Our head roaster Daniel May took off on his first solo sourcing trip in March 2018.
Day one - Antigua, Guatemala.
Bella Vista. The First stop on the trip and a relationship that we’ve held for many years. Luiz Pedro began focusing on the specialty market in the 80s.
Bella Vista are a Co-operative, meaning they buy the raw cherries from local farmers and process onsite. They buy from farmers on a pricing model based on weight (50Q per 46 kg bag/cherry), and is adjusted for supply and demand during the harvest season.
Harvest was almost over by the time I arrived and the dry mill was a madhouse. Bella Vista are meticulous with sorting and lot separation. Attached to the dry mill was a room that housed top-of-the-line colour sorters they had just purchased, and the room is manned by someone at all times in charge of lot traceability (photo above). No more than one lot at a time goes through sorting, the second lot comes in only when the first is in bags and ID’d.
I spent the first day almost entirely in the new cupping room they’d just finished building, looking over drying parchment and Volcan de Agua. It’s made from timber they felled from nearby and resembles a Scandinavian ski lodge.
We cupped our way through around a hundred different microlots from Hunapu and Los Santos regions, I cherry-picked the lots I scored 86 or above and re-cupped in the afternoon.
By the end of day two, we’d cupped a table of Huehuetenango lots and a more refined table from day one. I reserved a 22 bag lot from Hunapu and 44 bag lot from Los Santos (AKA Poaquil) and two lots from Huehuetenango (13 bags total).
Fivel, a student of agronomy is the newest recruit to the Bella Vista team, as well as helping farmers to improve yield and quality, his focus is on mapping out who Bella Vista work with, what variety each farmer has and how much they’re capable of producing. This minimizes the chances of Bella Vista being sold coffee that is fraudulent.
Hunapu is made up of approximately 350 farmers. Farms are usually one Manzana (1.7 acres) in size. Because most of the farmers from Hunapu live in town and spend prolonged time away from their land, cases of ‘cherry theft’ are common under the fall of darkness around harvest time.
The main varietals being grown in the area are Bourbon, Catuai and Caturra. Most of the trees they’re using to shade the coffee here are native Australian Grevillea trees! It was exciting enough to discover this, but it turns out they weren’t the only familiar trees around. Jacarandas, Bottle Brush and Gums are just a few other natives I can recall seeing in Guatemala.
I’m told Grevilleas dense canopy are perfect to stabilise the contrasting temperatures of day and night in the area.
The entire time I was in Antigua there was nutrient-rich ash spewing from a nearby active volcano, acting as a natural fertiliser for Hunapu and presumably being a key reason why this is such a good coffee year after year.
Costa Rica, land of the micro-mill
West & Central Valley
I landed in San Jose (capital of Costa Rica) around midday and was picked up by Marianela. Marianela works for Tropiq, Tropiq is part of Nordic Approach and is the name they’ve given to their Costa Rica (CR) operation. Marianela is their only person on the ground. She was a great choice for the company, she grew up surrounded by coffee farms owned by her family in the famous Tarrazu region.
We hit the ground running and headed straight for West Valley. The diversity of micro-climates in the country is huge when you consider that CR is smaller than Tasmania in size. The whole drive to the farm was on paved roads (very rare for an origin trip, you're usually getting tossed around on bumpy dirt roads for many hours).
Enrique’s waiting when we arrive at Santa Anita and walks us through his family's farm and talks us through what they do. They were the first coffee farm, ever, to become carbon neutral certified, the pickers that work on the farm return year after year for the working conditions. Free comfortable accomodation for pickers and their family, soccer field and cooking facilities are some of the perks that come standard at Santa Anita for workers.
Santa Anita was a shock to the system, there’s Range Rovers in the driveway, Enrique’s an opera enthusiast, I left feeling a little dizzy.
Next stop is Volcan Azul (blue volcano in english), Alejo’s in charge of the family operation, Big barns on the drive in house the wet and dry mill, it’s getting late now and there’s only one guy working and we watch him covering up a drying Geisha to protect it from the overnight frost.
We hop on buggies and make our way to the highest point on the farm (2100masl), as we zoom up the mountain he points out Yellow Catuai and Caturra, once at the top of the farm we hop off and walk through his Geisha plantation. The berries taste clean and of fresh stone fruits.
Volcan Azul is a great place to be a coffee tree. On 300 acres, 200 of them are protected for conservation, meaning there’s abundant biodiversity and their volcanic soil look rich and alive.
Marianella & Alejo
It’s dark by the time we get back to the house and Alejo sets up a cupping to finalise and approve some last lots, four lots of different varieties from different areas on the volcano. After a pass of the coffees, we sit around drinking spring water from the volcano above.
The next day, we’re up early and Marianella takes me to a new cafe she’s excited about, it has a nice look and the area we’re in reminds me of somewhere in LA. The coffee of the day is from Don Eli (Marianella’s dad’s farm in Tarrazu).
The first half of the day is spent at ‘Ceca’, Ceca are an exporting/logistics company that Tropiq work with. Inside there’s at least four sample roasters running nonstop and people cupping table after table the whole time I’m there. The tail end of harvest in Costa Rica is no doubt a crazy time for these guys.
We cup our way through eight tables (or 120 lots) of different farms Tropiq are working with, each table being seperated by region and processing method.
‘Beneficio Coop Libertad’ are just up the road, they have a huge commercial operation here and have only recently caught the eye of Tropiq as they diversify and begin to separate lots of higher quality. Farmers from the region deliver their cherries to the doorstop of the co-op ,where they’re paid a price based on a measurement called a ‘fenaga’. One fenaga is approximately 46 kg of cherries. The price of a fenaga fluctuates each day depending on the market price.
We head to Tarrazu and make a stop in Catargo, at a dry mill called ‘Los Tesoros’. Los Tesoros is used by most of the farmers in the area, 25-30 farmers who work with Tropiq move their coffee through here.
The mill is massive and it’s split up into two areas, one section for micro-lots and the other for commercial.
Even though the room is full, it’s very organised. ML lots are labelled and colour coded, coffee passes through (multiple times) density and colour sorting machines. Magnets are attached to the hose that fills up the grainpro bags to catch debris as the last line of defense. All the equipment appears brand new.
Going from one section to the other is like travelling to a different world, the ML room is well lit and ventilated, workers are in good spirits wearing safety equipment. The commercial area is dark, dusty and safety gear is scarce.
We drive a an hour or so longer and we arrive at Marianela's family home in Tarrazu. Carlos (Marianela’s dad) is a legend in Tarrazu, the whole town knows him, and his house is a hub of activity.
It’s dinner time, and Carlos opens up a special bottle of rum. The placemats we eat off have coffee trees on them, the curtains have detailed espresso cups on them, there's random bags of parchment laying all over the house and we even drink our rum out of an espresso cup.
Carlos is a fanatic. The Tropic cupping HQ is built into Carlos’s garage, everyone going past the house looks in with curiosity.
The next day we’re up at 5am and Carlos is showing me his farm, it used to be a specialty apple orchard until one day he ripped them all up and planted coffee. His farm (La Pastodor) is on a peak overlooking his house and the town, it faces west and the base of the farm is 1600masl where Mocha and Geisha trees rest, at the summit that’s just over 2000m he has Yellow Catuai.
Carlos helps farmers in his area who don’t have a buyer for their coffee through his contacts with Tropiq and international roasters, and if they can’t sell them at all, he’ll often buy them himself.
We drop Carlos back at the house and head over to Roger ūrena’s house a few blocks away in town. Morton (owner of Tropiq) refers to Roger as ‘the king of Tarrazu’, referencing the amount of land he owns.
Up at the top of Roger's farm (Santa Teresa), Roger’s son is depulping Geisha to be processed as a white honey, it’s coming to the end of harvest for Santa Teresa and this might be the last lot to go through the depulper.
*dry mills require a lot of capital for farmers to build, often not practical for ones producing small volumes. The dry mill receives parchment from farmers in their local area.
His drying beds are sprawled with honey and naturals, Marianella translates for me and we talk about processing. Roger doesn’t enjoy naturals and avoids them when he can. He’s just planted Pacas, SL28 and Typica, lots that aren’t abundant in the area. He makes a healthy living of what he already has, but tells me that he’s not interested in doing the same thing continuously year after year. He has high hopes for the young SL28 trees, and the Typica that’s almost finished pickings for the harvest taste awesome.
One of Roger’s drying beds. He’s a curious guy and these are some of his experiments with fermentation.
Roger and his baby SL28’s
Roger has eight different farms spread out over the mountain, all offering varied altitudes, sunlight and varieties. Enjoying the view from his farm, I ask him why he lives in town when he could be up here, he replies “all the mamacita’s are down there” pointing to the town.
The rest of the day we visit various smallholder farmers, each super enthusiastic to show off their hand-made wet mills. They’ve even held off on a batch of cherries until we get there so we can see it in action.
Cesar’s drying beds and a view into the valley below. The region is full of farmers like Cesar, producing 150 or less annually, growing varieties popular in the area Caturra and Catuai.
Costa Rica’s strict environmental laws are enforced in the coffee growing regions, ensuring that the coffee pulp and water (from processing) is treated properly and doesn’t end up in the rivers. This might contribute to the popularity of honey and natural processing in CR for their water saving abilities.
That afternoon we head back to Tropiq HQ (Carlo’s garage) and cup four tables of micro lots from Tarrazu, some from farms we visited that day, and some we didn’t.
We were up first thing in the morning on my last day in CR and we headed West towards the Pacific to a region called Brunca, on the way we pass through the Intercontinental highway that links CR to Panama. The road reaches an altitude of over 3000masl and the air feels thin.
Once in Brunca we head to Ricardo’s farm and he greets us at the door, we jump in his 1970’s Land Cruiser and take a look at the farm. Each plot is a different elevation and variety (yellow Catuai, Caturra, Catuai), they’re all named after something particular in the plot (ie. ‘el Mango’, mango tree).
He shows me a parcel of land that the previous owner farmed cattle on, telling me how they destroyed the landscape, and how he’s planning to reverse the damage with a variety of native trees he planted ten years ago, once it’s healthy again he’ll introduce coffee here.
Ricardo’s family rely on the spring water from the mountain which is why he only does black honey process, as he doesn’t want to ‘sh** were he eats’ so to speak.
Ricardo’s was the only farmer we visited that has both a wet mill and dry mill. This way, he explains, he can see the whole operation from the ripe cherry being picked, to the hessian bag being sealed.
Caturra 1600masl. It’s hard to see the coffee trees here, Ricardo farms for the future by leaving a diverse range of native trees in his coffee plots.
Honduras, Santa Barbara (I love this place)
I spend my time in Santa Barbara with Benjamin Paz, his family own San Vincente located in Pena Blanca.
Benjamin works with farmers that surround Lake Yojoa, most of the farms are a modest 1400-1700masl, however cool mists and other factors keep temperatures low causing a prolonged ripening of cherries, making the region one of the latest to be harvested in Central America. On my visit I frequently saw branches that would have flowering, a ripe, red cherry, and a green cherry still months away from picking. Crazy stuff.
San Vincente have just started working in an area called Cabanas a few hours drive away. Great blend lots are coming from this region (of which we’ve reserved), all the lots here are dried on raised beds and prepared as micro lots, San Vincente then cup each lot separate and build them based on quality. Varieties here are Pacas, Bourbon, Catuai, IHCAFE 90 and Parainema. Heading this operation is Juan, a humble coffee farmer and long time employee of SV.
On the way up to Maria Olimpia’s house, we drive through a town with a dozen or so houses lining the streets, each one has a drying bed in the yard. Ben beeps and waves at everyone we drive past in the town, telling me their name and which roasters they work with, there’s close to a dozen COE winners on this one stip of road.
Maria Olimpia - keep an eye out for her 2018 coffee, coming soon!
Due to the tiny size of their coffee production (as little as one bag) and the high quality of the coffees grown here, the farmers have a sense of empowerment. Often forming long relationships with international roasters and hosting them during harvest, something San Vincente encourages.
Maria brings us out sweet bread and sweet coffee, we sit around her small, beautiful fermentation tank that her son Raymond just finished building with what she made from last years harvest.
Her drying beds are half full with the second pickings of this years harvest (there will be around four/five more) they’re under shade and it’s not hot, yet she turns the parchment meticulously. We scoop up a handful which we’ll cup the next day (#sofresh).
Maria’s getting old, and she doesn’t work in the farm anymore. Her knowledge and sharp eye is more beneficial in the fermentation and drying process (attached to her house).
Her son Raymond takes us up to the farm thats a short drive from her house, the road ends and we continue on foot, it’s butterfly season and there’s millions of them.
There’s wild Raspberries and Mulberries growing everywhere and we snack on the go. The farm's tiny - one manzana - Tipica, (old) Bourbon and Pacas are picked by the family and brought down to the house on horseback. They stopped using fertiliser and pesticides a few years ago and there is healthy ground cover, birds, insects and fungi everywhere. The harvest has been getting later and later over the years and Raymond suggests it could be the hotter days and colder nights, than they’ve seen in previous years. We spoke about separating the varieties on Maria’s farm for the following harvest, this would be more work for them yet doable because of the small size of the farm. I’m excited to see the potential of this.
The view from Maria’s house looking down over Lake Yojoa.
There are bananas all over Jesus Sabillon’s driveway when we arrive. He’s been a coffee coffee farmer his whole life, primarily commercial quality until recently when he saw huge potential in certain plot of his farm.
This ‘plot’ is insane, it’s on the inside of a mountain engulfed on either side with pristine, untouched forest. Jesus intends to preserve these forests and explains the importance of them for the creation of weather that's presumably the reason Jesus’s coffee tastes so damn good.
Shade cloth protecting Parainema seedlings
Once full of Catimor, this plot used to be blended into Jesus’s low altitude coffees. Realising the potential, he re-planted with Parainema & Yellow Catuai. Parainema grows rapidly and the trees are head height already, its leaves are huge, larger leaf size on plants offers protection against night frost which may help with changing weather patterns.
Last year Jesus didn’t produce enough coffee to separate varieties, this year as his trees mature they’re producing enough coffee to do so. And, in anticipation for more volume he’s working on building a wet mill (at the moment he’s using a nextdoor neighbours) and a guest house for visitors.
Bad weather prevented us from visiting Wilmer Castellano, he lives in a less accessible part of the mountain untouchable in these conditions. Maybe next time Wilmer, maybe next time.
I consider connecting with our coffee at a farm level as one of the most important learning curves I have experienced in my time roasting with Mecca. The coffee industry can at times feel like it's in a lot of trouble, but there's also plenty of hope and innovation taking place in the many places I visited. I feel like the best thing we can do is keep the conversation open.