relationships stronger and Counter Culture is pretty good at it!
I was looking forward to hiking around some farms after the meeting, and I was not disappointed, for the day turned into an epic adventure in the pouring rain that included a backside-slide down a muddy trail, whispered discussion about whether the farmer in the lead does, indeed, know where he's going and, of course, some beautiful, beautiful farms. Most of these farmers have between two and five acres of coffee, nestled on misty mountainsides under the shade of fruit, lumber, and native trees. I loved seeing many examples of the native fig trees that give Ihuamaca its name and inspired our Valle Del Santuario icon! These farmers are mid-harvest at the moment, which made the tours more interesting and the accompaniment of 20 or 30 members even more of an honor. We finished the hike on Aquino's farm, where he has planted the Bourbon variety almost exclusively. The farm looks great, but this year might be a tough one for him and for many in the co-op because an early rain damaged the crop and will lower their output.
A spontaneous game of volleyball, organized (and dominated) by the women of the group, was the perfect end to the day. This morning, I visited more farms in the town of Bajo Ihuamaca, then returned to Jaen in anticipation of a day of barista training at Cenfrocafe's new coffee shop here and cupping with Cenfrocafe's cupping team tomorrow. On Saturday, it's back to the chacras (that's Peruvian slang for farms), the fig trees, the guinea pigs, and the sanctuary! I am sharing all of your respect, gratitude and affection with our partners here, and I hope that I can communicate their mutually admiring feelings to all of you. I miss you all and can't wait to share more stories and photographs in the days to come!