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Honduras Source Trip Report – February, 2008

Spending the past 5 days with the Caballero/Herrera/Garcia family has been like finding a long lost cousin, whom you never knew you even had, and making a connection with them like you’ve known each other your entire lives. These folks are special and I’ll be bit saddened to leave them behind today as I head West to San Salvador.

Moises and Marysabel picked me up last Thursday in El Paraiso, the border with Nicaragua, which is a solid 5 hours from Marcala. I would have never asked them to come so far if I had realized how far it really was. They, of course, were incredibly gracious and I’m sure would do it over and over again if we asked. I’ve spent the last 4 days splitting time with both Moises and Fabio, basically running around the farms and beneficio consuming their daily routines. It’s been a blast as well as extremely educational.

The big picture is finally coming together in my head as to how this family operates. Moises is the worker bee. He’s up early to go check on his farms in the La Montana region of Chincala which is right next door to the city (be sure not to call it a town to the Marcalinos) of Marcala. This is where Los Cipreses, Las Amazonas, El Puente and La Matilde are located. Interestingly enough, it turns out that the family has 28 farms between them that cover 125 hectares (2.2 acres to 1 hectare) of planted coffee area. At the first Hondo Q-auction a few years ago, they sold a 250 bag lot from the El Puente farm since it was Marysabel’s only farm big enough to produce a lot that big. Since then, they have been calling the master blend of farms El Puente and therefore, we call it El Puente. Our micro lots are actually from particular farms that surround the El Puente farm.

Back to Moises….he is on his farms checking in with the farm managers throughout the day to ensure that the proper areas of the farms are being picked and to make sure that cherry is up to standard. In that regard, I am happy to report that cherry, although slightly inconsistent picker (bag) to picker (bag), is very good when arriving to the syphon (receiving area of the beneficio). I’d estimate it at 85% or better, of perfectly ripe cherry. After supervising his farms during the day, Moises has the grand responsibility of managing the beneficio and the process all night long. He monitors the arrival of all cherry and manages the mill. He also has opted not to hire a technical manager, so when something goes wrong up there he is the one solving the problem. The other night one of the drying machines failed. Moises was in the drying facility pounding away at the fixtures with a sledgehammer trying to take the thing apart. He was up there for hours fixing the thing. By the next day, everything was business as usual. His work day during the harvest is from 7am – 12am and it doesn’t seem to phase him a bit. Needless to say, I’m incredibly impressed.

As for the process at El Puente, it’s one of those deals where I’m a bit surprised at how great the quality turns out. They are using old equipment and running tens of thousands of lbs of cherry through it daily. If a piece of equipment fails, Moises is there to fix it, and trust me, things fail out there on a seemingly daily basis. (The other 2 dryers have failed in the past 2 days in addition to the first) So, the coffee is mechanically demucilaged in what seems to be a local Honduran demucilager. It’s so old that all the markings are worn of it and neither Moises nor Don Fabio (Marysabel’s father) know what the name of the machine is. Oh well, I suppose it really doesn’t matter. After this stage, they leave the coffee in fermentation tanks for up to 12 hours, depending on the climate which we know dictates the speed of the fermentation process, in order to fully remove any remaining solids. The coffee is then sent to patios where it may spend up to 2 days as a pre-drying method. They then bring the coffee into the drying facility where the coffee is put in guardiolas (mechanical drum dryers) for approximately 48 hours. This ends the drying process. They have a brand new storage facility which may be the best I have seen. Although it’s concrete, not wood which is generally a better material for keeping humidity out, it’s going to be effective due to the high altitude of 1600masl. I swear it’s like being in a refrigerator at night time.

Back to the drying: Their method did raise some concerns with me. By their understanding, they are pumping heat up to 50 degrees C into the machines. This is a little bit on the high end in my estimation, since anything above 45C can cause damage to the cell structure of the beans. Damage in the sense that not cooling coffee in the cooling tray fast enough creates. You bake out some of the sugars. I even noticed heat up to 55C in certain stages of the drying. This is not a small operation by any means so this would be one of the stages where it would be easy to “cheat”. They have plenty of coffee that needs to get through the drying stage in an efficient manner so as not to create a back up of coffee in other stages. Still, we need them to do more.

Moises has agreed to do a drying experiment for us in March with coffees coming from the higher altitudes (a.k.a.: Amazonas, Cipreses or another). He will dry a portion of one day’s batch in normal manner (2 days on patio and 48 hours in the guardiola). He will take the same day’s batch and do each of the following:

1) Dry 2 days on the patio, and then dry between the hours of 7am – 6pm during the day. The guardiola will be shut off at night in order to mimic sun drying. It’s on old method proposed by Gigi Micheletti, the ex-coffee buyer for Illy who was seemingly there for a century, that our good friend Carlos Aguilerra uses at Carmen Estate in Panama. Essentially, this method causes less stress on the bean by allowing it to rest during the night which many think is the crucial dynamic to sun drying which is the preferred method.

2) Fully sun dry on the patio in front of the house in Marcala. Cloudier conditions at the beneficio don’t allow for proper sun drying at the beneficio. Conditions are better down in town.

3) Fully sun dry in parabolic drying beds at the house in Marcala. Parabolic drying beds as we know are elevated beds, a.k.a. African beds, which are covered with transparent plastic to protect drying coffee from the elements. Don Fabio built one last year to use for trials.

We’ll get a look at the full potential of our El Puente coffee using different drying techniques. This should be interesting.

Don Fabio is the patriarch….He rules. Considering that I’ve lost both my grandfathers, I am already seriously considering asking him if wants to take on the responsibility. I’ll keep you all posted. My days spent with him began with breakfast on his patio and then a quick trip into town. We went into town because he wanted to check in on the restaurants where we’d be eating lunch to make sure they offered what we wanted. If not, he makes sure they change things to his liking. After that, we took a quick cruise around the central park area to make sure everything was in order. I swear it’s like he is the Sheriff of Marcala. After the cruise we headed up to his farms. He has farms in the Mogola and San Francisco sub-regions of La Paz. He is basically retired, but heads out to the farms everyday to check in on picking and to haul bags of cherry up to the mill in Chinacla. He is still very involved and mainly so at the daily morning meetings. Speaking of which….Don Fabio, Moises, Marysabel, Fabito (Marysabel’s little bro), Melker (the other bro) and Mundo( Sandra Isabel’s bro) all meet every morning at Don Fabio’s house to discuss the daily agenda. It’s really neat to see how tight knit the group is even though they are managing a larger volume now. They still approach it in a small, intimate manner. As my dad would say, it’s a beautiful thing.

Yesterday afternoon, Don Fabio took me out to Lllano Grande. Llano Grande is where it all began for this family 80 years ago. It’s in the center of the valley around Marcala and the neighboring towns of La Esperanza, Chinacla and San Jose. It’s a good 45 minute drive from Marcala. The sun hits directly here all day, so this is where Felipe Garcia, Marysabel’s grandfather, would take coffee several times a week from the mill in Chinacla! It must have taken him half a day to get there by Ox-cart! Felipe was way ahead of his time. He was the first farmer in the region to think outside the box and realize that there was a market larger than the local Honduran market. Don Felipe began preparing his coffee for shipment, packing it in leather bags, taking it by ox-cart to La Union de EL SALVADOR and filling out the necessary export documents to ship to Germany. This kind of innovation was unheard in his time. It must have taken him a week just to get to La Union from Marcala. The legacy that this coffee has in our trade is truly special and that they still take so much pride in telling the story is enough to get me teary eyed. We are lucky to be a part of all of this.

Lastly, Marysabel……at first it seemed as if she didn’t have too much involvement in the daily goings-on down here. It seemed to me as if she was the ambassador, if you will, of this family’s coffee to the world marketplace. I was wrong. After a few more days, I noticed that she is the one giving subtle direction to both Moises and Don Fabio. She is directing the whole operation and her word carries weight around here. Marysabel is the quiet leader, a role I find to be more powerful than any other. She rightfully gets all of the attention. I don’t think this family would be as united as it is if it wasn’t for her. The farms in the San Jose region are also under her name, as well as many of the farms in the La Montana region. That makes 4 total regions within La Paz where the family has coffee growing, La Montana (where we get the bulk of our coffee), Mogola, San Francisco and San Jose.

Moises, Don Fabio and I also spent a day cupping through the first lots of the season in San Pedro Sula with Christian at Bon Cafe. K I L L E R! Quality will be markedly up this year. The partial black beans created by extremely cold weather last year was at a minimum as well. I scored 3 of the 26 lots we cupped over 90 and only cut out 4 lots from the running for the blend.

This week has been a great one for me. The hospitality given by this family has been unmatched and we’ve had folks taking care of us since day 1 in Panama. We’re blessed by the coffee gods.