Cup of Excellence Diaries: Costa Rica 2013, Part III

San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo by Matt Swenson.

San Jose, Costa Rica. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Matt Swenson, our Director of Coffee, recently headed down to Costa Rica for their annual Cup of Excellence competition. Here is his third postcard home.



Dance performance at Cafe de Altura. Photo by Matt Swenson.

The third day got underway and another day of fierce scoring was upon us. After a surprising day of scoring everything below 90 all day yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised in the early hours of the morning and scored three coffees above 90. As I walked down the 5 sets of grueling stairs back to the discussion panel room, I felt really strange, as if I had just cheated on a biology test and scored an artificially high A. After speaking to a Cup of Excellence veteran, I felt at ease and my early morning jitters were quickly put to rest. We had just cupped an insane table of coffees. So it turned out that my jitters-episode wasn’t about scoring doubts, but rather that I had broken through a personal barrier of mine. I had never before had the privilege of tasting and scoring so many amazing coffees on a single table.

As the morning pushed on and the cuppings began to blur together, we finally called it a day and loaded up on a bus to go see Cafe de Altura, which is a member-owned mill, very similar to a co-op. Upon first glance as we pulled up, the massive footprint of this facility was impossible to ignore. Just visiting a small single-family operation the day before, this was the godzilla version of a modest iguana. Everyone at Cafe de Altura was an amazing host. They even treated us to a performance of local culture. Soon, children of the community were surrounding us in a barn, in adorable white dresses and perfectly fitted white and blue suits. They began to treat us to a several song performance that stamped smiles on our faces for the rest of the evening. As if it couldn’t get any better, the daughter of one of the producers came out to discuss the meal that she had prepared for us. She had recently competed in a national cooking challenge and won, so she was weeks away from representing Costa Rica in an international cooking competition. I think I might have stopped eating when my head and palate almost exploded with all the deliciously confusing signals they were receiving. Chocolate on steak? Carmelized Banana on pork? Wait, all of that on a tortilla…WHILE IN A COFFEE MILL?! Woah. It was almost too much to handle for one night. (But I may have enjoyed three plates.)


Joe New York's Ed Kaufmann meets a secret Costa Rican Probat. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Joe New York’s Ed Kaufmann meets a secret Costa Rican Probat. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Our cupping on Thursday ended early and we were given the afternoon off to “catch up on emails”. Not content with sitting behind a computer in a foreign place, Ed Kaufmann of New York roaster Joe drew a map on the back of a napkin and headed for a local bus! Armed with the Spanish-speaking skills of a first grader, I sprinted after the first bus I saw and leapt on before realizing Ed was fiercely chasing behind. Both of us jumped on the bus as it was gaining speed to re-enter the fast paced highway. We were off to a safe start.

This was one of those bus trip you always say you want to go on. I think it went something like this: “Let’s just ride until we see something cool,” “Ok, Cool”, “Cool, man”. We ended up getting off in the heart of downtown San Jose and walked around to different shops. We found our way into the central market where we picked up a few souvenirs for our ladies and then stopped to eat like locals. On the way out, we stopped by a coffee shop and noticed an old Toper roaster. The guy behind the counter could not ignore Ed’s massive smile and natural curiosity. By the time it took me to grab my camera out of the bag, Ed was already behind the counter meeting all the employees and taking a closer look at the roaster. After getting a couple cappuccinos and slices of pie, the manager approached us and told us to follow him. Neither of us are fluent, so we both kind of had the gut feeling that we might be lead into a back alley where it could get ugly. We had big smiles and coffee blinders on though, what could go wrong? As he led us out the doors and down the street, we approached a small retail space where to our surprise he showed us an amazing little Probat Roaster. Almost identical to one of the ones we have at Dallis. Well, in spirit. This little roaster was beat up pretty bad and had a good 60 years of roasting on it. But the familiar sight was comforting and seeing the excitement in his eyes as he showed us was truly priceless. In that moment, we all had that brief sense that even though we didn’t speak the same language, we all shared the same excitement for coffee that bonded us.

Where we went wrong. Photo by Matt Swenson.

Where we went wrong. Photo by Matt Swenson.

We headed back to the hotel confidently, as if we had just conquered a territory and in some sense we kind of did…well until that whole “eat like a local” part caught up to us both almost simultaneously. In a matter of minutes, our stories of local adventures to fellow COEers turned into unadulterated sprints to el baño. We may have ignored the rules of Travelling 101, but it was worth it. At least for those first few hours.

Honduras/El Salvador Diaries, Part VI: Success

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

Alejandro Valiente teaching about coffee saplings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Alejandro Valiente teaching about coffee saplings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Three professional clowns. A couple of notes on Luis and Alejandro. They are total goofballs. They call each other viejo (old man) and gordo (fatty) constantly and they spend a fair percentage of the time laughing. After 3 full days of riding around on bumpy roads through two growing regions (Metapan and Apaneca), we were pretty shot by the end of the last travel day. We had been visiting farms, getting samples, prepping samples and working pretty much non-stop. We left Luis roasting the last samples so we could meet with Oscar and discuss Encantada and Miraflores over dinner at 7pm. The next was cupping and racing to the airport.

After all the belly laughs and travel I crossed all my fingers and toes that the cupping table we were going to taste at the end of the trip was going to be great. Luis has been a Cup of Excellence (CoE) Judge in several countries and he and I tend to be pretty calibrated. We did one big table of curated samples from our trip, twelve coffees in all. Coffee might all look the same when it is brewed, but none of it ever tastes the same. Luis and Alejandro set one of the best cupping tables I’ve possibly ever had. It was like the finals day in a CoE competition. I honestly gave two 90s and several others landed in the 87 range.

We shared notes. Our notes were about the same. On the way to the airport we could still taste the delicious coffees with all the glorious fruit notes still singing on our palates.

Usually when I go to a coffee producing country, I tell my hosts exactly what I’m after on that visit. My intent is to set them up for success. Some hosts follow what I ask to the letter and absolutely knock it out of the park, others don’t read emails as closely and we end up doing what they do with everyone: generic cupping and generic farm visits. This trip with these guys was the first type. Success.

Finding people like Luis and Alejandro takes time energy and several stamps in your passport. Ultimately I feel like after this trip we (at Dallis) not only have fantastic partners, we have two more friends that work like we do, with relentless passion—and lots of belly laughs.

Honduras/El Salvador Diaries, Part V: Land of Enchantment

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 fifth in a series of his travel diaries.

Coffee at La Encantada, El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Coffee at La Encantada, El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

La Encantada is a story that is too good to be true. Ten years ago the Figueroa family with the help of some investors in the United States purchased a plot of land that is about 600 acres in size; it is 99.9% a nature reserve. The family has a perfect mix of siblings: an environmentalist, an industrialist and a farmer. The three siblings all have their own set of priorities, so in the end they all balance out and the story only gets better and better. The environmentalist has her priorities set 100% in conservation of the cloud forest. The industrialist is incredibly proud of the cup score and quality and is excited to produce more and more of this fantastic coffee. The farmer couldn’t be happier to have a high altitude coffee farm in the family.

La Encantada is just that, an enchanter. A short hike above the farm quickly becomes a cloud forest. The trees are covered in orchids and bromeliads. There are primary old growth trees and secondary and tertiary growth trees. As I walk through a narrow path the forest becomes dark. Barely any light can make it through the multi-layer canopy to the ferns below. At one point I joked that a T-rex was going to jump out and eat Luis because it looked like a scene from Jurassic Park. I spent the trip with the industrialist, Oscar. He passionately described his family’s mission to reestablish a cloud forest on the top of this mountain because that ensures water for the entire watershed and the towns below, like Metapan where he is from. Oscar clearly has done his research: he eloquently described how the cloud forest has moved up the mountain and now at the very top there are species that really shouldn’t be there. The middle elevation species and biodiversity has migrated up the mountain with deforestation. La Encantada is at the very top of the mountain. The cloud forest has nowhere to go but into thin air.

The coffee farm was started about seven years ago as a way to generate some employment opportunities for the community and provide income to the reserve so that it can be self-sufficient. They have a payroll of six full-time employees. In the family there are two farms: Miraflores and Encantada. This is where Alejandro played a crucial role in discovering La Encantada. Every year the family would harvest Encantada and blend it with the 20 acre farm, Miraflores, and sell it internally. Last year, Alejandro asked him to keep Encantada separate until he and Luis could cup it. Boom. The coffee sprang off the cupping table and we danced a little jig, knowing that we could buy that coffee last year. This year again we did a little dance.


Here is where I was totally surprised. I walked on to the tiny two-acre plot of land to find white sandy soil (like I’ve seen in Brazil) and coffee trees that weren’t in perfect health. Alejandro, a farmer himself, showed me that when areas were heavily farmed with corn the coffee shows signs of a lack in sulfur. It looks like a thin yellow rim around the leaves. Other leaves showed signs of a lack of boron, others zinc, there was some leaf rust present on the leaves. This coffee was struggling to survive and yet the cups on the cupping table were bursting with life.

Like most farms there was a majority of one coffee variety but then there were some others too. The farm is mostly Pacamara. The rest looks like a combination of Pacas, Bourbon, and some old tree that none of us could identify (between three well-traveled farmers). For me it looked like a short berry variety from Ethiopia, the cherries were comically small, it was tall and spindly like a Typica, but upon closer inspection it just looked more like something I’ve seen in Kochere Ethiopia that I was told was “green tip”. The farm manager, who’s nickname is Tucan, said the trees were at least 50 years old. We could call it a Mokka, and nobody could say we were wrong. Considering that it so different in form shape, bean and Brix % of 29, I proposed that we call it Tucan.


We had them pick the Pacamara separate from the other varieties. The other varieties all together would earn a perfect score for sweetness on the the Cup of Excellence form from me (92 cup). Coffees this tasty don’t happen on every cupping table. Coffees like these don’t happen every year. The Pacamara was a fantastic Pacamara (86+). It still holds on to some of that Pacamara flavor and but has layers of fruit and chocolate in between that make it a joy to cup.

After getting the premium for the quality last year (which was 5 times more than they got the year before for the same coffee), the family is looking at options to produce more coffee. The environmentalist gave the industrialist permission to clear a few more acres, but on one condition, it must be done organically. This means the farmer needs to learn some more skills about organic production, the industrialist needs to wait at least one to two years longer for decent harvest and the environmentalist has more a more financially sustainable reserve.

When I heard this story from Luis the first time, I said it sounds too good to be true. I’ll wait until I get there before I get really excited. Well I can tell you that this is all true because I saw it for myself.

Stay tuned for Part Six of Byron’s Honduras & El Salvador trip, coming soon.

Honduras/El Salvador Diaries, Part IV: Unlikely Terrain

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 fourth in a series of his travel diaries.

El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

El Salvador. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

I crossed the border on foot from Honduras to El Salvador. Luis Rodriguez and Alejandro Valiente picked me up in a pickup truck and we took off to Alejando’s farm. We had about a half-mile of paved road and then it turned to a rocky bumpy ride for the next few hours. After about 10 unmarked turns on dusty roads we ended up on the top of a mountain looking out over a section of Pacamara.

As we climbed slowly up the dusty, dry road, Alejandro told me the story of this place. His great grandfather was one of the founders of the area, and basically made the town. In my travels of the world, I almost always find coffee areas with green vegetation that see enough rain to keep the soil a dark shade of red or brown. This area was different. There were lots of pine trees and oaks—both signs of poor nutrient soils. The area looked like a drier version of the Honduras I had just left. The only signs of agriculture were cattle and the occasional plot of corn or veggie garden. I was totally perplexed. Why do I often pick his region off the cupping table as my favorite? If you follow these trip reports, I’ve said at least a dozen times: healthy trees produce quality fruit and delicious coffee. This place looks like a high, steep, dry, temperate forest. The soil is white and there are lots of visible rocks everywhere. How on earth does this place produce such lush, fantastic coffees?

Alejandro told me about the days of the past in this region called Metapan, where the soil is a white clay base. “They were all farmers, so they had cattle, corn, sugar cane, coffee and lime mines. When they went to plant coffee, it wasn’t like they just planted a whole mountainside. My great grandparents had to find the best spots that had the correct slope, aspect, moisture, soil and shade for coffee. The conditions were (and are) so harsh that they had to find these small micro climates that could support coffee.”

Dry season in Metapan. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Dry season in Metapan. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Sure it makes sense that this region has only a few places that could support great coffee, just look at it. But the fact that the coffee here is so spectacular (especially the Pacamaras)…didn’t make sense to me. To give it some credit, I was visiting Metapan during the driest season and just after the harvest. The soil was thirsty for rain. The horizon was brumoso—foggy (this happens a lot during the dry seasons because all the dust clouds the views, one good rain and the view becomes crystal clear). From way up El Pinal—Metapan, we should have been able to see three counties: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We could only see the border of Guatemala marked by a big lake. If it weren’t for a mountain to the south, we could maybe have seen Nicaragua as well.

Some of the better-looking farms still looked rough. The wind last week had been really strong and cold. The soil on many of the farms was bare and exposed to the sun. The Pacamara trees looked like they had lived a hard life. They were nothing like the lush perfectly formed large droopy-leafed trees I expected. If you look at the coffee region map that shows growing regions, there is almost no coffee grown in this region. The regions look like little blotches of spilled green paint on the border with Honduras.

Now take the two departments (El Salvador has departments like the U.S. has States) in this region: Chaletenango and Metapan. Chaletenango has a red clay soil. Metapan has a white clay soil. On the whole there were lots of pine trees and lots of dust. The rocky roads made forward progress slow and never in a straight line. We spent the better part of three days on these roads twisting and winding our way between two major mountains at the northernmost corner of El Salvador.

Luis, Alejandro and I visited three farms: Finca Buenos Aires (not the one we usually buy from), Finca La Encantada and Finca Miraflores. None of the farms were close together. In a helicopter it would have been an easy trip. But we work in coffee and helicopters are mainly for people who work on Wall Street. The fog followed us around. There were some fantastic views—but they only let us see where we were the day before.

Stay tuned for Part five of Byron’s Honduras & El Salvador trip, coming soon.

Honduras Diaries, Part III: The Millionaires

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

Capucas, Honduras. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Capucas, Honduras. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

One of my business mentors along the way said, “if you get enough people what they want, you will eventually get what you want.” In coffee it couldn’t be more true. After my day with Renan I spent one cold wet day in Capucas and then one day in La Labor. The climates couldn’t have been more different.

Capucas is between 1300 and 1600 meters and spends a lot of time in the clouds. The farmers there have a fantastic co-op and many are quadruple certified: Rainforest Alliance, Organic, Utz and Fair Trade. The Fair Trade premiums have provided the income to build a new wet mill and improve their dry mill.

The soil and terrain in Capucas is perfect for coffee. Lots of rain, abundant shade, great varieties, and the farmers own enough land to make a living. It reminded me of a cloud forest in Costa Rica—misty and cold. I told one of our partners there that they are millionaires. They can wake up to healthy air and pure water on their farms every day, coffee is profitable and they even make enough to own a nice pickup truck. The community leaders are charismatic salesmen who produce organic coffee using all kinds of advanced techniques.

Washing channel in Capucas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Washing channel in Capucas. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Organic coffee production requires a lot of creative inputs. They can’t go to the agro supply store and buy a product for a specific issue, like roya for example. They have to work with their environment to find ways to make the plants healthier. One new technique that I’ve heard about a few times is called M.M. They are mountain micro-organisms. The idea is to create a healthy natural blend of bacteria and fungus for foliar sprays and fertilizers. In theory it is simple. Go in to the natural forest, find white fungus and bacteria that are in decomposing leaves and put them in an anaerobic tank for 15 days with sugar and wheat flour. This will make them multiply. Add that solution to an organic fertilizer (like processed coffee fruit) and spray it on the plants. I was talking with a certification expert there and they make 16 different organic products using M.M.s as the base. The coffees here are delicious. Looking at micro-lots they have all the top farmers separated and there is one micro-region in particular that I really like: it is sweet, acidic, complex with notes of red and blue berries and has a thick base of chocolate that supports the symphony of flavors. Let’s just say I really like that particular micro-region with in Capucas.

Jump in a 4-wheel drive pickup for a couple hours and drive west to La Labor and the environment is another story. The elevation is a bit lower and the climate totally different. The grasses look dry, the dominant naturally growing tree is pine, and there isn’t as much rainfall. Here in a different co-op they are making 4 different products from the coffee pulp: ethanol, worm compost, bio-gas, and a foliar (leaf) spray for the coffee trees. At this particular co-op, about half the farmers are Organic Certified and the coffees didn’t have the same, bright sweet citric notes that some Capucas coffees had. The coffees were a bit more base-y and had more chocolate tones. The Roya has been hard on this region as well. But the plants that have been treated with the spray have been recovering remarkably from the Roya. I asked one of the managers from the co-op, Roberto Salazar, if coffee could be produced organically on any farm worldwide? After a long pause, he said, “If you start with soil that is weak, it would be very difficult to produce coffee organically.” His farm has a fantastic production level and is sustainable in every way.

Stay tuned for Part IV of Byron’s Honduras & El Salvador trip, coming soon.

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.

Honduras Diaries Part I: On Farming

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 first in a series of his travel diaries.

Capucas, Honduras. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Capucas, Honduras. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

From the first leg of the journey, on a plane to Atlanta to change to San Pedro Sula–the “industrial capital of Honduras”. I’m excited to see some partners in Honduras. These guys are really top notch in my book. Many of them are passionate about their farms. Wanna know a secret? Most farmers don’t like farming. I’ve been around small farmers for many years. In remote communities far off the grid, these guys and gals didn’t always choose a life of peace, quiet and incredibly hard work. Often they are born into it. Usually off the grid doesn’t come with a high school education (3rd grade is typical, illiterate is more common). Usually off the grid doesn’t come with a dentist and hair gel. The dentist that comes to Los Frios in the Dominican Republic is named “Gogo”. He shows up on a motorcycle and people line up in chairs with wooden legs and twine seats and wait their appointment. Gogo only pulls teeth. It hurts and he removes it. If you have floss in your house and know how to use, it you are pretty high-brow or just rich. So, does every farmer love farming? No. Does everyone love their job? You know the answer to that. When you are born into the above description, you don’t always look forward to a day of pruning coffee and the open blisters on your palm that ensue.

But the farmers that we work with in Honduras actually seem to like farming. They love coffee. They sometimes have 3 certifications on a single farm: Rainforest Alliance, Organic, and Fair Trade. When they talk about their plans for their coffee and their future their eyes sparkle. One saying we have in Latin America is “the eye of the owner fattens the horse”. Farmers that are meticulous over their land, fuss about the property boundaries, and process their coffee by following the weather, moon, and smell of the parchment are our type of people. Maybe this is why I love Honduras so much. Maybe it is becasue of the incredibly diverse flavor profiles and delicious coffees? In short it is all of the above.

Stay tuned for Part II of Byron’s Honduras & El Salvador trip, coming soon.

Tales From Finca La Paz

Our Coffee Director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, isn’t just a coffee director here in New York City—he’s also not-so-secretly a farmer in the Dominican Republic. Every now and then we let him out to check on his farm. Here’s the latest dispatch from his March visit.

Byron's farm, Finca La Paz, in the DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Byron’s farm, Finca La Paz, in the DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Do you want the good news or the bad news? Let’s start with the good. Good days on the farm are fantastic. Since buying the farm about six years ago, I’ve tried every processing experiment that I could find, honey-ed, post-fermentation soak, underwater ferment, natural process, dry ferment and wash. All but two were new to my manager Antonio (1. traditional dry ferment and wash 2. natural process). I’ve tried to glean tips and pointers from all my travels, but farming coffee is nothing like corn in Kansas. I would imagine that corn in Kansas is pretty similar from farm to farm. In coffee farming every slope, every section provides different advantages and disadvantages. Some sections will need lots of shade. Some slopes need much less all because of how the sun hits it. So when I come back from coffee-buying trips with ideas to install on the farm, Antonio very patiently tells me why it won’t work and then we do it his way. Now that I’ve seen enough farms and have more or less a full plan of how I want to manage the farm, I’ve won a few of those debates.

Coffee tree nursery for future plantings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Coffee tree nursery for future plantings. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Based on a cupping experiment done at Dallis I have decided to plant a lot more Caturra and Yellow Catuai. They ripen later and they cup better (per the score sheet) than Typica, which is about 90% of what I have planted. We are also going to try a new grass that I learned about in Brazil: Brachiaria brizantha. We are going to plant in rows like they do in Brazil. We are testing a “cajuela” technique I saw in Kenya and in El Salvador. In this technique we basically dig a hole in the shape of a box just above the coffee and it behaves like a catchment for organic material, water and erosion. All really fantastic things that mountain slopes need. It is labor-intensive and would have to be done every year but it should work. The new Catuai planting looks great. I think that specific part of the farm will do very well with that variety. We are planting more like the Brazilians: lots of trees, closer lateral space, and more space vertically (0.5*2.7). The pruning is done. The Passionfruit is finally taking root and should produce this year. We are experiencing a really strong drought, which isn’t bad if the rain comes in the next few weeks. All of these things are in motion.

After taking 3 different soil samples, none of which were tested for various reasons, we finally have one that is due to return from the lab any day now. Diomedis, Antonio’s son, has finally done a fantastic job pruning my coffee (Antonio has been pretty sick for the last several months). Antonio and I have been arguing for years how coffee should be pruned. After 6 or so harvests, we are finally pruning like I want to. The new plantings on the upper section and new shade crops are growing fantastically. They look really good and there are tons of flower buds. Again, if the rain comes at the right time, our October harvest will be big and good.

On to the bad news, the lower section of the farm (about half of the farm) produced sub-par quality and will be sold locally. All the care and attention didn’t matter because the development of the cherries was inhibited by a couple of fungus. Both Leaf Rust (roya) and Antracnosis really were hard on the trees. The roya or leaf rust is scary. There is a lot of it and it looks worse than ever. Leaf rust is nothing new, but this level of attack is new. I’ve considered spraying for leaf rust in years past, but why when it is never serious and more just a nuisance? Now it is serious and has some countries (Guatemala, Costa Rica) declaring national emergencies because of the level of infestation. Yes, it is hitting all of Central America at once, and the Caribbean.

Roya is now the first part of the conversation with all of our partners in Central America. Roya came from Brazil and it is present in every coffee growing country. It is probably the most damaging disease to coffee production worldwide. Almost every coffee farm has to deal with Roya. Usually it is a nuisance and doesn’t need lots of fungicide sprays. Often times a farm will either not treat it or treat it as part of general maintenance.

Roya (as it is called in Spanish) starts as bright orange rust-like spots below the leaves of coffee trees. A few dots on a farm are not really worth an application of fungicide. This is how it started in El Salvador this year. It looked like a normal dusting of orange scattered throughout the coffee growing region. As the harvest progressed, farmers noted that this was no normal Roya season. Farmers that were slow to spray for roya lost not only part of this harvest, but also lost trees. When Roya is aggressive, the leaves become weak and fall off. As it progresses through the entire tree, lateral branches start to die. At the worst it can kill the tree. It is rather rare that farms will lose trees.

Roya attacking coffee trees. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Roya attacking coffee trees. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Here is the strange part. I first heard about this in the Dominican Republic with the harvest in the South. Then reports from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala all started arriving to my inbox. I know that Colombia has been struggling with more Roya than usual as well as Broca. I could regurgitate what the reports say but that would make this post a small book. I’d rather share my personal perspective about where it came from and what makes this season so bad.

I think this hurricane season is to blame for all the spread of this Roya. Big powerful storms can take spores for thousands of miles. I’ve heard of specific farms in the DR that only had a single band of roya, like it came in from a single gust of wind. I’ve also seen it like it rained down in little pockets. That is what it looked like on Finca la Paz. There were little spots of roya in small sections but overall it was very limited on the upper section of the farm. On the lower section of the farm, it was much more intense. There were trees with no leaves and some with just a few remaining.

Roya is a fungus and it mutates. For many many years scientists thought that there was only one type of roya, hence there was a lot of money and energy put into developing varieties that are resistant to roya (mainly Catimores). One thing that has been noted, especially in India, is that these new varieties of roya-resistant plants are only really resistant for 5-7 years. Then their resistance “wears off”. The reality is that the fungus changes and then the plant is not resistant to the new variety. I remember from a presentation I saw in Ethiopia at the Naturals Conference that in India there are 43 identified types of roya. In a few years, the speaker said, there will be 44… In Colombia they have 3 different types of Catimores: Catimore, Colombia and Castillo. Castillo is the most recently developed and apparently the best tasting. I’ve never tasted it in an isolated cupping.

So, did this Roya come from an aggressive strain that has been wreaking havoc in Colombia? I think so.

One conversation I’ve had with several people is the relationship of shade and Roya. More shade generally means more moisture. Funguses like moist environments. Historically, one of the farm treatments for roya is reducing shade or removing it all together. Brigades of workers are already organized in the DR to prune shade. But wait..according to the real world that is happing right now on farms that I visited (e.g. Finca Rufino) it is the opposite. Most of the roya that is visible is actually in exposed areas and the shaded areas have less roya. One report I read mentioned that a naturally occurring fungus called White Halo actually controlled the presence of roya on some coffee farms. Just like beneficial bacteria, there are plenty of beneficial funguses.

The COODOCAFE is also preparing these brigades to spray copper-based fungicides. In East Africa, roya has been controlled by the application of copper basted fungicides for many years. Look at Kenya as an example, they are very strict with the spraying of fungicides (as I have been told it is enforced by law) and spraying is something that has allowed roya and coffee to coexist. Kenya also just launched a new coffee variety called Batian which is a smaller plant and more resistant to roya and also cups well according to their research. I’ve had some decent Batian, but it didn’t reach the high marks of the best SL-28 and SL-34 I’ve tasted. Then again most SL-28 and SL-34 don’t reach those high marks all the time either.

Finca Rufino, DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

Finca Rufino, DR. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

I spent a couple hours with Rufino Moronta on his farm (Finca Rufino) yesterday. His farm is at the top of the ridge and faces South West. On the way up to his farm we passed by farms with coffee trees without any leaves. I hoped that his farm looked much better than those, his coffee was delicious last year. At one point during the visit he was looking at some four year old Caturra trees that really looked fantastic. Do you think we will make it through this harvest before the roya gets it? The stress was audible in his voice, his demeanor changed from a cowboy farmer to someone expressing fear about his livelihood. I couldn’t say, “sure your harvest is secure, sleep easy.” I couldn’t say, “you better plant some bush beans because these small spots of roya are going to eat your harvest before you can pay your bills.” I just said the truth in a typical fatalistic cultural expression, ojala que si – God willing, yes.

Looking forward: if farmers don’t spray, prune or fertilize at the right time, now, then they will have a very steep road in front of them for next year. The trees will struggle to recover from the current Roya infestation and the production of next year will be worse than this year.

On the human level things are much worse in some aspects.

I’ve kept this pretty under wraps but Antonio has been very sick for quite a while. I’ve hired his son to do his job on the farm. Antonio has been getting all kinds of analysis from different doctors. Laura (my wife) is a certified medical interpreter looked through his papers (he can’t read them himself) to find out that the next analysis is actually a cancer treatment. No one told him he had cancer. We did. Let’s just say it is never something that I ever want to do again. We didn’t cry, but maybe we should have. All I can do is offer to support what I can financially and say a few prayers.

Today had to be one of the best and worst days.

Sourcing Diaries: Grading Naturals in Ethiopia, Part II

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 second of his journals and observations on the proceedings.

Cupping Naturals with people from all over the world. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

The little handbook with pictures and green grading standards that the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) uses was created by Rob Stephen and a couple others, and took took more than three years of work. Three years for a 20-page book with some pictures of defects and how severely they rank for a coffee to be qualified as Speciality per the SCAA definition. Those standards are based on washed coffee only. For Natural Process coffees, well, there aren’t green grading standards, roasting standards, or cupping standards at all. Everything is based on washed coffee.

So here’s the challenge: how do you build standards that work across the globe for a type of coffee that is more complex, harder to control in processing, slightly different in roasting, and where the rules of traditional green grading don’t apply? That is what some of us would like to start to figure out.

Cupping aprons for Naturals fans.

During the four day Natural Conference, we talked mainly about case studies from other countries, Ethiopian standards, Natural Processing and drafted a cupping form for Natural Process coffees. Manuel Diaz drafted the form based on the current SCAA cupping sheet, but changed a few things. Sweetness is now not a “yes” or “no” but is graded like any other attribute. This is because quality naturals can show their character best in sweetness expression. I totally agree with his opinion. I really liked using the form, but are we starting at the wrong end of the equation?

Manuel, in particular, has done an immense amount of actual scientific work on processing especially on Naturals. I was blown away by his ability to bring up scientific papers, presenters and others who could talk eloquently about best practices for Naturals, cupping results, and Brix percentages based on variety, ripeness, and bean weight. A lot has already been done, but how do we tackle this?

Just look at the diversity in Naturals from Ethiopia in terms of the green coffee. When I get a sample of Natural Process from Ethiopia, every single bean looks different in the bag: long berries, short berries, pea berries, different shades of green to yellow, all different sizes and even shapes of beans. Considering that Ethiopia has the greatest number of varieties and about two-thirds of the coffees delivered to the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX) are all Naturals, that makes this likely the most complex origin in the world in terms of Naturals. Figuring out a green grading system for the Naturals of Ethiopia may apply to other places as well.

We talked a lot with Manuel about the viability of the embryo. Remember coffee is a seed: it is intended to grow a whole new tree. Manuel wants to make a Specialty Natural (we don’t even really have a term for these “Specialty” Natural coffees yet) that it must have 40% embryo viability. This can be checked with a microscope. But we didn’t really make a whole lot of progress on the green grading discussion because we were too busy talking about the processing of naturals and what are the real factors involved in producing them and where they go wrong. It makes sense that people understand them before we create standards around them.

Reject coffee. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

We talked a good bit about the cupping form and roasting Naturals. Starting with the roasting. We can roast to the spec of the Washed coffees in the SCAA and some Naturals work with that. Others just taste sour, and can even show signs of negative ferment. Adjust the curve slightly by extending the roast development time and actually taking the coffee a touch further (I’m talking about 30 seconds and a few degrees) and the Natural will show its true nature of a sweet, balanced coffee with plenty of complexity and some acidity. Here is the thing, the roasting protocol and the cupping form are very closely linked. I could take a washed coffee a bit further and also flatten out the acidity and round out the cup, but should I use the same form for that?

If we all agree that Naturals should be roasted differently, then how? I agree with some that the criteria should be linked to density and sugar content (in a perfect world). Density totally drives how a coffee moves in the roaster and anyone with a tube and an accurate scale can measure density. Did you know that Costa Rica actually includes density in their grading system? We measure it at Dallis for most samples and I’ll roast them knowing their density and moisture. Also how do we measure this, Agtron? Anyone who roasts a lot of coffee knows that some coffees are naturally darker than others, I feel this is because of sugar content in the bean or fertilizers used on the coffee.

In the end, I think we all (a couple roasters, lots of exporters, quality control people, and coffee scientists) had a chance to voice our opinion as to the elements on which we should base Naturals standards. We at Dallis have a lot to offer, from farms to Q Graders, in the whole process. I really enjoyed hearing from Marty Curtis, who had plenty to say about roasting, that each section of the Natural Standards will be shared with people in the industry, evaluated and reviewed before any Standards are put into stone. Imagine standards that only work for a couple countries, or a few companies? Upon launching those types of standards, they would already be invalid.

I was hoping for more linear progress to be made at the conference, but simply defining the areas in need of review and talking about broad strokes of suggestions took four days. Imagine how long the next steps will be. My guess is 5 years minimum before anything can be final drafts can be published.

Stay tuned for Part III of Byron’s trip to the Naturals conference.

A word about naturals

Natural process coffee in Honduras

We’ve been talking a lot about natural process coffees on these pages, but not everyone reading our blogs may know quite what the ruckus is about. Isn’t coffee coffee, and all of it delicious? Yes and no. And maybe.

So-called “Naturals” have a bad rap in coffee. But first, what is a “natural”? Coffee starts as the seed of a fruit. Before it can be roasted, it must be processed. There are two major ways to process coffee. The first is washed process, wherein coffee is picked, the skin of the fruit removed, a natural fermentation happens, the remaining sugars are removed and the coffee is dried. The other is natural or dry process. The coffee is picked and dried (often on big concrete patios). Natural process is by far the simplest procedure, pick and dry.

Naturals are notorious for being inconsistent and/or over-fermented. Because of this, often, natural process coffees are discarded as low quality simply because they are naturals. But several years ago some people in distant corners of the globe started to use the natural process with incredible dedication and attention to how the coffee was dried and managed.

Nowadays there are fantastic naturals, but there is no grading system for this particular kind of coffee, and therefore no separation of these “super naturals” from the low quality naturals that have always existed. The biggest challenge with natural process is control. Each bean is its own universe. When processed correctly, they can produce sweeter and more complex coffee than washed. Who doesn’t want rich, sweet complex coffee?
We don’t know either.