Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
From the Road: After Ocotepeque … El Puente!
Tim and I headed north to the commercial city of San Pedro Sula, where we said farewell to Roberto and greeted Marysabel Caballero and her father, Fabio. Fabio's humor and Marysabel's joie de vivre are infectious, and every time we're together I am reminded of what I mean when I tell people that our grower partners treat us like family, and vice versa.
Though San Pedro Sula is smaller than Honduras' capital city, Tegucigalpa, it plays an undeniably important role in Honduran coffee in general and, more specifically, in Counter Culture Coffee's lot of Finca El Puente. The climate of San Pedro Sula is a source of frustration to anyone who purchases coffee from Honduras, because almost all of the country's coffee is milled and stored here before it ships, and the city's constant heat and humidity is unbelievable and, for coffee, unbearable. Personally, I kind of like it, but coffee needs a cool, dry environment or it risks losing delicate, delicious flavors to woody, flat ones. Buyers like Counter Culture Coffee are bending over backwards to avoid that crash by using special bags to protect the coffee from moist, hot air, and by trying to insure that coffee spends as little time as possible in SPS, but ultimately we know that the city jeopardizes great coffee.
Whenever we're in SPS, we spend time cupping with Boncafe's cuppers, exporter Cristian Lesage, and the Caballero/Herrera family, and this trip was no different: we tasted 30 samples from different parcels and pickings of the farm that ranged in quality from just-okay coffee to truly beautiful coffee. To build our lot of coffee, we cup the best samples again at our lab here in North Carolina, rank them, and purchase the ones at the top of the list. After the morning's focused cupping session, we spent time relaxing, enjoying each other's company and talking about life and all of the Counter Culture Coffee employees, customers and friends that Marysabel and Fabio remember from their trip to North Carolina – for anyone who missed it, Counter Culture Coffee had the great pleasure of hosting Fabio, Marysabel, and Moises and their children, Ezri and Fabio Moises, for events in three of our training centers in August of 2007.
We jumped back into the world of coffee when we arrived at the family's home in Marcala, in the southern region of La Paz. Moises held down the fort around the farm and mill while Marysabel and Fabio met us in San Pedro Sula, and he was ready to talk processing and quality as soon as he saw us: we were immediately whisked away to the farm's mill, Xinacla, where we discussed some of the improvements that they have made over this past season. The biggest changes, and those that we spent the most time discussing on this trip and in the weeks that led up to this trip, were changes in the farm's drying process from all-mechanically-dried processing to some-mechanical-some-patio-dried processing. Why the change? Well, there are a couple of reasons, but the first one is, unsurprisingly, cup quality. This year's coffee from Finca El Puente aged unusually rapidly, and while we're all for seasonality and using coffee while it's at its peak, 2008's lot dropped so precipitously that we chose to pull it out of our rotation even before it went out of season. Mechanical coffee dryers have a bad reputation when it comes to their effect on cup quality and coffee longevity: we suspect that even the greatest coffee, when dried at high temperatures in mechanical dryers, loses positive cup characteristics (like the signature floral, berry, and otherwise "purple" flavors of Finca El Puente) to unpleasant cup characteristics (like woody, papery flavors) much more quickly than it should. It's also important to mention that this bad reputation is somewhat undeserved, because when mechanical dryers run at low temperatures, they can do a good job drying coffee.
But putting the ins and outs of drying aside, this year's cup-quality issue put our whole supply chain on red alert and we have been working, as a group, to insure that we don't have the same problem again this year. Investigating the role of the mechanical dryer is an example of the effort that the growers are making to insure quality in the cup, because drying coffee on patios takes longer and requires more labor, which makes it more expensive than mechanical drying. The family has worked closely with all of the farm's employees to improve the standard of ripeness for coffee picked this year, as well, which should help the coffees' sweetness and endurance. The exporter, Boncafe, has also committed to doing their part by moving Finca El Puente's coffee out of San Pedro Sula's humid climate as quickly as possible and particularly avoiding the delays that may have negatively affected last year's lot. At the mill and on the farm, we spent a lot of time talking through each step of the process together and all of us – Finca El Puente, Boncafe and Counter Culture Coffee – are all confident that this year's coffee will taste better and last longer than last year's coffee.
None of us would have chosen to have a coffee-quality problem, of course, but times like these are good reminders of what strong relationships are like: not only are we not giving up and working on the problem together, we're also promising to be completely honest about the risks we're taking and the reservations we have about the process. We recognize that to move forward, we need to learn from each year's challenges and adjust our actions and expectations accordingly. This coffee, and this relationship, is too important to us to lose over one year's disappointment! So we're pressing ahead with high hopes, lots of communication and copious taste-testing and comparative cupping throughout the year.
On the farm the next day after seeing the changes at Xinacla, we visited some of our favorite parts of Finca El Puente, including Los Cipreses, where the altitude and cool climate contribute to a much later ripening period – I'm talking loads of green coffee on the trees in the middle of March, when the rest of the farm is easing off production – and the beautiful waterfall, ensconced and protected by the farm, that inspired the coffee's icon. We admired Fabio's composting project, which uses coffee pulp and the manure from his cows, toured through downtown Marcala and finished the day with a family dinner, more stories, and a renewed sense of commitment to one another. I'm proud of the work we're doing and our collective dedication (which includes the dedication of the coffee drinkers among you!) to Finca El Puente's delicious coffee. I am looking forward to a great cup when the new crop arrives!
Back from the Road: Finca Pashapa
The journey continues! After crossing the border between Esquipulas, Guatemala, and Nueva Ocotepeque, Honduras, in a taxi that reeked of gasoline fumes and broke down twice (even the dull moments aren't entirely dull on these trips), Tim and I met up with Roberto Salazar, the man driving the success of the incomparable Finca Pashapa. Counter Culture's relationship with Finca Pashapa is one of our oldest—going on seven years!—and, as we drove to the farm, we reminisced with Roberto about how much both of our operations have grown and changed in the intervening years. Once known as Organic French Roast, we now recognize the Salazar family's coffee as Finca Pashapa, and we've never felt better about the always-sweet, silky-bodied, and balanced coffee the farm produces.
If you remember nothing else about Roberto from Finca Pashapa trip reports and coffee biographies, you probably remember that this farm has the most impressive worm composting system I have ever seen, and, in fact, that system is a major contributing factor to Pashapa's economic sustainability as well as environmental sustainability because it helps them to make all of the compost that their farm requires. All of it! That's amazing!
I find this so inspiring because organic agriculture requires, of course, that growers comply with rules about what kind of inputs (like fertilizers and herbicides) they can apply to their plants but also stipulates monitoring the health of the soil that they cultivate. Healthy soil (as well as healthy coffee plants) requires a mixture of nutrients and providing those nutrients organically tends to be more expensive for growers than applying synthetic fertilizers. Those higher costs are a major challenge for many certified organic farms as well as an obstacle for many sustainably-minded small farms considering certification.
When a farm like Finca Pashapa demonstrates that it is possible to manufacture all of the necessary fertilizers on the farm using materials found on the farm, my heart soars and I feel a renewed commitment to supporting our certified organic grower partners and further promoting organic agriculture with those partners not yet certified. Did I mention that Finca Pashapa also have some of the highest and most stable yields of coffee per hectare of any organic farm I have seen, anywhere? Double-amazing!
Finca Pashapa might seem too good to be true except that they came to this holistic approach and integrated farming system by way of multiple generations of chemical-fertilizer, conventional coffee farming. According to Roberto, the family's quest to become the model organic farmers they are today began little over a decade ago when they recognized that in milling coffee at their house without regard for the water and waste created in the process, they had become the biggest polluters in their town. The impact of their actions dawned on them, and they started looking for opportunities to improve, and there's something in the Salazar blood that drives them to grab hold of an idea and not let go until they've figured it out.
Their approach to quality began the same way, with a cupping class that initially made Roberto laugh before he tried it (Slurping? Spitting? Is this for real?), but he enjoyed it and decided that he wanted to be good at it. Since that first day 8 years ago, he has gone on to serve as a judge in Cup of Excellence competitions in Honduras, worked on establishing and promoting the variety of flavor profiles of Honduras's diverse-but-generally-undifferentiated coffee regions, and forged the first farmer-run lot-separation program with the co-operative that he works with in La Labor.
Tim and I had the chance to cup the year's first offerings from this per-producer lot-separation program, and we were thrilled by what we found. We have a treat in store for you all this year! And what is said treat? Well, dear readers, I plan to leave you in suspense knowing that Tim, Roasting Manager and head of Counter Culture Coffee quality control, will surely weigh in on the cupping results and what's in store for all of us. Stay tuned!