Traveling throughout Honduras is a trip I won't soon forget. During this week long trip trip hosted by Volcafe and Genuine Origin, we saw so many different farming scenarios and tasted such a variety of coffees that it's extremely difficult to summarize the trip in one cohesive blog post....
So, to best describe the highlights, in this post I'll share some of my favorite photos and most surprising discoveries/realizations. Also, as promised we sought to buy a coffee on this trip for our debut offering - we are working out the details on that yet but should know more soon.
1) Honduras has some INCREDIBLE coffee!
I know, seems crazy to some that I've just now realized this, but in the Specialty Coffee world Honduras is rarely exalted. A number of factors in this country's recent history have lead many to shift their attention away from Honduran Specialty Coffee and towards other neighboring countries with greater farm traceability and better infrastructure. Coffee in Honduras has largely been regarded as being bland and very simple. However, on this trip I discovered a VAST amount of different flavor profiles amongst regions and even some coffees that I would describe as some of the best I have tasted from Central America. Many times in coffee we us the phrase, "Well that's good for a coffee from _______(certain country)" but truly amazing coffees never have such a pretense... that was certainly the case for some coffees on this trip. We obviously knew everything we were tasting was from Honduras, but some of these coffees would rank right up there with other coffees from anywhere in the world!
2) Sometimes microlots don't work best.
This was probably one of the most difficult realizations I made on this trip because I love the romance of single farm microlot coffees... but as we met small producer after small producer in Honduras it became very clear to me that the only way many of these farmers who produce a total of 5 bags (#150) of green coffee were getting fair prices and technical farming assistance is because they are part of a group. These small farmers don't have the capability to export directly or even the resources to produce a coffee of exciting caliber without assistance. Because of this, farmers group together to help one another and leverage their collective power. With this, many times they will have their coffee blended together for easier exporting. So, we as roasters lose a little traceability, but the farmers gain the infrastructure and resources to produce better tasting coffee and get the price they deserve for it. They get higher prices mostly because when operating in organized groups the whole process from harvest to export is much more efficient! I personally view farmer coops in a much different light and appreciate the efforts and advances made by such groups. Furthermore, exporters like Volcafe even in working with farmer groups still purchase the coffees from each single producer in the groups and are still working to separate out the BEST tasting single farm lots and award premiums to the farmers for producing such a good cup. So to summarize, I still very much plan to source mostly single farm coffees as I value the story behind each coffee and think it's important to put a face to our cup, but I do have a new perspective on the benefits of farmer groups.
3) When farmers focus on quality over quantity - exponential change is possible.
One of the biggest remaining hurdles for Honduran coffee is shifting the perspective of farmers. Because of the lackluster specialty market in Honduras for many years, most farmers have tried to make their money by simply attempting to produce more coffee. Many times this actually can set a farmer down an even worse path.
Let's say a small farm owner in Honduras who focuses on quantity wants to make more money, or just break even with his crop this year... typically this means the farmer will spend most of his money on planting more trees and/or acquiring more land usually having to go into debt to make that happen. So throughout the growing period this will require even more resources and labor then before and due to the higher density of plants, the soil will become depleted easier and pests/disease can spread even more rampantly. Becasue of all this, typically the yield per tree will actually go down as will the overall crop health. Come harvest time, the farmer will now have to hire more pickers who will now take even longer to comb through the farm to pick the cherries because of the high density of plants. Another issue arrises after harvest comes during drying - with a higher volume of coffee the farmer will quickly run out of room to dry the coffee effectively and will usually result to implementing less then ideal drying techniques. So what you then end up with is a farmer who took an even greater risk, went into more debt, and worked way harder to end up with a potentially lesser quality cup for usually the same profit... and then the thought is, "Well, I guess I'll have to plant more next year." And the scariest part is, what happens in a drought year, or when pestilence strikes this now fully in debt farmer only barely getting by?
So, how does this narrative change when a focus on quality is implemented? Honestly, the first few years may be slightly more difficult as changes are implemented, but one of the first suggestions made to farmers learning from Volcafe is to diversify, or plant additional crops, some sustenance crops like corn and beans, some cash crops like cocoa or citrus trees. Immediately this takes pressure off the coffee crop as changes are implemented. Next, the farmer begins pruning the coffee trees. Many farmers are afraid to prune, but what most don't realize is that coffee cherries will never grow in the same spot on a branch twice, so as older trees slow down branch growth, less cherries are produced - the goal is to have younger branches that are shorter and have a higher density of coffee cherries per branch. This then creates more space between rows of trees for efficient picking and proper sunlight and as new trees are planted, density is more spread out to allow ample space for root growth. So now this plot of land with less, more healthy trees will actually have a higher yield per tree, and guess what else? It takes the same amount of labor and consumable resources to maintain this same number of trees as years past. Now come harvest, because of the overall better health of the crop, many of the cherries will ripen at the same time and pickers will spend less time in the fields selectively picking and they will be more efficient moving through the crop as the trees are planted with ample space in between. Even drying and transportation of the cherries is more efficient when focusing on quality and delivery at the dry mill/exporter is when this new ay of doing things really pays off! Volcafe cups and scores every single individual lot that comes into their mill and pays a premium straight to the farmer based on the level of quality and consistency. Furthermore, if the farmer is willing, Volcafe will even send out a field technician for no cost to provide recommendations and expertise to increase their quality even more! Another thing that blew me away was the stark transparency of Volcafe, allowing farmers to cup their own coffees and a willingness to sit down with the farmers and fully explain why they are offering the price they are. Also worth mentioning is the straight forward honesty of Volcafe - if a farmer consistently brings in low quality coffee (usually due to low altitude of farm), field technicians may help the farmer transition out of coffee and into a different cash crop more suited for their specific farm. Volcafe displays a relentless pursuit of quality in this action as will as deep enough care for the producer even to the point of helping them get out of coffee if that's what is needed. Wow!
4) Fermentation during processing has a lot less to do with flavor in the cup then I thought!
Nerd alert, about to get real deep here, but I'll do my best to thoroughly explain.
Processing is how we remove the seed (coffee bean) from the fruit (coffee cherry) after it's harvested. There's a lot of ways to do this, but the most traditional and widely used process is called the was process. Usually this involved pulping the cherry (removing the skin of the fruit), washing, sorting, and then fermenting the coffee in tanks to remove the layer of mucilage under that skin. Think of a grape... the fleshy part under the skin is similar to mucilage in coffee and it has to be removed. It can be separated and slightly dissolved when fermented in tanks. After fermentation is done the coffee is washed again and all that remains is the husk (layer of crunchy shell around seed) and the seed itself. From this point the coffee in husk is dried before being hulled (husk removed) just before export. So back to the fermentation... I have tasted many coffees that were fermented very differently to remove that mucilage and I thought I noticed a trend between the length of fermentation and the "depth" in flavor. A Colombia coffee I had a while back comes to mind that was fermented for 48hrs and had the most incredible juicy sweetness coupled with amazing flavors of ripe plum and dried fruits. Most coffees are fermented for 12-18 hours. However, Honduras uses a fully washed method with no fermentation. Instead they use slightly different machinery to strip off the mucilage with less water and greater mechanical involvement. I previously thought that the lack of fermentation was one of the factors that contributed to the bland flavor profiles of most Honduras coffee I had in the past. I was wrong! On this trip I tasted SO many juicy, clean, and complex coffee - none of which implemented fermentation in the washing. Below is a picture from Guatemala where fermentation tanks are commonplace.
Well, those are the things that come to mind right now. Keep an eye out for updates to this post as well as even more pictures and videos from Honduras coming out soon!