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Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – 2009

NICARAGUA

We have invested a great deal of time and energy in Central America since the founding of our company 10 years ago. Our Direct Trade program was devised and then born somewhere along the trail between Guatemala and Panama. Working directly with farmers was a foreign idea to the coffee industry back then. Turning that concept into a reality took some serious planning and an arduous travel schedule. Central America is easily the most technologically advanced and progressive coffee-producing region in the world these days. Simply put: Education, technical assistance and resources are generally more available to these folks and they’ve learned how to take advantage of them. Trust us that this hasn’t always been the case. It has taken 3-4 trips a year, with countless hours spent trekking farms and observing processing, to get to a point where we feel comfortable. Yes, we finally feel comfortable. Reflecting back on my last two weeks spent between Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, I can honestly say that I have never been more relaxed on a source trip. The focus on quality coffee production in these countries is for the most part, functioning like a well-oiled machine.

Nicaragua was perhaps the most impressive of all. Many of you may have noticed that it’s been two years since we’ve offered a single origin coffee from Los Delirios or Miraflor. Cherry selection has been disappointing in past harvests. Perhaps an overwhelming amount of success led these folks to become complacent in their approach to quality. After a pre-harvest planning trip out to Pueblo Nuevo in December and another peak harvest visit a couple of weeks ago, I feel a new energy coming from Esteli. The Canales family has completed construction on their well-designed new mill. The idea is simple – the cherries are dropped into a siphon and released into the de-pulping machine. The mucilage-encased beans drop directly into newly tiled fermentation tanks where they remain until all of the clinging fruit is loosened from the beans. The coffee beans are then washed, separated by weight/density for quality, and transported using newly tiled washing channels to drying stretchers. They will remain there for the next 1-2 days before the drying process is completed on patios.

Don Daniel Canales is fortunate to be able to depend on his three sons to help him manage the farm. Norman, Milton and Donald also have farms of their own in the Pueblo Nuevo, as does the oldest brother, Eddy. The Canales family had always been ahead of the pack in terms of quality and organic coffee production in Nicaragua, and now with a renewed focus on cherry selection, they’re poised to regain their post. This renewed focus begins – of course – with the pickers themselves, most of whom hail from the neighboring community of El Chorro. El Chorro has no access to the rest of Nicaragua because the government (new and old) continues to neglect road construction. In order to make it to Los Delirios they must cross a mountain pass on foot. Needless to say access to proper education, health care and general resources is extremely limited as a result. The Canales family pays these folks an above average picking wage, giving them opportunities that hadn’t previously existed. A synergy has been created between the Canales family and these folks from El Chorro and it’s turned into a coffee that we’re expecting big things from on our cupping table in the coming months.

Staying in the Canales’ home in Pueblo Nuevo, which I do every time I visit, gives insight into the approach they’ve chosen t take to their coffee farming business, and more importantly to their life. Everything they do revolves around a larger-than-life sense of family. Most of the family still lives under the same roof, including Don Daniel’s grandchildren. You can see the dynasty being formed as the younger children learn the ropes from their grandfather and parents. The Canales family is going to be producing amazing organic coffee for a while. Stumptown looks forward with pride to serving it to you again beginning late this summer.

COSTA RICA

Making my way south via the Pan-American Highway conjured memories of old as I crossed the Penas Blancas border into Costa Rica. There is something unequivocally beautiful about Central America in January and February. Driving through arid Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica into the deep green rainforest of Costa Rica’s Central Valley seems like a progression that should take days or weeks, not hours. Cactuses and tumbleweed are quickly traded for banana trees and extensive canopy.

The first stop of my Costa Rican visit landed me in the West Valley producing region: home to the fabled Herbazu farm and micro mill. The Barrantes brothers are the pioneers of the Costa Rican micro mill movement that began over five years ago now. As the country’s coffee production now shifts from mass production at any cost to an exhaustively detailed approach to quality, the Barrantes brothers have a lot to be proud of, since they led the charge with their innovative processing techniques. Herbazu, along with La Candelilla Estate in Tarrazu, was the first farm to begin processing their coffee with ecologically sound, and water efficient, mechanical demucilaging machines.

There is a lot to be said for a farmer who lives his/her craft; who spends the majority of their time at the farm, tending to its daily needs. You can literally throw a stone from Antonio Barrantes’ home to Leo Barrantes’ home and across to Carlos Barrantes’ home. The same intense sense of family prevails here in Lourdes de Naranjo, Costa Rica as in the Canales home in Pueblo Nuevo de Esteli, Nicaragua. The farm literally surrounds the small Barrantes community. They are very much at the core of their livelihood, and have a selection of young coffee farmers in the making at home. Tonio, Leo and Carlos have everything in place for success. Their cherry selection is as good, if not better, than anybody else we work with in Costa Rica. They have total control over their process and are improving it daily with direct hands-on work. Last year, Jim and I scored this coffee at 90 points and we don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t come in even better this coming year. For many of the Stumptown Coffee Department staff, it was one of the best lots of 2008.

We trekked across the Central Valley that same evening before finally arriving at Juan Ramon Alvarado’s Brumas del Zurqui mill. Juan Ramon is a very old friend and one of the coffee world’s foremost coffee technicians. Name another farmer who measures their coffee cherry for BRIX (total sugar content) before picking. His approach is equal to that of a top vintner. It’s no wonder that Brumas del Zurqui has nuanced flavors of semi-sweet chocolate, caramel and cherry that play on each other in a delicate and balanced manner year after year. Juan Ramon defines sustainable production, and no part of the coffee fruit is wasted in his process. All farmers wisely compost their coffee cherry skins to use as a basic organic input to their farms for the following ripening cycle. Juan Ramon takes it a step further by transforming the fruit, or mucilage, of the coffee cherry into what’s known as ‘melasa’ in Central America. We call it molasses up north and it’s a critical component of a dairy cow’s diet. At this point he’s left with only the coffee beans themselves and their protective parchment. The parchment, once peeled from the bean, is used to fuel the drying machine furnaces and the raw beans – well, we know where those are headed……

We BBQ’d that night at Brumas with Juan Ramon, Tonio Barrantes, Leo Barrantes and our exporter, who plays the role of Stumptown’s eyes and ears on the ground when we’re off trailblazing new frontiers in other producing regions of the globe. The setting was right – a view of San Jose not far off in the distance, some chorizo, good Central American rum and a crew of folks chatting coffee and progress. A small portion of the Costa Rican coffee industry has renewed the vision of their craft and what needs to be done in an ever-complicated marketplace, in an ever-complicated world. I felt fortunate to be in the company of the trendsetters.

The sunrise over the Central Valley the following morning was energizing. The sun climbed with an unwavering pace until Costa Rica’s Pacific facing mountain slopes were entirely soaked in an orange sea of warmth. Although more than content with the view, I was even more excited to jump in Juan Ramon’s rig and head southwest into the Tarrazu Valley. We pit stopped in San Jose to pick up a couple of friends from the Fresh Pot: Kristy and Katie. Company is always welcome along the journey and these two ladies brought plenty of healthy curiosity and perspective to the mix.

Tarrazu is equally as exciting for us as the West and Central Valleys. Our two main focuses in the region are home to great stories of humanity, relationships and vision. The Cafetin micro mill was established by a man named Tim O’Brien in the San Martin de Leon Cortes region of the Tarrazu Valley. Tim, who previously did a Peace Corp stint in San Martin, had returned to Costa Rica after a hiatus back in the States. The same folks who cared for him during his two years in their community were stuck in a coffee conundrum. Growing coffee at extreme altitudes between 1600 masl and a towering 2100 masl means not harvesting ripe cherry until April or even May. Unfortunately for these farmers, the local cooperative closes its doors every spring on April 1st. These folks had nowhere to go with their coffee cherry, and therefore no coffee livelihood in sight. This left Tim with an overwhelming sense of urgency and the vision needed to build a processing facility for these farmers and their coffee. Essentially, Tim provided the vehicle necessary to get this coffee to market. Little did they know, they were sitting on a goldmine of quality coffee. In isolation, the farmers at Cafetin were, thankfully, unaware of the “technical assistance” being handed out to other farmers in the region for removing their heirloom bourbon and typica varietals in the interest of increasing productivity, by the Costa Rican coffee institution, local cooperatives and the larger private mills. Unfortunately, this new theory of mass production resulted in a massive decline in the quality of Costa Rican coffee. Because of Tim O’Brien’s efforts the coffee farmers of the Leon Cortes region began and continue to deliver the same bourbon and typica varietals that their fathers and grandfathers originally planted decades and decades ago. Stumptown is proud to have been the first roasting company to get involved with Cafetin. We are equally proud to be offering all of the typica, bourbon and 1900+ masl coffees processed at Cafetin.

Emilio and Laura Gamboa at Montes de Oro represent another version of the visionary. It’s been three harvests since our first visit to San Pablo de Tarrazu and the Montes de Oro micro mill. We’ve seen nothing but progress and improvement since. The passion, enthusiasm and commitment of the Gamboa’s was never in doubt, only their experience and knowledge. Cherry ripeness was pretty bad 3 years ago. Undesirable peanut shell flavors and dryness were present in that original lot. We harped on cherry selection to Emilio and he took our message to heart immediately. When Jim and I returned to the mill in 2008, we were stoked to see a clear evolution toward proper ripeness in Emilio’s siphon. The rest of the process at Montes de Oro has always been solid – particularly their raised bed drying and perfect storage in a wooden bodega. As the different lots showed up on our cupping table a month or so later we were impressed with the newfound integrity and delicate nuance of the coffee. Progress! Returning to San Pablo this past January I had very high expectations.

You see, we used Emilio as the model for Direct Trade and commitment to the other Costa Rican farmers from year 1 to year 2. I needed him to step up again and be that leader by example in 2009. Luckily he didn’t disappoint. Emilio, now known by employees as ‘Sangre de Toro’ or ‘Blood of the Bull’, increased his cherry ripeness standard by yet another notch. His mechanical demucilaging process was as clean as a whistle, and the beds were evenly stacked with coffee that was constantly turned all day long to ensure even drying. The Gamboas are the perfect example of what a dedicated farmer can make of Stumptown’s Direct Trade program. They’ve increased quality every year and we’ve rewarded them with the promised premium increase in price. It’s almost as easy as pie.

We’re looking forward to cupping through all of the day lots of these farms (single day of production during a harvest season) this spring in Portland in order to custom build each individual offering. We guarantee them to be the best expression of what each farm and micro mill is capable of.

PANAMA

My week in Costa Rica was a busy one. The thought of now ending my trip by heading south to Panama to see our coveted geisha varietal at Don Pachi; the succulent bourbon at Don Pepe; and the organic masterpiece that is Duncan Estate was enough to fuel my engine. We landed in David, Panama in the mid-morning of a beautiful Saturday and headed directly to meet with Ricardo Koyner, owner and purveyor of Duncan Estate. Ricardo is one of the two finest organic coffee producers I know. (Aida Battle in El Salvador is the other.) There is something to be said, in a time of economic recession, for a coffee producer who continues to care for their farm with integrity and vision. A producer who will not skimp on organic inputs even though they now cost three times more than they did just two years ago. Duncan Estate is an immaculate coffee farm. It represents a harmonious marriage of caturra and typica coffee trees, perfectly protected in its little valley of the Volcancito de Boquete region. We finished up our farm visit with a look at Ricardo’s drying bed. I can easily admit that I’ve never seen such clean parchment coffee in my life. Not a single dried cherry pod or defective bean in sight – and this is before sorting. In the meantime keep your eyes peeled for an early spring release of this gemstone coffee.

It’s harvest season all across Central America, which makes Sunday a working day at the processing centers. I spent this particular Sunday gazing at Francisco Serracin’s lovely geisha trees at Don Pachi Estate and Tony Vasquez’s rare bourbon trees at Don Pepe Estate. The Serracin family is responsible for bringing the first geisha seedlings to Panama – as we know from past trip reports. Gauging their quality from the last two years, they are quickly rising as one of world’s top coffee quality purveyors. Their geisha varietal is more special than words could ever do justice. Super sweet orange flavors pair perfectly with papaya and jasmine notes. It’s undeniable in the nose and unforgettable to sip. It’s why we pay them over 16 times the current coffee market trading level to be the exclusive owners of this tiny lot.

Don Pepe bourbon is a coffee familiar to you Seattlites but maybe not so much with Portlanders. This will all change later this summer when it officially arrives. Bourbon is an heirloom varietal rarely found in the southern Central American producing countries. As we’ve been discussing in the cupping lab of late, bourbon has a rare type of acidity. This acidity has a distinct heaviness to it, and its own kind of mouth feel that separates it from other varietals. Don Pepe bourbon has just that quality. It’s a complex coffee sure to wow with its citric tang and sweet finish. Tony Vasquez grows only a small plot of bourbon at Don Pepe. It’s limited, so don’t expect it to be around long into the fall.

Carlos Aguilera and I sped off to Volcan early the next morning to catch his farm, Carmen Estate, in the peak of its harvest cycle. Carmen, located in the Paso Ancho sub-region of Volcan, sits in another well-protected valley which translates into great wind break and shade canopy. This is no doubt a significant dynamic responsible for the overall quality of Carlos’ coffee. Of course, the blend of caturra and typica varietals also plays a role. We often find that the heavy acidity and fruit flavors of the caturra mesh perfectly with the sublime sweetness and round body of the typica varietal. Carlos picks each cherry at its optimum level of ripeness followed by clean processing on his Gaviota demucilaging equipment. One of the keys to success at Carmen is the predrying on patios and final drying at very gentle temperatures (40-45C) in his drum driers. The cool, dry climate maintained in his bodega allows for perfect conditioning as well. After a few years of visiting Carlos during the harvest, it’s no surprise to see him in the perennial top-5 at the Best of Panama auction.

I ended my trip on a high note with a trip out to see the Peterson family at their mill Palmira de Boquete. Instead of touring their legendary geisha trees in Jaramillo we instead hopped on some ATVs and climbed up the mountains to their newest coffee farm in Canas Verdes. Most farmers we know who are trying to grow geisha, are having a mighty tough time getting this finicky varietal to take to their soils. The Petersons are the masters and have proven it by showing a yield, albeit minimal, from their geisha trees in just their fourth year of production at Canas Verdes. We also got a glimpse of the botanical coffee garden going up there with varietals from Ethiopia, Indonesia and beyond. Cuppings of the new plot at Canas Verdes were inconclusive afterwards. Geisha seems to need more rest and repose than the average coffee varietal.

More to come from the road very soon! Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are calling…………..