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!