The secret diary of a green coffee buyer aged 40 and 1/4
A trip around Central America Day 1
I have decided to do a travel diary for my trip this year to central america.
The trip will start in Costa Rica (via Chicago and Miami) where I spend two days, then a flight to Guatemala City where I will spend 3 days travelling all over Guatemala, then a drive to El Salvador where I am going to spend 5 days and then a road trip to Honduras where we will spend a whilst stop 1 day, then more driving to Nicaragua where it will be two days then home.
The day started as they always do on these trips with a very early alarm call. 5 am wake to get a lift from Richard who works with us at Has Bean Towers to Manchester Airport. Its well documented in other blogs I have done how much I hate flying. I am not a good flyer, I get very nervous indeed, can not sleep on a flight, and in general hate everything about airports, customs, baggage, airlines and flying. Don’t get me wrong I am always happy when I get to the places I am traveling too, but the means to an end in-between does not sit well with me.
Manchester airport is one of my least favourite, easy to get to but full of nothing. The flight is on time and leaves for Chicago. Thats a city I’d love to visit, but my 2 hour connections time means visiting nothing but lines. The fact the entertainment system is broken doesn’t bother me as I have three seasons of breaking bad to get through.
I have a history with US customs, I don’t know why but every-time I pass through in transit, I have issues, this time is no different. Many many questions why I am in the US (I’m not I’m in transit) off to talk with a supervisor, more questions, I manage to get my very tight connection to Miami. Great another flight.
The experienced traveller I am (ha ha) means I know what Miami is like. Anyone who travels to central America gets toA trip around Central America Day 2 Central and Western Valley, Costa Rica what Miami is like. My connection here is even tighter, I have 1 hour 45 but I figure as I have already cleared US customs it has to be easier, right ?
Luckily the worth airport in the world was one of the smoothest transitions I have ever had, and onto my flight to San Jose.
This leg is on the oldest airplane in the word and for the secodn time today no entertainment system, but wifi, so I tweet as I fly which is kind of cute.
Arriving in San Jose I am picked up and taken to a very nice hotel, where I get to meet some friends from a company in the US its a small coffee world. But all I need now is sleep, Ive seen the itinerary for the next two days 5 farms a day and a cupping, bring it on ZZZZzzzzzzzzzz
Day 2A trip around Central America Day 2 Central and Western Valley, Costa Rica
Isn’t it funny, when your really tired , you just can not sleep. I woke at 5 am buy my bank telling me that someone was using my card fraudulently in Costa Rica. This was despite me ringing them and emailing them before my trip, got to love banks. I informed them this was not true and of the time in Costa Rica and went back to lying awake.
Early start though, so the waking early was good, and a trip to the exporters we work with office to cup coffee. They look after us so well and help us so much finding great coffee, but also managing the relationships with the producers along with us. We have worked with them for four years, and I always enjoy meeting the team again.
The cupping is amazing and gives me high hopes for the coming years Costa Rica crop, and the relationships we have had. Highlights were from Carlos Arrietta who has done even more work this year with his coffee, and Herbazu
From the cupping it gives us a plan of attach of where to visit. We have planned the usual suspects of Licho, and Of course I have planned in seeing Carlos from above. You see last year I only found his coffee on the last day, before leaving for the airport at the cupping, he came to the cupping at my exporters, so I did get a chance to meet him and one of his sons and one of his daughters, but not in his home environment. A little bit of the reason for moving the cupping around so if we did find something then we could slot it in.
One such thing we found was our first stop, from the Valverde Vega region of Central Valley run by a guy called Allan (I wish I could read my handwriting) who’s honey coffee had impressed me an hour before. The mill / farm was called La Cumbre de San Louis
The mill looked amazing, but what impressed me the most was the experiments he had going on with drying, and I hope to be able to share more with you on this latter in the year.
We jumped back in the car then and drove to one of Allans Neighbours called Cerro De San Louis where Sara the owner along with her Husband Alex showed us around. Not before I lost my phone and wallet at Allans farm last. A mad drive back up to a spot where we had stopped to take photos of La cumbre to find it under the seat of the car (panic over).
Back to Cerro De San Louis, Sara took time out to show me around this beautifully presented farm, where again there were some shade drying experiments going on, I found it interesting that both sets of growers, had taken it upon themselves to start doing some very different approaches to the problems to see what effect it would have on the cup.
After this we dive down to the Town of Sarchi and in to the Western Valley region neat to the town of Lourdes De Naranjo. We go to the mill that has the name Cafe Arbar, keep in mind last year the farms an mill had no name at all. Carlos and his daughter and two sons and wife are very keen to show me around the mill, the new signs they had put up (the paint was still wet) and tell me about their plans. They have split the lot up into two separate pieces of land and have been experimenting with Honey Process. The cupping results earlier became clear as the honey process made more sense to the changes I had detected in the cup, but they are very positive ones.
We then had one of the best meals I have had in a long time with the whole family (apart from one Daughter who had had to work and Carlos was very disappointed I couldn’t meet her, I over heard a conversation to see if we could drop back later, but so tight was our schedule). We also got to visit one of the plots that has been separated into the new farms called Finca Manantial. Expect great things this year, but we were zoomng off.
We zoom off to the town of Zaecerro, one I’ve been to a few times and met with Gillio. Unfortunately Gillo was not home today, so instead we went to visit one of the new farms we wanted to look at from the cupping. The farm is called Finca Salaca and owed by Maria Elena Castro and her son Luis, who by day is a School maths teacher and by night creator of some of the best black honeys I have ever tasted. An impeccable mill I soon realised on the approach I had been to before. Luis is a very gracious host, and the soon is starting to set, a busy time for a miller, but he gave us a big chunk of his time. I went to put on my sunglasses, and suddenly realised I could not find them, tracing back my steps, I remembered taking them off for a photo at Finca Manantial. I was not having a good day for keeping my stuff. A call to Carlos and 10 mins of panic (they were an expensive present to myself recently) Carlos finds them.
So a change of plan means heading back down the western valley corridor to the town of Lordes, where the daughter of Carlos I missed earlier had come home from work and everyone was very happy, it was great to meet all the family who work hard on the farm.
A little way down on the way back to San Jose we take a quick pit stop to visit the vista El Valle mill a coffee we enjoyed last year, the light was fading but great to meet the farmer Oldemar again, and all thanks to my sunglasses. By this time the light was fading, but time for one last night time under the stars stop to the mill known as Herbazu. Herbazu was one of the first Costa Rican farms I go to know, and Manuel Antonio is a legend in coffee. He very kindly took us up to the mill under the stars and walked us around the facility. Its my third visit there, but the first time with the tour by the legend, I may have gotten a bit starry eyed under the stars, but he seemed to forgive me, even talked about coming to visit us in the UK maybe in the future.
And then the drive back to San jose, with all my stuff with me, and exhausted. Any one who says its and easy life, trust me, we did not stop, and a similar program lined up for the coming days. All those offers I get of people wanting to carry my bags, although I could do with them to keep my possessions, I think would back out after a few days.
So sleep deprived and tired, the dinner with some lovely Australian coffee buyers I had to rain check on, as I was so shattered. Its a shame as it was something I was looking forward to as they are good friends, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever eat again after the delicious dinner from Carlos and his family.
A trip around the Tarrazu region of Costa rica, Day 3
Day three starts early, 6:00 am so I can upload the already edited in my mug. I did lots of preparation whilst on my flight but still a good hour and a half’s work.
7:30 I am out the door and on my way to the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica, the main growing area (over 40% of Costa ricas coffee is grown there). Its a place that holds fond memories from my previous visits, and I expect this one to be no diffferent.
My First stop is around 1 hour outside San Jose at a family run mill called El Puente Tarrazu who have been doing some interesting experiential lots with honey processing. They have a bourbon that is red honey, yellow honey, black honey and something called gold honey (I’ve not seen this before but its in between red and yellow). They also have a fully washed of this bourbon and a very interesting golden honey Geisha. All super interesting tasting and something I really hope to be sharing with you by the summer time. With no time to waste we are back in the car and driving towards a mill I visited two years ago called Verde Alto.
Verde Alto is a little more into the Tarrazu region in Abejonal de San Pablo de Leon Cortes and set high up at 1800 upwards altitude. I remebr visiting last time as they had some issues with their mill that was not removing all the cherry. So they had a team going through the lot by hand removing bits of cherry that had no been taken off. A huge and thankless task done by two english speaking ladies who seemed to be enjoying this crazy job. The exporter who was showing me around got on the phone and fixed the problem in one phone call.
This visit it had been fine ever since. The owner Juani Cordero I instantly loved as he bound around the farm. He took us around the mill and up to the farm called El Guineo that means banana plant (these offer shade to all the trees here). I have never ever seen coffee plants so weighed down with fruit. All this the work of natural fertilisers and caring for the land and regular cutting back. Another farm we are looking forward to working with in 2014.
Then it was off to an interesting project around 50 meters below Verde Alto called El Pilon. This is a 100% microlot natural selection mill, that was another cupped yesterday. A great project looking to add value and diversity to the interesting lots of Costa Rica. A passion of the owner for this super clean natural lot.
Then we have a little drive further in to the valley to a Coffee that we have bought for the last three years exclusively for 3FE in Dublin. A european exclusive this farm is owned by Juan Luis Fallas Mata and Maria Eugenia Ramirez and the name is derived from a mix of their surnames.
This is a farm that is a real farm that not only has coffee but a selection of animals. It was great to spend some time with Juan Luis and Maria but in no time it was back into the truck to another mill I was keen to see.
One of the selections from the cupping table was a brand new mill in its first year of production. Previously they had processed their cherry at a neighbouring mill, but keen to get hold of their own processing, they have invested, and invested heavily and well in a mill and drying tables. The farms is called El Rodeo and another I hope to be seeing later this year.
But we saved the biggie till last, a monster of a mill called Don Mayo owned by my amazing friends the Bonila family. Amazing producers of the Bella Vista and La Loma coffees we have bought for a number of years. María Auxiliadora (Hectors daughter) is the current barista champion of Costa rica, and we spend a great deal of time catching up about the fun we had in Melbourne and how excited she is to have also won this years competition and going to Italy in the summer for the 2014 WBC. I also got to cup the coffee she is lookng to use. It must be the first time I have cupped coffee whilst looking at the rest of the lot drying on the patio. But the coffee was delicious and I expect María Auxiliadora to do very well this year.
But then it was back in the car and to the airport in San Jose. But no before popping into the Don Mayo coffee shop thats just across from the airport for a delicious aeropress and espresso, much needed after a super long day.
So on another aeroplane and off to Guatemala and Antigua for another day of coffee.
A trip around Antigua Guatemala Day 4
Day four and I’m in the old spanish colonial city of Antigua. A beautiful and amazing city thats looks like its been stuck in time. A hot tourist spot the city is surrounded by volcanoes (one still active). Antigua used to be the capital city of Guatemala (in fact go back even further central america). The city has a history of being moved around a lot due to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This got so bad that the Spanish Crown ordered, in 1776, the removal of the capital to a safer location, the Valley of the Shrine, where Guatemala City, the modern capital of Guatemala, now stands.
The pace of Guatemala I can already tell will be much slower than the chaotic (but fun) two days in Costa Rica. I have three days here and three farms to see (and two of them today), Costa rica I’d have done them all in an hour.
I have two opposite ends of the spectrum farms to visit in Antigua, both of them very important coffees from last year, but two very very different growers. This was not a plan at the start, and thats because I couldn’t plan this so perfectly if I tried, but gives us a chance to show both ends of the coffee producer scale in one amazing micro region.
The first stop is to a coffee shop in the centre of the town to meet an old friend of last year Alex Illescas of Los Jocotales. Alex supplied us with super interesting honey processed varietals last year, and went down very well. Alex is a small grower, and has been given a chance by his family to manage and market the farm to buyers like us. Last year Alex dried all of his coffee on the roof of his uncles house. This was cute, but proved problematic in getting the coffee dried in time. In fact so much so that it delayed our container from Guatemala by 6 weeks and meant we only got half the coffee we had agreed on.
So this meeting was to sit down with Alex and see how realistic it would be to get the coffee ready in time and in the quantity we wanted whilst maintaining the amazing quality he had been working with.
The first news from Alex was that his uncle had built on top of his house, so his drying patios were no longer. But he had already decided that this year he would be moving the drying from the roof to some patio space he has been able to rent at one of the local farms / mills, so he can process the quantity, maintain the involvement with the processing so he can improve the quality. He is only in a position to do this because of the high prices we paid last year, and the prices we have agreed this. This makes me very happy and proud that we can be part of this farms and family’s development. Also because of the relationship were building we are also helping with some pre financing of the coffee which is the first time we have been asked and have been able to do this, all part of working as a team. Because of the tight schedule we didn’t have time to go to the farm this year, but Alex has promised to keep us in touch with how the picking and processing goes.
From here I go to see a special friend from last year from the farm San Sebastian. San sebastian is a huge farm spanning of 800 hectors with over 400 of those containing coffee. This time of year in the peak season the farm employes around 800 workers, and produces over 8000 bags of fine Antiguan coffee. The scale of this farm amazes me, it amazed me last year and so too this. What they have realised is that there are many buyers out there, each of them lookig for different things, and they see their job as to match make coffee.
Our host for the day Edgar shows us the patios and around the storage facilities of the farm, then invites us for a delicious lunch with him. The house is right at home in antigua a spanish colonial wooden house thats beautiful. After this fine food all I want is a Siesta (a tradition I think we should employ in the UK much more) but we have no time, its not the chance to go around the farm with Edgar and the farm manager of whats can only be called a quad bike with real seats, and we drive all around seeing the new plantings and seeing the cleared areas. We go to see the Pacamara plantation that proved so popular last year with you lot, and we have already agreed a european exclusive on this coffee for this year.
Then up to the very top of the mountain to an amazing viewing platform where we get a bird eye view of the drying patios and the surrounding volcanoes. Here is a great chance to record this weeks in my mug that will be released this weekend, and I am sure will be hugely watched as Edgar is engaging and charming. We then dive down to patios and finish off the video with a tasting too. Before leaving I get chance to see the cherries arriving from the days picking and am blown away at the skill of the pickers, everything purple and ripe.
As my time in Antigua comes to an end I begin to look forward to a rest day tomorrow, until I foolishly decide to phone up my good friend Raul who is the World Barista Champion of 2012 and ask if he is free tomorrow to take me to Amatitalan to visit the Flores Brothers of El Bosque. A coffee that we have loved and enjoyed for many many years now, and somewhere I have not visited for a few years. We will see how that pans out, otherwise day five may be a little quite.
A trip around Central America Day 5 Amatitalan Guatemala
So we get to day 5 which I have marked out as a rest day. These trips have the potential to get very tiring, and very messy with so much to do. I also leave for El Salvador tomorrow, and I will be stopping at some friends houses, who I know do not have internet. The world of Has Bean still spins while I am n these trip and my email gets battered. So a day at the hotel, maybe a trip to cup somewhere, and a tour of some of the coffee shops would be just what the doctor ordered. But I am too stupid to do that. So ……
I make a phone call to one of my closest friends who happens to live in Guatemala city, a few of you may know him as th world barista champion 2012, I know him as Raul Rodas. I’ve always got along with Raul, and always enjoy haging out with him. Last time I saw him was in Milan where we went to see Milan vs Barcelona at the San Siro. This time it was because of coffee.
The reasons for this trip is to cement the relationships with the people we are buying directly from, and to talk about the coming crops / requirements.This is just one way of buying coffee though and we also buy from importers, for many reasons.
As you seen already this trip is fairly manic, I am just one man, so importers pick up the relationship management, and the sample export management, and also give me 30 days credit on invoice as opposed to having to stump up the cash first. All in all a useful service, with the right importer. And we have worked with one importer Mercanta since day one. This is where Raul comes in as he has just begun to work with this importer helping them to develop micro lots and find new and exciting coffees. I for one am very excited and happy about this and I know he will do an awesome job. Raul has already done this with his roasting company in Guatemala city finding some truly amazing lots from farms no one has ever heard of, coffee hunting.
So Raul picks me up from one of the coffee shops I always enjoy in Guatemala city, called El Injerto, owned by the farm with the same name, an award winning centre of excellence for coffee, and the coffee shop works on the same principle.s Great to see another specialist shop like this popping up in central america. We go to the new offices of Mercanta, where we get a chance to cup and catch up with my great friend Christian who manages the operations.
After this were in Rauls car and off to Finca El Bosque of the district of Amatitalan. A farm we have bought since 2006 (with the help of Mercanta) and somewhere I have visited twice before this, and always enjoyed my visits. We have for a number of years bought all the bourbon from this farm, and last year we bought all the crop.
Owned by the Flores brothers, they have everything going against them to make delicious tasty coffee. The urban sprawl of Guatemala City means the farm is getting impinged on by development. The whole farm is surrounded by houses and the city. The drying patios are behind a petrol station (owned by the family) on the main road from the city to Amatitilan, with lots of traffic, noise and pollution. Three years ago they had really bad weather that effected the production and the amounts of special coffee they had. Two years ago the volcano that over looks the farm erupted and spread ash and rocks everywhere damaging the plants and crop. This year they have a new problem, one called Roya.
I’m not going to explain here what or how roya is spread, but its a fungus infection of the leaf of the coffee plant. It leaves little specs of what looks like rust on the leaf, and attacks the plant. The plant needs its leave for photosynthesis and alike and if untreated will kill the plant. Francisco (one of the brothers) takes us to the famr to see what has happened and explain to us why.
Every year they take advice from Anacafe (the government run support for coffee growers) on how to protect from things like Roya. They did a fungal spray that keeps it at bay, and were very happy with the results. But Neighbours to the farm did not make that investment, and got leaf rust. The spores of the fungus are spread by the wind, so with the open breeze the get on top of a mountain, it spread, but spread around September / October time which is too soon to spray the fungicide to the harvest of the crop.
Its certainly not the worst case of Roya I have seen but it is a sign of whats to come on the next leg of my trip, as El Salvador has been hit far worse than anywhere else for Roya.
Francisco tells us although ll of this the early signs are the crop will be tasting as good as ever, and they hope once the harvest is in to get it all under control, but should leae them with a 20-30% drop in what was expected. Its a tough time to be a producer.
Not a bad rest day.
A trip around Central America Day 6 Palencia Guatemala
Day 6 starts very very early. Guatemala City traffic is a nightmare, so I needed to be out the city early, so my driver arrived before 7am and we were on the short journey to the North East of the city to the town of Palencia in the region of Fraijanes. This is a small town which is not really known for its coffee, but a gem we found last year.
I love finding lots like this. The farm is so so professional, the cup is stunningly amazing, the people are lovely welcoming charming people, but the region is off the radar. Amatitalan and Antigua are crawling with buyers, this place there is non.
Beto used to be the mayor of Palencia, and owns some shops in the town as well as this 60 hector farm. He love the area as much as he loves his farms, and is very respected around town.
Last year when I visited they held a huge lunch for all the family to come together, this year the group was smaller, but the food more delicious than ever.
Some great improvements have happened to the farm, more records of picking, more detailed mapping of the areas in to tablons, and the introduction of a pacamara lot that were looking forwards to sharing with you later this year.
We went to the lot that were looking to buy this year, and its tucked in an amazing alcove within the farm, great hight and great cup.
This year is going to be a special one with El Limon this year.
But no time to wait, I have to be back in Guatemala city by two to get my mini bus to El Salvador, this is the part of the road trip, no more flights until home next week.
The journey starts out fine enough, but another accident on Guatemala roads holds us up. No data signal on my phone, I am desperate to find out how the sunderland game is going on against Manchester united in the league cup (I’ve been a sunderland fan through thin and thinner) a text marathon begins.
The game is close and after normal time goes to extra time. Some how in extra time with seconds to go we throw away the chance to win when united equalise. It goes to penalties, so I ring andy our old roaster who now lives in the states and a united fan who describes each awful penalty until we win through. The min bus driver nearly crashes off the road with my yelp.
But I have to calm as we approach the boarder of Guatemala and El Salvador, we wizz through with no problems and we are soon in the town of Apanaca, a small friendly town near the city of apanecha. Non of the street have names or numbers, but asking for Glorias house seemed to work and we found it.
Gloria and Maria Jose (her Daughter) are waiting for me, and are amazing hosts, with a cool beer chilling. I of course tell them of my teams amazing result, and I think the first ever celebration of going out to eat Pupusas was called for (I am fairly sure I was the only Sunderland fan celebrating this way).
Pupusas are a traditional Salvadoran dish made of a thick, handmade corn tortilla (made using masa de maíz, a maize flour dough) that is usually filled with a blend of either cheese, pork or refried beans, but sometimes with plant leaves and flowers. How ever unique the celebration was they were delicious, and I was pleased that they could see how important it was to me.
Tomorrow I get to visit San Jose after three years since my last visit, I am excited
A trip around Central America Day 7 Apaneca San Jose
Day 7 started with the amazing news that for the first day of my trip I had international data roaming on my phone. No more tied to hotspots on peoples iphone and wifi. But I only got the signal if I stood in the garden of Gloria’s house smack in the middle of the lawn, so I sat there for an hour legs crossed, clearing the back log of emails.
Gloria is the owner of San Jose, and some one we have been working with for many years, along with her Daughter Maria Jose and her Son in law Luis. But the last few years I’ve not been able to grab dates with them for visits, so its really good that we could bump diary’s this year and spend a day together.
The first farm we visit is the one I have bought from them, San Jose. We have bought the red bourbon, the orange bourbon and Elephante (an unusual variety found on this farm that has huge fruit, lots of juice inside the cherry but the seed is a standard bourbon size inside). When I say found on this farm, I really mean that, Luis (the son in law) found it whilst working the harvest on San Jose a few years back, and has since been cultivating seeds and plants to grow the production, and a small amount for resale, Has Bean being one of the only roasters in the world to get it.
The farm has really moved on since my last visit, a great deal of renewal of the plants (buy cutting back and pruning) but also the whole shade and clearing. Its a big surprise to see the farm looking so healthy and well. I was told of great problems with leaf rust in El Salvador, and this is unexpected but welcome news
Even the next farm we visit La Lagunita (named after the lagoon thats right next to the farm) seems to be thriving, looking super well, healthy and happy. This was a farm I visited before, and I can see the hard work in the land, and the set up, and an amazing view from the farm of Apaneca.
From here we hike down from La Lagunita and cross the road that is at the lagoon and straight in to Glorias favourite farm Finca Nejapa. This is the top of the farm and we walk down around 100ft from 1700 to approx 1600 zig zagging through the farm. And this take around an hour looking at all the healthy great producing plants. Maria Jose tells me the altitude and the huge shade they have, has helped keep these plants looking strong and healthy and had given them a great harvest to date.
Whilst walking the farm we see a plant that looks like a pacamara, leaf size, plant shape fruit size, the lot, but its yellow. We have only ever seen the yellow lot from Nicaragua before. I think this is very exciting and hope that its something they can harness.
We make our way back to Gloria’s house for yet again a delicious lunch, and a relaxing sit in the middle of the garden for another 30 mins. We then make our way to the mill in Atargo the neighbouring town called El Carmen. Its a big mill but starting to produce micro lots from there. Its great to see the coffee being unloaded from another of Gloria’s farms, and the quality of the picking.
One last beer in the middle of the garden before leaving Gloria’s, I’m so pleased to have made sure I had time to spend with them all, an amazing family who know so much about varietals and plant husbandry.
Another huge drive……. we go three streets away to the next place I’ll be staying, Carmen and Rafael the rock star growers from Finca La Fany and Finca Siberia fame.
Before we eat we go to their new mill thats only been running18 months to see the depulping going on. Its an amazingly professional clean and well run operation, somewhere I’ll be back to tomorrow.
Whilst watching the process myself and Rafael get to talking about rum, as a fellow run aficionado, we compare our favourite drinks. All this talk of rum means we have to go to a brand new bar in atargo called Portland’s. Outside looks like every other building inside a really lovely bar with the most awful band, but a delicious array of central american rums. Much fun was had, so much so that at 11 o’clock we had still not eaten since lunch time. Normally this would call for a kebab but instead a full table of delicious food. Yes I am talking about a lot of food, and thats because its so delicious.
Tomorrows early start maybe fuzzy, I have drunk way too much rum.
A trip around Central America Day 8 Still in Apaneca but at La Fany and others
So day 8 comes and the reminder that this is my longest every trip away from Has Bean becomes a reality. I have only ever got to 8 days before, and still there are two countries after this one to tick off on the trip.
But safe in the knowledge I have a day relaxing at the beach in two days time keeps me focused and motivated on what has bean an awesome trip to date.
Day 8 I was up with a fuzzy head after all that rum, but a delicious cup of coffee from Carmen soon has me chomping at the bit to get to the farms.
I always remember my first trip to la fany back in 2007 when Rafael had suggested I rode up on the quad bike they had. so so so so so so much fun riding through coffee fields and whizzing around independent from the car and the group. Well this time there was no group, I had carmen and Raf to myself, but this time they had something even better, a 4 x 4 cart, so cool
So the first farm we hit is finca Noruega, a farm we bought the first time last year, and somewhere I was keen to see. A farm that Carmen and Rafael have only been working for four years, before this it was abandoned.
This is the first farm I begin to see some issues with leaf rust, and although not devastating the farm as it has in some parts, it was very visible that some of the trees were suffering. Leaf rust is something thats been effecting all of central / south america, but El Salvador has been worst hit this year. A airborne fungus, its difficult to control and impossible without fungicides and once it starts its tough to get a grip on. It shocks the plant into defending its self by shedding its leaves. This stops the plant being able to turn sunlight into fruit and slowly kills the tree (simplistic explanation I am sure agronomists can give a more precise definition but for this diary I think its fine).
From here I 4 x 4 to to one of the first coffees I ever bought, and still do every year. Called finca la fany, its become a staple, a must have coffee. I remember on that visit in 2007 I climbed a tree that just demanded to be climbed. I tried to find the same tree, but they were all so much bigger. But I climbed anyway, and managed to rip the crotch of my trousers right open (Carmen found this most entertaining whilst laughing at me lying on the floor). also got to visit the nursery, 70,000 plants for some replanting this year, a rolling program of replacement.
From here we go around 1/2 a mile to another new farm we bought last year Finca San Cayetano. The natural from last year was sublime and one I look forward to very much this. A tiny farm, were able to ride around in the 4x4 in a few mins, as I had already ruined Carmen’s itinerary with photos and dragging my feet.
What surprised me was at every farm, there was work going on. Either picking, or pruning tidying, repairs or just tending to the farm. These coffees are not good by mistake, but down to the hard work of the producers.
We were hoping to visit Siberia, but Carmen was a little worried that there had been trouble in the area over the past few weeks, and it may not be safe to visit. This drives home as much fun as these trips are with rum, and 4 x 4's theres still some dangers in visiting coffee farms.
Lunch time calls, so back to the house, and I begin to feel not so good, but time to power through as I have a couple of full tables to cup. Although I rarely buy at anyones but my own cupping table, its always good to see how the current crop is taking shape. As always Carmen and Rafael put a great table on, and show me how much amazing coffee is to come through this year. I think you will be very happy.
So back to the house to wait for the next adventure and the next stage of the trip. Were joined by someone I’m looking forward to meeting on Monday (Federico from Santa Petrona) and the guys from Axil coffee in Melbourne Australia. Its great to shoot the breeze with these guys, and I seem to get all giddy and the right stand up comedian. But still I do not feel right.
My stand up continues when Alejandro from finca Argentina fame comes to pick me up. I love it when producers who I work with all come together, I know that everyone wins and learns from each other, and they get on like a house on fire.
Number exchanged and hugs passed out to everyone, ale starts the drive to his parents house by the lake where we will be stopping the night before going to the mill in the morning. Ale has stocked up on beers and snacks for a boys night on the lake, when I start to feel worse and worse.
Half way to the lake, we have to stop as I am shaking and shivering, and feel decidedly unwell. finally arriving at the house, I am straight to bed, full clothed with my coat on and three quilts and I am still cold in the El Salvador warm evening. I hope tomorrow is better…….
A trip around Central America Day 9 The lake, the beach and the town of turin.
I wake to the most amazing view of the lake, something that couldn’t be seen when I arrived all ill and hunched over a few hours before, but this is a bit special.
I awake feeling a little bit better, I’m not sure if I am talking myself well, as we have a busy day, and tomorrow a chance to crash and relax then, but either way, I’m up and about.
Breakfast is relaxing, and chatting with Alejandro it is as good as it gets. There is something about the eggs in Central America that taste that little bit better. I’d gone to bed so ill last night I had not checked email or charged my phone, so 45 mins of both of these is all Ale will give me before we hit the road.
Our first stop is the mill El Mono. I first visited here with Ale four years ago. Each year there has been improvements. This time a new cupper who has really worked on tightening procedures in the lab. We get to cup some early harvest, and most excitingly an experiment we have been working on for Dale who works with us for barista competition. This is the first time I have got to try it, and it looks like what we expected to happen, has. Which is kind of good as we have built a whole performance around it.
The crop has been so badly hit this year that the mill has been mothballed, with all the processng happening at J Hill a super mill in Santa Ana, this is more of the El Salvador I had been tld to brace myself for.
From here we go to the steak restaurant Ale always takes me to and always complains about. I am not so sure I am ready for food, but I do my best, but I can tell I think I had talked myself well.
From here we hike up to Finca Argentina. Here I get to see what leaf rust can really do to a farm. Heavily hit just as the farm began to fruit, the worst time as you can not spray to stop it attacking. This tied in with a scheduled mass pruning means the farms looks battered. Ale tells me around 80% of the crop has been lost, and its devastating to see. Unbelievable from the joy of the cupping table a couple of hours before.
I get to see where the experiments been happening (I will tell you more about this in the future I promise) and up to my climbing tree. The first time I visited the farm I felt come led (like at La Fany) to climb a tree, and now every visit another climb is mandatory. I love visiting this farm near to the village of Turin, its a secial farm (if not a little more insecure than last time with two security guards needed 24 hours a day now).
Then from here to what will be home for the next couple of days, Ale’s house on the beach. Ale use to be a banker in New York before becoming coffee farmer extraordinaire, and luckily that job paid much better than farming. He also surfs, so the house on the beach was a must. Its a hard life this green buying, but 9 days in and still sick I am so looking forwards to day 10 and a break from the craziness and a chance to recover some.
A trip around Central America Day 10 a day off, kinda ……..
So last year I planned a day off in my trip to try and break it up a little. Alejandro invited me to spend the day at the beach in El Tunko near the town of La Libertad in El Salvador.
This years trip is twice as long, so this was the point I felt I would need a break, and boy did I need it. Enjoying the beach so much last year I decided to do this again.
El Tunko is one of the best beaches in the world for Surfing, beutiful pacific sea and huge waves. Ale last year said he would try and teach me to surf, but after 3 mins of being told to just stand up and surf, I decived that I was as bad at surfing as Ale was at teaching.
I retreated to the parasol and sitting reading my book and listening to the waves crash while Alejandro rides like a surf god.
When he returns we start talking coffee(what else are we going to talk about I think we both acknowledged never to talk of surfing again). And talk turns to doing another project on the farm again this year.
This one is a biggie, but one that could be a lot of fun. One I hope you could also get involved in! this carries on until the sun begins to set, which shuts us both up as its so so beutiful.
So even the rest days are coffee days, but I recon i could get used to this pace………
A trip around Central America Day 11 a trip to my number one coffee of 2013 Santa Petrona
Break over, today starts early, and i’m still unwell. but the two choices are to stop in bed, or get to visit the coffee that came number one in my top ten of 2013, I take my chances.
It stats early in the morning in the car park, in San Salvador. the car park around the back of Viva Espresso. Viva Espresso is a coffee shop that is home to the 2011 world barista champion and the 2013 third place world barista champion. I know this as Alejandro the 2011 WBC champion I roasted the coffee for him. I know William the 2013 champion as he also used the coffee from the farm I am about to finish. In fact this coffee finished third and forth as my buddy and business partner Colin Harmon the Irish champion used this coffee too.
Its funny as I and no one else really knew about this farm back in 2011. When I first visited it was not with the idea of buying it, but to visit Alejandro after he worn the WBC. Lilly his boss at Viva espresso comes from a famous family called the Pacas (so famous they have a coffee varietal named after them), and this is her farther farm. To catch up and enjoy each others company, I was invited to the farm for a picnic and beers for us all to catch up. the farm impressed me so much I asked Lilly’s brother for samples, and the rest they say is history.
But back to the car park, Alejandro who has been looking after me for the past few days drives me from the beach to the car park. On the way he tells me that Federico (lillys brother) son shares a class with his son at the kinder garden. El Salvador is a small world for sure. He also tells me that he wishes he could come see the farm too, as he has heard so much about Santa Petrona. Its for sure the farm of the moment, and a farm that every one is getting to know. At the car park we meet Federico (lillys brother) and Federico (lillys husband and co owner of Viva Espresso and trainer of the champions), enough Federico’s and Alejandro’s for you yet ? Hugs are exchanged, spanish is spoken and Ale is in the car with the two Federico’s and me going to the farm. I love it when my favourite people collide in this kind of way. Producers can learn so much from each other just as roasters do when they get together, they also get to share stories about me, and have things to blackmail me with at a later date which is not so good.
The drive to the farm is cool, I speak virtually no spanish, but I’ve picked up enough to understand most conversations. Luckily for me most of the things they say about me are good, and the conversation is one about sharing and learning.
We drive to the mill to collect some things to take up to the farm, and we are off to a road I’ve got tot know well. Its a great drive with good roads. the farm is next door to a farm I know well, el Retiro. In fact they used to be one farm until the land reform back in the 60's, where the government made family’s give away land if they owned a lot. so many family’s split farms between siblings and split them up to make them small enough. This is why there are no super estates in El Salvador, and all small farms. I think part of the reason I love it so much.
The farm is 17 hectors and quite large in the scheme of things, and the pacamara I loved so much this year is all planted around the house. We take a stroll around finca has bean as its now been nicknamed, as we buy it all of this coffee. Theres a great replanted area of new plants that next year should we mean we see more of this coffee (exciting).
But theres a problem on the farm this year. Its not as bad as Finca Argentina, but its not as great as San Jose, the leaf rust has been a problem. It means that this year we should get what we got last, but there will be no more, even with the new plantings. Its sad to see the farm struggling, but the farm manager assures me that things are ok, and he thinks good times are coming. I like his optimism.
Then its time to go see the pacas and bourbon, and this time they have a quad bike and a little truck to go down. I take the quad bike. SO SO SO SO much fun, I need to travel farms on clever vehicles. Its strange but I love doing it this way, shades on vrooooom vrooooomm.
We first stop at the pacas that looks super healthy, and good. But as soon as we get in the trees you see the rust, spores spread from neighbours farms, its sad to see.
Next were off to the bourbon, the amazing paras bourbon. Paras is a method of bending the tree over, so new shoots come off it. You can get three four or even five trees from one set of roots. this helps to make strong roots and keep up the yield.
This part of the farm looks great, and I’m super impressed. This part is less effected.
Theres a great climbing tree (and you know I like a climbing tree) and I’m up. a great view of Santa ana. I can see lots of farms in the area, much worse with rust than here, lots lots worse.
We return to the farm house for a beer. A beer thats well deserved after my awesome quad bike driving. After a beer a sit and a chat (still nothing bad about me in the spanish I can work out) we head to Santa Ana for lunch. This is great as I get to buy three of my favourite people lunch so I insist ion the best restaurant in Santa ana, delicious steak all around, and diet coke (I’m still ill you know) but greta catch up with the boys.
From here we drive to the mill again to cup. Federico (Viva espresso one) has started to work with other farms to show their coffees off to people like me. He is a great cupper and a great guy and I am pleased to taste some delicious coffees he has picked out for us. great to know he will have our back with them too. Feet on the ground help so much in coordinating a shipment, and I know this will be great news for us.
From here its time for more beers (i’m getting better you know) at a great new brew pub in San Salvador. This place has some craft beers and a really good vibe. Alejandro seems to have enjoyed the day, but I know I have. Lots of my friends have chilled relaxed and met each other. Within the hour Lilly, Alejandro (WBC 2011 champ) and his wife also arrive, and much chatting goes on. But we have an early start tomorrow, so we have to make our goodbyes. I feel sad, but happy to have had ana amazing day. a great way to see out El Salvador, one of my favourite coffee growing countries.
But theres one more treat for me. I have travelled here since 2007. My first flight out of here was to Miami and a shock. Yes yes I was still frightened of flying then, but anyone who does this flight knows of a tradition. A tradition that involves fried chicken. Pollo Campero is a fast food chain operating in Central America and was founded in 1971 by a Guatemalan businessman, Dionisio Gutiérrez Gutiérrez. Its a tradition on that flight that you have to take pollo campero back with you to Miami for family and loved ones. So strong is the link that when Kentucky fried chicken tried to open in El Salvador it had to close its doors because of the loyalty. Well every time I have come I’ve wanted to visit because of this crazy loyalty, but as a food snob been to embarrassed to do it.
But tonight was to be the night I lost my cherry. I did my pollo. I have tried hard in these posts to not to any photos but I think its good you get to see my first time. It was good.
Tomorrow is a 4 am start so full of greasy chicken off to bed satified that I understood the miami route tradtition.
Day 12A trip around Central America Day 12 and the 5th country Honduras
Road trip !!!!! Today begins at 3 am. Yes there is a 3 am I thought there was only one, but a couple of hours sleep and were on the road. We have 8-9 hours ahead of us and a border control to get over.
Alejandro drives, I offer to take the wheel but not sure he trusts either me or the local police if they pull us over. We leave La Libatad on the coast and hear toward part of El Salvador I never visit. Were heading to the Honduras border. I try to keep Alejandro going with stories of my life, and he with stories of his. More and more on this trip, Alejandro is becoming a super close friend, and I feel me for him.
I end up falling asleep and Ale catches me sleeping on his iphone, its a great picture.
the whole trip Ale warns me of the Honduras border, and Honduras police, he says there bound to be trouble ahead. We cross the border in seconds, and the road is clear and calm, we have no trouble. In fact all the way to Siguatepeque its fine. Even Tegucigalpa the capital which Ale keeps his biggest horror stories for we scoot around in no problems.
We meet Erwin Mierisch at a petrol station just outside Siguatepeque, where the latest in the portfolio of farms Cerro Azul is. A farm we have bought from for a couple fo years, and I would like to start doing more.
We drive up to the farm which is amazing, very beautiful view of the lake. It such a mountainous area and lovely. Picture postcard views everywhere, something I was not ready for from Honduras. Last time visited, I drove through and it was so flat and boring.
The mill is a project under development. Erwin says this will be sorted over the next few months and years, but they have been working hard on getting the farm ready. We go and cup in brand new cupping lab, with amazing viewing platform that again the lake pops in to view.
We eat some very local food at the mill (thats super delicious) and jump in the back of a pick up truck to the farm. And the only words I have is WOW. Its manicured picture perfect again, very little shade is needed on this farm, so you can see the rows and the gullies. Its just well laid out, and lots of cutting back and replanting.
We visit the new farm that Erwin has also bought next door, and shows me 120,000 new plants in their new nursery. I see Geisha, Yellow Pacamara, yellow bourbon, longberry, Laurina its an amazing mass of delicious varietals. This is going to be off the scale.
We get to see the harvest being dropped off for the day, and the picking is impeccable. But then we have to make a quick get away, to drive to the capital Tegucigalpa which will be our overnight stop before an early start to Nicaragua.
I have an admission to make. I shared lots of Alejandro’s worries about Honduras. I have heard that its unsettled, theres car jacking, the police are corrupt, crime is high. But I loved Honduras. The short trip in the city, on the road and at the farm, I really loved it. The farms were beautiful, the vistas breath taking, but the people amazing.
More delicious food at a restaurant called red (I love it already) and great wine, I am ready for my bed, See you in the morning Nicaragua.
Day 13 / 14
A trip around Central America Day 13/14 and the 6th country Nicaragua
Like the rest of this trip Honduras has whizzed by. 24 hours later I’m trying to leave and waving good bye.
Its taken me a little time to write this last post up. Its a kind of denial trying to make believe its still fresh and new, and that its not so long ago I was on this amazing journey. But it does and has to come to an end.
So we leave Honduras in the direction of Nicaragua. I’m loving all this driving across borders thing so much easier than clearing customs and waiting in airport lounges. Or so I thought
We arrive at the Nicaraguan border and both Erwin and Alejandro are telling me it the easiest and best border to cross. They are always happy to see people visit. After all I’m there with a Nicaraguan what can go wrong ? Although Erwin tells me a story of a few months ago he was at the border and found one guy that was unhappy Erwin had folded a photo copy of his Harley Davidson documents (yes it screens of mid life crisis to me too). The guy was insistent that he goes and gets a new photo copy and Erwin was insistent that he would not. So the chain down he just drives off. He gets stopped in a town about 10 miles away by armed police and gets taken back to the border, where he gets thrown in Jail (sounds friendly right). But he’s been through loads of times since then and everything has been fine.
So we clear the first part, filling in documents on the Honduras side. We then go through to a fumigation part where they spray the inside and outside of the car. We then move to cross the border, and there we are, the man who Erwin had drove off from months before. But were ok, we have everything in order, theres no way we can possibly not go through. But the guy rips everything apart to try and find something. The part of the story Erwin forgot to tell us was he phoned a friend who ended up springing him from jail and the guy got a roasting from his boss about the folded paper thing. So he was going to find something.
And he did, Alejandros Insurance had been renewed recently, but he only had the old documents, so we were not going anywhere. Much deliberation went on. At this point normally an offer “to help” the police fund will make everything better, but our man had a score to settle. So we hit a road block. Many phone calls were made, offers to re insure the car in Nicaragua were made (there is a sales man on the border you can buy from), but no go. So more phone calls get masse, and three and a half hours later we get waved through much to our friends annoyance. So were on our way with Nicaraguan car insurance and all legal. But the day had gone, the visit to Limoncillo looked very much in doubt. We arrive at the mill “Don Estaban” as the sun is setting, just as my chances to visit the farm had set. But we did have a chance to cup and catch up with Dr Mierish and Eleane his sister. They are the most amazing family and I love their company so much.
After cupping and we go to dinner, and lots of members of the extended family join us, each as lovely as the core family. I’m talking to one of their cousins and he suggests and early 6 am start up to the farm, be out of their by 9:30 and at the airport by 12 midday is all do able. I have many hours to try and go to sleep ahead of me so I think this is a fine Idea, and we slowly convince Erwin too.
5:30 am after the few days we have had is seen as a lie in, but I’m up and packed and ready to go. Day 14 and the last day before 24 hours of travelling home.
The drive to the farm is around 45min - an hour, with 30 mins of road and 30 mins of off roading. We come off the highway and it all comes back to me. I begin to remember thins I have seen, and remember things I have seen on the map bit when doing that for the in my mugs.
Theres a possy coming Alejandro, Dr Mierish and Eleane and many of the group from last night. I love it when theres a big group as they stop trying to entertain me and start talking in Spanish. My Spanish is awful, but I hear it much better than I speak it, and I love the little insights I get in to each conversation. We whistle stop tour around the farm, and at 9:30 Erwins trying to get me in the car. I’m torn but wave off everyone. We get back to the mill at 10:30am, I need to be at the airport by 12 midday, and its a 2 hour drive. I’m not amazing at maths, but I see a problem. Erwin puts his toe down, and I mean puts his toe down. If we get pulled by the police I hope he has his friends that got us across the borders number on speed dial.
We arrive at the airport at 12:15 and I have not had time to be worried about getting on the flight (I’ve been more worried for my life thrashing down the road from the farm to airport).
I run in the airport with seconds to spare before they close and Erwin follows me in with bags, like everything I have done its been rushed and to the wire this year.
And here it all turns into airport lounges, American Airlines flights and glasses of wine to stop me being petrified in the air. I arrive home shattered but happy. Its been a great trip, and probably the last time I cram so much into one trip. Two weeks away from home is not fun, but when you spend it with such amazing people then it seems all worth it. It seems a life time since I left, and so much has happened, but its good to be back.