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September 2007

September 13-20

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.

-Aleco

‘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.

-Aleco

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.

-Aleco