Honduras Diaries, Part II: Rust and Sweetness

Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, traveled to Honduras and El Salvador earlier this month to meet with some of the farms we work with. This is the second in a series of his travel diaries.

Byron on Finca Las Cascadas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Byron on Finca Las Cascadas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

At Dallis we don’t use the term Direct Trade. For us to invest in a term or mark it must first be defined. The specialty industry can’t define the mark. We do plenty of business “directly” with farmers—but that is just how we work.

Finca Las Cascadas produced some really great coffee last year. It was tasty, came from a well-respected farm, we paid a premium for the cup quality, and the farmer, Renan, was motivated to do coffee experiments and explore the quality that he can produce. For me, that is a home run.

When I get to Renan’s house, he asks me, “tienes mas burros?”—do you have more donkeys? Then he points at my feet and marches in place. Nope, I only have these two donkeys. I’ll lend you mine for the farm. He returns from his bedroom with a pair of his boots for me to wear. It has been drizzling rain for two days and the area is a cold wet mess.

I put on his boots and we took off in a 4×4 truck to get to his farm. We drove past farms that have no leaves left on the trees and we drove past farms that looked fantastic. I was eager to see what his farm looked like. In short, the Catimore trees looked great and the Red and Yellow Catuai looked pretty thin. We talked a lot about how to deal with roya. (See an earlier entry about roya here.) Then we went to see the 3-year-old planted section of his farm. Last year when he showed me this section it was beautiful. Lots of small trees planted at the correct distance, only Red and Yellow Catuai.

This year we walked to that section and he said, “this was my hope, but now look at it”. He went on to say, “Some of the trees have their full harvest on them still. I sent you some pictures of this section and the trees were beautiful, full of healthy leaves and green coffee.” But that harvest on the trees is still green. Roya has made the tree sick and the leaves have fallen off, this way the tree has no way of maturing the fruit. So there are branches that are totally green and just a few ripe cherries. Renan said, “Next week I’m going to strip off the coffee and then spray for roya and fertilize.

“But listen: I’m not the person who is going to convert my whole farm to Catimore and and lose hope. We are going to win this battle with roya”. When he said that his eyes sparkled and inspired in me a lot of faith in quality coffee.

Another leader of a respected co-op told me that he estimates Honduras to have about 20% of Catimore planted now, and after this roya outbreak, they might have close to 80-90% planted. It is really a scary number. On the cupping table earlier this week, we had one farm on the table twice. One lot was an 85.5 (Catuai) really sweet, great acidity, nice complexity. The second lot was about an 82-83 (Catuai and Catimore), much flatter, not a lot of acidity or sweetness. If you just look at the scores you could say “but it is only 2.5 – 3.5 points.” But on the SCAA scale, the difference between an 83 and an 85.5 is not small. I would consider buying a 85.5 but 83 simply isn’t good enough for Dallis Bros.

The conversion to Catimore is a scary one. Not only that I don’t think it will work in the long run, what I’ve heard from many coffee people is that Catimore is great, until Roya mutates. Look at Colombia. They have three varieites: Catimore, Colombia and Castillo. All of which are Catimores, but don’t seem to be as resistant to roya as they were in the past. So sure, plant Catimore now, in 5 years when those trees are fruiting, what happens and the newest mutation of roya is attacking the Catimore of now?…sounds like a vicious, losing cycle. By the way, it takes more than 5 years to develop a new variety and distribute the seeds.

Testing coffee cherry with a Brix meter at Finca Las Cascadas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Testing coffee cherry with a Brix meter at Finca Las Cascadas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

From Finca Las Cascadas, we took some ripe cherries for testing with the refractometer. The Red Catuai had a sugar percentage in the fruit of 21%. That is ideal for cup quality, so I’m told. The Yellow Catuai that was fully ripe (yellow with hints of brown) had a sugar percentage of 21.5%. Yellow Catuai with a hint of green read 19%. Then we tested the most perfect cherry of Catimore, it read…14.5%. The coffee fruit tasted gelatinous without sweetness. Renan was floored by the refractometer. “This is fantastic to show other farmers.” I told him that I haven’t personally cupped each level of ripeness and variety in Honduras, but I have a really great source who has in other countries and according to him, the sugar percentage and the cup follow directly: high sugar percentage, high cup score, low sugar percentage.

Renan is doing everything correctly, in my book. He spends a lot of time on his farm. He is a community leader. He is intentionally drying his coffee on top of his warehouse, “because it is removed from the dust and dirt”. I say sometimes that everything ends up in the cup. And when I see really clean drying patios they are almost always better cupping farms.

Renan had a couple experiments for me to cup. One was about a tiny bit of a full natural and other was Dallis Process, as we call it (hybrid natural and washed process). The natural was intense like a Harrar, clean and well-processed. The Dallis Process was solid. According to the QC person at Beneficio Santa Rosa, it was the best of his coffees this year. I don’t make buying decisions outside of our lab in Ozone Park, so I need to cup it there. I really hope that Renan’s coffee wins the table, but according to the first cupping, the Dallis Process was an 84.

In the New York market we can’t just sell a story. The cup has to be there. Per how we buy coffee it is simple, we buy coffees that win the table. If Renan’s coffee doesn’t win the table, I have to be really honest and share his cup score and feedback. Next year, I’ll make sure his coffee is on the table so that we have a chance to do business.

Sometimes these relationships transcend the buyer-seller back-and-forth. With Renan, I feel like I have a new friend. One that calls me for advice as to where he can buy Gesha seeds and my opinion as a buyer on Pacamara. When he calls, I clear my desk and give him all my attention. We talk like two farmers, sharing information and experiences. While, I can’t buy coffee from someone because they are a friend, I do share all the information I know so that we can all keep specialty coffee growing and improving.