Sourcing Diaries: Off to Ethiopia

Our coffee buyer, Byron  Holcomb, recently visited Ethiopia—also known as the birthplace of coffee—for a very important conference on Natural Process coffees. Here is the first of his journals and observations on the proceedings.


Addis Abeba. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

This is my third trip to East Africa. It is different. I honestly belive that everything started in East Africa: humans, coffee, the garden of Eden. The point is that I’m beyond excited to go to Ethiopia again.

Usually when I’m going to origin, it’s for chasing the best beans that a county or region has to offer. What is pulling me to Easth Africa this time is actually a conference about Natural Process coffees, or “Naturals”. A friend of mine is a brilliant coffee person and has invested an incredible amount of time and energy trying to understand Natural Process coffee. Being from Mexico, and a scientist by trade and a full time coffee consultant, he understands coffee more intimately on more levels that almost anyone I know. His name is Manuel Diaz. I met him in Uganda several years ago, just before the first Natural Conference happened in Yemen. I am on my way to the third Natural Conference right now.

We will be spending a lot of time cupping Naturals and discussing Natural standards. Here is the thing: most all specialty coffee (grading, scoring, purchasing, marketing) is based on our criteria for “Washed” coffees. Now, in the world, there is a small percentage of Washed coffees. There is a much larger percentage of Naturals produced out there. Some roasting companies refuse to purchase them. Naturals are risky business.

But they are also very very important. Look at the amount of water used in any washing mill, hundreds of liters per 100lbs of green coffee in some cases. Look at the consumer market: they aren’t nearly as sensitive as coffee buyers to coffee that tastes “fruity”&emdash;the hallmark of Natural process. I find that well roasted Naturals go over very well and can be an incredible source of sweetness in blends. I won’t say any names, buy I can think of at least four roasting companies that refuse to buy Naturals simply because they are Naturals. We at Dallis love brilliant coffees that will bring the daily customers of the cafes and restaurants we sell to coming back every day for a great cup, regardless of the process.

Let me define what I’m talking about: super-naturals. I like that name because it makes it very clear that we are not talking about commercial-grade-last-picking-rejects: the vast majority of naturals fit into that category. But here is the thing: imagine a farmer who doesn’t have water access or financing access to wet-mill his coffee, what hope does he have for quality? None, unless he can produce a quality natural. I personally have had totally different natural process results from my farm: three years of ok, one year of rejected coffee, and last year was incredible. Why? Same farm, same drying methods. If we as an industry could start to better understand Natural processing I think we could positivly affect more lives than probably any other coffee project out there. So yes, I’m excited and I know it will take years, but I’m patient.

DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part III: Doing Business in the DR

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his third dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.

I went to visit some friends in Bani who sold us a great lot of coffee last year. One of the larger farmers in the area was talking about the rain and quoted an ex-president of the Dominican Republic, Balaguer: “The best coffee farmer is the rain”. When the rain comes at the right time, often the coffee produces well. We had a pretty extensive conversation about a couple farms that used to cup in the 84-85 range and now were cupping closer to 81. They were saying the coffee had lost a lot of its body on the cupping table and they attributed that to what used to be 8 months of rain and now they have irregular rains and less rain during the whole year.

Then I took off to Santo Domingo to see about a new grass cover crop and a fungus distributor. I’ve been looking for a quality grass to plant on the farm that could provide appropriate ground cover for areas that need shade. I actually found it in Brazil. Brachiaria brizantha should fit the bill, it can grow under shade, it is nitrogen fixing, it has short rhizomes (horizontal underground stem), and isn’t so aggressive that it can’t be controlled with a diluted dose of Round-Up. I found a distributor in the DR so I visited his warehouse to pick up some samples to test on Finca La Paz. I’m most excited about the fungus. There is this insect killing fungus called Beauvaria bassiana. It is a natural predator of the Coffee Bean Borer or Broca in Spanish. I found a guy who sells it in a dormant state by the kilo. We put the “sleeping fungus” in a solution (milk, humic acid, sugar and water) to have it multiply and applied it with a backpack sprayer. This should bring the Broca infestation down to reasonable levels. I’m really hopeful for both of these.

On Saturday I went from Santo Domingo to Santiago and back. Our export partner there still has some really stellar coffees for sale and I wanted to check in on a few things. We cupped a table full of great coffees (actually there were 2 that were pretty rough). I have samples of my favorites.

Over all I’m hopeful for coffee and agriculture in the Dominican Republic. It is an uphill battle and so far I don’t see a lot of support from upper political levels. For example, the Banco Agricola (National Agriculture Bank) charges 18% interest on loans to farmers. Of course there exceptions, I’ve heard of numbers of 3% as well. Put that against countries that have no support and I sound like a whiner.

One of the biggest challenges is that there is a history of incredible support for coffee but not in an accountable way. In the time of Balaguer, here farmers were given fertilizer (or provided a subsidized rate, everyone has a different memory), farmers were provided with a brigade of men to clean the coffee farms, farmers were given pruning shears to prune the coffee, etc. Farmers talk about that time as “the glory days of Dominican Coffee”. But look at the economics, their cost of production was almost zero! Ok they had to pay people to pick and process the coffee but some of the biggest costs of coffee production are cleaning and fertilizing coffee. Removing both of those from the cost of production means they didn’t have to pay much to produce the coffee and what they sold was theirs. The system has changed but the mentality hasn’t. Last year I was calling hardware stores in San Juan of the DR to try and find a some pruning saws and couldn’t find a single one. So this year I brought 3 saw blades for each bow saw that we have on the farm. I can’t find anywhere that sells grow bags for coffee saplings in the DR. So I went to a large nursery to see if they had some, they said, “I wish you asked 5 months a go because I we had some, but now we only sell them… ” (As opposed to giving them away for free!)

“Perfect, please sell me 5000 of proper size and gauge plastic”, was my immediate response.

To a large extent, I know that my tiny farm is an unrealistic example for most other Dominican farmers. Paying about $60 USD for some grow bags is a lot of money to a small farmer with only a mule to his name. I would never say that I could figure out how to change the mentality of anyone or figure out a better system to support Dominican farmers without becoming paternalistic. At the very least, I hope to show some alternative ways to do things and produce some great coffee at the same time.

More to come…

DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part II: The Ripening

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his second dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.

Rain clouds rolling in on Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

After spending a few days on the farm, I left to do some of my usual networking and running errands. I think this is one of the most productive trips for me in a few ways: I was really prepared for all the odds and ends that come up during harvest and pruning, I was able to apply some of the biological controls that I’ve been after for the last 3 years for the terrible bean borer (broca), and I think I finally have a concrete plan to see me through the next 5 years.

It was exciting to see the coffee cherries turn from yellow to red over the few days that I was on the farm. What’s interesting is the maturation wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to happen. Everyone in Los Frios was complaining because they lost their first crop of pinto and black beans (short-cycle bush bean crops) because there was not enough rain at the right times. Now they were into the second-cycle bush bean crop and again there was still not enough rain. Per how that affects, coffee I wasn’t worried because I prefer a light rainy season during the harvest because it slows and controls the maturation of the cherries from green to red. Here is the real crux: not all red cherries are truly ripe (in my opinion).

A coffee plant both fruiting and flowering. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

When I arrived at the farm on Monday, there were some scattered red cherries around the farm and a fair number of yellow cherries and lots of green. Every day in Los Frios after I arrived it rained hard in the afternoon. On Wednesday the yellow cherries were already red. As usual, I like to taste the red cherries and see if I can correlate the environment and variety with the flavor, yes I am a super nerd. Some of the cherries were really sweet and showed a fair amount of mucilage (clear fleshy coffee fruit). Some of the cherries were only vegetal and kind of flat without much sweetness or mucilage. They showed a zucchini or bell pepper flavor. Why? Coffee cherries that are allowed to ripen slowly turn from green to yellow to red over the period of a couple weeks, furthermore they can show both green and red on the same cherry (pinta’o or pinton in Dominican Spanish). A lot of cherries went straight from yellow to red in about half the time that I expected.

Trees are water pumps. They bring in water through their roots and expel it through their the underside of their leaves in openings called stoma. Coffee doesn’t respond well to water during the harvest because it does a few things to the cherries: 1) it causes them to ripen without developing the sugars, 2) it causes the ripe and unripe cherries to fall off the tree to the ground, and 3) it can even cause the cherries to “explode” (the cherry skin actually splits open). I found a lot of the first had happened to the yellow cherries. I haven’t done any cupping of these false red cherries to see if it really affects cup quality but I’m sure it does have some effect. To counteract that, we are going to wait a few more days before we start the picking to allow the cherries to get actually ripe.

The first picking will be the smallest so I’m not worried about the overall cup quality of this year’s coming harvest. I just hope the rain behaves for the drying of the coffee.

More to come, including a visit to the neighbors…

DR Diaries: Harvest time on Finca La Paz, Part I

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, where it is harvest time again.

Ripe Typica on Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.




The world is strange. First of all it is 9:41pm and it is past my usual bed time here, but I feel like writing. I’m in the lumpy bed that is comprised of 4 mattresses laid cross ways with 3 separate pieces of foam on top. It works for sleeping. What is strange is the mosquito net. 9 years ago when I was here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I only used a mosquito net for the rats. There really weren’t any mosquitos to speak of. There are areas in the DR that demand mosquito nets (and they sell very fancy nice ones). Here in Los Frios a few years ago the mosquitos arrived. Just like Nairobi Kenya – Los Frios had the elevation and average temperature (maybe wind too) to not let mosquitos really be pests. Now, just like Nairobi, mosquitos are a problem. Hence, I’m writing this from under a net designed for mosquitos and tonight it is for both, mosquitos and rats.

I knew this was going to be a good trip. The farm has been progressing and I have been better as a manager to push for results and networking. This year I’ve been able to make more things happen than normal. I finally found a greenhouse supply company that could custom cut the right plastic sheeting in a size that I could check on a plane. I found a distributor for Beauveria bassiana – a fungus used in Broca control. We just planted 100 grafted lime trees. We are fully stocked on saws for the pruning. Lots of great things. But what really makes a great trip isn’t just checking off the to-do list.

I missed the check-in for the first flight by minutes. I thought it was a 956pm flight so I showed up just over an hour before check-in, to find out they had already closed the flight which was actually at 942pm. Wow, there is a first time for everything. Lucky for me there was an 830am flight the next day and I got to sleep in my own bed. I arrived at 1230pm to Santo Domingo to incredible heat and humidity and this really moldy carpet smell that the airport walk way plane connector thing always smells like. I took the bus from Santo Domingo to San Juan to pick up the Beauveria bassiana and swing by a hardware store for supplies to build a level for planting coffee. I had arranged for a truck to pick me up and take me from Guantio to Los Frios that same day. To make the pick up time I took a taxi from San Juan to Guantio. The driver was recommended by a friend. He played really great reggaeton and seemed like a cool dude. While this new reggaeton was bumping we pulled up to the gas station and he had them put $0.50 cents worth of gasoline in the yellow mini van. While the gas was pumping a kid no more than 13 years old walks up with a stack of CD’s. “Look, I got MP3’s, this one has 150 songs of all reggaeton, this one has 200 songs of bachata, and for you. . . 100 pesos”. The driver offered 50 pesos for the 200 song MP3 CD. The kid nodded. By this time the $0.50 cents worth of gasoline had been pumped. The driver digs through his loose change and pays the kid 45 pesos. The kid was pissed and just said something vulgar. The driver turns to me and says the kids here all hustlers, but they have to be that way to survive. We both laughed but it wasn’t funny.

Leaving San Juan we were waved by a Police check point to stop. I never get stopped at these points so I assumed the worst. He stopped us to ask if his two lady friends could get a lift to Guantio. Sure. We take off in a bright yellow van that clearly has acceleration problems, so it is more like we tumbled off.  The driver slips in his new CD and some new Aventura (a Dominica bachata band that I won’t admit how much I enjoy the music) song comes on. The two ladies in the back of the taxi know every word and belt out the next 3 songs like they were on Dominican Idol (not that they could sing well… just that they sang with spirit). There were clouds high and low, a really light rain coming down and the sun was about an hour from setting. It was really a beautiful moment to be alive and I can’t imagine it happening in any other country.

Once I arrived in the DR everyone wanted to know what I thought about the coffee market. “Will we get the same prices as last year?” A lot of people missed the peak of the last big market rally and still are sitting on coffee. Everyone was sure that the price would come back and the prices just kept falling. I had someone offer us some 20 bags of “perfect coffee”. Interesting considering the harvest has barely started. The coffee had a musty smell, it wasn’t perfectly washed and the humidity was 19%. Humm – maybe in Sumatra this is perfect. Here in the DR this is old crop coffee. I gave everyone the same advice. Don’t hold coffee, sell it where you can make money, the market is really crazy right now.

Mixing up an organic fungus spray to control Broca. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

On Finca La Paz some good things are happening and some bad. The coffee in the upper section is doing really well.  The area is responding really well to all the attention. The Broca seems to be more under control than usual. The grafted lime trees are all looking great and Antonio did a great job planting them at a healthy distance. Overall things look great. There are always one or two things that fall in the negative category.

There is this really awful fungus that is attacking the coffee in the whole region. It is this terrible vicious thing. It seems that it attacks the new growth, then kills the branch as the coffee matures. So the green cherries look fine except for the terminal leaves turning yellow and the stem black. Then as the coffee matures, they turn from green to black and some just fall off. I have pictures to ask my agronomist friends about this specific issue. Climate change? Or is this just the initial picking Cabrilla as it is called?

The only other mega-negatives are all the horror stories of violence being told. One of Antonio’s sons had a few days of vacation from work in Santo Domingo and was here in Los Frios with us. The stories he told involving people he knew were worse than the 5 o’clock news: murders, people selling drugs, rape, violence, all with details like he was there. He even had a word for getting shot: plomo – lead. The DR has always been violent, but to hear the stories told by a kid in a neighborhood that I’ve stayed in in Santo Domingo hit a little close to home.

More tomorrow from the farm.

Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part IV

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his last of four trip diaries.

Traditional dancers at the Burundi Cup of Excellence awards ceremony. Photo by John Moore.

Day Five: Last Day at CoE

The last day at CoE is when we rank the top 10. These are coffees that have already made is as “winners”, and the final day determines where precisely they rank in the eyes of the jury. It is important to note that the number one coffee doesn’t always fetch the highest sum, but that is most often the case. I love the last day because it is less about critiquing, and more about celebrating the coffees.

It was so sad to see two of the final top 10 finalists kicked out for potato defect. It appears as though about 28% – 30% of the samples submitted ended up killed by potato, and I think that these figures will help push the government to help support initiatives to get to the bottom of this scourge.

After the morning of cupping we had some time in small focus groups with Burundian producers. This was incredibly valuable time since we got to ask them questions and then they got to ask us questions as well. It was great to hear directly from producers and washing station managers what they are doing and how they are doing it to continue improving quality.

As is always the case, financing and price conversations filled the air. At one point they were suggesting that roasters finance the coffee before it is picked. Our group was quick to push back to the financial institutions and government agencies within Burundi. The problem is the same everywhere it seems — cash-strapped producers end up selling cherry to middle men as opposed to delivering to a washing station because middle men offer immediate cash. Liquidity matters, and cash is king.

The lead figure from the government agency responsible specifically for this topic happened to be sitting in on our group session, and it was extremely interesting to watch the exchange between ourselves as international jury members, the producers, the washing station managers, the representative for the collective of producers, and Evereste, the government official. If he is to be believed, they are working towards solutions, but these are complicated and take time.

Then it was off to the awards ceremony. This is always a mixture of song, dance, expression of local culture, a seemingly endless stream of speeches, and then at last producers get their certificates and awards. It is at that moment people find out whether or not their lots made it as Cup of Excellence winners, and further still whether or not they made it into the even further elite top 10.

I have to say, this competition the speeches really had a sense of urgency to them. The representative for Burundi Coffee Growers Confederation was the first to take the mic, and he wasted little time in rattling off a list of programs that he and his constituents clearly wanted the Minister of Agriculture and Livestock to hear. When asking for a more appropriate allocation of funds for fertilizer he said, “the yield of the cow depends on the food for the cow”. He was quick to point out just how much “food” went to the producers in Kenya versus what they have received in Burundi.

We also heard from Adrien Sibomana who had spent quite a bit of time with us over the week. Adrien is a phenomenal individual, and was the prime minister of Burundi from 1988 until 1993. He was the first ethnic Hutu appointed to a high government post following the civil war, and previously had been governor of Muramvya Province. He said “Most important thing is the quality of the coffee. Quality has improved, so hopefully the price will improve. Nevertheless, we still have a lot of work to do”. It seems the Burundians understand very well that they will never be a big quantity producer, but they have a tremendous opportunity to be a big quality producer. In an effort to illustrate what quality means Adrien is coordinating a cupping of the all the CoE winners that will be open to anyone that wants to attend next week. I thought that was a really cool idea since all too often we ask producers to create qualities that they don’t know themselves or understand since they don’t cup their own coffees!

Presidential Award winner. Photo by John Moore.

There was so much commotion around the top 10 this year. There were 3 Presidential Awards given, meaning that the jury gave 3 coffees 90+ scores. This is not typical, especially considering that it was Burundi’s first competition. Also, Paul Songer and Grant both mentioned that our group was not exactly a bunch of push-overs. There were under 20 “winners”, and we were brutally honest with defective coffees and with our allocation of scores in general. When the winners got off the stage it was as if the Beatles were landing at JFK. Everyone swarmed around the 3 Presidential Award winners with cameras — it must have been amazing for these winners!

It was great to hear Grant Rattray summing up some of ACE / CoE’s goals in his closing comments. Last year during the Golden Cup preparatory competition they hit a $4 average for the winning lots. Grant is hopeful that they will push that to $7 on average for this auction. Last year the program generated about $118,000 in revenue, and this year they are hoping to hit to over $400,000. This year they had input from over 30% of the washing stations. Next year Grant is hopeful that they can achieve a “perfect competition” in which all washing stations are represented. Again, imagine what this means to the 650,000 or so producers in Burundi that make an average of $200 per year.

The nice thing about Burundi is that it is so small you can dream big. Cup of Excellence has become an important part of my coffee experience, and I’m proud of the association between Dallis and CoE. Leaving Burundi I have a feeling like we can really create win-win relationships here, where producers that are investing in quality can be rewarded, and we can in turn re-sell top quality coffees to our clients and so on. I left early (now yesterday) and as the sun was coming up I noticed the street kids waking and people bathing in the lake. It struck me how far Burundi has come, how far there is yet to go, and how much we can be a partner in this if we choose to be.

Appropriately enough as we were going through the security gate to the airport (late of course) my taxi completely broke down. There we were — myself, two security guys, a taxi driver, and a porter all pushing this van through the check so that my taxi guy and I could walk the rest of the way to the airport with my stuff. It seemed somehow the perfect way to leave Burundi, and with a big “mwarakozi” (thank you) I was off into the sunrise.

Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part III

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his penultimate trip diary.

A Bujumbura sunset. Photo by John Moore.

Day Three

Yesterday was remarkable. After an intense bunch of cupping we went to a beautiful tea plantation, followed by a pygmy village. I had never been to a tea plantation before, and I felt as though I had left Burundi and been transported straight to Ireland somehow. The green of the tea plants is that striking.

Then we visited a pygmy village where allegedly the folks living there have purposefully shun modern conveniences. Given the abject poverty you see in producing countries it is hard to know if the claim is true or not. This group is evidently famous for producing
authentic pottery as it has been produced here for hundreds of years, and when we arrived it seemed quite the event. The entire village seemed to explode into song at one point and it was a tremendous thing to experience.

As for the cupping, what an adventure. I was table lead a few times over and found potato a few times. I must say that the jury is quite an impressive bunch, and no one is trying to sugar-coat cups, or let things through that have taints. I really saw the value of all of our innumerable cupping sessions over the years and all of the events we have done in less than perfect circumstances. As our cups started getting poured I immediately noticed the nature of the separation of the coffee didn’t look normal, and immediately suspected cooler than appropriate water as the culprit. Sure enough, once I brought it up the table next to us noticed the same thing. Their crew ended up split up amongst all the other tables, and our crew had to get the first 4 samples completely re-done!

It was funny because Kentaro Maruyama, who has probably been to more CoE’s than anyone on earth, was at my table. He had never seen something like that before. To add insult to injury, about halfway through our special session, the power failed. You had to laugh.

Paul Songer gets tons of credit as Head Judge, since he was instantly on top of the whole situation and making things work. He managed to give an entire lecture on roast color identification in order to give them extra time to prepare water. I thought it would
be a snorefest, but it was more than just “make sure to calibrate your Agtron”, and was incredibly interesting.

We ended the day with a failed attempt to see hipppos and then showed up late and dirty to the home of the U.S. Charge’ d’affaires, essentially the stand-in ambassador, since our current ambassador isn’t here yet in Burundi. The new ambassador has been named, but she
hasn’t yet been approved by Congress. It was a pleasant time followed by a quick bite and then a sleepless evening of tossing and turning under a mosquito net.

Hot & Cold Coffee of Bujumbura. Photo by John Moore.

Day Four: Burundi Coffee Crawl

Last night we were finally able to get “off campus” a bit to see some of the local coffee bars and cafes. Power outages seem to have been higher recently, and security around our area has been high since evidently the President plays soccer right around the corner a couple of times per week.

Visiting the coffee bars was great. The photos of the first one really tell the whole story. It took forever for us to find it in the sea of signage but it was worth it. “Hot & Cold Coffee” had no power, so imagine their surprise when about 10 CoE judges and other folks rolled in. It was hysterical. Plus the average age of the staff was probably 60, and two lovely women were running the place pretty much in the dark.

Our second stop was Aroma, which has a look and feel that rivals any cafe I’ve been in. A few of us hopped behind the bar, and that is when we really noted that some things were different. The espresso machine that looks newest hasn’t worked for a while it seems, and the power outage had just killed the older machine, although it did recover pretty quick. Gaskets probably haven’t been changed in years. We all had to laugh, since if we sent new gaskets they would probably use them cleverly in a car or something.

The last cafe we visited was Le Gourmand Cafe, and I had a croissant there that is as good as anything I have had in New York. It was extremely polished, and the style reminded me a little bit of the Octavio Cafe. Unfortunately the power issues had completely fried the espresso machine just a couple hours before we got there. Doing business in Burundi is not easy. Our head tech Mike D would have his work cut out for him here in Burundi!

Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part II

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his second of several trip diaries.

Cupping at the first ever Burundi Cup of Excellence competition. Photo by John Moore.

Day 3

Holy Potato! Attack of the killer potatoes… attack of the killer potatoes!

Potato defect ran amuck in the first round of the Cup of Excellence here in Burundi this morning. During the first flight 4 of the 10 coffees were disqualified, and an additional cup was DQ’d for phenol. Paul said it was the first DQ for phenol he had seen in years. Imagine that 60 cups of each of these coffees have already gone through the national selection without incident. It was really something. Later flights were not as dramatic, but we did DQ multiple samples in every flight.

Fortunately many of the coffees left standing were really stellar coffees. I don’t know if it was Paul’s calibration or what, but the complexity and range of acidity types has been quite a surprise. All of the coffees here, as it was in Rwanda, are bourbon. The very first coffee we hit was a classic example of quinic acidity mixed with various fruit acidity, types and enough sweetness to make for an incredibly interesting cup. It was like a gooseberry kumquat martini made with Hendrick’s gin (juniper, cucumber essence, rose-petal essence, and botanicals) — but NOT the dry version. This one had a crazy bitter but sweet, floral, and structured thing happening that was intriguing as hell. Yum.

We are all learning that things here in Burundi can take a bit more time than they might in other places. In between rounds, Grant Rattray filled in some time with a meaningful explanation of how CoE is hoping to work in Burundi. Evidently this is actually still being finalized as we speak.

As I mentioned earlier, Burundi is a land of very small coffee farms. All CoE lots need to be 15 – 50 x 60 kg (132 lbs) bags. All growers will be specifically named, and paid according to the precise proportion of coffee contributed. It is up to the washing stations to submit what they consider to be their best lots, and each can enter up to 4 samples for competition. They have 68 of 175 washing stations in Burundi involved this year — over 30% of all the country’s facilities contributing over 300 samples total! This is pretty impressive considering it is the first year of the program. Their goal is to get all involved.

“How is the money going to get to the farmer?” you are probably asking yourselves at this point. The washing station managers are keeping very careful records of which coffees are in which lots submitted, and even what percentage per specific farm’s coffee. Right now it looks like CoE is planning on emulating the breakdown typcial for the industry here:: ~72% to the grower pool, ~16% to wet mill, ~5% to dry mill, rest to promotion, taxes, fees, etc. CoE / Alliance for Coffee Excellence is hoping that they might be able to get about 85% of the money to the growers, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this soon, certainly before the

We had two more rounds of cupping once everything got back on track. Each of those rounds saw two samples eliminated for potato. In every cupping today we found potato on our table, and it is a very complicated issue.

So what is potato defect? The chemical is actually closer to snap peas than potato from the “Le Nez Du Cafe” aroma kit many of us calibrate with. The current dominant theory is that it is caused by the antestia insect. Microorganisms that infect the coffee fruit and seed, due to skin damage. This skin damage can happen in a variety of ways, but it is commonly thought that the distinct “potato defect” (which is common also in neighboring Rwanda and also occurs in Tanzania, Zambia, and Kenya) is due to damage from an insect
called Antestia.

It’s very difficult to sort out the “potato” defect, as it is largely invisible. Flotation of cherry before pulping helps, as does densimetric sorting of finished coffee. I am always amazed by the power of the internet, and within seconds I found this via Google and

“Antestiopsis is a genus of shield bug, commonly known as antestia and the variegated coffee bug. Several species in eastern Africa are pests of coffee plants, giving the coffee beans a distinctive ‘potato taste’, which is thought to be caused indirectly by bacteria entering through wounds created by the insects, leading to an increase in the
concentration of isopropyl methoxy pyrazine. They feed on flowers, berries and growing tips, injecting a toxic saliva that often contains the spores of the Ashbya fungus, and then suck juices out.”

I especially love that last bit — nice little critter eh?

The fact that Kenya has seen a few cases is extremely alarming, but might just be the kick in the butt that the whole region needs to take the issue seriously. Again, the results of this process may help to achieve that as well.

What to do? Kill the bugs would be my obvious answer. Easier said than done, obviously — just ask Byron!

In speaking with people here there seem to be a few measures that could be taken:

1. Attentive picking – looking for signs of insect damage, holes, or split skins

2. Attentive wet milling and sorting. You have all seen how we sort at our mill, and the somewhat damaged or deformed seeds will often end up notably less dense than fully matured and healthy seeds. As a result they float. If you skim the floaters you may remove a bunch of the possibly infected seeds.

3. Densimetric sorting — using the density differential we just talked about again after the wet mill process to further reduce the chances of potato showing up.

4. As Byron always says, healthy coffee trees produce better tasting coffee. I had a long chat with Benjamin Lentz who is the Director of the USAID Burundi agricultural initiatives, and it was interesting to see how much progress they have made in just a couple of years. They are investing a lot in creating model plots and have seen potato
numbers shrink from 30% to minimal amounts just by getting the right inputs into the soil.

5. Infrared light / UV light. Here I heard both terms thrown around but I believe it happens to be one or the other, not both. Today an old story I heard a few years back was confirmed. It seems Burundi had two color sorting machines like we have in Brazil outfitted with the appropriate light (UV or Infrared) and this would help them to
detect the potato. They were able to make significant gains vs. the potato, but then one broke down and someone simply decided not to use the other… alas, I am learning that this is sorta how things work here.

More on all of this tomorrow. A big day!

Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part I

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his first of several trip diaries.

Bujumbura rooftops. Photo by John Moore.


Landed safe and sound in Bujumbura, Burundi this afternoon after a few hours in Johannesburg. The approach was really something out of a film — Jurassic Park or some Arthurian legend. About 45 minutes before approaching Bujumbura we hit thick cloud cover and it was impossible to see through. After a rather interesting warning from the pilot we descended aggressively and managed to get just beneath the thick canopy of clouds.

Although beneath the billowy blanket above us a thick misty fog still clung to the air which made visibility minimal at best. In the last ten minutes or so it was as if we stepped out of a steam bath and into clear air. The fog parted and it was as if Burundi miraculously appeared right beneath us from a dream. We followed the Ruzuzi River valley as the ancient waterway connecting Lake Kivu and Tangyanika seemed to lazily wind and snake its way toward Bujumbura.

The first thing that struck me was just how different but similar the landscape seemed from its northern neighbor Rwanda. In Rwanda there was a meticulously executed land reform after the genocide that distributed plots more equitably between the Tutsi minority (formerly the aristocracy defined by in part by cattle and land) and the Hutu majority. Rwanda and Burundi are the two most densely populated countries on the African continent, and in Rwanda it often seemed like the whole country was a patchwork quilt of small farms. Some of the land that appeared to have wild flora or fauna I learned later was all carefully managed by specific owners.

In Burundi it would appear as though reform came about in a somewhat different manner. Yes, there are some areas that are clearly delineated farms, but much of the land that we flew over and that I’ve seen so far appears to be actually wild. Also, it would appear by what I saw that there are fewer paved roads and other contemporary conveniences than I saw in Rwanda. Burundi also remains one of the world’s most impoverished nations, regularly ranking in the top 3 poorest countries on earth, so that could explain the roads. Or lack thereof.

Also, although I knew Bujumbura was near Lake Tangyanika, I didn’t realize that the city
is literally on the lake. It was interesting in Rwanda to see just how profound an influence Lake Kivu had on the local coffee production. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had to take a boat across the lake to visit the winning farm from Cup of Excellence when I was there. I’m curious to learn more about which coffees prove themselves on the table this week and where they come from. I also hope to learn more about work going on right now to better define regions both in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda.

A not-that-common paved road. Photo by John Moore.

The topography of Burundi is defined by tectonic and volcanic activity. This is the Albertine Rift and East African Rift. In flying over the mountains of Burundi I was instantly reminded of the blondish to brownish khaki soil coloration that I saw in Rwanda. I must have consumed a half lung’s worth of the stuff when driving the dirt roads with open windows on my farm trips and it looked familiar. The bad news is that if it is the same stuff I’ll be sneezing and coughing it up for a while. The good news is that it can produce great coffee!

At the airport I was quickly reminded of the not-too-distant conflicts here in Burundi. I
stopped to grab a quick photo of the airport as I was getting off the plane, to celebrate the fact that terra firma was once again under my feet. Unfortunately the security guy with the AK47 didn’t think it was such a funny idea, and immediately started busting my chops. Fortunately he quickly lost interest and after muttering something in French directed me to get off the tarmac and into the customs area.


The last rebel group didn’t sign a peace agreement here until 2009.There are some astonishing post-war stats: average life expectancy is 46, and 50% of the population is under 15 years old. 50%! The population of the entire country is about that of NYC, at about 8.5 million people. Almost 10% of that —- 800,000 —- live in Bujumbura.

The economy is devoted to agriculture; 90% of the population is dependent on subsistence farming for survival. The economic growth of Burundi is reliant on the development of the coffee and tea sectors, and 90% of the foreign exchange earnings are derived from coffee and tea exports! 90%! For many years the Tutsi minority dominated the coffee trade, and it was essentially controlled by the government. In 2005 the government liberalized and privatized the sector, and this has lead to investments by many private investors both Tutsi and Hutu.

Imagine the impact that a program like Cup of Excellence can have in this environment and
in this place. The average annual income here in the agricultural sector is about $200.00
per year. It will be amazing to see the kind of good that CoE can do for a farmer or collective of farmers that will suddenly see CoE auction earnings. The average coffee farm here is only about 150 trees, so CoE $/lb ratios could really make a difference.

Cup of Excellence Burundi begins! Photo by John Moore.

About that — today was Day 1. Our head judge here is Paul Songer, and this is my second time with Paul as a head judge, and third time that he has been involved in a competition that I’ve been part of. Paul’s Day 1 calibration sessions are the stuff of legend. He loves his statistics, his presentations, and his scientific experiments in coffee. He happens to be one of the foremost minds in coffee when it comes to sensory experience, in particular in the chemistry of coffee and how that is perceived by us humans. Paul didn’t disappoint, and it was actually very nice to see that he is constantly tweaking his intro and experiments with us as his guinea pigs.

After an intensive acid calibration (not what it sounds like), we jumped into the coffee calibration. Paul picked the coffee that was supposed to be the best, the middle, and the dud. This time around was kind of funny. Within seconds the ‘best’ was lost to potato defect, although the other two samples were what they were supposed to be. After these were revealed, we cupped a flight of coffees with these standards identified and sitting in the middle of the table as benchmarks to use as reference. Then we all cupped and compared our notes.

It was interesting to see how the ugly potato defect showed up so immediately and with such impact. Still, it was perhaps more interesting to see how vibrant the acidity is in some of these coffees, and how diverse the flavor profiles can be. Looking forward to getting this thing going for real tomorrow!

Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Five: Beginning to Understand

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, just returned from visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. On this entry he arrives at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, after travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the special agronomy of Brazil, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his final trip diary from Summer 2012.

Irrigation at Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

On my way to the airport the taxi driver and I made general taxi-driver-and-passenger conversation. He was very nice about how fluid my Portuguese was, or did he say fluent? I don’t know because I only really can communicate like a 3 year old child in Portuguese. I often use the wrong conjugation and when I don’t know the word I just say it in Spanish. I understand a large percentage of what people are saying, but my mouth is much slower than my ear at this new language.

One thing I did fully understand from the driver was his relationship with coffee. He said, “Coffee is my vice, I’ll drink it an any hour of the day. From where I’m from in Minas there is very little great coffee that is brought in. One thing that I’m not willing to give up is my brew method. I use the traditional method only (affectionately called the Sock Brewer most of us coffee professionals in the US). I have a very specific way of brewing. I grind the coffee, and then apply the very hot water to the coffee, never the coffee to the water (referring to the boiling coffee method that some people use here in Brazil). Then once you add the water there is nothing left to do*. Let the water do the work and the aroma will let you know if you did it right. I wouldn’t trade my cloth brewer for any machine on earth. Nothing makes better coffee than our traditional brewer.”

*He may have mentioned something about a stir, but I don’t know the word for stir…

I loved it, this guy was gushing about his relationship with coffee. We clearly had something in common. He asked how I purchased coffee and if I thought Brazilian women are beautiful. The first answer was much longer than the second, which was a yes (he knew I am married).

This is my third trip to Brazil and I’m only now starting to understand Brazilian coffee. There are so many people involved in getting Brazilian coffee to market and the methods of production are so different in Brazil. A few trips to this beautiful origin are the the minimum to start to understand the needs of the farmers, processors and exporters.

In Brazil there is a big push toward mechanization. According to what one farmer said, “I have to either end using manual labor or manual labor will end us”. The labor costs and insurance in Brazil are very high. This is great for the individual workers to meet the high costs of living and transport in Brazil, but it puts the farm owners in a tough spot. Coffee culture is in the fabric of Brazilian life. No body wants to move toward all mechanized production, but if farmers want to stay in business they need to sell at a profit. In every Brazilian coffee ad there is a picture of a person winnowing coffee. This is how leaves and sticks are removed from the picking using a round screen and the wind. It is beautiful to watch. Just look at our Flickr site for some examples. Now there are machines that work. Are farming regions suffering from high unemployment rates? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like the draw of urban life and urban culture wins over getting dirt under your nails.

The way I view it is like looking at a forklift. Every warehouse in the US nowadays has a forklift to move pallets of product. When cargo first arrived, warehouses needed fewer people to move the same product. At Dallis we have one employee, Carlo Simeon, from the pre-forklift days still working with us in Ozone Park. Bag by bag they unloaded truckloads of coffee. Carlo doesn’t smile about those days, it is actually a sigh. 60 to 70kg bags of coffee is a lot of weight for one person to carry and that is how coffee was moved between warehouses. At most origins I only see workers carrying bags on their back and loading them into the long trailers, not a forklift in sight. Eventually forklifts will be purchased and the heavy lifting can be done by machines. We are seeing this happen in Brazilian coffee production not because of profit-hungry farm owners, but because of farm owners trying to stay farm owners.

I had one (what seemed to be well informed) agronomist tell me the cost of production based on a production per hectare. Then another agronomist told me a number that was 30% higher. I shared the first number with the second agronomist and he told me that the first agronomist was either lying or mis-informed. Regardless, the numbers are all over the place and nobody seems to know how much Brazilian farmers need to break even. When I asked one farmer he told me the honest truth, “I don’t know, I’ve been planting new coffee areas every year so all the costs are mixed up together”.

The overall number of coffee cultivated areas is going down and the production of coffee per area is going up. This comes from new varieties and more appropriate fertilizations, in my opinion.

On the consumption front, Brazil loves coffee. Most of what is drank in the normal coffee places is a blend with robusta. Most of it was pretty rough. Some was simply benign. Aside from the cupping table, only three places: my friend Hektor’s house, with Villa Essencia coffee, Labratorio do Cafe – Isabela Raposerias, and the Octavio Cafe in São Paulo had amazing coffee. There is plenty of room on the larger scale for improvement. I was able to share a few coffees with the workers at Octavio Cafe and they loved trying some new things. One was the Espresso from Ninth Street Espresso which came from the same farm that supplies the Octavio Cafe coffee: Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Same farm, different varieties, different roasters resulting in different espressos.  

It has been amazing to see how some regions with poor soils produce beautiful coffee. The Speciality potential here is incredible. There are world class coffees in Brazil that can compete with the best coffees in the world.

Currently sitting on the plane to JFK, what comes to mind are more and more questions because I’m only just starting to understand how this massive and complicated origin works. I have a list of questions to ask our suppliers in Brazil and hopefully, that will only lead to more questions.

Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Four: After the Rain

Sul de Minas

Here are some crazy numbers. One of the less affected regions in the Sur de Minas region was Alfanes. The rain levels in June were 5 times higher than normal. The average rainfall in June is 22 millimeters. This June it was 124 millimeters. Not only that, before some of the heavy rains dumped on the coffee, there were several days of constant rain that saturated the soil. When that happens a farmer can only wait for the bad weather to pass and the soil to dry before they can resume picking and drying coffee. The maturation of the coffee speeds up drastically and cherries fall off the trees on to the ground.

I tend to like the coffees from Sul de Minas. I was excited and nervous to see what this crop looked like. To get there from Pedrugulho we left Nossa Senhora at 6am and headed straight south.

We started by having a breakfast of pao de queijo on our way to the first farm. A talkative ex-potato farmer. He decided to move into coffee farming by exploring all his options. He visited farms all over and decided to use a beneficial grass and a fungus to build his soil. He shared the highest yields I’ve heard all trip. Truly incredible amounts of coffee per hectare: 84 bags. He lives on his farm and doesn’t want to be a volume producer, he wants to be a quality producer. His coffee was great last year. He is doing an impressive job diligently managing every step. “No, I don’t want to be big. I want to be on the drying patio looking at my coffee to see it is being treated right. It is the eye of the owner that improves the health of the farm”. He meant his own two eyes watching everything. This year he had some great cups on the table.

Another farm had all the really cool artisan methods down to a science. Raised beds, slow drying and a breath taking view. Their Natural Process Yellow Bourbon was amazing.

Today I cupped 24 coffees after visiting 3 farms. Some had brilliant sparkly acidity and some were that caramel-sweet body-driven coffee that I love from Sul de Minas. Those tables sure had some land mines as well. The amount of Rio (a defect that apparently comes from the Fucario fungus and tastes a lot like hints of chlorine in your coffee) and phenol on the table was disturbing. It wasn’t that bad, but there were a lot more of these defects than I had found earlier on this trip.

It was a long day I got to Sao Lourneco about 12:30am. Tomorrow Carmo de Minas.

Carmo de Minas

At least one farmer in very growing region told me, “The rains weren’t that bad for us, but that other region you are visiting had it bad.” And at least one farmer in every region told me, “The weather was terrible this year, the worst in 30 years. Expect high prices and lots of Rio and fermented cups”.

I heard the same thing everywhere. And every where seemed to point at Sul de Minas as having the worst problems with weather. I found more Rio on the cupping table in that region for sure, but how do I sort out all the mixed messages from farmers?

Clearly it has been a rough year for the Brazilian coffee crop. Rains are the problem. It really can change everything about how the coffee is “finished”. Even if the farmer did everything right for the first 8 months, the final months of the harvest cycle make all the difference in the cup. If there is rain at the end of the maturation it kind of messes up the system. The cherries fall of the trees before they are ripe and they ripen very quickly. The cherries can also “explode” or split open because of the rain. Then when it comes to processing, coffee can’t be processed on the patio. It must be dried in the driers. One positive thing is that mechanical driers are everywhere in Brazil. But most farms don’t have the mechanical drying capacity to handle the entire harvest.

I was interested to hear from the farmers in Sul de Minas, but especially Carmo de Minas which routinely produces the finest coffees in Brazil, according to the Cup of Excellence. They often win about 70% of the international finalist positions. I did three tables in Carmo. There were a few brilliant coffees. Truly standout, amazing coffees. There was mostly decent to meh on the tables. But that is how coffees work, a couple winners and several 2nd places.

Farmers have more and more contact with buyers and they are quite good sales people. All the talk about Sul de Minas being terrible this year. . . was that just a sales pitch for me to focus on their coffees? Clearly Brazil is going to have a rough year in terms of quality, but lets not forget that this harvest is going to be 25% larger than last year. It should be near record levels (about 54 million bags of coffee). My take-away is that we (at Dallis Bros) have to be very careful with a few types of defects coming out of Brazil this year but there is still amazing and brilliant coffee sitting in Brazil waiting to be purchased.

In Brazil, there is more research and technology invested into coffee than almost any other country. Just look at the amount of varieties coming out of Brazil: Tupi, Topazio, Acaia, Catucai, Caturra, Catuai, Icatu and many more. All those names come from the Tupi Guarani indians that lived in Brazil before the Portuguese arrived. The point is, with all this technology and investment into coffee in Brazil, they are still susceptible to climatic conditions. And in a country that sells coffee based on size, defect count and cup quality (clearly they know a lot about grading coffee), they still can’t tell which lots are going to be Speciality until they hit the cupping table.

I think if anything, I’ve learned that truly speciality coffee is still something beyond what we currently understand. Farmers can do everything right on the right piece of land and that doesn’t mean that every bean will blow your mind in the cup.