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!