Honduras Trip with 71 Irving Place’s John Summerour

IMG_5066
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.

IMG_4879

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.

IMG_5084

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.

IMG_5083

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.

IMG_5025

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.

IMG_5010

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.

dan_elsal_landscape

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.

IMG_3895

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.

Alex Keller2

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.

dan_agobio

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!

Colombia Farm Visits


Irving Farm green coffee buyer Dan Streetman just returned from a whirlwind trip to Colombia to visit farms and taste wonderful coffees. He visited Bogota, Garcon, Monserrate, and La Plata, cupping dozens of coffees a day in search for the right flavors — and relationships — to bring back to our roastery in New York State.


Day 1

Just a brief update on what is going on here in Colombia. So far the trip has been really good… we have a diverse group of folks with three coffee buyers (myself, Kaldi’s and Batdorf & Bronson), one cafe manager from Kaldi’s, two folks from Atlas, and a coffee producer from El Salvador. We’ve been having a healthy range of discussions about the biz.

Monserrate was AMAZING.  We went up to Monserrate early this morning, it is about an hour up from La Plata where we are staying even though it is only 30km. I had forgotten how rough the road is, and it was a little worrisome when we came up to a bulldozer pushing giant boulders into the road.  We waited for a bit, and he cleared it for us.  It is great to see them paving the road however, and was much improved from last year.  We started with a calibration cupping, and then had 2 rounds of actual cupping.  We saw some really nice coffees: the highest I scored was an 88.5 which was very Kenya-like…  Also some very nice classic Colombian profiles with refined acidity, and very sweet.

We also had schoolkids around the whole day while we were cupping, as we were using one of the school classrooms for our cupping lab.  There were also some kids who were enrolled in a coffee education program at their high school who came and cupped with us. The kids were very shy at first, but got super excited and began tasting the coffees with us after the last round was finished.  We ended up chatting a lot with them, and they were asking us all kinds of questions.  Where we were from, did we speak Spanish etc, etc, etc.  Then they all started asking for us to take photos with them.

After the cupping wrapped up we walked the length of the Monserrate village, and gathered a new following of 8-10 year old girls.  They were very amusing, and it helped keep the farm visits light-hearted. Having Emilio Lopez here (farmer from El Salvador) is also especially exciting, as listening to him chat with the farmers, and hearing his thoughts on the coffee production here is very enlightening.  Overall a very rewarding day.

Tomorrow we’re having breakfast at 7:30 at the local bakery Pan Superpan, whose owner today insisted on taking her photo with all of us to put on Facebook. Then we’ll head back up to Monserrate, and we have another 3 rounds of cupping.  I also am excited, as they told me I’ll get to meet Dario Anaya tomorrow, even though we can’t visit his farm, El Jigual. Alto Patico is on another ridge, and apparently very difficult to get to.

Day 2

Back in Bogota tonight, it is really nice to take a hot shower, and relax a little. Yesterday we finished the cupping.  There was an impressive lot of coffees, I scored all of the top 5 very high. We’re buying two lots from the competition, a ~115lb lot from Willer Rivera, which I scored 89.25, and a ~150lb lot from Orlando Osa.  After the cupping we had a meeting with a big group of folks from the village and explained to them how each of our companies was using the coffee and how much we had enjoyed it over the past year. It was really cool to see the community come out and be interested.

Unfortunately it rained most of the day Saturday and it prevented Dario from coming over to Monserrate from Alto Patico. Last year was our first year buying from El Jigual. I loved it’s classic Colombian structure, with flavors of fresh blackberry, wrapped in heavy chocolate body.  It is rich and robust, making it a perfect winter-spring coffee. The good news is Dario has been submitting coffee to our exporter partner here RaCafe, and we should see a sample soon. Our love for El Jigual will hopefully continue into the coming seasons!

Travel Update: Honduras + Nicaragua

Jose Francisco Villeda and family

 

Dan meeting farmers, Hoduras newspaper

 

Omar, Las Capucas Co-op President

 

The view from El Cielito in San Vicente

 

Marcala

 

Coffee flowers in Nicaragua

 

Travel Diary

Dan, our Coffee Director, just returned from a coffee buying trip where he visited some old friend and made new coffee friends; sniffed, swirled and spit coffee; crossed borders and made the newspaper in Honduras…

Here are a few lines from his travel diary:

First stop, Capucas:

I wanted to drop a line about Las Capucas. Everything was amazing when we got here. Our hosts had built cabanas for us to stay in, which was real fun. This year the co-op had 40 new members join and I got to meet some of them. Great news, they all replaced their milling equipment with brand new milling equipment! Best of all, the coffee is improving. This year they had 44 lots in the competition (last year we had 30) and there were only 2 lots that we scored as “non-specialty”. This is an impressive achievement and I’m excited about how things continue to develop here.

On Saturday after the festival, I visited Jose Francisco Villeda (aka Pancho) and his family.  He is a farmer whose coffee we currently buy. It was really awesome to sit down with him and learn more about his farm and family. Pancho and his wife Patricia have 4 daughters and 1 son. This year Pancho is processing much more of his own coffee, instead of selling it to the mill. This is largely because of our commitment to continue buying from him and the prospect of us buying more coffee.

 

Two days in San Vicente:

Now we are in Santa Barbara and working with the San Vicente Dry Mill. Santa Barbara is the most famous part of Honduras to source coffee from right now.  Mostly because many of the “Cup of Excellence” winners come from here. For example the El Sauce coffee we had from CoE in 2010, which I visited today. We cupped 30 coffees in the Mill today, did a few farm visits and tomorrow are doing more farm visits from the coffees that we liked. I found one lot that I like a LOT which wasn’t spoken for and we are going to visit tomorrow.  It is all Bourbon, which is uncommon here with mostly Pacas and Catuai being grown.

 

Two days in Marcala:

We took a side trip to Marcala on the way to Nicaragua.  Marcala is probably the best known of Honduras’ growing regions.  It is a controlled Denomination of Origin by the Honduran Government, which means the coffees must be from the region of Marcala, and meet the quality specs.  This year however was the first year the mill here has separated “micro-lots”.  We cupped 30 coffees and saw some promise.  We also met an amazing young lady named Nancy Contreras, who has been cupping since she was 14 and now owns a coffee shop, roasts and cups at the mill. 


Last stop, Nicaragua:

Yesterday we crossed the border from Honduras to Nicaragua. This morning we are getting up early to head out to visit some farms. We toured around Ocotal (the city where we are) in two coffee growing regions, Dipilto and Mozonte.  The last day we cupped 30 coffees at Beneficio Las Segovias, before heading to the Managua.  Dipilto and Mozonte also showed tons of promise and some amazing producers with very distinct points of view.  

After two weeks on the road I am exhausted but amazed at the great coffees and people I have been introduced to. Looking forward to returning home to NYC.

Colombia trip report June 2011

After spending a few days at the World Barista Championship, I spent a week touring Colombia, and trying to identify some coffee producers for Irving Farm to work with. 

Our first stop was Monserrate, in Huila.  This mountain-top town is home to over 80 families who produce coffee on their modest hillside land.  The producers here only recently started growing coffee, and chose to do so because they tired of the violence that growing coca brought to their town in the 90’s.

Here in Monserrate each of the producers picks and processes their coffee separately, and then they sell to the exporter.  This means that we can keep each farmer’s coffee separate and identify the highest quality lots from which to buy.  It also helps give the farmers feedback on what techniques are contributing to the quality of their coffee.  These farmers all have their own small mill to process the coffee.  Usually this consists of a depulper and fermentation tank (pictured below) and then they dry the coffee on raised beds (pictured below) or in the street (shown above).

Depulper use to remove the coffee fruit from the seed inside, coffee then falls into the fermentation tank below.

 

here, a producer shows us how he turns the coffee to allow for even drying on the raised beds.  This method of processing coffee is fairly standard across Colombia, although it varies greatly in scale based on the size of the producer.  I visited the whole range in our 7 day trip, from farmers who produce just a few bags of coffee to those who produce many containers (1 container is 275, 132lb bags). I also visited farms in Huila, Cauca, and Antiouquia representing Colombia in 3 major growing regions.

Overall it was a very exciting, and educational trip and I am looking forward to putting a few unique Colombian coffeesin the Irving Farm line-up later this year, and in the years to come.

Dan Streetman

Director of Coffee, Irving Farm Coffee