HONDURAS – February 14-19, 2009

[portfolio_slideshow exclude="852"]Our Honduran coffees have not been shining with the brilliant high notes of sweet citrus and succulent dark fruit notes that originally attracted us to the Marcala region with magnetic force. Our trip to Honduras this year was planned with the strict intention to correct the issues holding this coffee back from wowing us like it once did.
From the quality perspective, the coffee trade in Honduras has always been a step behind the rest of the trade in Central America. The heirloom bourbon varietals are continually replaced with newer, higher yielding and more disease resistant varietals like lempira (catimor) and catuai, which cannot compete with the bourbon’s layered acidity and complex fruit flavors. Wet parchment is frequently traded rather than well-dried parchment. Unless the parchment is properly dried to 10-12% moisture levels, farmers, intermediaries, and exporters run the risk of selling/purchasing damaged goods since the coffee is susceptible to molding and to beginning the fermentation cycle anew. Sellers of wet parchment feel as if this system works in their favor since they get paid not only for the weight of their beans but also for the excessive moisture content. Obviously there is no way to objectively taste wet parchment since the transaction takes place days or weeks before the coffee is at a conducive point to roast and cup. Quality cannot be discerned.

All coffee in Honduras leaves from the Caribbean port of Cortes. Exporters have established their offices and dry milling operations in the city of San Pedro Sula which is about 30 minutes inland from the port. At 200 meters above sea level, the temperature and humidity levels in San Pedro Sula (often jokingly referred to as San Pedro Sauna) are high. In my experience as a coffee buyer, these are the worst climatic conditions to store and dry mill coffee. Coffee beans undertake an overwhelming amount of duress waiting for their ship to leave port for the consuming world. Often these coffee beans are damaged so much that months are shaved off of their shelf life.

These barriers need to be taken down in order for quality improvements to be made in Honduras.

Finca El Puente

Stumptown is fortunate enough to work with the Caballero family in Marcala de La Paz. These folks have won more accolades for their coffee than virtually any other farmers in Honduras. They have a stronger vision that includes taking the extra measures to differentiate their coffee at premium prices.

That said, we came up with a checklist this year to help push them even closer towards better quality. We needed to see an even more dedicated focus to cherry selection, drying done at lower and more even temperatures, coffee stored either in climate controlled warehouses or for shorter periods of time in San Pedro Sula, and exportation of coffee in grainpro bags. Grainpro is a material developed to keep moisture from entering, or leaving, the bag. Our experiments with grainpro over the past year have shown marked improvements in maintaining the longevity of our coffee.

After a cupping session in San Pedro Sula, Moises, Fabio and I made the journey up to Marcala. Moises and I spent the next day on the farms at El Puente. We gathered the pickers for a meeting about ripeness. Stumptown needs ripe fruit picked for the obvious reasons of sweetness and cleanliness. Riper cherry has more complexity and depth of flavor. We pay big money for big flavor. That’s the deal. Communicating this message to pickers can be a big struggle. What seems to work best is getting pickers to understand the cherry weight versus the volume they are delivering. Under-ripe cherries have less mucilage development and less bean development, so they weigh significantly less than their ripe counterpart. Coffee pickers are paid on the volume of cherry they deliver. Ripe cherry has more direct value to a coffee picker. Hopefully the workers at El Puente will latch on to that concept.

After several hours traipsing the farms we made our way to the processing center. It’s been my own personal theory that accelerated drying temperatures has been a detriment to El Puente’s quality over the past couple of years. Coffee that is dried too quickly, typically at temperatures exceeding 50C, sustains damage to its core structure. Even though this coffee can, and most likely will, taste great during shipping season it will lose it’s clarity and flavor potential just a few months after arriving in the States. After some discussion, the decision was made to set the drum dryer temperatures to never exceed 45C. We should see better quality even though this will lengthen the drying process an additional 8-10 hours.

One of the more promising discoveries of this trip was the stop made at Bohncafe’s, our exporting contact in Honduras, new bodega in Marcala. If things go well we may store and dry mill coffee at over 1500 meters, which is a miracle compared to the 200 meter altitude where it’s currently done at in San Pedro Sula. Let’s keep our fingers crossed….

After being home for a couple of weeks since ending this trip in Guatemala we’ve begun cupping the day lots from the Caballero family farms. We’re being as strict as possible giving each coffee at least two different sessions of analysis on our cupping table. The approved lots to date are chock full of Concord grape flavors and caramel-like sweetness. It feels good to know that the coffee will arrive that way too!