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Source Trips

Written by Head Roaster, Steve Kirbach, in late February 2012.

It was late on a Friday. I was sitting in our green lab with Ryan when I got called over to our offices. I went into Mary Ellen’s office and she asked me to close the door. I wondered what we were going to talk about. She asked me if I’d be willing to go to Honduras to help Ryan at El Puente and visit the Caballeros. Apparently he was hoping I could come. If so, I’d be leaving the following Wednesday. What an opportunity! How could I say no? I headed back to the green lab greeted by Ryan and a sly grin.

I left the following Wednesday night and arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras the next afternoon. I got off the plane excited and a little nervous. I had read some crazy stuff about the crime and general vibe of San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras after Tegucigulpa. How much of Spanish did I remember? Funny enough, the last time I had spoken any was over a year ago when Moises and Marysabel visited New York and we had all walked around Brooklyn.

I passed through the doors from baggage claim and instantly saw Ryan waving with a big smile next to Moises Herrera and made my bee line. Before I knew it, I was headed off at the pass by a huge hug and kiss from Marysabel. As I we all exchanged greetings and headed for the car, Moises said ‘Welcome to San Pedro Sauna.’ Sure enough, I was hit by a massive wall of humidity and more sun than I had seen in months.

As we drove through the city, we began the long road to Marcala, La Paz. As we drove, Marysabel pointed out each city we passed saying that each one was a beautiful city. I think this sort of optimistic wonder really embodies her personality.

We passed Lake Yojoa, a beautiful lake nestled between mountains. At one point, there is a long row of food stands. Each one sells the same thing: a fried fish with plantains. I asked if the stands each tasted different, they laughed and said they didn’t know because they always go to the same spot. Moises explained that he always asked for tortillas instead of plantains – he still carries some serious Guatemalan pride! Marysabel and her family have been going to same stand since she was a child. Recently, the owner died and his daughter took it over, but the Caballeros still go there.

We got to Chinacla at about 6:30 at night after a long bumpy drive. First, we went to the wetmill. The mill was built by a Guatemalan, so it has the same style washing channels you see at Finca El Injerto, another outstanding Direct Trade relationship for Stumptown. The first thing that struck me was the overwhelming sweet and slightly fermented smell of cherry. They were working through the night depulping the day’s pickings. The Caballeros use three Panagos in their wet mill. One of the Penagos is dedicated to special lots with its own soaking tank. Moises explained how they reuse the water, filtering the ‘clean’ into a separate tank. The dirty water was pumped back to the top and used to push the cherries down to the Penagos.

Then we went into the drying area. The Caballeros have 3 guardiolas, large drum driers for coffee. The first one, that they refer to as their lucky one, is Indian made and has never failed. It was hot and had a very sweet smell that reminded me of the early stages of roasting. We met Don Raul Manueles there. He manages the wet mill and is Moises’ ‘right hand’ man. Don Raul carries himself with an air of competence. He said hello to Ryan and noted that he had never seen me before. Marysabel introduced me. I felt like he was taking stock of me with his handshake. Who knows what he thought.

Moises then described the system they use to organize the lots. They have a numbering system on each bag of parchment. Ryan described the Colombian system of tagging and Moises seemed interested, as did Marysabel. One of the things I noticed the whole time I was there was this same desire to learn about alternative ways to do things and a general sharing of ideas.

Then we jumped into the truck and headed to Marcala. Once in Marcala, we went to their house and all had a beer with Don Fabio, Marysabel’s dad who also has coffee farms. He greeted Ryan with a huge hug and was obviously glad to see him. Both Ryan and Fabio are masters at cracking jokes!

The next morning, after breakfast, a french press of Finca El Puente and a brief explanation from Don Fabio of the fires that had recently happened in Tegulcigalpa, we were off to see as many farms as we could fit into the day. Fabio made sure that we would back early enough to show off his composting involving his beloved cows. As we rode, I was struck by the unique beauty of Marcala. With white rock everywhere and beautiful pines, it reminded me of a warmer version of Montana. Same ruggedness. Same hard land.

We started back to the wetmill. Ryan and I were surprised to see something we had missed in the cover of night; they had built raised drying beds as well as a solar drier. Ryan expressed his pleasant surprise and instantly began looking at the pergamino, the dried bean still in its shell. His extensive experience in Colombia allowed Ryan to suggest some modifications that could potentially improve efforts already under.

Then it was off to see the farms, the first of which was El Campo. The youngest of their Farms, El Camp is planted with Catuai and Pache. Next, we went to Las Amazonas. On Amazonas, there is Tekisik, Catuai, and yellow Catuai. It was a great time to be there because pickers were there getting cherry. Some of the plants had a fungus called Ojo de Gajo, a fungus that thrives in excessive humidity. The leaves get the spore and fall off and then it spreads. The remedy luckily is simple: trim back some of the trees giving shade and direct sunlight will kill the fungus. We also met many of the employees picking. Again everyone had a smile for Moises and Marysabel. It has a very family feel. All the picking that Ryan and I saw was very nice!

El Puente was the next destination. On the way there, we passed one of Don Fabio’s farms. Marysabel said that some of her fondest childhood memories were spent on the coffee farm. All the small farms within El Puente make up the original farm. We all stood on the top of the hill and looked out over the range. It was gorgeous. Ryan and Marysabel talked about a waterfall over the ridge that Ryan had gone to before saying it was too dangerous, like the typical mother she is. Moises was the one who had first seen this are known as “la Piendrona” in Chinacla and had recognized it as an excellent place for growing coffee.

Moises moved to Honduras in 1992, managing a mill for a Guatemalan exporter he had worked for in Guatemala. He originally was an accountant for the company, but as he spent his extra hours in the cupping lab fell in love with coffee. After living in Honduras for a bit and using some insurance money from a car accident to buy land, he met Marysabel. They married in 1996 and begin cultivating and growing coffee on the farms.

From there we hiked down to El Pino. El Pino is planted with Lempira. In between the Lempira, Moises has planted young Geisha plants. Next year, he will cut down the Lempira to give the young Geisha room to grow. This kind of thinking is a serious example of long term thinking. The first crop probably won’t be ready for four years and first crop yields are always small. Hopefully though, the trees will thrive and produce a truly extraordinary cup profile.

El Pino flows into La Matilde, Moises and Marysabel’s first farm. La Matilde consists mostly of Bourbon variety plants; however, in 2007, Duane suggested this could be a perfect spot for the fabled Geisha and brought them seeds. They planted them in May of 2008 and, so far, the plants are looking great. As I popped one cherry in my mouth I couldn’t believe how different it was from the Catuai I had tried earlier. So much clarity and acidity, like a candied version of a coffee cherry. We are hopeful for this years’ first, first small crop of Geisha from Matilde!

After a quick lunch of tajadas (fried banana) de guineo verde, and an abridged history of coffee in Marcala – they used to mill the coffee by rolling large stones, we headed for the Caballero home. Once we got there, Don Fabio started explaining the complex composting system the family uses for young plants. They use the cherry from the mill and lay it out in a foundation, then they put lime (abundant in the mountains) on top. When it’s ready they mix it with cow dung from Fabio’s 90 beloved cows.

Then we saw the family’s nursery. In the nursery they have Moka, Maragogype, Catuai, Geisha, and Jackson as well as a Guatemalan plant for shade, Grevillea. They showed how they put the seeds under cover and wait to see which ones sprout with a straight root. Those then become the iconic soldiers before their transformation into young plants.

After visiting we took a short rest then headed back to their house for dinner. Marysabel made ‘baleadas’, a Honduran dish made of a thick flour tortilla, filled with beans, crumbled cheese and eggs then folded and fried. Fabio made good on his word and we had the remaining three types of beer, Imperial, Salva Vida and Barena. Barena was light and smooth, but Imperial was the winner. I have a new love of canned beer now. Marysabel brought out an ice cream she made with a native berry, mora, a delicious blackberry with a slight citric note.

The next morning we woke to go to San Pedro and cup with Christian at Bon Café, our Honduran importer and evaluate the first glimpses of the El Puente lots. The best samples had a whole new level of depth as well as acidity that I don’t remember from El Puente. The ‘grape’ was still there but with more stone fruit as well. The sweetness was more elegant with hints of vanilla and toffee. I am truly exited for this coming year’s crop!

I left Honduras with a combination of outstanding samples from my favorite table and a healthy sunburn. I can’t wait for El Puente’s return and look forward to roasting their finest lots for you!

While spending time recently with our sourcing partners in Kigali, Rwanda, I shared a bag of our Costa Rica Marvin Robles and explained his operation: front yard beneficio. They became excited and said that they knew a man with a similar operation. The Rwandese Marvin Robles.

Shortly after writing about this event, I had the chance to visit this enigmatic man and his mill, which he’s named Huye Mountain Coffee, in South Butare. David Rubanzangabo was the head agronomist of SPREAD before turning his attention to building his own mill. The SPREAD project helped improve farm production and harvesting in the area. They also built and managed washing stations and cupping labs. While the rest of Rwanda, and most of Africa, centrally processes their cherry (farmers bring and sell their cherry to a washing station) David built his own mill to process his cherry himself. He even built his own depulper in the style of a McKinnon (a disc depulper with agitated density separation after depulping).

Delivery on bicycle by hired pickers is common in Rwanda, with the load strapped to the bicycle wherever it fits. It feels good knowing that many of the bicycles were made possible by the efforts of Stumptown in conjunction with Bikes to Rwanda. The bags of coffee cherry are immediately unloaded and spread on the ground for sorting, ensuring only the ripest cherries are processed.

 

Much of the beauty of David’s coffee is derived from the intelligence of his processing method. From the depulper, the pergamino passes through a concrete channel which simultaneously washes the coffee and provides an opportunity for further separation. David uses this separation to remove floating pergamino which can include some under ripe coffee and coffee that has been infected with the potato defect. Since the potato defect can ruin even the most elegant coffees, any attempt to remove as many infected beans as possible is critical.

His typical process is 12 hours fermentation, followed by a wash and then soaked for 15 hours. The coffee is pre-dried under lots of shade while bad parchment is removed. This is a crucial step, as the integrity of the parchment is critical to the proper drying and quality, and a slow initial drying in shade improves this. Also, this provides yet another chance to remove the potato defect since it appears more easily while moist and in shade.

David is fortunate to have a sister, Rachel, who roasts and cups for him. Rachel previously cupped with SPREAD and was even partly trained by our own Duane Sorenson, as well as other international cuppers. Rachel checks the quality of the lots coming off the drying tables and can relay her results back to David and the mill which encourages continual improvements to the quality based on the cup characteristics and quality. Aleco has known Rachel for years, and is stoked to have her helping out David, as we know that we can rely on David’s quality to be nothing short of awesome.

We cupped with Rachel, and also pulled some fresh parchment samples from the warehouse to cup in Kigali. The results were promising. Most of the samples were creamy, displayed lots of brown sugar, dark fruits like black cherry and even some floral finishes that evoked lavender. Aleco wasted no time reaching an agreement with David and both parties are very excited about the relationship.

It will be some time before we see fresh coffee from Rwanda, including David’s. But despite the small crop in Rwanda this year, so far the results are looking very positive for Stumptown and our producers in Rwanda.

While Stumptown has been visiting Rwanda for years, this is my first trip ever.
I’ve always loved the coffee from Rwanda. A description on an early offering from Stumptown was ‘pomegranate,’ something that has stuck with me since. While this year the coffees we offered showed more complexity and range than any one fruit, their bright but elegant acidity abounds. The Rwanda crop is especially small this year, predicted to be the smallest since the mid-90s. Due to some market conditions that were well broadcast and perhaps over-discussed in the last 6 months, many washing stations paid too much for cherry, speculating that the prices would continue to rise, but since they have lagged lately (just a tiny bit), many of them are holding coffee that they cannot even sell to break even.

In one case, neighbors of Kanzu were so aggressive with their prices paid for cherries that Kanzu barely operated this year, and we fear for our ability to secure coffee from this area; we will be following up with their neighbors. I’m especially desperate to get my cupping spoon back on the Kanzu, which I shorthand describe as being the most cantaloupe-laden coffee I’ve ever had, but we are unfamiliar with the neighbors  and their processing which could preserve what we historically love about that coffee, or ruin it.

We’re delighted to report that early cupping of new crop Muyongwe is delicious: big, chewy body, honey, apricot.

I brought a bag of Marvin Robles to share with our sourcing partners here in Kigali, and explained his (mullet and) operation: front yard beneficio. They got excited and said that they were in touch with a man who operated similarly. While most of Rwanda operates under the centralized washing stations popular throughout East Africa, this guy has a tiny mill that he’s using to process his own cherry. Rwandese Marvin Robles. The coffee is exceptional with lots of brown sugar, cream, dark fruits (like black cherry) and lavender.

Today is Umuganda, a day dedicated to community service that appears to begin with no work and no activity (and no transportation permitted either). Tomorrow we will head for Butare and from there we will be able to visit David Rubanzangabo (Rwandese Marvin Robles). Based on some meetings here in Kigali, there are also some exciting new projects in new locations, many of which are at skyscraping altitudes, and we will visit some of these as well.

On Monday we’ll cross the border into Burundi, stopping in Kayanza. Of course we will be visiting Bwayi and Kinyovu, and as always, some new washing stations.

Follow us on twitter to see our live notes and pics.

ryanb

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Back in the lab we are getting ready to make our coffee menu a little bigger once again. The fast approaching roll out will see coffees such as Guatemala Semillero, and Guatemala Santa Clara from the Zelaya family. Luis Pedro Zelaya is our man in Guatemala. A fourth generation coffee farmer, he has been an integral part of our continually growing Direct Trade relationships throughout Antigua. In addition to those, look for the new crop of Ethiopia Mordecofe to be hitting our shelves in the very near future. This year’s lot brings us flavors of red fruit, honey, hops, chocolate, and peach tea. All of these wonderful new coffees are being roasted right now.

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Lots of Colombian coffee comes through the lab. We spend a lot of time working with Virmax on the ground cupping our way though hundreds of samples from extremely small sized farms scattered throughout Colombia. Some of these farms are no bigger than a backyard. Due to its geographical location, Colombia experiences two harvests a year making it very likely to find us cupping Colombian coffee year round. It was my pleasure to see more coffee from Isias Cantillo Osa come through the lab a few weeks ago. I have been a huge fan of his coffee, La Esperanza, for many years now. On the cupping table, his coffee consistently begs for our complete attention and rightly so. This years lot brings us flavors of toasted almond brandy, cherry cola and lavender honey with a foundation of the sweetest caramel you’ve ever tasted. I’m sure to be turning a quarter pound sample batch of this coffee purely for my enjoyment this weekend. Yes, I am spoiled.

The Brooklyn roast post has some amazing new coffees headed their way that will be exclusively roasted in New York. The Kenya Kangunu is back for the second year. Flavors of fresh watermelon, pineapple, maple sugar candy, and chocolate cream pie are explosive in this beautiful Grand Cru offering. In addition, we’re offering the Costa Rica Santa Rosa 1900 exclusively on the east coast. This coffee jumped off the cupping table. At high elevations like Santa Rosa, everything slows down for the coffee tree; the cherry takes much longer to ripen allowing it to develop more sugar giving the coffee an immense depth of sweetness. This is an extremely dense and structured coffee. Flavors of rose water and caramel support a soft and clean acidity reminiscent of a honey crisp apple.
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Perhaps one of the most exciting things that made its way through the lab over the last few weeks is some incredible coffee from our old friend Aida Batlle in El Salvador. A traditional staple on our menu, the Finca Kilimanjaro is back this year to once again charm us with an immensely sweet and syrupy profile. Flavors of kalamata olive and perfectly ripe plum are seamlessly integrated into a rich dark chocolate body. This is easily one of the most expansive and complex coffees that exists today. But Aida doesn’t stop there. For those lucky enough to have met her, you’ll know Aida is no ordinary coffee producer. She’s perhaps one of the most experimental coffee producers out there. This year, a small amount of coffee from her Kilimanjaro farm has been double fermented, a process that Kenyan producers have been doing for some time now. By fermenting the coffee a second time, it essentially polishes the seeds before drying, giving the cup an immaculately clean and transparent profile. Flavors of sweet lime and juicy pineapple are completely expressive in the finish making this coffee one of the cleanest and juiciest coffees I’ve ever tasted out of El Salvador. All in all, this extremely small micro lot is guaranteed to turn some heads later this summer. It will be well worth the wait.

AK

It’s an exciting time in the Stumptown cupping lab, as we’re finally receiving some of the coffees that we spent the better part of the winter working on and cupping through. Many are familiar, such as Honduras El Puente, Guatemala El Injerto, and Costa Rica Torres Villalobos. Others are brand new, or at least less familiar, like Ethiopia Duromina, Ethiopia Nano Challa, and Kenya Gatomboya. All of them are doing a great job of blowing minds around here.

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The Caballero family has done perhaps their best job ever with El Puente, producing yet another coffee full of malt chocolate, concord grape, and lavender. We visited Marysabel, Fabio and Moises in Marcala in February and were excited to see them experimenting with a post-fermentation soak, increasing the amino acids and protein content in the bean. It could be this or a modified storage technique that has lead to such a dramatically improved cup. After eight years of working with the Caballeros, it’s rewarding to see how committed they are to improving their coffee year after year. It’s even more rewarding to share those successes with you.

Meanwhile, El Injerto in Huehuetenango, Guatemala has bounced back from last year’s diminutive crop with another stunner. We are always happy, but rarely surprised, as the practices and execution at El Injerto are truly second to none. The equation stands: amazing land husbandry plus awesome cherry selection plus impeccable processing plus skilled drying does equal spectacular coffee. This year’s lot is like chocolate pudding with notes of jasmine, toasted almonds, meyer lemon and plum.

If you liked last year’s Torres Villalobos, which would most succinctly be described as blackberry juice, you’ll go wild about this year’s lot. From the West Valley in Costa Rica, the Torres family produces an abundance of the Villalobos varietal–a spontaneous mutation from Typica that has been subsequently cultivated in Costa Rica and beyond. The varietal is shorter and tends to produce more abundantly than Typica, and also has a more intense cup profile that often leans floral and fruited. This year’s lot is even more floral and honeyed, but continues to display notes of black cherry, concord grape, and plenty of blackberry.

It would be a lie to say that there is not a particularly heightened exuberance for the first Kenya coffees of 2011. Every year the coffees from Kenya rank as staff favorites, and it’s hard to imagine that being any different this year: Gatomboya, brother cooperative to Gaturiri (Stumptown’s first Direct Trade coffee in Kenya is the first in a string of amazing Kenyans this year. Big and juicy, this coffee is ripe with blackcurrant, raisin and sweet citrus.

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Perhaps the most exciting new coffees for 2011 are those from Western Ethiopia, where Aleco has spent a lot of time in the last 9 months. For the first time ever, we’re tasting coffee from some of the oldest growing regions of Arabica. For years the Duromina and Nano Challa cooperatives were selling their sun-dried natural coffees to intermediaries that would blend the coffee with other coffee from the general area and sell it under a generic regional mark. Through financing, the cooperatives were able to acquire small washing stations, and have been producing some of the best tasting coffees in memory. Furthermore, the producers have been able to get paid the best prices they’ve ever received, and the pride of having their coffee marketed individually. Watch for the red fruits and asian pear in the Duromina, as well as a buttery, macadamia finish. In the Nano Challa expect candied orange and fresh ginger complementing honey notes.

This is only the beginning, too. There are many more coffees that we’re eagerly anticipating–more coffees from all of the countries above, as well as El Salvador, Panama, and Colombia. Those may give even these coffees a run for their money!

Love,
The Stumptown Cupping Lab

As I write this waiting for my plane to Panama, the New York Coffee Exchange market is already up $0.12/lb today alone and looking right in the eye at a $2.70/lb close. The market peaked at $2.94 last month, a 34-year high, and there are many analysts who feel like we may surpass the $3/lb mark in the very near future. Considering that the market’s high peaked at $1.39 on April 5th 2010, one year ago today, it’s safe to say we’ve entered a new era.

Why has the market spiked?
Good question. A combination of events triggered the upward movement.

1) Certified Stocks. Certified Stocks refer to coffee that is physically available in warehouses across the larger roasting (consuming) nations. Currently, stocks have dropped below 1.5 million bags whereas typically they would be well above 3 or 4 million bags at this point in the year and at this stage of the harvest cycle. This indicates that producers are not delivering coffee as they usually do. Instead, they are sitting on their coffee, speculating that the market will rise even more, and hoping that they can receive an even better price than the already high market would pay them.

2) Climate Change. Inconsistent rainfall has led to sporadic and spontaneous flowering across the producing world. This means that instead of relying on a 3-4 month harvesting window, farmers may now need to be prepared to harvest for 4-6 months of the year. In fact, in the Colombian growing regions Gaitania, Tolima and Pedgregal, Cauca, you can expect that there is someone picking coffee cherry virtually any day of the year especially considering their proximity to the equator and indecisive dry season. That means added labor costs with an even more focused approach to quality (i.e. ripe cherry selection). Without that extra focus yields will fail to produce at high capability. In the case of the Colombians the excessive rainfall has induced a fungal plague known as coffee rust that is capable of destroying a farmer’s harvest. Unfortunately the climate is wreaking more havoc than ever on the coffee producing front.

3) Emerging Economies. The coffee market is historically filled with extreme highs and extreme lows. In the past, farmers would hear of a market hitting 3-decade highs and rush back to their farm, planting every last square inch of it with the highest yielding varietals they could get their hands on. Five to seven years from that planting peak, the market would crash again from an influx of newly available coffee. Right now, we are in the midst of a planting peak. The common thought is that demand will meet and exceed supply in the next couple of years. Regardless of this current great migration back to the farmlands, we’ll never be able to cover the emerging 2nd class commodity consuming machines of Brazil, India and China. This in itself is enough to keep the market at current levels for the foreseeable future.

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So, what does this mean to you and to Stumptown? Well, Ryan and I have been bounding from Latin America to Africa and beyond for the past 6 months at a more ferocious pace than ever before. We not only want to ensure that our supply chain is healthy, but also that the quality continues to improve as it has with every passing year of our Direct Trade Relationships. We’ve made some adjustments with farmgate pricing in order to maintain the most competitive level possible for quality, as we’re also focused on making sure our farmers are the best paid for producing the world’s finest coffees. Your commitment to Stumptown is greatly appreciated and we promise that you’ll continue to taste the difference in the cup.

-Aleco