Thoughts on El Salvador

In these pages, we’ve been proud to share occasional travel journals from Irving Farm family members like our Green Buyer Dan Streetman, or this wonderful Honduras reflection by longtime staffer and all-around-talent John Summerour. Now, we’re thrilled to share words from Liz Dean, manager of our Upper West Side Cafe, who we profiled here last fall. Earlier this year, Liz took a trip along with some other Irving Farmers to visit some of the farms we have relationships with in El Salvador. Here are her impressions, along with her photographs.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

One of the things that makes Irving Farm special is its commitment to truly investing in the professional development and education of its staff, and one of the ways in which we’re doing this is by selecting a few staff members every year to travel to one of the countries we get our coffee from. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the people chosen to go on the trip of a lifetime to travel to El Salvador to visit some of the farms and mills we work with to supply our coffee.

The purpose of taking what is referred to as a “trip to origin”—a sort of rite of passage in which a coffee professional visits a country, like El Salvador, where coffee is grown—is to try and understand the place on its own terms. The word “origin” is deliberate—it implies something prehistoric, knowledge a priori, or things that exist outside of our own experience of them. For those of us who work in a cafe setting, we are required to surrender that we’re actually only the last step in a very long chain that begins somewhere far away. It’s because of this that taking a trip to origin is the dream of many serious coffee professionals—it’s the only way to fully understand our role and, ultimately, our responsibility, within our industry. I knew that this trip would likely be one of the most formative and defining parts of my career as a coffee professional.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

When I got back from El Salvador, I was asked to share some thoughts about my experience there. I discovered that I had a hard time figuring out what to write, which wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to say. It’s a well known and very bad habit of Americans like myself (of a certain education and income level) to travel to foreign countries—especially those seen as impoverished or lacking in resources—and then use our very Americanized lens to describe and dictate, in pictures and blog posts, the terms in which other people live. It can be a kind of gross exercise that usually says more about the person visiting than about the place visited. It was important to me that I give proper tribute to the country and people who had graciously shown me so much during my short time there. I wanted to try and present El Salvador as authentically as I could, and to seize moments of surprise as opportunities to examine the assumptions I came in with.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Nowhere was this more evident than when I spent several hours picking coffee at Talnamica. This farm was on relatively flat ground, which was unusual for a coffee farm—since coffee grows best at higher elevations, many pickers have to work on steep mountainsides. And even though we had it easy that day, it was still hard work!

After we’d picked for just a few hours, we hauled our bags to the patio to have our coffee weighed. While pickers are paid based on the weight of the coffee they picked, there are still incentives to pick properly and not just strip the trees bare in order to get the heaviest bags the fastest. After all, stripping the trees of everything on them would damage them, and picking cherries too soon would also mean fewer ripe cherries to be picked later on. I’d been pretty careful in my picking and while I didn’t pick as much as some of the others in my group, I’d picked well. I was told that the coffee I’d picked would have earned me $1.25 USD. On average, a coffee picker in El Salvador earns about $10/day.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Several American friends expressed disgust when I told them about this. “That’s appalling,” they said. And I’ll admit that my initial reaction was similar, until I realized how much more complicated this issue was, and that this was one of those moments in which I was going to have to step back from my own biases.

I spent my week in El Salvador expecting just to learn more about where coffee comes from and instead was given a crash course in the economic and social difficulty of evaluating and comparing quality of life across culture and country. It’s very easy for an American to feel bad for a Salvadoran coffee picker who lives off of $10/day because there’s a value we associate with that money, and what it can and cannot buy.

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This attitude also suggests that the Salvadoran coffee workers are deserving of our pity,  that we should feel bad for their lot in life. Our Americanized lens allows us to chase the narrative of the downtrodden, exploited worker when the reality is more complicated. In fact, while I visited only a handful of farms and mills, the Salvadoran coffee workers  I met seemed to take an extraordinary amount of pride in their work and seemed to see their work as important and meaningful. Many of them also possessed skills that made them invaluable to the process of producing coffee. No one exemplified this more than Wencis Lao.

Wencis Lao has been working with coffee for almost his entire life. He has a huge, toothy grin and strong hands rough from work. His job is to oversee the turning of the harvested coffee as it dries, which has to be done at specific timed intervals to ensure that the coffee dries evenly. He told us that he sometimes skipped his lunch break because he was worried about making sure the coffee was being turned properly, on time. It was clear that he cared about and took pride in his work.

Coffee has to reach a certain percentage of moisture content before the drying process is considered finished (if the coffee is still too moist, it can spoil and rot). While a moisture meter could be used to scientifically and accurately measure the moisture content of the coffee, Wencis Lao can guess the percentage just with his hands alone. Most of the time, he is just as accurate as the meter. He can also predict how long it will take for coffee to reach the right moisture level, even down to the specific time of day.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Another problem with how we react to $10/day for Salvadoran coffee pickers is that we are, in fact, part of why they make so little. Coffee is a tremendously undervalued commodity, given how much work and time is required to produce it in the first place, right from when it is first planted to when it reaches its final destination, brewed into a cup. Knowing how much goes into producing, say, hand-brewed pour-over coffee, it’s surprising that it’s as cheap as it is at $4.50. And yet, even at the cafe I manage on the Upper West Side—one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan—people balk at this price. “$4.50 for just a cup of coffee?”.

But the reality is: it’s not just a cup of coffee. It’s nothing short of a miracle that happens as a result of a very long process involving a lot of labor and time and many different people across different countries. A process that requires painstaking attention to detail every step of the way. And that’s before it even gets to the barista!

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

For every moment you have shared with a friend over coffee, or for every morning you have woken up and felt grateful for the cup of coffee to help prepare you for the day, you owe thanks to an extraordinary number of people for making that possible. We owe it to every person whose hard work and long hours are part of the process that makes coffee what it is in the first place not just recognition, and gratitude, but also (perhaps more importantly)—fair wages, and a certain standard of living – for the meticulous care and effort that went into its production. Seeing this at work firsthand helped me shed the lens of my own American gaze, but one doesn’t have to travel to see the facts of our part of the process.

 

Coffee Postcards From El Salvador: January 2015

Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

When not tasting coffees in our brand new 19th street training lab, and tracking shipments of beautiful coffees across the seas, Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, likes to check in on the farms with whom we have relationships. This January, he had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador, along with a few other Irving Farmers, like Liz Dean, our Upper West Side cafe manager, our technical wizard Bill McAllister, and El Salvador native Mayita Mendez, who works with us on our sales team.

As always, Dan wrote some letters home to his Irving Farm “farmily”, and also as always, we now share them with you.

 

Day 1:

Yesterday was basically a travel day. We got to the wet mill here at Beneficio Las Cruces around 4pm yesterday, and saw some coffee being unloaded and processed.

After dinner we came back to the mill and watched the guys unload all the cherry from the day’s picking. The farmers usually start around six in the morning and pick until 2-3pm. Afterwards everything gets sorted and weighed at the farm. Depending on the farm, the best quality will be sorted for microlots while the less ripe cherry will be separated and marked to go into the larger lots, or generic Strictly High Grade (SHG) lots. After the trucks are loaded they have to drive to the wet mill, which can be up to two hours of travel. Once at the wet mill all the trucks are weighed to verify that the same weights arrive at the mill that were picked in the farm. This process takes some time, and there is usually a line of trucks waiting to get their weight verified, and then be unloaded. Each truck takes about two hours to unload, especially as they have to move around to unload different lots into the designated bins so they can be processed separately.

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We watched until midnight, as they unloaded five truckloads. It was crazy to watch, as they had just finished one microlot when we arrived and immediately started dumping cherry into the bins. Meanwhile they started processing the SHG coffee while they unloaded two more trucks into the tank. Each truck had some of each type, generic SHG, and microlots so it was a ballet of rearranging the trucks every 20 mins or so to get it in the right spot to sort the coffee into the right bin: six different microlots, an SHG and a commercial grade bin. At the end of the night they totaled 180,000 lbs of cherry, which will be processed into about 250 bags of exportable green coffee. (The equivalent of how much Guadalupe Irving Farm buy for a whole year.)

Next, we’ll head to Guadalupe and El Molino.

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Day 2:

Yesterday morning we went over to visit the Guadalupe and El Molino farm sites. We did a rather extensive walk of Guadalupe and examined some different plots. Specifically, Andres and Jose Antonio showed me how they are continuing to convert Guadalupe to the agobio parras system. This method takes the vertical Bourbon trees and bends them sideways. They have found that this method is working to help the trees fight rust because it uses a more developed root system to support the tree. Also, it is very beneficial for another problem they have been having in the farms recently which is WIND.

Wind storms are very common to this part of El Salvador, but this year the wind has been especially bad. Usually the storms only last for the month of October but this year they have been seeing windstorms every other week from October until now. The Bourbon is especially susceptible to the wind because of its height, as it can grow up to 10-12 feet. By bending the tree you bring the height down to 6-7 feet, the wind can more easily pass over the trees. It was pretty incredible to watch the tall trees shaking profusely in the wind and the parras barely be touched. After we went and saw El Molino drying on the patios at the old abandoned mill on that farm.

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We also examined a plot of Catuai variety coffee growing on Guadalupe.

Afterwards, Andres and Jose Antonio showed me the nursery and some of the varieties they are working with. This year they are working on a project to plant 8 different varieties in one farm, as a test for what types they will plant in the future. Specifically they are working to find the best variety for each plot on each farm, by understanding what characteristics each will have. They are planting SL-28, Geisha, Pink Bourbon, Yellow Caturra, Batian, and SL-32 along with Castillo and a few other Catimor types.

We had lunch with Jose Antonio Sr. (Andres and Jose Antonio’s father). It was great to see him, the first year that I was here was his last year managing the farms. This is my 5th trip.

After lunch we did some cupping. We cupped 30 coffees. I am very excited because both the Guadalupe and El Molino cupped well, even though they are extremely fresh from the patios.

We also cupped a lot of Catuai and Catimor from the same farm, neighboring plots. I was surprised how well the Catimor cupped. Jose Antonio explained to me that they are planning to plant more Catimor at lower elevations and for their more generic coffees. We also cupped some coffees with different processing methods, like some which were soaked after being washed, some pulp naturals, and some naturals. It is early in the harvest but across the board they are showing the consistency and quality I have come to expect.

Later we went to visit the Santa Rita farms, and Jose Antonio had me demonstrate two different types of parras. A parra is when you allow the tree to grow vertically for 5-10 years, and then you bend the tree so that the vertical trunk, becomes horizontal. Since you learn by doing, Jose Antonio had me demonstrate the techniques on a few trees so that I could practice.

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One method is the traditional parras where the vertical tree is bent to become a horizontal branch, which will eventually sprout 4 more verticals. In this system it is very important to give adequate space to the verticals so that the branches don’t all grow into a tangle. It takes quite a bit of forethought to do this well, especially considering that this will be a 10-40 year project to complete. Thinking that far ahead is definitely a challenge.

We also walked through the parra de raiz, or root parra, where the tree is dug up and reburied at an angle. A different method of achieving the same result. Only in this system, the roots will not support 4 bent verticals like in the traditional parra. Afterwards, Bill, Liz and Mayita arrived and we gave them a tour of the wet and dry mills before leaving to stay at Talnamica, Mayita’s family farm. It was a memorable visit for all of us.

 

Stay tuned for our next round of Irving Farm letters home from coffee’s source, next stop, Nicaragua!

Notes From Colombia

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

When not cupping and roasting alongside Roastmaster Clyde in our Hudson Valley roastery and tracking shipments of beautiful coffees across the seas, Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, likes to check in on the farms with whom we have relationships. This September, he visited Colombia, one of the world’s most prolific coffee-growing nations, and home to some of our favorite coffees year after year. As always, Dan wrote some letters home to his Irving Farm “farmily”, and also as always, we now share them with you.

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

Day 1
Today is the first day in Colombia. I got into Bogota last night around 11pm, and we went back to the airport at about 4am to catch our flight to Huila. We landed in Neiva after a short flight on a propeller plane. On the way, we hit some fairly weird turbulence, and I think it was the closest I have ever been to puking in flight… however, our sunglass-wearing flight attendant helped me keep it together with her dark wire-frame Ray-Bans and serious poker face a la Lady Gaga.

We had a two hour drive to the town of Timana (Tee-ma-NAH), which is the oldest municipality in Huila. A beautiful little town with a quaint central square and historic old church/cathedral. In Timana, we met with a grower’s association called Aspro Timana. They are essentially a co-op with about 100 members, 30 of whom are female. They are doing some very cool stuff especially in terms of Colombia. They have a Q-certified cupper on staff, and are cupping every lot that comes into the warehouse, and maintain price premiums for coffees that score 83+ or 85+. They are also working very hard between their cupping team and technical assistance team to work with the growers to improve their quality. We cupped 9 coffees from this group, all were solid 82-83 coffees with the best being in the 86-87 range. I was mostly impressed by how consistently good the coffees were.

Also cool about the cupping was that we tasted two different fermentation processes by one producer, one a normal 16-20 hour fermentation, and the other a 72 hour anaerobic fermentation without water. The 72 hour fermentation was one of the clear favorites on the table. Afterward, we went up to the producer’s farm for lunch. When we arrived we were across a ravine and down from the house where we would be eating lunch, and the ravine had a zip-line running across it. Someone said, “we’re riding the zip-line across the gorge,” at which point I noticed a large wooden/metal frame hanging from the zip-line.

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

“Who wants to go first?” we were asked. I promptly got into the frame, and got hoisted across this at least 100ft drop by an electric motor.

The farm was beautiful and lunch was delicious—a local version of chicken soup called “salcocho” in which they make broth and then serve it with TOUGH old hen, plantains, yucca, and starchy corn. The farm is 1,750 meters above sea level, which made it quite cool temperature-wise, especially once it started drizzling rain. After lunch we hiked up to the top of the farm, which is 1,850 masl, and noted the mix of Castillo and Caturra varieties. He had “la roya” (leaf rust) up to about 1800 meters, but the very top was untouched. We also saw one Typica tree.

After the farm tour we piled back in Jeeps to get back to town. Our driver’s green Jeep was lovingly entitled “El Loco”, and it was in El Loco in which we jammed to reggaeton all the way down the dirt roads back to Tamina.

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

Chris Davidson of Atlas Coffee leading cupping comments.

Day 2

A slightly less adventurous day here in Colombia. We stayed in Garcon last night, so this morning we woke up and got breakfast in the hotel before walking over to the co-op offices of CooCentral. CooCentral is a larger co-op in Huila which operates in about 6 municipalities. They have 4,000 members.

We got briefed on the co-op programs, which are quite impressive, before cupping 22 coffees. We saw some solid quality, up to 86.75, and nothing was below 83—so very good in terms of quality, but a little disappointing for us, as we are looking for the Super WOW coffees.

After lunch we went up the mountain to visit a producer which is working with CooCentral. They were located at a fork in the road so our van-bus had to go up and turn around… at which point we got stuck. After a little worrying, and some digging, along with some bamboo, ingenuity and elbow grease, we got the van turned around.

At the farm, we met a female producer who is part of a program which focuses on providing assistance to women farmers. Her family actually was displaced by a dam project in a nearby valley. Her family was asked if they wanted land or money by the power company, and they chose land, eventually taking over an abandoned coffee farm about 18 months ago.

So far they are doing very well, mostly because they have little experience in coffee and they are following the advice of the co-op very rigorously.

After our farm tour we tried an original dessert of candied coffee pulp along with coffee panna cotta and goat cheese. The flavor was quite good, but at this point my eyes were twitching from all the caffeine.

Tomorrow we head to La Plata to cup coffees from the Monserrate region. This is where our Willer Rivera, Luis Rivera, El Jigual, lots have come from in past years. I am hoping that we will find some coffees from here again. Only time will tell.

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

Day 3
In La Plata, we cupped 40 coffees for the “Monserrate Microlot Competition” This is the 6th year they have held the competition, and Monserrate is where all of our Colombian coffees have come from. Think Capucas, but smaller (in overall people), and less organized (even though the average farm size is a little larger).

There were some awesome coffees; I scored the winner 92.5. After the 2nd day of cupping we had an awards ceremony for the winners, afterwards, all the buyers played the local kids in a game of soccer. We got trounced 6-2. Although we put up a good fight, it was a 2-2 tie after 20 minutes… I even scored the first goal of the game, however… a mentally egregious error of a handball set up the Penalty Kick that put the kids up 3-2 and they never looked back.

After the soccer game, we headed back to Bogota, and I caught my flight early Monday morning. Still waiting to hear from our from our friends in Colombia about getting samples sent so we can finalize coffees for this year, but I am definitely excited about the prospects.

Irving Farm Coffee Colombia

Three Months Later
We are getting half of the competition winner’s supply: 2 bags from Diego Casso, and have purchased coffee from previous winners, Willer Rivera, Orlando Osa, and coffee from Dario Anaya, whose El Jigual we had a couple years back, along with a lot from the whole community. Willer and Orlando’s coffees are here now, with more of these great Colombian coffees to come soon in our shops.

Coffee, Cacao & Connection

 

Talnamica Irving Farm Raaka

Freddie, Cecil, Nena, and Carlos at Talnamica, 1961.

In preparation (and excitement) for our evening of coffee & chocolate pairings with Brooklyn’s Raaka Chocolate, we sat down with Nena Méndez, whose family farm in El Salvador—Talnamica—is featured in our limited edition chocolate bar inspired by the flavors of Salvadoran horchata. Her family has been in the coffee business since the 1880s, and they’ve just begun to venture into cacao. Her daughter, Mayita, has worked for Irving Farm as a barista at our 79th St. cafe (which just won Best Coffee Shop on the Upper West Side from Time Out New York’s readers!) and now represents our wholesale team.

We would love to know about your experience growing up in a coffee farming family.

The family spent every weekend in Talnamica. My father walked the farm and some of my four siblings would go with him and the farm manager. I loved those long walks with him. They could last from two to four hours. During the long walks we would encounter the houses of the “colonos” [resident workers]. We would stop and chat. My father knew the names of all and was very chummy with them. He had spotted a pair of twins living on the farm, so he asked the parents if they could come and play with my sister and I. To this day when we see one of them (the other twin moved away) we hug tightly and remember how much fun we had as little girls.

Talnamica Raaka Irving Farm

What is the story and history behind Talnamica specifically?

My father bought this farm in the 1950s. By marrying my mother he became in touch with growing coffee, as it is from her side of the family that we have been in the coffee business since the 1880s, and he fell in love with the bean. My father was a very successful lawyer during the week, but on the weekend he would transform himself into a “cafetalero” [coffee farmer] and enjoy the people, the land. He loved plants and flowers. He collected interesting specimens from all over the world and brought them to the farm. His favorite flowers were orchids and camellias. My mother would spend her time reading Agatha Christie, Reader’s Digest and historical novels. Gradually he continued buying neighboring lots until it became what it is today. He fixed community roads, built houses for all the colonos and brought them electricity and access to water.

Talnamica Irving Farm Raaka

Nena’s father, Alfredo Ortiz Mancia, on the Talnamica farm.

At what point did your family begin interacting with the specialty coffee industry?

Four years ago the government coffee agency asked if any coffee growers would be interested in hosting a luncheon for the jurors for the Cup of Excellence who were meeting in the country at the time. We had about forty jurors for lunch. Seattle-based roasters who had come to the luncheon contacted us some time after. They were our first buyers of single origin. We were delighted! Two years ago I was walking along Irving Place, saw this charming coffee place, and to my surprise I saw that coffee from El Salvador was being sold there! I chatted with the nice baristas and asked who the coffee buyer was. This led me to meet Dan Streetman and the rest is history! On his next trip to El Salvador, Dan stayed with Mayita and me in Talnamica. My older brother, Freddie, joined us in walking the farm. We ate, drank and chatted all evening and, yes, he got some beans for Irving Farm. It has made us appreciate the value of what we have. It has made us want to continue working the farm in spite of many occasional challenges—low prices for the coffee, heavy damaging rains, strong damaging winds, and diseases such as roya [coffee leaf rust].

Talnamica Raaka Irving Farm

Dan Streetman at Talnamica

When did the farm start growing cacao?

The cacao experiment is grown at another altitude. We still have not harvested any yet!

What is one of your funniest memories from your time on the farm?

There was a time when my father wore a scary mask and walked into the “cafetal” [coffee farm] where the workers were doing their job. When one of them saw him, he was about to strike my father with his machete! My father quickly took off the mask and said, “Miguel! Soy yo!!” This was not Halloween time—no one was celebrating Halloween in the country then—it was just my father’s quirky sense of humor! Everyone laughed hysterically after they all realized it was my father.

Do you have any memories of drinking horchata in El Salvador?

Yes! Horchata is a drink that is offered in almost any coffee shop in the country, but it is also the staple beverage at all First Communions.

Talnamica Raaka Irving Farm

What is your favorite part of the coffee growing process?

It’s meaningful to know that we, the siblings, are the fourth generation of coffee growers. Mayita, Natalia and their cousins are now part of the fifth, and Natalia’s kids the sixth! It’s a sense of pride to be part of a tradition which has given our little country an identity. Especially important is the fact that we offer jobs to people. During the harvest, it is a lot of fun to see women and men taking pride in the beans they have collected.

What is your hope for the future of the coffee farm?

Whenever Dan buys our coffee, each time we go to Irving Farm and see the bags on the shelves, I feel so happy for all of us, but also for my parents. My father loved the farm and he would be so happy to see that its beans are valued. This is our hope, to continue being able to give jobs to people in the community, to continue growing the best tasting beans ever!

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Please join us on Saturday, December 13th, at the Raaka Chocolate factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where you’ll get to meet Nena, her sister Cecil, and Mayita while sampling a delicious assortment of small batch coffees and chocolates. Tickets and further information can be found here.

Honduras Trip with 71 Irving Place’s John Summerour

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We’ve shared travel diaries from our trips to coffee-growing countries before, but every now and then we get to bring along someone extra-special from the Irving Farm team. John Summerour, a filmmaker and longtime Irving Farm employee, has been working at our Irving Place cafe since 2002. He joined coffee director Dan Streetman on a Honduras trip to origin this past harvest season, and was kind enough to let us reprint his reflections here. 

When asked if I would be interested in accompanying Dan on a trip to Honduras to meet farmers and sample coffees, I said yes immediately, impulsively. Without knowing anything about what Dan actually does on these trips, I sensed that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I didn’t ask any questions. I had the flight information, and I had traveled to South America and the Caribbean before, so I knew to pack lots of sunscreen for my pasty complexion. Sometimes it’s best to throw yourself into an experience free of expectations. Be present, observe, absorb, hang on tight.

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We were driven from the airport in San Pedro Sula to Hotel Finca Las Glorias on the banks of Lake Yojoa, the largest lake in Honduras. After check-in and lunch at the hotel restaurant we went to the coffee mill at San Vicente which looks out on wildly gorgeous foothills, steep and lush, the light falling in golden sheets all around. The air was warm and dense, but not oppressively so.

This was my first time seeing coffee drying patios. Workers unloaded bags of freshly washed beans onto a rectangular slab of concrete where they proceeded to neatly spread them out with rakes, allowing the beans to dry naturally in the sunlight. We toured the mill where I saw the mechanical dryers that are used for large batches of commercial coffee, as well as the machine that removes the outer parchment from each bean, creating a powdery byproduct that settled within the folds of my ears. I watched a vibrating panel brilliantly sort the beans by weight, channeling the denser, more desirable nuggets in one direction while the lighter fellows hopped happily to the side. We walked by the tables where workers carefully handpick through the coffee as a final step, removing any defects. At one point I was directed into a room containing a massive computer that was rapidly sorting thousands of beans per minute, quite possibly transmitting them to outer space.

Upstairs we convened in a tasting lab where we cupped 40 samples between Sunday evening and Wednesday morning. Back in New York I had participated in a cupping session with Dan and Irving Farm’s core of coffee experts, so I had an idea of what to expect, but suddenly I found myself in a room with people who possess superhuman palates, instantly differentiating between the nuanced flavors of Israeli basil and Thai basil, the aromas of tangerine mist and clementine zest. I felt so out of my depth that I was literally mute after the first cupping. Dan encouraged me to speak up and participate, so the trip represented a gradual emergence from total silence to proudly proclaiming that one particular sample had taken me on a picnic with barbecue, lemonade, vanilla cake and freshly cut grass. Seriously. That coffee was dynamic.

I had wondered if we would be treated differently as a group of American buyers, perhaps shielded from the “real Honduras.” This question was answered as soon as we visited the first of several farms, all the buyers loaded into the back of a pickup truck, clinging for life as we cruised through the bustling town of Pena Blanca where many businesses were guarded by gunmen (a precaution more than a necessity), along the main paved roads that were riddled with potholes, and into the mountains where the truck bounced and lurched up narrow passages of gravel and dirt.

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At each stop we would greet the farmers and chat about their incoming crops. Most farmers had their own drying tables instead of having the mill dry them, increasing the value and quality control of their coffee. They also had bi-level structures for processing the cherries, pouring the ruby fruit down a chute from the top level where they slowly traveled through a de-pulper which resembled a meat grinder/music box. The beans (or “seeds”) fell into a concrete tub for fermenting and washing, while the pulp piled at the side to be used for compost. I thought the pulp was delicious, depending on the variety and ripeness, with most of the cherries yielding a sweet fruit that had a touch of bell pepper earthiness. It reminded me of the beach plums on Cape Cod where locals take pride in producing jams in spite of the effort/reward imbalance, and it seemed that there could be an untapped market for turning this byproduct into preserves, infusions and even liquor, but it would require a large outside investment since so many coffee-producing countries still struggle with basic infrastructure. After witnessing the number of people who work tirelessly to plant, grow, pick, process and package the coffee–before the beans even reach Irving Farm for roasting–my initial interest in a coffee cherry-infused sparkling water or spreadable compote slowly faded.

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The highlight, and greatest physical challenge, of the trip was hiking amongst the crops. Most farmers would choose to abandon trails and guide us straight through the plants, the larger trees smacking us in the face with thick, waxy leaves. Some farms were planted directly into the crumbling slopes, leaving us with no choice but to descend quickly and precariously as though dirt-surfing. At one point, the truck was parked in a little village and we were led to a trailhead on the side of the road. From there we proceeded to climb steeply and deeply, through mud, over rocks and roots, totally at the mercy of our guide. After much sweating and heaving, we finally reached an isolated plot at the top of the mountain where we were greeted by an old farmer. He had a hose running directly from a mountain spring to water the baby coffee plants. We drank from the hose, and it was the clearest, freshest water I’ve ever tasted. I marveled as his workers cinched the sacks of freshly picked cherries and roped them to the backs of mules for transport down the same knotty paths we had ascended. We learned that his wife had recently passed away from cancer. The money that he made from last year’s crops had afforded him the medicine that kept her alive a few months longer. Nothing could prepare me for that moment, standing on a mountaintop, filthy and exhausted, shaking hands with a farmer whose life had been directly impacted by someone buying his coffee. As I sipped from a cup in New York City, a man in Honduras held his wife’s hand, cherishing each moment gained.

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How do we wrap our heads around something like that as consumers? Drinking coffee is a privilege, a tiny miracle of nature and people coming together, a dance of expertise and passion and communication and serendipity. I don’t think that means each coffee purchase needs to be accompanied by a crippling sense of guilt or responsibility. Rather it’s a celebration of connection. Each choice we make is directly tied to other lives, whether it’s the clothes we wear or the water we drink. To engage with that narrative is empowering. It’s an opportunity to emerge from your daily routine and gain perspective, to awaken curiosity and gratitude.

We hiked down the mountain by twilight, the gradual darkening punctuated by a luminous pulse of lightning bugs. That night, sated by the immersive and visceral experience of Honduras, I drank a beer before falling asleep to the thrum of ecstatic fauna, a sound that will reverberate in tomorrow morning’s cup of coffee, a resonance that will extend throughout the rest of my life.

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Coffee Travel Diaries: Winter 2014 Part II

We would never let Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, visit so many of the beautiful farms with whom we have relationships without promising to write home about it. Here is his second of two travel diaries from his recent winter harvest trip to Central America.

Panchito and Dan looking over the green coffee. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Panchito and Dan looking over the green coffee. Photo by Mayita Mendez.

Day 5:
It has been a great visit. I just spent the whole evening with Panchito of Los Plantanares and we shared our whole life stories, and discussed why we are working so hard. His story is exceptionally inspirational. I also got to watch him de-pulp some coffee, and learn more about how he is processing at his house. I am also really excited because the coffee is exceptional this year.

I also spent about an hour at the house of Jose Luis of Los Lirios today learning about what has happened this year. His coffee is also very good again this year.

The best news, they both have more coffee for us!

Jose Luis. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Jose Luis. Photo by Mayita Mendez.

Yesterday and Saturday I spent cupping looking for our lot from the co-op, and also tasting the coffees from Pancho and Jose Luis. Today, I selected 3 lots for our blend, and our container should probably arrive mid-April, if everything goes well.

The co-op here is continuing to make a lot of improvements, and they have started many new projects to help the producers here control the costs of managing their farms. This is especially important with Roya, because they need to apply a spray every 25 days to keep it under control. The co-op has initiated a program so that they can make these organic sprays in the co-op and reduce the costs of the products. It is really fascinating, especially because most of what they are doing is taking things that are normally treated as trash, and turning them into things that have positive benefits for the farms. Bones, coffee pulp, wood ash, etc… they are all being converted into different types of fertilizers, etc.

It was especially evident at Pancho’s farm that it takes a lot of work to control the Roya. His neighbor has not been working his farm, and it is completely destroyed. Whereas Pancho is working hard, and his farm looks very healthy.

Tomorrow, on to Costa Rica.

Day 6:
We left the Las Capucas farm at 9am and proceeded to Santa Rosa to visit the dry mill, where they prepare the coffee for export. This year they have installed a new line that allows them to run only micro-lots. This is great news, as we will not have to wait to receive our coffee. In the past, it has caused a lot of problems to do the small lots, because it takes the same amount of time to do 20 bags as 275, so we get put at the end of the line to keep their larger customers happy.

Now this is no longer a problem. Afterwards, we proceeded to the airport for the 1 hour flight to Costa Rica. We arrived early, and everything was looking good until we hit traffic and our 2 hour trip to Tarrazu, turned into 3 hours. They were waiting for us at the wet mill of Candelilla but sadly they had already finished processing for the night. We had a quick dinner and went to bed.

This morning, we toured the wet mill and learned about the 5 different processes they do here. Natural, Honey, Semi-Washed, Mechanically Washed, and Traditionally Washed. They use Traditionally Washed the least, as it uses too much water (they ferment in water here, as opposed to dry in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala). Afterward, we walked up to see where they have planted some Geisha, and SL-28 varieties. We tasted the SL-28 and Geisha cherries against the Caturra and Catuai, and the difference is incredible. Geisha tastes like Jasmine tea, and SL-28 tastes like peaches.

After that, we had lunch…and then it was time to pick. Surprisingly it is cooler in the afternoon here, as they get a lot of afternoon shade being on the Eastern side of the mountain. They gave me a basket and had me pick… I only managed to pick $2 worth of cherry in 2 hours. About 1/3 of what their best pickers do. Picking is pretty hard work, and I kept getting attacked by ants who didn’t want me to take away their sweet fruit clusters.

We finished picking, and went to take a break and have some coffee, however a local station was doing a piece on the mill/family and they interviewed me about what I think is so impressive about Candelilla. Then we talked with Marcia, the mill administrator, about the history of the Mill. She told us that Candelilla is called that because there are many fireflies there, which are called Candelilla here.

Marcia on La Candelilla. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Marcia on La Candelilla. Photo by Mayita Mendez.

The mill is owned cooperatively by Marcia’s family—nine siblings, who each have farms. The Candelilla we buy is a collection from all of the farms (and has some of all the varieties, but is mostly Caturra & Catuai). The family is really cool, we picked with one of the brothers, Mario, and have met at least half of them all now. I have never been on a farm/mill before where the family members are actually doing many of the jobs…. (Picking, turning coffee on the patio, cleaning the mill, etc.)

Next came unloading, and de-pulping all the coffee. It was nearly dusk when we started, and we had to count how much coffee was in each truckload. Afterwards we got some photos of the coffee being de-pulped and transported to the patios. Everything picked today was processed as honey process.

We had dinner with the family at their house, and turned in for the night.

Coffee Travel Diaries: Winter 2014

We would never let Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, visit so many of the beautiful farms with whom we have relationships without promising to write home about it. Here is his first of two coffee travel diaries from his recent winter harvest trip to Central America.

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El Salvador. Photo by Dan Streetman.

 

Day 1: Arrive Santa Isabel
I arrived in Guatemala today, and had lunch with Alex Keller, owner of the Santa Isabel farm, and his brother. I have been learning a lot about their family history. We also made a brief stop at ANACAFE, which is the national association of coffee growers. They have a lot of tools for coffee growers, and was very cool to see.

We arrived at the Santa Isabel farm around 5pm tonight, and took a quick tour of the nursery and the mill before it got dark. They are mostly done with harvest but still processing a little bit of cherry.

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Coffee being dried at Santa Isabel. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Alex and I spent the whole day walking the farm, and he was showing me the effects of Roya. They have been really struggling to keep it under control. He is trying many different things with the soil to try and fight it. I saw all of their composting processes, and some other things they are working on. However they, also believe that they need to move towards rust-resistant varieties to fight the infection.

We did a cupping in the afternoon, and 2 of the rust-resistant varieties cupped out ok, but still about .5 to 1 point lower than the coffee that is being shipped to us this year. I am hoping that we can work with Alex to find a solution, so that we can preserve the quality of this coffee in years to come. However, they are already replanting large portions of the farm with rust-resistant varieties.

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Alex Keller on the farm. Photo by Dan Streetman.

After the cupping Alex and his brother Martin showed me their roasting facility, where they produce coffee for the Guatemalan market. They have 3 custom-built roasters, and I spent some time roasting with them. It was pretty. Their roasters are crazy, and require two people to operate, calling out commands to each other, and running around.

 

Day 3: Arrive Guadalupe and El Molino
Today I arrived in El Salvador, this morning we toured Guadalupe and El Molino. It looks much better here…but I am off to cup right now…so we’ll see how it goes…

I have very good email access here.

 

Day 4: Touring the Guatemalan farms
Brief update from El Salvador. Yesterday I arrived across the border at 8am, to meet Jose Antonio Jr, and Andres. We went from there to Guadalupe and El Molino to visit the farms. Here, they are doing a great job fighting the Roya, and have only suffered about 5% crop loss from last year. You can see that the fungus is present and trying to attack the trees, but they are doing a fantastic job of controlling it. I was probing to find out the biggest difference between here and in Guatemala, and through that, it came out that our long-term commitment, and premium outright prices have enabled them to invest in the farm, without fear of not getting a return. The business proposition of investing lots of money in the farm to fight Roya, with no guaranteed return, seemed to be Alex’s biggest concern.

Jose Antonio & Andres

Jose Antonio & Andres. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Afterwards we came to the wet mill at Las Cruces, and cupped through coffees. I cupped Guadalupe with two different washing processes. Unfortunately I think the roast was a little off, and they were not cupping the way I expected. We are going to re-cup them tomorrow morning. I also cupped the El Molino, and it was tasting fantastic as usual.

Last night another group came in from Royal in California, they have been traveling for 2 weeks, and we swapped “war” stories.

This morning we went to visit San Francisco farm, which we don’t buy any coffee from, but I got to watch the pickers, and shoot some video/photos. I haven’t really watched pickers in action before and it was pretty cool to watch.

After we dropped the other group off, we went to visit an organic farm that they own, as I wanted to see if they were having similar success there. I have considered asking if they could move Guadalupe to organic in the future, if we wanted, and they have always said yes. However I wanted to see the differences in the farm. They are managing the organic farm using a lot of different methods, including planting many different varieties there. Icatu, Pacamara, Bourbon, Catimor, Yellow Icatu, and Sarchimor just to name a few, along with experimenting with the Agobio method on Bourbons.

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A coffee tree grown in the agobio method. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Agobio is when they allow a tree to grow for 3-5 years, and then they bend the tallest part of the tree to run horizontally. This encourages the tree to grow more verticals. Each 5-10 years, they will bend a new vertical to make a new horizontal, and you can have 1 tree that will produce as much as 5 trees. The advantages of this system are that the trees have a much deeper and broader root system, and can pull up more nutrients from the soil. You can also manage the vertical growth, with pruning, and maintain the amount of production coming from each tree. Also, it is easier to apply spray to the leaves which help leaf rust and other diseases. I have seen these trees that are 80-100 years old, and still healthy and producing good harvests. The downside is that it takes a long time to get the system set up. Also you can plant less trees per hectare, so if one of your Agobio trees dies you can potentially lose a lot of production.

Now we are back at Las Cruces, and I’m sure the mill will start whirring any minute now. Tomorrow, I am cupping here and then meeting Mayita to cup this year’s coffee from Natamaya.

Saturday morning we will head to Honduras!

Stay tuned for the second installment of Dan’s winter harvest time diaries!

Ethiopia Diaries: Part III

Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year as part of his ongoing coffee journeys. Here is the final installment of his adventures.

Yirgacheffe

Yirgacheffe. Photo by Dan Streetman.

Day 7
Morning came early, especially for a Sunday. However, today was the day we were going to visit Yirgacheffe. After being in Amaro the gilding was slightly off the lily, but there was still plenty of excitement to go around. The itinerary for the day included two washing station visits both of which are members of the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (YCFCU). The YCFCU is significantly smaller than the Oromia Union, but still sizeable. The YCFCU however only has members in the zone of Gedeo where Yirgacheffe is, and a lot of famous coffee gets sold under that name. The first mill we would visit is called Koke and sits just outside the main town of Yirgacheffe. Upon arrival it is clear that the mill sits directly in the center of a community of small farms. We met with the leader of the cooperative, who was dressed in his Sunday best, to explain to us the history and plans of the Koke washing station and YCFCU.

Yirgacheffe Meeting

Meeting at YUCFU Co-Op. Photo by Dan Streetman.

There were a lot of questions about how the cooperative works within the union, and how that impacts the small farmers. It took us several hours to comprehend how the Unions and Cooperatives vote on the distribution of money, and how that gets back to the individual members. I think most of the confusion was centered around paying for coffee specifically: we the buyers being obsessed with how money paid for coffee gets back exclusively to the people who grew it. But it would seem the Union functions more as a business with the cooperative members as share-holders, returning the profits to them at the end of the year. After our questions were sufficiently answered we toured a few of the farms. Very small plots, and clearly outlined around the houses in the village, these producers were growing root vegetables like cassava along side their coffee. We were led to believe that most of the people here were subsistence farmers living off their vegetable crops and animal herds, while selling coffee for cash.

After Koke, we headed to another mill/cooperative called Harfusa. We encountered a very similar structure, and this time, equipped with our new knowledge, we were able to much more easily digest how things worked. Afterwards, we toured the wet mill and got more information on how coffee is processed in this area. Before we left, the community kids insisted on getting their photos taken. They were very entertaining and seemed to consider posing and viewing the photos an excellent game.

Trucks full of Coffee

Trucks full of coffee! Photo by Dan Streetman.

Day 8
Another early morning, this time bittersweet, as it marked our trek back to Addis and the beginnings of my journey back to New York. The trip to Ethiopia had conjured more questions than it answered, but there is nothing like a long drive to digest events. We stopped mid-day to visit an ECX warehouse. The operation was pretty intense, as there were many trucks waiting to get unloaded, and people everywhere. We were taken inside a cinder block building that functioned as the lab and offices. Inside we were met with the certificates of six Q grader licensed cuppers posted on the wall. It was pretty incredible to see that the QC functions of this lab halfway around the world used the exact same standards. We were taken through the entire process, and I was amazed at the sheer volume of coffee and work that got done in this small lab.

Day 9
Last day of the trip, and with an evening flight, we had time for one final cupping. It was great to bookend the trip with this, as we cupped many of the same coffees as the first day, but we also had an opportunity to taste coffees we had picked up along the way. It was especially surprising to see that a coffee we had bought on the side of the road scored an 84/100. We ate a late lunch and then went to the airport. I couldn’t but help shake the feeling that this would not be my last trip to Ethiopia.

 

Ethiopia Diaries: Part II

Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year as part of his ongoing coffee journeys. Here is the second installment of his adventures.

Ethiopia Road

Lots of driving in Ethiopia!

 

Day 4

Heading back to Addis Ababa, my mind swirled with what we had encountered so far. Ethiopia was proving far more complex than even the nuance I expected to find in a country so steeped in coffee. One thing that struck me was how large the country is and how much road construction crews had laid since we drove out this direction! There must have been 200 miles of freshly paved asphalt on this road (incredible to me as it takes years to lay a few miles in New York City). However it was clear someone was very intent on investing in the infrastructure, as we must have seen 20 pieces of heavy equipment working along the way. While all the driving was drudgery, it was nice to be able to sit and process all we’d seen so far. Though I found my mind crystallizing questions more than it generated answers. Driving in Ethiopia at night proved to be a harrowing adventure—it is very dark, with the only light coming from other cars, and the road is packed with donkey carts, people, and other vehicles and creatures that have no reflective markers or lights. The rest of our drive was like a tense video game, where we were calling out to the driver to watch the donkey cart or animal as we barreled down the road heading for Addis Ababa. We arrived intact, with our knuckles slightly whiter, and agreed to work hard to stay on schedule the rest of the trip to avoid night driving, while reveling in the newly re-found luxuries of running water and pizza.

 

Day 5

Tadesi

Tadesi, a leader in Ethiopian coffee.

The next day was another one spent in the car, this time we were heading South, our destination being Hawassa. From Hawassa we would spend the next two days visiting the famed regions of Amaro and Yirgacheffe. Today at least we get to break up the drive with a visit to Ethiopia’s largest farmer’s union: the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union or OCFCU. Farmers who are members of cooperatives can sell their coffee outside of the ECX system, which combined with plantations provide the only two ways to purchase traceable coffees from Ethiopia. Arriving at OCFCU, we are introduced to Tadesi—a legend in Ethiopian coffee. He founded OCFCU, and is its CEO. (He also was featured in the film “Black Gold”.) Tadesi gave us another overview of the entire Ethiopian coffee system. This refresher was helpful, because it is complex enough that working through it again helped clear up the confusion. He also went into detail about the Union. He expounded on the amount of production of the OCFCU and its growth over the past decade. The sheer numbers of producers is daunting, the membership numbering in the tens of thousands.

After Tadesi’s presentation, we toured the dry mill where they prepare coffee for export. We watched the women sort defects out of green coffee. After a bit, I decided to take an empty chair at the end of the sorting table. While I was pondering what it would be like to sort green coffee all day, I noticed one of the women was obviously tickled at the sight of me, sitting there sorting green coffee.   I smiled back at her, and tried to sort  the coffee a little more efficiently.

Sorting green coffee like a pro.

Sorting green coffee like a pro.

We raced the rest of the way to Hawassa, and managed to get to the hotel just as the sun was setting. It was thrilling to run out the back door in attempts to get the photo of the sunset over lake Awasa. (insert photo)

 

Day 6

Today was the day I had most looked forward to. We head to the Amaro Gayo Mill. This place had special significance to me, as we had purchased Natural processed coffee from this mill last year and I was planning to do so again this year, especially after we cupped the samples in Addis Ababa on day 1. To call Amaro Gayo a special coffee is an understatement, I think there is not another coffee like it in the world. The prospect of visiting the mill, and the woman responsible for this coffee had me tweaked. We stopped in the town of Yirgacheffe for coffee about 2 hours into driving. It was intriguing to get a glimpse of what we would be visiting the next day, another coffee holy site, as it were. However I was transfixed by Amaro Gayo. As we left Yirgacheffe we ascended over a range, and down into a large desert valley. We traveled another 1.5 hours on a dirt road through the desert, and I kept trying to see where we were headed—coffee does not grow in this climate! As we started to climb, the mountains on the other side of the valley it appeared, things started to get a little greener. Upon arriving at Amaro Gayo mill, I could see we were right at the boundary: everything below us was desert, everything above was green and lush. There was even a small river running down the mountain right next to the mill. We entered and were promptly introduced to Asnakech Thomas, the owner of Amaro Gayo. She in turn introduced us to her staff at the mill and showed us around the mill, while explaining their processes. Asnakech gave us a history of the mill, and the work she has been doing in Amaro, a small zone (think county) of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples District (think state). Asnakech has a firm conviction that the coffee of Amaro is distinct from coffees of other regions. She explained how she has planted seedlings from other regions, and that they always die, and that “the coffee here must be different, just look at the desert around us.”  Asnakech is a woman of force, conviction and passion, an inspiring presence. She is driven by a mission to have the unique coffees of her region by recognized, and I would say she has achieved a fair deal of success with a sizable following for her coffee, and premium prices.

Ethiopia Diaries: Part I

Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year as part of his ongoing coffee journeys. Here is the first installment of his adventures.

Ethiopia Tree

 

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, the only place on Earth where it grows wild. Coffee professionals speak with hushed excitement about traveling to this “mythical” place. Most ordinary people also get fairly excited about the prospect of traveling to Africa as well, a continent best known for its wildlife, home to elephants, giraffes and lions.

I too was swept with excitement at the prospect of traveling to Ethiopia, but at this point in my job, traveling 30-45 days out of the USA per year, I generally love being at the destination, and much less the getting there part. About a week before I left, everyone I talked to was saying “OH! that is so exciting,” and all I could think was, “It is going to be 27 hours on a plane…” However by 5am at the Amsterdam airport I was starting to feel excited, and by the time we landed in Khartoum, Sudan, our last stop before Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it had become a rush. 

St George Beer

St. George Ethiopian Beer

Two hours later we landed in Addis Ababa, and instantly my travel instincts started kicking in. Getting ready to clear customs, trying to ascertain how things were going to go etc. It turned out to be unnecessary: while looking disorganized, customs ran entirely smoothly, and I was let in without any hassle. My traveling partners and I had to wait for some other guests at the airport before catching the shuttle to the hotel, so we decided to grab a beer. There was only one choice, St. George.

 

Day 1
We headed to an export office, early in the morning, to meet our hosts and do some cupping. I was thrilled to bump into a colleague, Bruck, from my Q-cupper certification class. I had anticipated my first cupping in Ethiopia to be completely magical—I was hoping we would find many different coffees and new distinct profiles I had never tasted before. I knew that Ethiopia had several regions with which I was fairly unfamiliar, and was excited to see what these unknown coffees would taste like. It turned out to be less than magical—only the recognized regions delivered on their reputations. Overall, that first table was like many others I have experienced in other coffee-producing countries: even the pre-selected coffees proved to be mostly mediocre, some nice ones and only a few gems. I jotted down some notes, and asked about the rest of our travel itinerary. That afternoon we were going to visit the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), a confusing and controversial element of the coffee trade in Ethiopia.

 

Ethiopian Commodities Exchange

Ethiopian Commodities Exchange

 

The ECX was launched in 2008, and was met with skepticism by specialty coffee roasters in the United States, and around the world. Mostly this was because coffee in the ECX is not traceable, as it is treated as a “commodity”. The idea behind the exchange is to drive transparent price discovery for types/qualities of coffee. Whereas specialty buyers wanted to buy specific lots from specific suppliers, rather than a commoditized regional “type.” The Exchange has several grades for all of its types, the most recognized being “Yirgacheffe,” “Sidamo” and “Harrar”, which are each regions of Ethiopia. We were not allowed to bring cameras into the building, but we were given a tour by an employee and shown the trade floor. Basically a group of buyers and sellers are locked in the octagon to do battle for an allotted time and bid on coffee. Deals are made when a buyer and a seller high-five to agree on the price. Whenever a deal is struck it is posted on a board over the floor for everyone to see the agreed price and quantity. The floor seems fairly calm until the last few minutes before the bell, and people start frantically trying to buy and sell. At this point I had a fairly rosy overview of how the Exchange worked, thanks to the cheerful employees who were very happy to tout its benefits. Although I was still confused about how the real coffee actually came in and then went back out of the Exchange: that confusion would linger until the end of the trip.

Day 2
The next day we set out for Keffa, a 12-hour drive from Addis Ababa which meant leaving at 6am, as we did not want to drive in the dark. My excitement of being in Ethiopia hadn’t worn off yet, even throughout the 12-hour ride, and even increased as we headed to Keffa, the forest where, the legend goes, coffee originally grew wild.  This in spite of the drive being the type you see on National Geographic complete with pot-hole ridden roads, where there were paved roads at all, baboons, and an endless supply of pedestrians and donkey carts willing to play Frogger. The last stretch of the drive was about 50km of red dirt roads, which were so loose you could literally not see the front of the car our the front window due to the dust kicked up.

Dust-blinded driving condtions.

Dust-blinded driving condtions.

If wasn’t still excited about being in Ethiopia, I was at least amped by the sheer adrenaline of driving in these conditions. We arrived just before dark, which meant a 2-hour journey to the coffee forest would put us there in almost pitch dark conditions.  Combined with the likelihood of seeing almost nothing, and being exhausted from all the traveling meant foregoing the lore, and just enjoying dinner in the hotel courtyard before retiring to bed early.

 

Day 3
I got up at 5:30am hoping for a shower before our 6:30 departure, but the water still wasn’t working from the night before. After breakfast we all piled back in the car, and drove about 2 hours to a farm called “LemKeffa” which is one of few plantations in Ethiopia. Less than one percent of farms here are plantations, defined as more than 30 hectares, and only plantations are allowed to sell to exporters directly. LemKeffa is owned by Addisu, a former cab driver in New York City. Addisu and I hit it off immediately, talking about New York, his time as a cab driver, his family in the US, and, ultimately, his farm. He moved back to Ethiopia about 10 years ago to purchase the farm, and hired an Agronomist farm manager about 5 years ago. Addisu’s farm is very representative of what we saw throughout most of Ethiopia, if a little better managed. We spent a good amount of time talking specifically about how farms are managed in Ethiopia, and about how the government encourages farmers to increase production.

Coffee Hotel in Keffa

Coffee Hotel in Keffa

Currently Ethiopia produces less than half the coffee per hectare compared to Central America. It is unclear exactly why, though Ethiopian farms have little to no access to fertilizers as they are prohibitively expensive. While most farm visits are fairly straightforward—walk through the trees, look around and take some pictures—walking Addisu’s farm was charged with an unusual energy. My excitement of seeing my first farm in Ethiopia, or even Africa, was part of it, but also my realization that even though I’m pretty good at recognizing the more common varieties of coffee tree, as I looked around the farm nothing looked familiar! Even knowing about the genetic diversity of coffee in Ethiopia, it was quite another thing to actually witness it.


After lunch, one of the ladies on Addisu’s farm demonstrated the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony for us. (The ceremony involves roasting green coffee beans on a pan over coals, mashing them inside a hollowed out log with a large wooden mallet, and brewing them in a gourd-like vessel with boiling water, before being served.) Further demonstrating that coffee here is an integral part of the social fabric, following every meal, and all social gatherings.

 

Stay tuned for Part II of Dan’s Ethiopia Diaries!

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