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.