I just arrived in Managua, and I’m gearing up for a few days of visits to growers, followed by Counter Culture Coffee’s annual trip to Nicaragua, the Origin Field Lab, which will begin later this week.
Ahh, but I am getting ahead of myself by telling you what’s to come without telling you where I have been! I spent last week in western Honduras, working on a project: namely, to make 2010 the year of Finca Pashapa. This year marks the eighth consecutive year that Counter Culture Coffee will purchase coffee from Finca Pashapa, a 30-acre, certified organic farm owned and run for three generations by the Salazar family. This was my third trip to the farm and with every year that passes, I am more enraptured by Pashapa and its people: where else can I spend a morning learning farming techniques and strategies on a model organic coffee farm, followed by an in-depth cupping and discussion of flavor profiles and nuances with those same growers in the afternoon? The farm’s diverse shade and worm composting set a standard for real environmental sustainability that no farm I know of has yet touched, and the coffee’s eight-year record of consistent cup quality is both laudable and all-too unusual, even among the greatest coffees.
In order to maximize the potential deliciousness of Finca Pashapa’s coffee, the first challenge facing Counter Culture Coffee was to address the mysterious aging of Honduran coffee in general. Among buyers, coffee from Honduras has a unique and unfortunate reputation for tasting flat and “past crop-ish” more quickly than coffees from other countries. Most people attribute this unfortunate tendency to a problem in the way that coffees from Honduras are dried. Between the drying machines common to Honduran mills and the humidity of the Caribbean coast where coffee leaves Honduras for the United States, I cannot deny that the supply chain is rife with hazards to coffee quality and longevity.
So what is a lover of Honduran coffees to do? One answer is to accept the risk of premature aging and account for it by purchasing minimal amounts of coffee from Honduras. When we plan for the coming years at Counter Culture Coffee (long-term planning is a huge benefit of our long-term relationships), though, we always agree that the enormous potential of Honduras’s Finca Pashapa is too great a sacrifice to pay to this rapid-aging mystery. Hence, we have no choice but to resolve it! With both short- and long-term futures in mind, this year I called on every member of the supply-chain team – from the coffee’s growers and exporters in Honduras to the importer in San Francisco – to assemble in Honduras and attempt to resolve this problem, at least as it relates to coffee from Finca Pashapa.
Our group convened at the offices of the exporter, Beneficio Santa Rosa, in the mountainous city of Santa Rosa de Copan to taste coffee together and to strategize. After spending hours discussing our experiences with Honduras’s coffees and eliminating factor after factor in search of the answer to the aging mystery, we kept returning to the hot and sticky climates of San Pedro Sula – where most of the country’s coffee is processed – and Puerto Cortes – where it is exported.
It’s no secret that coffee suffers humidity terribly, and together we determined that we would address these challenges in three ways: by adding a special, air-tight bag to our coffee to protect it during its journey down from the mountains and over sea, by avoiding San Pedro Sula completely, and by setting a 24-hour time limit for our coffee to wait to embark at Puerto Cortes. We are on track for 2010!
The second part of the two-part quality project relates to the as-yet unrealized flavor potential of Finca Pashapa’s coffee. Last year, Counter Culture Coffee added a dimension to our relationship with these growers in the form of a microlot from the highest-altitude parcel of the farm, called El Lechero. Roberto Salazar – who, in addition to running the farm with his family, also supports a co-op, manages a mill, and serves on national cupping juries – has methodically tasted the coffee from each part of the farm for years. In El Lechero, he recognized an opportunity to produce exceptional coffee and the family began paying higher wages to the farm’s employees to pick and sort El Lechero’s coffee with special attention to detail. The results of that differentiation – only the pure, ripe, sweet coffee fruit made it into the lot – indubitably made a difference, and since that first tasting of El Lechero’s coffee, we have not been able to stop ourselves from wondering, “What would it be like if ALL of Finca Pashapa’s coffee was harvested and sorted with such attention to detail?”
This year, Roberto and I had an honest discussion about whether it would be possible to apply such standards across the board, and what the costs would be, and I am confident that this farm will continue to produce better coffee every year, and that we will continue to expand the scope of our partnership.
This year, for the first time, I visited farms around La Labor other than Finca Pashapa, and I met growers who belong to the cooperative that processes coffee with the Salazar family in La Labor. Roberto has been working for years to identify growers with the farming conditions and determination to produce great coffee, and to encourage organic production, as well. We believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future, these farms will produce coffee to rival El Lechero, and in the meantime, Roberto will be cupping coffees like crazy to find those special micro lotes (micro lots).
Though I spent a scant five days in Honduras, I was still able to enjoy the hospitality of Roberto’s parents, Jorge and Coyo, who never fail to make me feel like part of the Salazar clan (in a good way). With six grown children and at least six grandchildren, most of whom live within a stone’s throw of the casa paterna (parents’ house), Coyo’s kitchen is constantly churning out meals of eggs and meat from the family’s hens, beans, tortillas, and vegetable stews made from the spoils of their gardens, juice from their citrus trees, and cheese from their dairy cows. Dinner usually begins around 5:30, when the sun goes down, and I happily spend hours at their table, talking coffee and politics, gossiping about the village, and laughing as the Salazar brothers make fun of one another. As I said, we are very lucky, and as you might imagine, I can’t wait to go back.
Now then, it's Nicaragua time. I miss you all and I look forward to hanging out soon.