After about 18 hours of travel I arrived in Belo Horizonte to visit Bruno from Beccor. The biggest lesson from buying coffee last year was to really be utterly clear with everyone long before I arrive. Laying out details like when I wanted the coffee roasted, what I wanted to see, what my expectations were in terms of profile. I walked into Academia do Cafe and found two cuppings waiting for me. Game on.
The table first was all naturals. The amazing thing is that it all came from the same farm, Fazenda Esperanza. Different varieties, and some of the lots were neighbors, as in dried on the same patio, same picking and yet still tasted drastically different. The only lot that I thought had some potential had one slight rio cup. (Sigh). Half of the lots were painfully fresh tasting (which is what I asked for). We stopped for Acai juice. (Considering I had my rice and beans at 9:30am in the São Paulo airport, I was good till dinner). The second table was much more dynamic. The largest lot, a 700 bag lot, was the best on the table. Fazenda Esperanza was on the table again. Fazenda Esperanza had one of the best coffees there, with a dynamic citric acidity, a beautiful body and outstanding character—but the other two lots of the same variety were way behind in terms of cupping score. What is the difference? Dried on the same patio, same variety, same trees, etc. We could only shrug our shoulders. We ate dinner at 10pm. Some kind of river fish, in a boiling bowl of goodness called Mocequa.
Bruno doesn’t have a bad bone in his body. He is 100% a brilliant coffee person. He knows every region, cup profile, and is point blank honest on the cupping table. Considering he is a farmer, exporter and importer, he is pretty well rounded. He sold us some great lots last year. He thrives on doing 10 things at once. He walks through the Cerrado region like a politician running for office because everyone knows and likes him.
I slept really hard the first night. Day two, we did another table at 9:00am “Bruno time” (actually 10:30am) which will determine our route through Campos Altos and Petrocinio. That table had some real standout coffees. I still didn’t find anything that jumped out to me as being perfect but it was progress. That afternoon we drove the 4 hours to Campos Altos. Only stopping for a corn drink and cheese bread with sausage sandwich. Delish. I stayed at Bruno’s family’s house in a tiny room with two twin beds. Bruno is a polite snorer. Never so long that it will keep you up.
That morning, after drinking bad coffee with this parents, we went out to his farm. At first glance the trees look ok, but the farm looks “run down”. But really digging into where things are going, you can see a farm that is on the upswing. Three years ago the 40 hectares of coffee only produced 80 bags. This year he is on track to produce 700 bags simply because it is being taken care of. They have a dry mill on the farm with a bunch of equipment from 1962. This equipment is not only mostly wood, but it is beautiful and it still works. We talked a lot about Bruno’s next steps in and improvements. His coffee has received a 91 from Ken Davids and the coffees on the table showed some real potential.
Then we headed off to the heart of the Cerrado. A region known for producing what I’m after: espresso bases. Just before Patrocinio we stopped at a little house and had the most slammin’ meal so far. The garlic and salt balance in the beans was divine. So was fried pork and the natural juices.
Bruno dropped me off at a trading office. They have really strong relationships with several producers here. We talked a bit and then did a table of 5 coffees. The roast was off on all of them but the character still showed through on most. After going through the notes—some of the coffees had great potential—Lucas, their Q Grader and QC Person, continued to ask me questions as to how to get closer to the profile I was after. I could have kissed him.
“So, if this coffee #2 had a better body then you it would fit your profile?”
“If you had to use these coffee, how would you blend them to get hit your target?”
I was giddy excited to find someone so willing to really dig into what we want. Also having the espresso targets relayed to us from the sales team at Dallis helps immensely.
Here is the crazy part. The farmers here are so large, one lot can totally miss the target of what I want in coffee, and the next lot can totally nail it. One farm was on the table at the trade house 4 times yesterday. Sure, they were similar, but each one was a different variety. The Yellow Icatu was delicious. Another farm that I dismissed on a cupping earlier this week because it showed too thin of a body had a different lot that was much closer to the target. That farm also won the Illy Competition a couple years ago.
Again we just shrug our shoulders. And the farmers do too. There is so much potential here. For example, Bruno’s neighbor produces only naturals and Bruno has found some brilliant lots but they are never consistent or predictable. “It is just luck.”
At one point we dropped in on a trade house that has that 700 bag lot, Bruno walked in and grabbed the owner from behind and attempted to drag him out of the door. Everyone thought it was hilarious and in good taste, except the owner. He was visibly pissed. Apparently someone had been kidnapped 300 meters from the warehouse a couple days ago. The point of the story is that the warehouse has all the capacity to deal speciality coffee but doesn’t. They have a great cupper, green graders, machines etc. But when it comes to identifying great lots and putting in the extra work to market them and find the right buyer, it isn’t part of what they do. It would take an investment on their part and they would be selling in a new market.
For dedicated exporters and buyers this is a gold mine, but just like finding gold there is a whole lot of dirt to sort through before you find any gold.
We’d like to be the first to decree the NYC-Philly rivalry over and done with. You know what? We’ve always loved Philadelphia, not just for its history but for its constantly leading culture and cuisine—and we especially love that it’s such a short trip from Ozone Park to a whole other world.
On this note, we couldn’t be more thrilled to have entered a partnership in bringing our coffee to Philly with one of the city’s most influential leaders in both culture and coffee, and folks we’ve been friends with for a long time, MilkBoy.
Established in first as a recording studio in North Philly, MilkBoy’s empire today includes a spacious cafe on the Main Line in Ardmore, a bar, restaurant and live music venue in Philly’s city center, as well as the renowned recording studio. And we all know music people “get” coffee more than anyone else—so who better to lead a killer coffee program than the guys who lead a killer music venue?
We went down to Philly to check out both MilkBoy cafes (okay—one portrays the outward appearance of a bar, but where else can you drink a wonderfully crafted espresso and a YuengLing from 7:00am until after midnight?) and tour some of the city’s other amazing cafes and pop-ups, like Ultimo Coffee, Odd Fellows, Shot Tower, One Shot and Rival Bros. After spending another fun day cruising Philly, we at Dallis Bros. feel honored to be part of bringing coffee to this great town—and great coffee town.
So next time you’re in the City of Brotherly Love, sidle up to the bar on Chestnut Street for a great espresso or single origin coffee, grab a bite and a beer, and stay for a great band upstairs. And if you want to kick back, head out to Ardmore, where our coffees are crafted on a beautiful La Marzocco GB5 machine in a sunny, warm room full of big-city-small-community charm. And much as we love our own city where we’ve roasted coffee for 99 years—you’ll see right away what we love about Philly—because MilkBoy is a coffee (and so much more) company all about loving Philly too.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, earlier this June. The 2012 crop of Finca La Paz has just arrived at our roastery, and it’s better than ever.
I spent the better part of today trying to ask the right questions. One of the best lessons I learned in Peace Corps was that if you don’t ask the right question, you won’t get the right answer. A huge assumption that most of us make is that the other person understands our position. Usually people (especially in the DR) they just try and give the answer that will make the other person happy.
For example: Peace Corps Volunteer to a random Dominican in the street: “Where is the CODOCAFE building?”
Dominican: “Oh that is just that way, keep going straight.”
Several blocks later. It plays out with different directions. Several blocks later, it plays out with different directions. Eventually someone actually knows where the building is and gives accurate directions. The first two good Samaritans just wanted to be “helpful”.
Today I had pretty simple plans: get to the export warehouse and dry mill cup some offerings and really dig into what happens at a mill.
The cupping was pretty straightforward. I’ve found that usually when I’m clear on specs or profiles and have previously cupped with a company, the cuppings get smaller and better. They don’t try and show me everything, just the stuff I asked for. So there were about 7 lots on the table. All were solid. The Lagulito was slamming. The acidity was pretty insane. Overall it had everything we wanted. I’m going to try a
few different blends in our lab and build the lot for this year.
I can’t tell you how many dry mills I’ve visited, enough to see all the major brands of equipment and know what each machine does before I’m told. My questions were all about the control that the workers had over the sorting. See, dry mills are all about sorting or “extracting” the good beans from the bad. In the dry mill all the machines are using physical attributes to indicate defective beans. Extracting may not be the best word but it seems appropriate for this analogy.
Dry mills work by a few major steps. All of them are different. But there are some standard machines. Here are some basics that need to be understood.
Pergamino: Coffee dried to about 11% moisture, with the papery parchment layer still on
Hulling: Removes the parchment
Size sorting: Separates the beans into about 8 different sizes
Density table: Separates beans by density (the denser the better)
Catador: Uses airflow to pull out smaller and broken beans
Optical sorter: Uses laser lenses to read the color of the beans and reject beans based on the color
Walking through most dry mills, usually I find a few workers babysitting a couple machines and most of the machines are “self-managed”. Watching the workers, uh, mill around, always made wonder what they were doing. It is like a watching a barista make a shot but not knowing the important controls.
I spent most of the time working with the optical sorter and the density sorter. The density sorter has 4 major controls: feed rate, air flow, vibration rate, and the paddles at the end of the table. Some people call them Oliver tables but that is a brand, just like Kleenex. The paddles at the end direct the coffee into different slots. The worst coffee is pushed out directly on the lowest side. The middle coffee is usually either run again or pulled as a slightly lower grade. The best is usually sent to the optical sorter.
Time is money. When the sales rep is booking coffee faster than they can prep it, that is a problem. When a buyer asks for X Grade of prep, how does the dry mill adjust the machines to fill that grade?
Dry mill equipment is sold on how many lbs or quintals (100lbs) of coffee the machine can process in an hour, and they are all usually connected so no one must move the coffee once the system starts. When
a box has to be prepped the clock is ticking to make certain the coffee is ready before the boat leaves. The natural tendency is to push as much coffee through the system as possible. Run the density table at its maximum “feed” rate, run the vibrations high, run the air medium to low (increases the first grade) and the paddles are left untouched. As the feed rate changes, everything else is affected, much like adjusting the grind for espresso. The airflow pushes the coffee harder towards the lower qualities. So more air means cleaner coffee but more time cleaning. Remember the dry mill only sorts by physical appearance, size and density. So the workers aren’t milling around: they are vigilantly monitoring the quality.
There are only two places in the dry mill that have good light: the density table and the laser sorter. This is because the workers need to be checking the quality as the coffee is flowing by looking at the
The optical sorter had some similar adjustment but it is a lot more complicated. I was working with an Xceltron brand from Costa Rica. First the machine must be calibrated to expect certain defects in bean
color: black, white, red, red/black, and yellow. Each color can be set on a scale of 0 to 94 individually. Setting everything to 94 would make the machine hyperactive and cause it to reject too many beans. Setting it to zero means every bean would pass.
Optical sorters take coffee from a hopper, run it straight down a channel of by two rotating cylinders and then at the last second the bean flies straight off the end in to the air where the coffee’s color is read by a laser and a blast of air pushes defective beans out of the path the good coffee into the path of the defective coffee. This all happens very fast.
Again, time is money. Running a coffee twice through the machine adds a couple cents to the dry mill’s cost. They can be run at different rates because they are built just like a weigh-and-fill machine. The lenses need to be cleaned often. Dust is a major issue in dry mills. When dust covers the optical lens, it can’t read the color and defects are allowed through. Once again, these machines are baby sat. If all the
sudden they stop rejecting any coffee. . . something changed. Either the coffee became perfectly clean or some dust covered some lenses or the machine fell out of calibration. Often times the machines just
keep running until someone steps in and fixes it. This is why sometimes people exporters and importers say, “oh you just found a bad bag of coffee.”
The optical reader and density table will keep running until told otherwise. And if out of calibration, they could be pushing the wrong quality into the export silo. The dry mill workers are the final custodians that bring the coffee from a seed to green coffee that can be roasted. Once the coffee goes into the burlap bags and is put on a sealed dry container, that is it. You can’t really re-run the product once it gets to the United States.
So if someone is taking a long lunch and comes back to find a machine pushing the lower quality coffee in the “first” quality slot and they just adjust the machine and pretend like bags of coffee weren’t just
compromised it is hard to say if anyone will catch it until it gets to the roaster. That is where one sample from the same lot should show brilliance and the other defects.
The dry mill processing cost is typically not a huge percent in the final green price but it is incredibly important. From what I hear, the dry mill costs range from 7-30 cents per pound for prep. It depends on the
defect percent going in, level of automation, and whether you are looking at the real cost or the charged cost.
Even though it was only one day, I feel like I’m starting to grasp where the quality control points in a dry mill are and how they are manipulated to produce brilliant coffee. Dry mills make the coffee dance in a million different directions to try and shake out the dirty from the clean beans. The attention of the workers and the calibration of the machines is paramount to quality coffee.
Again, it just confirms that any delicious cup of clean coffee is a miracle.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, earlier this June. The 2012 crop of Finca La Paz has just arrived at our roastery, and it’s better than ever.
Currently I’m sitting in a Washington, DC airport en route to the Dominican Republic. I left Camp Pull-A-Shot at 9am, I will get to the DR at 2am. It will be a long day. Tomorrow I leave (hopefully) from the capital, Santo Domingo, at 6:30am to Los Frios arriving there about 3pm on Friday (hopefully). I’ve already been de-planed once. Thankfully it looks like I’ll make my connection.
In my CHECKED BAG are hand pruning shears, large pruning shears, and a 12″ bow saw with 3 replacement blades that i bought in Brooklyn from one of those hardware stores that always has pregnant cats in it. The Dominican Republic was built on agriculture: rice, sugar, coffee, beans, mahogany, and coffee of course. It seems they have forgotten about their farmers. It has been so dang hard to just find a good pruning saw in the nearest big city. I resisted bringing tools because I don’t want to depend on US tools for a DR farming operation. But part of my pruning this year was done with machete, something I hate to see on other farms, much less on my own. (Using a machete opens huge cuts on shade and coffee trees exposing them to attacks from fungus and other plagues common in tropical climates. Furthermore it is not good for the tree because it doesn’t know it was pruned, it just feels like someone took a machete to its arm.)
The DR has a terrible broca problem (destructive bean borer beetle). The DR has embarrassing production levels per hectare. The DR has leaf rust (fungus). The DR has ojo de gallo (fungus). There are about 160 agronomists here that are supposed to work with coffee. And do we have the tools to build broca traps? no. do we have access to the natural fungus that kills broca? No. Are there another 3 technologies I could list that would help that is not available in the DR? Yes.
So also in my checked bag are 25 empty 2oz vials so that i can make and create my own broca traps. while I’m there I hope to install a bunch of these and start to control the broca problem on Finca La Paz.
On the second half of my slam-packed trip I will be tasting through the better coffees from the North of the DR that have just finished their harvest in late May. The coffees will be fresh, but I will have “first dibs” on the best of the best. In the North of the DR there were some really terrible rains that damaged some of the coffee during the drying process. I hope that we are shown some really stand out coffees like El Lagulito from last year and I can get some of that moving toward NYC for our customers.
Flash back about 8 years ago when i was a peace corps volunteer. I was on my way to El Tetero which is a neighboring community that was about 4 hours away on mule. I was traveling with Miguel from Los Frios. Miguel knows everyone. Miguel greeted someone on the trail by name. As we rode away on our mules I asked Miguel, is that guy from La Cucarita?
It was so clear that he was from La Cucarita because polygamy and land were both very abundant about 80 years ago. Often these tiny remote towns were founded by only one man, maybe two and several women. There was plenty of land. Slash and burn agriculture was an effective way to produce cash crops and food crops. Each town has a few of these men still around. They are easy to spot because they look like they fathered the entire town. They didn’t but their fathers did.
People in La Cucarita have really interesting foreheads (big and boxy), high cheek bones, really dark skin, dark round eyes, and huge forearms.
One of these older men that founded Los Frios had a heart problem and was really sick and bedridden these last few months. All the neighboring towns were on alert on Sunday morning because he was really sick. Just after lunch we heard that he passed. People from every tiny town made their way to see him for one last time before he was buried today. He was always really sweet to me and I really like his kids and his grandkids. Two of them I hadn’t seen in years. They drove from Santiago Sunday and I had the chance to see them as they passed through Los Frios on their way to La Cucarita. I could still see hints of their grandfather in their faces. Their eyes still showed his warmth.
This has nothing to do with coffee, this I know. But this is how communities grow. This story isn’t totally different or unique. I think it is a reflection of how these towns were built.
And now on to coffee. Climate change is real. One of the effects of climate change is weird weather. June is supposed to be the rainy season here in the DR. Not the crazy intense rain but the softer rain every couple days. It is good for coffee development. It works for short-cycle bean crops. Two weeks ago the rain wouldn’t stop. Los Frios, in the South of the DR, was drowned in water for several days in a row. Now the rain has stopped for a week and it was crazy hot. The path down to Finca La Paz is rocky, loose, dry and dusty.
Nerva (my Dominican mother) told me, “we didn’t need ice in Los Frios because the water was always cold”. Now on this trip the cold water shower didn’t take my breath away and the drinking water from the filter wasn’t even a little bit cold. Very strange weather.
I spent Saturday walking the farm with Antonio (my farm manager) and planning where to plant the grafted lime trees. We also checked the progress on this year’s coffee harvest. It looks bigger than last year. The 4 flowerings went well. The gas powered weed trimmer saved me about a 4/5th of the price on a weeding verse weeding with machete.
The upper section of the farm looks great. The two-year-old coffee already has fruit on it.
There are a few trees that have died in the weirdest way. They just try up from the bottom. It takes a few weeks. I think it has to do with how they were planted. The tap root which pulls up the water basically either gets a fungus or just dies. The result is that the tree has nutrients but no water.
The farmers that we bought our new “Los Vecinos” lot from are very happy. They sold to Dallis just as the market came off and walked away with the last good prices of the year. Those that had quality were rewarded. Those that had “decent” parchment were paid the normal market rate. If things go well this year, we could expand the program and build a larger lot.
On Monday I travel from Los Frios to Bonao. Then Tuesday I finish the loop around the island to Santiago to meet with my exporter from the DR to build the next lot of Lagulito and see some of the better offerings from the North of the DR.
To be continued…
The sign of great farming is the willingness to continually improve—we’re delighted to be purchasing coffee again from this nearly 60-year-old association of coffee growers. Their improvements at the farm level show a dedication to quality which is immediately evident in the beautifully acidic, dark fruit and stone-fruit-laden cup.
Colombia is made up of different “departments” which are akin to our states in the United States. This coffee hails from a department known for producing brilliant coffees, Nariño. Nestled at the foot of the Andes mountains in the southwest of Colombia, this coffee comes from an association called Cerro de Reyes, meaning “King’s Mountain”. Since 1953, this association has been exporting quality coffee grown by its 60 members to demanding importers and roasters. Its farmers come from the town of La Union, which is located way way up in the mountains.
We are very happy to buy such a delicious coffee from a region that we haven’t purchased from in quite a while. The farmers in the Association are participating in a Farm Improvement Program to produce sustainable and higher quality practices. These often come from simple farm changes like putting ceramic tile into the fermentation tank, and pruning the coffee trees to improve yields and decrease certain defects.
It’s exciting for us here at Dallis Bros. to taste the brilliant acidity and the clean, dark fruit notes when brewing this coffee back here in New York City—sure signs that all those seemingly minor changes on the farms are paying off.
Visit our webshop to purchase a bag of Cerro de Reyes coffee.
Last week, we sent four of our staff to Camp Pull-a-Shot East, a semiannual professional development and summer camp hosted by our friends at the Barista Guild of America (and of which we were also proud to be a sponsor). The setting was truly idyllic: three days and four nights at the “top of the world” at a Dirty Dancing-themed mountain resort in the Blue Ridges of Virginia. But rather than flipping s’mores and tipping canoes in the lake, our Dallis campers worked their butts off—from coffee director Byron Holcomb leading cupping labs for beginners to Joe Drazenovic, Teresa von Fuchs and Philip Search all leading espresso workshops and milk labs. (We did catch Byron teaching a student how to “listen” to foamed milk, too.)
In between leading workshops, our campers even found time to get their own BGA certification—Byron and Joe came home with level 1 certificates (though we have a hunch they had the skills already down pat.) The final night’s team challenge resulted in the Dallis Bros. and Sisters being pitted against one another in a battle to the death, where each team was given just enough play money to buy green coffee, “ship” it, and buy roasting and brewing equipment with which to roast and brew the coffee. In a fit of mechanical inspiration (isn’t he always in one, though?) Philip Search dismantled his team’s coffee roaster (a popcorn popper) to allow himself to attenuate the heating controls manually. Sparks flew! And over at team 8, Teresa von Fuchs and her allies turned the game on its ear by simply using their money to purchase ALL the coffee brewing equipment—making them the sole providers to the rest of the teams, and naturally, doubling the price.
We asked each of our campers for a little postcard home.
“No regrets on cornering the market in the team challenge, and I loved Lorenzo’s comment that various economic elements of the seed to cup cycle are overlooked by enthusiastic coffee folks. The ‘romance’ of specialty coffee (from the SCAA’a opening keynote) needs to be a sustainable model, capitalism doesn’t have to be a dirty immoral word. And I witnessed and participated in a lot more discussion about this type of thing than usual at educational events, how baristas and quality focused cafes can and are doing to differentiate themselves from the larger ‘specialty’ chains and the threshold for what customers are ‘willing’ to pay for their ‘love’ affair…
For me, It was a real honor to pass the examiners exam and then administer the level 1 tests to campers. One of the things I love about judging barista competitions is the chance to support baristas who want to take their skills to the next level. There was so much goodness crammed into camp it’s hard to believe it was only a few days…”
— Camper Teresa von Fuchs
“1. Winning the trophy was awesome and I had truly a team that was fun to work with and gave 110 percent while having a blast.
2. “I am James Hoffmann, and God is [redacted—Ed.]”
3. The debate that went from 1 am to 3 am with Lorenzo, Pete, Joe and myself about the tests and curriculum and how we all agreed in the end, how much passion was there, and how we all want a master class level of coffee professional.”
— Camper Philip Search
“It’s incredible how much better coffee beverage quality could be if coffee professionals took the level one classes and passed the exam. Just taking things to the basics and getting comfortable preparing a product repeatedly, and consistently. I believe James Hoffmann put it very well when he told us ‘we should be focusing on making our worst coffee consistently better’. To
me, as an educator, how much knowledge we want and need that we have yet to acquire to educate further its truly and absolutely inspiring. As the youngest coffee professional on our team, it was so inspiring how hard all the “veterans” worked.”
— Camper Joe Drazenovic
“It is incredible how many people traveled from far and wide to come to this beautiful little spot in the the VA mountains where “Dirty Dancing” was apparently filmed just to learn and share about coffee. the environment is really great. Tracy from SCAA gave a wonderful key note speech about the emotional reasons behind a coffee drinkers relationship to coffee. the SCAA did a study group in two different cities: when the coffee drinkers were asked to express their relationship with coffee visually on a piece of paper, it was clear that the end customer was talking about a deep rooted emotional connection with coffee. they used words like “love” written in glitter. they wrote that coffee made them a better person, more inspired, driven, smarter, more passionate. what wasn’t present were farm names or elevations or variety types or any kind of coffee specific details in the artistic expression. so baristas are serving that every morning. not just a simulate called caffeine in a black liquid.
i think in my heart i’m one of those people that takes a minute to warm up to a big group. after being booked from 8am to 11pm for Tuesday and Wednesday (table lead in 4 classes and my Level 1 Barista written and practical) i’m not as tired as excited about all the work the BGA has done. they have some really great classes some great content to communicate and some really talented instructors. the spirit of the entire week was summed up by Justin Schultz when he said that he didn’t find as many people arguing so eagerly about details as he found people sharing ideas.
it was really a privilege to step into a class room with eager students and well prepared materials. it is easy in my job to expect everyone knows how to wipe a portfilter dry and dose their shots to be consistent because everyone around me at dallis can do that in their sleep. in my job as coffee director i cup at least one flight a day and talk with importers, exporters and farmers in “green coffee language”. it is easy for me to be disconnected with the greater community that doesn’t speak “green coffee language” or weigh the yield of espresso and talk about exact days off roast.
my question for everyone is: will being a BGA Level 1 barista improve the quality of the coffee served? and are we supporting this certification process out of a need in the industry? or is it in the spirit of unity for the industry and respect for the product?”
— Camper Byron Holcomb
Note to Baristas who are seeking Level 1 certification (both for industry unity and to improve quality!) but were unable to attend Camp Pull-a-Shot: Joe and Teresa will be offering Level 1 tests all over NYC in the coming months. Stay tuned here for more info!
Sertão is one of Brazil’s oldest coffee farms, more than 100 years old, and is also a specialist in the Yellow Bourbon variety. Once upon a time, the farmers decided to branch away into different types of coffee that were more productive, but once the accolades for the quality of their Yellow Bourbon trees began to roll in, from competitions like Cup of Excellence—the rest is history.
This quality oriented farm is not known just for its accomplishments, but for the diligence behind them. They are exhaustive cuppers, and taste every single lot of coffee to bring it up to their farm’s historically high standards.
We recently visited our friends at Mercadito Miami, who paired for us a “Smokey Pablo”—reposado tequila, mango puree, cinnamon-chile syrup, blueberry puree and fresh lime juice— and beautiful Octavio coffee from our own farms in Brasil. The cocktail and beverage program at Mercadito (on its own a wonderful modern Latin restaurant) is curated by the Tippling Bros., the libation geniuses behind NYC’s The Tippler, Tavernita in Chicago, and other Mercaditos. With a coffee program as sophisticated as their cocktail program, it’s so nice not to have to choose one or the other.
Our coffee director, Byron Holcomb, is frequently called upon to visit coffee-producing countries and report in from the front lines. His latest trip to El Salvador and Honduras brings us his fourth report.
Honduras is amateur cowboy hour. To leave the country they charged me $38, CASH ONLY. There are no signs at all in the airport. No monitors showing which flights go to which gates. The 2 monitors that I found that work only show “on time” and “CANCELADO”. Passing through security they combed through by bag and found sunscreen (less than 3 oz.) “If you want to take this you need to buy a plastic bag to put it in. You can buy them over there and come back for your tube.” 50 cents later I get my sunscreen back. I leave my customer service expectations in the US. But this place clearly doesn’t want you to float out of here. They want to suck you dry for every penny you have left.
Last night over dinner with the manager of Beneficio Santa Rosa de Copan, they were asking me what Honduras had to do in order to actually enter the US market. I told them about the success of tourism in Costa Rica and Jamaica where people are totally moved by their surroundings and mediocre coffee and they give all the credit to the coffee. Quality may sell itself, but the end consumer in the US doesn’t have any idea that Honduras produces brilliant coffee. Of course 10 years ago when Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia had solid quality and very well-funded marketing programs, Honduran producers were selling at wet parchment to intermediaries that would end up as flavor base. So they are way behind.
The stark contrast is how some of these guys work. Omar, Douglas, and Humberto are so excited and passionate about coffee they wake up early, stay late and drive through these sleepy dirty towns like they were propelled by some supernatural force. They walk like New Yorkers. For example, I was kinda pissed that they didn’t show me the coffee I asked for based on only looking at the elevation, variety, climate and aspect and soil last year (it won the Capucas Coffee Competition this year). I told them that again last night. Somebody woke up at 4am and drove a sample to me this morning before 6am when I left Santa Rosa. Truly incredible effort put forth.
Want to know why Honduras is all of a sudden producing more coffee than Guatemala? Because of a lot of the work done in Western Honduras, much of the coffee is actually staying in Honduras. It isn’t being sold as Guatemalan or coffee from El Salvador.
In El Salvador they are nerdy and “want to be part of Europe” (according to Susie Spindler). In Honduras they are cowboys and farmers. Every where I’ve been in Honduras they are planting coffee. Their production should skyrocket in the next two or 3 years. They are excited about coffee. They have some beautiful coffees. Truly balanced, diverse, incredible coffees. But they are treating their coffee only slightly better than they have in the last few years. Most of the coffee is sold at wet parchment (really the worst case scenario for quality and traceability).
I crossed the border by bus and spent the first day with Roberto Salezar the manager of COCAFELOL. They have some great coffees, incredible potential. The Saul Melara Hondo CoE #8 from last year came from one of his farmers. They showed me one farm, then “invited” to a meeting with the World Bank that was reviewing some funding. They had farmers, Spanish NGO’s, people from the coop, local development agencies and me. Really they had everyone but a barista. The people from World Bank had really great questions about relevance of Honduran coffee and the US market demands and how certifications are valued. The crux of their proposal was micro-lots and I tried to explain how Honduras has great potential in this market. The timing was great for them to have a buyer present.
The most impressive part of COCAFELOL was their aguas mieles (waste water) management. They take 100% of the water and make 3 products: bio ethanol, methane gas, and liquid fertilizer for foliar application to coffee trees.They take the pulp and use vermiculture (earth worms) on the largest scale present in Honduras. Really incredible.
We bought a microlot from this wonderful family: Dionisio Sanchez. I went to their farm—it is just down the road from Finca Liquidambar. I spent most of the day with them. Walked almost the entire farm, visited the namesake waterfall “La Cascada”. They are warm wonderful people. When I told the father I was getting married, without hesitation he said, “. . . and you didn’t invite me!” I instantly invited him. When we said goodbye he said, “if by chance I don’t make it to your wedding, send her my best”. They have a wonderful farm. And their coffee is one of the best lots produced in the region this year, according to everyone I talked to. They aren’t taking the artisan approach. The are taking the farmer approach. They build their soil with organic and some chemical inputs. The lot that they sold came from two tablones, all Catuai in great health, depulped, dry fermented for 16 hours, washed and patio dried. They have a laguna for aguas mieles. They produce a pretty large amount of coffee and hope to double it in the next couple years. They did some soil tests this year, but can’t recite the results. In El Salvador, when I asked about the pH of a farm, they knew it. “Oh this farm has a pH of 3.8, the other farm has a pH of 5.4 because it hasn’t been worked for the last few years.”
Dionisio’s son Renen sent me with a sample of a natural process that he did for fun but it was too wet. They still have some random coffee cherries in the trees so he might be able to redo it and send it to us. They were eager for feedback and we shared lots of ideas about coffee management.
Our coffee director, Byron Holcomb, is frequently called upon to visit coffee-producing countries and report in from the front lines. His latest trip to El Salvador, for the annual Cup of Excellence juried competition, brings us his third report.
The top two coffees of the 2012 Cup of Excellence El Salvador were standout polar opposites. Number 1 was so fruity and big that we all suspected some type of special process. Number 2 was elegant, citric, balanced, and clean floral—it really defined floral.
The guy who won first from the farm, Ernesto Mendez from Las Brumas, was shaking so badly after he won he looked terrified. He has won before. I talked with the manager at JHill, Mario, (the guy who processes the coffee for Aida Batlle) about the winner. Mario called it before it happened. Apparently he had been testing the cherry sugar levels with a Brix meter—which can measure the sugar content of fruit—and was able to calibrate himself with the meter. He picked the coffee from 1650 meters. It was a red bourbon, de-pulped dry and dry fermented. After the awards ceremony I left with the manager from JHill to stay at JHill for the night so that I could cup our coffees there, and talk more specifics about how a special process lot that I had requested happened. I was pretty happy with the results and they followed my instructions to the letter.
Then I asked the owners Rafael and Carmen Silva of Finca Siberia to pick me up and take me to see some of their farms. I was pretty keen on seeing Finca Siberia, which won like 23rd this year. Several years ago they changed my life when I had their Pacamara at Batdorf and Bronson. But they had a newish farm that won 7th called Llano Grande, it was crazy delish on every table. We toured their farms on 4-wheelers. It was too much fun. We saw a bunch of the farm and the farm manager was there too. La Fany isn’t huge but it has everything going for it, aside from the name, which they don’t know where it comes from—has been in their family for generations. 100% Red Bourbon, diverse shade, high altitude, a great market all over the world, they keep every tablon separate and sell it that way.
There are some other farms that come from Rafael’s family that looked even better to me. Slightly lower elevation but not such a south-facing aspect, and the soil just looked better, the farms smelled better. This sounds crazy but when they told me they didn’t know the cup quality until recently and they were lamenting that it was submitted to CoE. Soil health = quality, usually.
At one point on our tour, we came a across seven guys all with M-16’s in full camo fatigues. They looked like they were packing for a camping trip. Apparently things are so bad here they are being dispatched to farms looking for gangs. They were packing clothes and a map. Every night they would sleep in a different farm. The sergeant had 4 clips on his chest and carried his M-16 like it was a wrist watch. He had that cool confidence you would expect from a movie star. I asked to take his picture and he looked to the right. I asked the question a second time to see if he understood me. He clearly did. “Now I know, thanks,” I responded as I lowered my camera. Rafael chimed in, and urged, “Let him take your picture!” He looked at Rafael and said, “es proibido”. No smile, no head nod, he shouldered his bag and lead his men off to a farm for the night.
Rafael pulled me aside and told me the real reason we didn’t go to Finca Siberia was because of the risk. Apparently there are a couple different gangs. One is involved in drugs. The other “just likes to kill people”. They will wait for people to leave a specific area and when they are on these terrible roads they stop them take everything you have. At the dry mill on Llano Grande there were 4 guard dogs and two armed guards. This isn’t Disneyland.
The next day I spent with Luis Rodriguez and Maria Jose. I visited two of their farms. Very different from the heavily fertilized and organized farms that I saw earlier in the week. I love how serious people are in El Salvador about coffee. They are total nerds. Note: most people use central wet mills to process coffee. Luis told me about a common practice to evaluate a sample: take 100 cherries before it is depulped. Weigh them, count defects, floaters, then put them in a press for 5 minutes and weigh the expressed juice, measure the Brix, and like 5 more things that I can’t remember. In one mill they did all this and then correlated it against cupping scores.
Apparently the Brix test had no correlation with cup quality. What did correlate is the amount of muscilage expressed out of the cherries. The more muscilage the higher cup score. Luis is excited because of this variety that he found on his farm Elefante produces up to 14 drops of muscilage from one cherry when Bourbon is like 9 drops. Rumor has it this is one of the early developments of the Tequisik variety that I saw in Guatemala this year.
Luis is one of those crazy honest awesome people. “Luis when are you going to sell us (Dallis) some coffee? We’d love to buy some?” “Byron, I think I might have a 10 bag lot to show you, but it isn’t our best, there is nothing wrong with it, it is actually quite nice, but not really what you want.” Wow, somebody who actually listens when I communicate our specs.
I’ve got more stories from Honduras. But that will have to wait for the plane ride tomorrow.