It’s been a few months since I’ve last checked in and I find myself now in a perfect state of reflection here in Bujumbura. Who would have thought that I’d be writing this from the home of friends with Portland roots? But that’s how it is. The Chase’s are a young couple who have chosen to put aid, service and development in Africa (Burundi to be exact) ahead of the rest of their lives for a few years and I’ve been the fortunate recipient of their hospitality during the past year and a half’s worth of visits to the country.
Since my last post from El Salvador I’ve been to visit our good friends, the Aguirre’s from Finca El Injerto in Huehuetenango as well as Luis Pedro in Antigua. My travels have taken me to Indonesia where we are now fully involved in our first ever Asian Direct Trade project along with some random stops within the states for coffee summits and panel discussions from Atlanta to New York to Seattle before heading off to Rwanda and Burundi. It’s been a wild ride.
Our Guatemala relationships function like well-oiled machines. The Aguirre’s continue to hold their prowess as Central America’s finest producers and processors of top quality coffee. They parlayed all of the extra earnings from last year’s Cup of Excellence auction into new fermentations tanks, washing machines and drum driers in the mill. It’s inspiring to see that kind of commitment and re-investment into their coffee business. We can only tell that it’s paid off in spades because guess what? They just won 1st place at COE last week for the 3rd time in 4 years. This year’s bourbon lot is the finest I’ve tasted from Finca El Injerto and I suspect the folks that have been around longer than me at Stumptown just might agree. Those classic floral, ripe plum, roasted almond and caramel notes are bursting with the juiciest flavor you’ll come across from Huehutenango coffees. We’ve just released this coffee, along with another fabulous lot from Carlos Aguilera’s Carmen Estate in Panama, so get them before the rest of the world figures out about them.
Along with Semillero and Santa Cruz we’ve also added a lot from one of Guatemala’s more unknown regions, San Martin de Jilotepeque. Bernardo Solano’s Finca Buenavista La Concepcion may be difficult to pronounce but it won’t be hard to like. Jimmy, Steve and I carefully selected only a handful of Don Bernardo’s day lots to create an extremely special lot that will be around for what I suspect to be no more than a couple of months. This coffee’s “pink” nature smacked us in this face from the fragrance of the dry coffee grinds; flor de jamaica, rose hips and hibiscus are the collaborative flavors that make this complexly sweet coffee so amazing. Kudos, Bernardo!
After a quick but re-energizing hiatus in Portland I made my way east to Indonesia. We’re now working with three small producer associations in the Takengon/Lake Tawar area of Sumatra’s northernmost province Aceh. I’ve been blown away in our recent visits to this region by the heavy Typica growth. I’d be shocked to learn that there was any less than 95% of the heirloom varietal growing in Kebayakan, Pantan Lues or Bintang. True to form the coffees produced in this region carry heavy sweetness and mouthfeel. Working through a local coffee buying company we are now confidently able to guarantee premiums to the producers farming and processing these beautiful Typicas.
The flipside of the work in Indonesia is the lot construction we’ve done back at home in Portland Once again our crack Quality Control team has carefully analyzed the different lots being sent to us from Aceh. We blended very exacting quantities of 1st quality coffees from each of the three regions around Lake Tawar to come up with a master lot that is aromatically rich in raw tobacco and earth, sweet as molasses, syrupy in texture and still reminiscent of the classic Sumatran coffees with their unique cup profile. Look for Direct Trade Indonesian coffees from Stumptown, as we get deeper into the summer. We also have another project up our sleeves from the high elevation areas in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi. There will be more to come on those coffees that will arrive towards the end of the year.
Summer is probably my favorite and busiest time of year. With harvests in both the interior producing countries of East Africa as well as South America I am constantly bouncing back and forth from continent to continent. Knowing that our projects are improving annually makes the rigorous travel schedule worthwhile. So after the whirlwind travel across the States for various coffee conferences and summits I found myself checking in yet again for another flight at Portland International; destination Africa.
Rwanda has quickly become an epicenter for top quality coffee. The SPREAD project has helped lift the economy of the country substantially through the coffee sector. We’re happy to have paid well over two times market value for last year’s lots and look to easily match those premiums this year as well. Our project at Muyongwe is rock solid. Antoine and his gang of coffee farmers are poised to deliver quality that I expect to supersede last year’s exceptional lot. Unfortunately production in both Rwanda and Burundi is down as much as 400% this year due to horrible flowering and tired trees. This typically equates to improved quality as each node and cherry is able to extract the needed nutrients from the soil allowing for proper mucilage development. In laymen’s terms we’re talking about more sweetness and fruit flavor in the cup. Regardless, at that decrease in volume reward to farmers will be critical.
Unfortunately our good friend Alphonse from Kanzu was hit hard by the global credit crunch. He couldn’t get the necessary financing to purchase cherry and operate his mill this year. We’ll meet up with him again next year as he vows to come back strong. In the meantime I think we’ve been able to track the Nyamasheke farmer’s cherry to a relatively nearby washing station in Cyiza. This coffee cherry is exceptional so we don’t want to lose it or the relationship we have begun with these farmers growing coffee well over 6,000 ft. We’ll be back again in late summer/early fall to cup all of the day lots produced at Cyiza.
Hopefully I’ve kept your attention through this trip report because I’ve saved the best for last; Burundi! I cannot express properly in words how excited, impressed and genuinely proud I am of our project partners in Kayanza. This is our 3rd year working in Burundi with these same folks in the northern province. I’ve spent more time in this country than any other in Africa the last few years. When I first arrived we found washing stations mired in poor technical assistance from new project propaganda. Instead of fermenting coffee twice, in the true Kenyan style of enhancing total flavor within the bean, the washing stations had been told to ferment only once. Soaking time, which produces more proteins within the cell structure of the coffee and therefore more acidity/ fruit flavors, had been cut in half. We also found the fragile, soaking wet coffee from these tanks exposed immediately to intense tropical sunshine, damaging the core of these beans. Coffee beans were bulked together in the bodegas without any traceability to harvest date. I am proud to announce that this has all changed!
Both the Bwayi and Kinyovu washing stations have heeded our advice and are now fermenting twice, soaking for the full 24 hours, pre-drying for 48 hours under a shade canopy and keeping each individual day of harvest separated in their warehouse! Early indications on the cupping table indicate a major success. These coffees have never been as floral, as sweet, or exhibited the complex citrus like these early harvests lots. Get ready for something truly special by the end of 2009. And oh yeah, we got the vacuum packaging machine up and running to ensure that these lots arrive as pristinely beautiful later in the year as they taste when they are fresh from the drying beds.
I started writing this report in Bujumbura but I am now finishing it in Nairobi. It couldn’t be a more perfect ending to such an inspiring trip. Cupping top Kenyas is always such a treat. I commented earlier that it’s like drinking the most sublimely sweet and complex port wine after a fabulous meal. Our second year Direct Trade project with the Gaturiri washing station has yielded ultra-impressive results. Forget my opinion, Steve, our Head Roaster, says the year’s coffee has been his coffee epiphany! Look for it come mid-summer.