Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Three: Home on the Farm

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, is currently 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 agronomy of the land, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his third trip diary from Summer 2012.

One of the many lessons I learned from my mom was that until you hear the same thing from a few different people, you haven’t really started to understand the topic. Well, in my last update I only talked a bit about some of the farms I visited. At one that has a really impressive operation with irrigation, full lot traceability, and some really great coffees, the owner was telling me about how great his naturals were. I asked him point blank: why? He spoke English so it was easy to talk to him so directly. He just pointed to his patio. He struggled to find some words and said, we watch them closely and next year our naturals will be awesome. LIke a two-year-old I asked again: why? Come look. And he took off to the patio with drying coffee.

He started telling me some details: the problem with naturals is how they arrive to the patio at different moisture levels. In Brazil the naturals are either the floaters in water processed or partially and fully dried on the tree. So they arrive to the patio at different levels of moisture. Some arrive at an overly dry 9%, others arrive to the patio at 20% humidity. And the target is 12%. So he has a plan to separate the fully dried naturals from the partially dried naturals through a screen sorter. The wetter beans being larger and the more dried smaller. Makes perfect sense. He showed me one tiny bean that was dry and one wet larger bean. In my hand I found beans that were much closer in size and very different moistures. I loved the intention and spirit but I didn’t know if that was going to really work with the precision that he was describing.

Next stop was Nossa Senhora Aparecida. This is my third trip to our sister company in Brazil. So for me it was most important to see all the new improvements, irrigation system, and try and understand more about this crop’s cup character. We are at the tail end of the harvest. We are only processing naturals right now. In the pickings there are only about 2% ripe cherries. Therefore all the coffee is being natural processed because it is tree-dried. The farm is working on Saturday right now but not pulling the 24-hour processing shifts like it was in peak harvest. I arrived on Friday night from the Cerrado region. Sat AM the farm manger Serrafim took me around and patiently described every process. This would become a novel if I tried to relay a quarter of the info he downloaded on me.

These are the highlights. After riding on the mechanical picker while it picked one row, the driver got off the machine and ran back where he had just picked. It looked like he dropped his keys in the field. Nope. The second time he and Serrafim did the run up and back, I asked him what they driving was doing. Oh he is just checking the trees for stress and the quality of picking. If they are losing too many leaves, he can adjust the vibration intensity. If I’ve learned anything in coffee, it is that the attention to detail and these small touches in the name of  quality make all the difference.

I had lunch with the irrigation expert. Irrigation makes sense for our farm. Last year’s crop really suffered in terms of production because of the drought we had in the prior year. Irrigation doesn’t mean “just watering the trees”. He made it very clear that there is an incredible amount of finesse required to treat the trees right. A few things: we can fertilize with a system which pinpoints the application of a fertilizer to the trees so less is used. We can also encourage the trees to have a more uniform flowering by withholding water, then hit them with heavy water for about a week to open all the flowers. Then keep the trees wet until the buds take. But that doesn’t mean turning on the irrigation and turning it off after a couple hours. Based on the clay-to-sand ratio in each section of the farm, the soil has a different holding capacity of water. Therefore the amount and the timing for every section of the farm can be different. And there are sensors at different levels in the soil to detect if the water saturation.

The Alta Mogiana region was not spared from rains of June. Nor was our farm. I had visions of this trip to Brazil being entire cupping tables of the Rio defect and ferment. So far I was spared, I was only shown clean delicious coffees. The 19 coffees I cupped from Nossa Senohra Aparecida were no different. Delish. The stand out was our Fully Washed Yellow Bourbon. Sparkling acidy in a balanced sweet cup. I was also able to taste some of my own handiwork. The farm director Edgard Bressani and I spent several hours in New York working on specific ways to process some microlots at Nossa Senhora.

We decided to build some raised beds and a patio with a tarp over it. The raised bed coffees were solid and some were outstanding. All separate varieties, all very small quantities. Edgard also did a coffee fermented with milk in the tank which was quite nice this year. Here is the crazy thing. Pedrugulho is the most productive municipality in the State of São Paulo Brazil. Now in Pedregulho, there are only 3 farms doing pulped-natural process. Most farms are only doing natural process. I had no idea how rare pulped-natural process coffee was in the Mogiana region. At Nossa Senhora we do the 3 major processes: pulped-natural, natural and fully washed all start as single varieties and now we have tiny lots microlots that started as a brainstorm in Queens New York.

Our dry and wet mill manager, Marcelo, looks like he just stepped off the surfboard. Tan, cool and excited. He has 15 years experience working on some of the best farms in Brazil. I dug a bit deeper with how we do things at Nossa Senhora at the wet mill.  We do an underwater ferment on the fully washed coffee from our farm. Some were along the way Marcelo figured out the exact pH of water to mark the end of the fully washed process. Don’t get the impression Marcelo processes only with machines that tell him what to do. In every step, I asked him why he did certain processes or methods. He would just smile and show his hands. This is how I know adjust this machine. I feel the cherries before they go in the machine, I watch how they come out and adjust accordingly. So I asked him about the theory of the other farmer to sort out the more and less try natural process coffees. He smiled and eloquently disagreed with the theory I shared from the farmed I talked about at the beginning of this post. “Well,” he said, “I have a different method to homogenize the humidity in the beans.”

He described how he manages the thickness of the cherries every day depending on the weather and the moisture of the natural process beans. The proof is in the cup and our naturals this year were solid on the cupping table, clean, sweet and balanced.

More later from the Sur de Minas region.

Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part Two: Growing in the Cerrado

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, himself a coffee farmer, is currently visiting Brazil to taste and purchase coffee for Dallis Bros. He’ll eventually end up at our own sister farm in Brazil, Nossa Senhora Aparecida, but currently he is travelling about the land, meeting farmers and learning about the agronomy of the land, in between exhaustive cuppings. Here is his second trip diary from Summer 2012.

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In typical Brazilian fashion, I asked to speak to an agronomist and they made it happen. I wanted to understand the climate and the agriculture as it related to coffee. It might seem like Speciality Grade is “luck”. But coffee is anything but dumb luck. Coffee is 76% of the income in Patrocinio, a town in the heart of the Cerrado (se-ha-do) region. After talking with the agronomist until the sun was well set, it became clear to me how methodical these farmers are. The agronomist was really patient with all my questions. I asked why they were planting so many trees per hectare. Most farms in the world are planted with 1500-3000 trees per hectare. They are planting about 5000 per hecate in the Cerrado region. “Oh, we only started doing that recently, about 10 years ago”. I totally appreciated the view that what they have is working. The yields are averaging 30 bags per hectare of coffee and they are doing it in totally poor soils. Let me explain. Cerrado translates to “savannah”. The native trees barely grow. The elevation is high and you will want to wear a jacket at night. In regions with richer soil the mango trees are huge. In the Cerrado they are short, squatty and don’t grow straight if they grow at all. It is clearly a rough place to grow things.

After the black frost of coffee in 1975 in Parana in the south of Brazil, farmers started moving north where the frost risk didn’t exist. A lot of these farms have been in production for only about 20 years. They use a fair amount of fertilizer and have learned to use the weeds that grow in between the rows as fertilizer. One farm doesn’t use any chemical weed killer, only mowers, and has a higher level of organic material and (I assume) therefore a higher yield of 50 bags per hectare. Several of the farms I visited are Rainforest Alliance certified. They have taken a dry-brush-filled savannah and planted trees all over the place in poor soils and considering coffee is profitable (at current market levels) there are new coffee plantings all over the place.

So I walk back into the trade house the following day and find the cupper Lucas giving the dry mill manager a hard time because he is letting certain defects through for a Brazil NY 4/5, which is a low commercial grade coffee with defects—the green smelled like a public school restroom, musty and funky. The result of the conversation was to re-run the coffee through a couple machines to get it right. Needless to say I was impressed at the attention to detail for a such a low-grade commercial coffee. I went out to see 3 farms that day. The first was aptly named Paraiso. The farm is from Italy and is totally . . . insane. Before I met the farmer, it was obvious that the farm was strictly managed. I could tell by the natural process cherries on the patio resting at 90 degree angles. I met the farm manager and the owner. The owner was clearly pissed about something and communicated this clearly to the manager. Based on the cupping results, this farm is doing a lot of things right. The Yellow Icatu (variety) was delish, the Tupi tasted like a good espresso base, and the natural from last year (although old) also tasted like a winner.

There were 4 of us in the truck: coffee trader, an interpreter, the farm owner and I. At one point the farm owner was excited and making a joke. I didn’t understand what he said. So I looked at the interpreter, who also didn’t understand, then she looked at the coffee trader, who also didn’t understand who looked at the farmer, who simply repeated what he said in Italian. We all laughed, understanding nothing.  

The next day we did another table of calibration. While the history of the Cerrado is all commercial coffees (many farms only produce natural process) this group is passionately excited about Speciality. You can see it in their faces when sharing cupping notes. One employee there told me he enjoyed sharing information and cupping his coffees more than making money on commercial coffees.

Weather: the weather in the Cerrado region has been rough this year. The region received rain in June like never before. It accelerated the maturation of the crop and therefore reduced the amount of pulp-natural the farms could produce. Most farms will mechanically pick their coffee twice. Then do the sweepings to pick up the loose cherries from the ground to control the broca and sell the coffee as a lower grade. One farm I visited is doing the sweepings, then picking the coffee once, then sweeping again because there are so many cherries on the ground already. At least for now it isn’t raining and they are all racing to get the coffee on the patio and dry before all the remaining coffee ends up as sweepings.

More coming soon from Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

Brasil Diaries Summer 2012 Part One: It’s Just Luck

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.

DR Diaries: Summer 2012 Part II, Off to the Mill

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.”  
Volunteer: “Thanks”.
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.

DR Diaries: Summer 2012

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.

Los Fríos. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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.

Children in Los Fríos. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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.

Coffee growing at Finca La Paz. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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…

Cerro de Reyes

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.


Fazenda Sertão

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.

Find out more about our Sertão Drip and our Single Origin Espresso.

Honduras Diaries

At Finca La Cascada. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb

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.

El Salvador Diaries: Part III

Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb

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.

Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb

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.

El Salvador Diaries: Part 1

J. Hill Mill in El Salvador

Our coffee director, Byron Holcomb, is frequently called upon to visit coffee-producing countries and report in from the front lines. His current trip to El Salvador, for the annual Cup of Excellence juried competition, brings us this first report.

After leaving New York where the heat isn’t on in my building and the fake spring weather, stepping off the plane in San Salvador was nice. Kind of like a sauna after being in the cold for a very long time. The humidity in the air seemed to displace the oxygen. Everyone in the airport was sweating. Not just the gringos. There were a few of us CoE people on the same flight. I waited out front for them and could see the sweat stains on everyone’s back. There were birds, in the airport calling and screaming. There were kids crying. And everyone was either trying to ignore the heat or complain about it.

Then they took us to this place called “Could be anywhere really nice hotel”. The cuppings, hotel and awards ceremony are all being held here. Right here. I can see the cupping area from my room. This is like one of those mega nice and big hotels. It is actually really nice. Of course today we left as soon as we were free and went into the old local market in San Salvador to see how people buy their wares locally. There was a sweet woman who told us how this kind of flower is used as a meat replacement. Other people drank smoothies out of plastic bags with straws. I ate plums and this kind of banana plantain hybrid that I call Rulo.

The calibration was great. As usual a couple nice coffees, a couple ok and a rough one to spoil the party. We did the same coffees 3 times. The first table was really hard for me. Our table was sitting in the straight line of sight of the Air Conditioning. Actually only about half of the table was. So I got almost no Fragrance, zero Aroma and the break was like chasing a fart. Cupping them nearly gave me a headache because the two sides of the table were totally different. It was only on my 3rd pass I noticed one side that was much warmer than the other. So some coffees improved, some tanked. I struggled to know why they put all such meh coffees on the calibration round. I couldn’t score anything well, nor could I find major flaws. , So we moved the table and on the second and 3rd tables of the same coffees I saw why some people were giving marks above 82. Nothing brilliant but a couple that were very nice.

New this year is the 85 point cutoff for CoE. The coffees must cup over 85 to make it through. This should help decrease the number of coffees in the auction and increase the quality. In prior years it was 84 points. This is the 10th year of the CoE in El Salvador. They have used this program as well as any country (if not better) to promote speciality coffees. The competition is usually held up in a lodge in the mountains. This year in honor to all the jurors they are really stressing that they want the 10th year to be special. Hence the nice hotel.

Did you know in 1972 El Salvador was the 3rd largest exporter of coffee in the world? The jury is a righteous group of fun people. It should be a great time.

Last night we had an opening Welcoming Reception. El Salvador being so small there were a lot of growers there. One young guy really inspired me. He is super excited about coffee and his Pacamara lot made it into the first round. He was giddy excited. Another woman told she has about 8 farms and exports 5,000 containers a year, and she too glowed that her lot made it into the first round. The excitement was palpable. There was another character who showed up and would speak in Spanish to jury members. He understood a lot of english but chose to speak almost none. Only a couple of the jury members speak Spanish. I was an interpreter for most of the night. Some of his stories about values and morals I can tell. Other stories I won’t tell you all here. He was hilarious. His coffee is also in the first round.

Later, there are some farm visits planned and I have some of my own farm visits planned while I’m here.