A Taste of Sweet Velvet
On one of his early trips, Sorenson drove six hours north from Guatemala City, through dramatic mountainous terrain, to reach Finca El Injerto. “I worked primarily with the younger Arturo, helping him develop his coffee palate,” Sorenson says. “Many coffee growers have never tasted their own coffee.” He asked the Aguirres to keep the bourbon lots separate and to make sure only the ripest cherries were picked….
Sorenson’s years of working with the Aguirres paid off at the 2006 Cup of Excellence, where he was one of the judges. Since the beans are cupped blind, he didn’t know that he was giving the El Injerto sample a very high score, noting its clean character, extreme sweetness and velvety mouthfeel, along with flavor notes of milk chocolate, lavender, violet, tangerine and cardamom. “I was so happy for the Aguirres,” he says, “and proud of Stumptown’s role in developing this spectacular relationship coffee.”
Chasing the Harvest East African Style
Jambo (greetings) from Kenya! As I write this I’m sitting at the bar in Ibis Hotel in Karatina, a sub region of the fabled Nyeri coffee-growing region. This town is a bit like one from the Wild West with no paved streets, wood front buildings in the style of saloons and the overwhelming sense of lawlessness abounding around me. I love it. It’s sunset now, beautiful. Mt. Kenya is peaking through the clouds off in the distance and looks as lovely as ever. I’ve been encouraged to take shelter before sundown though, since that’s when the ‘packing boys’ take control of the streets and it ain’t safe for folks who ain’t one of ‘em. I’ve decided to heed the advice.
As I sip my Tusker I’m going to recount the last 2 weeks of travel spent rambling through the Ethiopian coffee interior. It was an arduous trip and each zone deserves its own segment so this particular story will be divided into 3 chapters. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as enjoyed living it.
THE KAFFA KINGDOM: BIRTHPLACE OF COFFEE
If there was one single origin trip that has held any other in limbo for me, it’s the journey to Kaffa where coffee was is repeatedly reported to have been first discovered. We flew to Jimma, in southwestern Ethiopia and began our week’s travels in the neighboring region of Limu. Our friends in that area told us that the coffees from this region were the coffees that were reserved for the Kings. It’s a special thought that contains images of Halie Selassie and King Menolik taking in part in the ritual Ethiopian coffee ceremony and thinking of just how sacred the ritual still is in today’s culture. Hearing it first hand from an 80-something year old Ethiopian coffee farmer makes it even more special. Sometimes I wait for someone to pinch me and wake me up from this dream.
Day 2 in the region led us towards Bonga, Kaffa and the site of our Tega & Tula coffee. I’d been waiting for this particular visit since I started at the Stumptown. When Duane tells you to buckle up and get ready for a source trip you know it’s going to be something special. The ride out of Jimma town towards Kaffa was an amazing one. We passed Baboons crossing the road, Columbus monkeys deftly swinging from tree to tree and terrain ranging from greenly deciduous to dry, rocky and completely unwelcoming. It was more than I hoped it was going to be.
We arrived 5 hours later in Bonga and met our friend Membratu from Tega & Tula. He’s a quiet man with a stoic personality. He’s reading everybody all the time, digesting the information and becoming all the wiser for it. What a fantastic man! Upon arrival to the farm we took a look at his nursery where seven different varietals are being cultivated separately and are to be planted on several plots of land after the harvest. This is quite unique, as tradition has not allowed for any understanding of pure varietals in Ethiopia. We’re all going to be twiddling our thumbs in anticipation for the next few years waiting for the first production. Patience is a what? How does that go again?
After a typically Ethiopian lunch of Injera, yebeg tibs (roasted lamb), tibs with green chilies, messir (spicy red lentils and what happens to be my favorite dish) and a spicy chicken dish we darted off through the coffees fields to the processing station.
Dunh, dunh, dunh……reality sets in. The picking of coffee cherry was less than spectacular. We can’t have anything less than spectacular and you all know that. After a serious heart to heart with Membratu and a solid hour sorting cherry with the pickers we had the price of ripe cherry raised. The Stumptown has plans for more education at this farm and others for next year but I think we’ve already made it over the hump at Tega & Tula. Considering the rainfall isn’t as heavy (which is a detriment to perfect ripening and knocks cherry off of branches to the ground creating an earthy flavor) as it was during last year’s crop, and considering that the picking issue is on it’s way to being resolved, we are expecting quality for next year that is going to blow minds. Stay tuned……
‘YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, I LOVE YOU!’
Is it just me or is the power of children, their genuine smiles and interest simply overpowering at times? Yes, that was rhetorical. I will tell you this though, if you can’t handle that kind of stuff, then you should stay away from Southern Ethiopia. It’ll eat ya alive. Sure, they want your empty bottle of water or even 1 birr, roughly the equivalent of $0.12, but they do love the forenji (foreigners) cruising through their towns and a simple wave or thumbs up will make their week. They’ll run next to the car for a mile with no shoes on, because they don’t own any, just to get it. We’re too powerful and for nothing more than the fair complexion of our skin. It’s awkward but just the motivation needed to maintain perspective. We’re there to bring change.
Dilla is a weird town. You come across too many people buried in the qat (pronounced chat) trance. They’re lost and potentially aggressive. It’s been the home to many a meeting for the Stumptown over the past 2 months and I’m never lackadaisical about getting out of there as soon they’re finished. Dilla is only really important to the coffee industry because it’s the capital of the Gedeo province, home to maybe the most famous coffee town in the entire world, Yirgacheffe. Although the rains have pushed peak harvest time back a couple of weeks we were still able to tour the region at prime time. We saw virtually every cooperative under the Yirgacheffe Union umbrella and were promised by the hierarchy that the problems we faced with defaults and deliveries last year would be avoided this year. We’re offering a nice little premium just for on-time shipment so you’d think the incentive is there. We still have our fingers crossed.
Getting to learn process at the coops was, of course, educational but I was itching to get out to the Worka sub-region of Yirgacheffe to see our Wondo operation. This was the best washed Yirgacheffe I have tasted in years and seeing the land from which it comes was #1 on my Ethiopia harvest tour must-do list. Although we had good meetings with the Wondo group in September we weren’t able to get out to Worka due to rains inundating the roads. The 17km dirt, or should I say mud, road out to the area is infamous for being impassable for most of the year. So much so that half of the Ethiopian coffee crew we were traveling with had never made it out there before in their lives. So D-Day arrives. The day before was sunny and dry, that particular morning was sunny and dry so I wasn’t in the mood to hear excuses as to why we couldn’t make it out there. Of course about an hour before we were to head out it began raining down like a good, old-fashioned Portland style November shower. ‘Ahh no, no, it’s going to rain this afternoon and we’ll be stuck out there for days.’ ‘Oxfam has Land Rovers and they only made it halfway yesterday.’ ’It’s Yirgacheffe all the same, let’s wait until tomorrow and head out in the early morning.’ I snapped. ‘Stop crying and let’s get in the damned cars! We have landcruisers after all and much bigger balls than Oxfam!’ After a couple of stone cold glares, from maybe y’all can guess who if you’ve read the last Ethiopian trip report, we jumped in the rig and headed south. Worka or bust!
I wish my photos came out better but trying to snap good ones while spinning out in the mud proved to be an impossible task. That 30 minute off-road trip was one of the gnarliest 4-wheeling experiences I’ve ever had. We did make it to Wondo though, and we were greeted by Ipaphra, the processing station manager for the group. Although processing was just in the advent for the season, we took a good look around at the processing equipment. It was in phenomenal condition. Ipaphra promised to follow through with the cherry receiving station separation, which will give us an in-depth look at the sub-regions within the Worka sub-region of Yirgacheffe. This puts us one step closer to learning where, how and who is producing the gems we’re constantly hunting for in Yirgacheffe. As the drizzle began dropping the Union car was gone before we even got out of the processing area. We hopped back in our truck and got the F out of dodge. 30 silent minutes later we reached the main road! It was totally worth it and not just because the Stumptown made it to Worka. I had never seen the Union guys smile before.
Our last day in Yirgacheffe culminated with a visit to our good friend Solomon’s private washing station in the Koke sub-region. Opening the bags of cherry at his siphon was an epiphany. It was everything we asked him for and more; 95+ percent ripe cherry at least! Although we’ve yet to receive any of his coffee I’m already pumped about this relationship. We asked him in September to focus on perfectly ripe cherry. He has. We asked him to consider building parabolic drying beds to ensure even, clean drying. He built them within weeks of the conversation. We’re asking him now to build a roof over his fermentation tanks to protect his vulnerable coffee from the elements as well as to tile out the fermentation tanks to make for a cleaner process. I have no doubt he’s already gotten to work on both. Producers are rarely this proactive when it comes to fulfilling our requests, so I had to ask Solomon why. He replied by saying that I was the first to teach him about quality in a training 2 years ago and now he wants to prove to the Stumptown that he has learned how to make it happen. If a tear ran down from my eye at that moment I wouldn’t tell you guys about it.
We hiked up the muddy road from his station towards the car entranced in conversation. Kids with gargantuan smiles, eyes bright enough to light up this particular evening at dusk and, of course, no shoes, followed behind. I thought to myself; with producers like Solomon taking root in the industry, taking pride in their own country’s national pride, change truly is on the horizon.
OPERATION: CHERRY RED
This theme of mature cherry, getting paid the most for their goods and turning out the best quality coffee possible was a reoccurring one between us and the farmers. By the time we hit the Sidamo region, and the Bensa sub-region in particular, the words were flowing with robotic nature. Verbatim, however, can be a powerful thing. Finding the balance between stern and loving is even more powerful when it comes to waking the necessary minds integral to making change.
Our Hache coffee is to me one of the most subtly elegant coffees I’ve tasted this year and maybe in years. That could be because I like limesicles and champagne though. Seeing the cherry at Hache made me realize that we’re barely scratching the surface. This coffee could be even better than it already is. That thought is almost unfathomable to me.
Regardless, I got down on my hands and knees and got back to work. I don’t even remember how long I was down there, shoulder to shoulder with our producers, going through bag after bag of cherry sorting out the lusciously ripe from the sour tasting semi ripe, and astringent tasting under ripe cherries. When it was all said and done, we had 3 distinctively different piles of coffee cherry. Our producers got it after we spoke to them about the difference in flavor each pile represented. They’re going to take to it after we raised the price for ripe cherry right there on the spot. Stumptown Coffee Roasters = ‘Affirmative Action’ at source.
Drink it if you get it!
2007 has been one whirlwind of a year. I’m writing this particular piece from Jimma, Ethiopia waiting for my breakfast, about to embark on a journey to see our famed Tega & Tula plantations. During the course of the year I’ve been fortunate enough to make my first ever trips to Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi and Bolivia. To say they’ve been anything short of enlightening would be an understatement. We’ve made progress, in terms of picking, processing and growing relationships, in each of these countries and will be showcasing coffees from almost of all of them by the end of the year.
Bolivia was absolutely spectacular from the moment I stepped off the plane. La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia, is located at over 3600 meters above sea level. You can feel the altitude as soon as the cabin door is opened and you take your first steps out into this Andean paradise. After a night of continuous panting and restless sleep we headed out to Coroico, in the Northern Yungas, for the 2007 Bolivia Cup of Excellence cupping competition. As you all know, these CoE competitions are strictly about bringing top quality coffees, and the producers who produce them, to the forefront of the global coffee stage. You can’t help but be jittery waiting for the first cupping table.
The drive out to the Yungas from La Paz was mind blowing. Although I’d been in the Andes on numerous prior occasions, I’d never really been at these altitudes. Within 30 minutes of leaving the city we climbed to 4500 masl. The view in front of us was snow capped mountain peaks while the peripheral was cavernous valleys and what seemed like a black hole below. As we traversed the fabled ‘most dangerous road in the world’ there was no doubt where its namesake was derived. One false move and we plummet over the side of the road into the great abyss of green jungle and rocky mountainside. Two tumultuous hours later we arrived at the Rio Selva lodge, the sight of the competition.
After a brief intro from head judge Paul Songer, we breezed through the calibration round. With all of the judges seemingly calibrated, we began with the first table of coffees. As we smelled the fragrance, or dried coffee grounds, I began conjuring images of Bolivian CoE coffees of the past. Leading the charge was Juan de Dios Blanco and his magnificent coffee that tasted exactly like chocolate covered mandarin oranges. That same profile was to light up the cupping tables for the next four days! As we moved through round one, another cup profile began showing its face as well. Although not as prominent as the former profile, the cup characteristics of these coffees captured my pallet and eventually my heart. Sweet honey, red cherry and ripe plum abounded in this elegantly subtle cup. This is the true Andean cup profile that can be found in only the most special coffees from Colombia to Peru to Bolivia.
By the time the event was through, I scored several 96’s and many more 93+’s. The second place coffee was far and away my favorite. Look for the Stumptown to bid furiously for that one when auction time comes around. By now y’all know we’re ruthless when it comes to getting what we want all of you to taste.
Bottoms up to Bolivia!
After a 2-day pit stop in Portland, fresh off a fabulous month spent cupping and planning for the harvests in East Africa, I grabbed a cab and sped off to Portland International with Colombia in my headlights. Luckily, I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. The goal of this trip was to cup the top micro lots from the southern Colombian provinces of Narino, Tolima, Cauca and Huila in the culmination of the 2007 Las Mingas project.
Las Mingas is an indigenous Colombian word that means ‘a group effort towards success’. The particular projects that the Stumptown has undertaken in Narino, and now Tolima, are exactly that; Las Mingas. Without the producers, the exporter, the importer and ourselves pulling equal weight we wouldn’t be seeing the extraordinary quality that we will be bringing into the Pacific Northwest later this fall. There are several roasters involved in the project scattered across the US and Norway. Of course, each of us are eager to see where our coffee ranks amongst the rest. The Stumptown had 2 of the 3 micro lots we entered finish in the top 4. So, out of 27 samples, that ain’t too shabby. With one from Narino and the other from Tolima, both regions were represented with stellar quality.
The majority of the producers we work with in Colombia have in the neighborhood of 1-2 hectares of land with maybe 3000 – 4000 coffee tress planted per hectare. With the average tree yielding 1/lb per harvest and the NY coffee market trading around $1.30/lb these days, Colombian coffee farmers are some of the most impoverished anywhere in the producing world. The Stumptown has entered into the equation and guaranteed farmers double the current market price for coffee that we score 88+ in our cupping lab. 93+ scoring coffee gives the farmer the opportunity to receive 3 times the market price. This is what we call Direct Trade! We are not paying the cooperative or an intermediary and expecting them to pay the farms fairly. The Stumptown is ensuring that all this money gets back to the farmers themselves.
To give you an idea of how this system works we need to tell you a bit more about how we evaluate the samples. We score each coffee sample according to flavor, sweetness, cleanliness and balance. This is the standard practice within the industry and we take scoring coffees very seriously. After all, we have the fate of hundred to thousands of coffee producers in the palms of our hands. Jimmy and I cupped over 130 samples this summer, weeding out the unacceptable lots, pulling the 88+ needles from the haystack and building a few producer association lots with the very good quality coffees we found that made up the in-between. We have almost 20 tiny micro lots for your enjoyment. You’ll have to work hard to try them all, but trust me, they are worth it. You’ll find flavors like concord grape, honey, pink grapefruit, jasmine, roses and beyond waiting to tickle your palates.
After the cupping competition, we voyaged into Narino to meet some of the micro lot producers and find out what exactly makes their coffee so special. I have to tell you all, Narino may be the most spectacular producing region I have seen. Although I’ve been there 3 times since April, I am still awestruck by the massive altitude of the Andes and their luminous, almost impenetrable feeling and presence. The landscape is arid and the valleys are cavernous. Winding through Narino’s snake-like roads makes you feel as if you are literally on the other side of the moon. There is nothing like the Andes.
Our first stop was La Union de Narino and the Chimayoy Association. I had been dreaming of getting back to La Union since Africa, as this is where we bought the lion’s share of our Colombian coffees this year. I’ve spoken about ASOPROCASAM in past reports, but their focus, and therefore coffee quality, was nothing compared to Chimayoy, so we had to switch our focus. We visited Jose Alipio Munoz first and took a look at his immaculate processing station in his backyard. Don Alipio’s 100% Caturra varietal coffee is processed as well as it can be at this point and it shows with beautiful chocolate and honey notes in the cup. He promised us that he is going to invest the premium we paid him into his process; in particular, by purchasing a tank to float freshly picked cherries. I commented to Alipio that this will allow him to sort out defective beans, through density separation, before they are mixed in with the quality beans. This tiny step will improve his quality and allow for him to receive better value year after year.
We went on to visit Luis Toro, Alejandro Ahumada and, of course, Marco Antonio Pajajoy who gave us our top coffee of the year scoring 95 on our cupping table! With 100% Caturra varietal on their farms and altitudes between 1800-1950 meters above sea level, these farmers have a lot to look forward to in the future. With spectacular grape flavor and supreme balance, all of you folks have a lot to look forward to as well.
I’d also like to add a little note about Tolima. We couldn’t visit Planadas, the town in this province where our coffees come from on this trip. Planadas is the birthplace of the FARC, the radical socialist movement responsible for kidnappings and bombings across the country for decades. They have no remorse for their actions and have shown little attempt in changing their ways. Some of our finest Colombian coffee producers like Edith Enciso, Uberly Lassso and Jairo Ciro Gutierrez come from Planadas and trust me when I tell you they are exciting. Uberly gave us a 95 coffee this year. Edith Enciso not only gave us more micro lots this year than any other Las Mingas producer (3 in total) she also won 1st place in the Cup of Excellence a year ago. I was fortunate enough to meet these producers in Popayan earlier on this trip and it was truly exciting. Producers from all the different associations across the 4 southern provinces were in attendance but none had the energy and passion that the folks from Planadas had. They feel fortunate that someone has found them in a place where nobody ever goes looking. The Stumptown found them and we plan to grow together with them. One of these trips we’ll even get out to visit them at their farms instead of cities in between. In the meantime look for their coffees at the Stumptown this fall. They are some of the most floral and citrically sweet coffees you have ever experienced.
Las Mingas 2007, folks. This is why we do what we do.
‘No Chains Around My Feet But I’m Not Free’
No, Ethiopia is not a concrete jungle by any means but this line certainly applies when it comes to the national coffee industry’s relationships between the cooperatives and cooperative unions. Sadly this traditional beauracracy controls the fate of the majority of coffee producers across the country. To be honest this can be a dangerous topic to pursue as a buyer, the power of these cooperative unions is immeasurable, but it’s the Stumptown’s obligation to bring transparency to our customers. The cooperative unions are failing their producers by not fulfilling contracts, blending coffees from the different cooperatives and allowing shipments to be delayed for months on end. Speculation can be fatal but one’s mind wanders when thinking about how pre-financing funds and premiums are filtered back to the farmers as well. It’s another impenetrable wall between farmer and roaster. We spent a week in the southern Ethiopian coffee producing zones of Sidamo, Gedeo and Yirgcaheffe seeking the right to ship for the producers we work with.
Although the Stumptown will not abandon the farmers held in limbo by the unions, we are beginning to pursue other avenues: the privates. Private washing stations are becoming better at quality focus, paying farmers proper prices in a timely fashion and understanding the needs of their customers. Our Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Wondo coffee comes from a private enterprise, the Wondo Trading Group, which seeks to fortify relations across the supply chain. We have big plans to solidify our relationship with them by seeking even more transparency with payment, traceability to farmers and, of course, quality improvement. We’ve begun putting the necessary time and visits into this relationship, which is akin to planting flower seeds in your garden. With careful nurture and constant attention we intend for this relationship, and coffee quality, to blossom into something beautiful. Stay tuned.
We also visited an old student and friend of mine, Solomon Worku, at his privately owned washing stations in Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. We are constantly searching out open-minded, visionary producers in each of the countries we work in. Sharing ideas and experimenting with quality is the only true way for growth in the supply chain. Solomon is a godsend. We’ll be back in November, during the peak of the harvest, to begin altitude separation of lots, processing experiments, implement new drying techniques and make other analytical attempts at learning more about just how top quality is attained. Keep an eye out for more about his Koke, Korate and Kamuto coffees in months to come.
The trip ended as it began, with several intense cooperative union meetings, even though I was disgruntled with not receiving a single bean from the 3 cooperatives we bought from this year in Yirgacheffe, the Union promises change. We laid out a blueprint for them that, if followed correctly, will get the coffee to us on time and get their farmers higher wages then they have ever seen before. The ball is in their court now. Look for a progress report at the end of they year after our peak harvest visit in November.
Sparking the Quality Revolution in Eastern Africa
Rwanda has been one of the focuses of the quality coffee revolution since funds began pouring into the country after the genocide in 1995. With the help of the PEARL and now SPREAD projects, funded by USAID and spear-headed by longtime African development project leader, Tim Schilling, Rwanda appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the foremost quality producers in the world. 90+, state-of-the-art washing stations have been built in the past 5 years enabling Rwandan coffee producers to present an excellent product to the world market. The Stumptown has been purchasing Rwandan coffees since the advent of these projects and remains committed to increase its support of this magnificent coffee producing country for the future.
Part of this support came just recently as we participated on the international juror’s panel for the first ever ‘Rwandan Golden Cup’ cupping competition that sought to distinguish the country’s very finest coffees from the rest of the pack. Myself and the rest of the jurors, representing the US, England, Japan, Rwanda, Tanzania and beyond, waded through the top 46 samples that made it through rigorous cupping and grading in the week prior, by the national jury. All of these coffees brought something significant to the table.
Cupping competitions along these lines evaluate coffees by cleanliness, sweetness, acidity, body, aftertaste, balance, and flavor as well as an overall score that is kind of a bonus category. The best possible score is a 100 points and that is reserved for less than a handful of coffees on the planet. After round one, I already had a 94, a pair of 93’s and several 91’s and 90’s scored. This was going to be one historic competition! Flavors like mandarin citrus, Japanese plum, candied ginger, cane sugar, black currant and milk chocolate gushed out of these coffees and onto our palates. It was another one of those moments that made me realize I wouldn’t trade my gig for any other on earth.
As we moved into the semifinals I actually dropped a 98 on a coffee which is something I’ve done for only one other coffee; Hacienda La Esmeralda Especial at the Best of Panama auction a couple of years ago. My 93’s became 96’s and the 91’s became 93’s. These coffees mesmerized me. They had me in a trance and my scores were reflective of their beautiful nature. I scored another 98 and some 96’s in the final only to be outdone by a perfect score of 100! Nothing was going to stop the Stumptown from purchasing that coffee the following day at the open outcry auction.
We purchased the first place coffee for the highest recorded price paid to a coffee producer in Rwandan coffee history. We also purchased the 3rd (from our longtime friends and producer partners at the Karaba Cooperative) and 4th place coffees for the 2nd and 3rd highest prices, respectively, ever paid to a coffee producer in Rwanda. Our beloved Musasa finished 16th and 17th with the two lots they entered. That’s not so bad considering the newly constructed private mills stole the show from the cooperatives. All of the 20 finalists are deserving of the excellent prices commanded at auction. We fell in love with ours so quickly that we aren’t even going to wait for a boat to ship them on. They’ll be flown out of Rwanda to our doorstep in Portland in the coming weeks! Keep your eyes peeled.