March 2013, Marcala, Honduras
Adam McClellan, Green Coffee Buyer
Heading out to San Pedro Sula on the red eye from PDX, I was slightly weary and sleep deprived, but running on the adrenaline and excitement of my first source trip as a green coffee buyer on behalf of Stumptown. Let’s just say these are big shoes to fill and high expectations to meet. I couldn’t imagine a better farm and producer partner to start with, given that the relationship between Moises Herrera and Marysabel Caballero of Finca El Puente and Stumptown goes way back and both have been able to successfully grow together over the years. Also, the Marcala region is one of my favorite places to travel as the genuine warmth and hospitality from folks here is some of the best I’ve encountered on the coffee trail.Moises and Marysabel picked me up at noon and after lunch we headed straight out to Marcala to catch the tail end of the day’s cherry processing. On the three hour drive out, we passed a mountainous landscape which changed to hot desert, then to higher altitude pine forest, which is where you start to see coffee growing. We had a great discussion on ‘La Roya’ – the current looming, gloomy news topic of the coffee world – which is the leaf rust epidemic spreading through Central America and its potential impact on this and next year’s crop. Thankfully, their farms are largely unaffected due to their diligent farming practices and proactive approach to addressing the plants’ needs to defend against the Roya. However, many of the neighboring farms are totally devastated with mere skeletons of coffee plants remaining. Upon entering the outskirts of Marcala, we picked up a few friendly faces for a lift into town, and then headed up to Chinacla where the wet mill and drying patios are located.
At the beneficio in Chinacla, they just finished rearranging and refurbishing the depulping/fermenting tank station to use gravity flow better and drastically cut down the amount of water used. A new elevator turbine carries the cherry pulp up and away to the compost area so it doesn’t have to be moved by hand. They also enclosed the ceramic tiled tanks area to better control the temperature and added more efficient lighting. At the moment we arrived, a part of the demucilaging equipment had a slight malfunction so Moises dove straight into it and dug out the problem right away – pretty awesome to see these guys operate with such attention. The days picking looked so solid with pure red ripeness in the hopper. Then we drove back down into Marcala town and enjoyed some delicious pupusas at the ever-popular Pupuseria del Campo spot before hitting the sack after a long day.
The next morning after some delicious El Puente French pressed coffee (it will never get old to have a farmer serve you his or her own coffee) and baleadas to power up, we headed back up to Chinacla to see the coffee being washed. Several lots this year are going through an additional 24 hour soaking step after the initial dry fermentation and wash. Initial cup quality results are quite encouraging. The biggest highlight of the Chinacla mill is seeing all of the raised bed drying – most of it shaded by covered and ventilated beds. We’re very happy to see this added investment to this incredibly important step and look forward to more and more of our coffee being dried this way to continue to see positive improvements in the cup.
We spent the rest of the day touring the different farm plots and seeing the picking in action. As we walked around each farm, Moises and Marysabel stoped to pick up dropped cherries, examined particular plants that were having issues, checked on plants after they were treated, and told stories of each plot’s history, naming, variety selection, and timeline. Moises took me on a hike down through several plots. We ended up at the small Gesha planting which has an ambiance that’s a perfect blend of shade and sun. The plants stand tall and elegant with perfectly ripening cherry. I can’t wait to see this coffee back on our menu this summer – it’s sure to be a real stunner again. It’s inspiring to see the hard work, dedication, and passion that go into the production of our El Puente lots. The great investment that has been made here is truly evident and is one of the many benefits of high-paying, long term relationships.
Kind of a side note, one of the interesting things about the Marcala region is that it is one of the few coffee producing regions to have a registered Denomination of Origin program (think Champagne, or Parmigiano-Reggiano) in order to protect the region’s reputation for producing quality coffee with a distinct cup profile. Although the Caballeros wholly support the DO, they felt that the name Marcala was too broad for the level of coffee detail and exhaustive quality measures they take in producing their coffee. So, the Caballeros choose to specifically highlight the nearby small town (the tour around the town square lasts all of 2 minutes) of Chinacla as their growing region. At the wet mill, they use the local indigenous spelling of Xinacla.
After a long and amazing morning touring the farms, we had lunch and chilled out for a minute at the Caballeros home and chatted with Don Fabio. They introduced me to the curious Fruta Maravillosa. They have a small bush that produces this little bright red fruit. I could tell they were excited when I mentioned I hadn’t ever tried it so they began the specific step by step way to enjoy the fruit, and I knew something was up. I’m a trusting person and will usually try anything once, so I followed their instructions. First, cut open a lemon and suck on a little piece, which I did. Sour. Then, I chewed up the Fruta Maravillosa and sucked on the pit inside until I had devoured the sugars. The flavor was good, somewhere between a cherry and a pomegranate. I spit out the pit, and then took another slice of lemon and sucked it down. Pure sweetness, like sugary, country lemonade. Wonder fruit indeed and a somewhat mind-bending flavor experience. Taste buds still dancing from the sweetest lemon, we made the bumpy haul back to San Pedro Sula so that we could wake up early the next morning and cup through all the results of their efforts.
We cupped through three full tables and especially wanted to evaluate and give feedback on the soaking and raised bed drying lots. We found some seriously sweet, clean, consistent, coffees and a few “wow” lots that we look forward to sharing with you this year. The Gesha in particular is just a gorgeous – an elegant, true expression of this variety.
By the end of the three day visit we all remarked as though it felt like we had already known each other for a long time. I look forward to making that the reality and continuing to see this exemplary Direct Trade relationship flourish for years to come.