In specialty coffee, we are seeing the emergence of two schools of thought around the future of coffee. One school focuses only on sustainable logos (FT, Organic, etc.) They believe if this product has a label, it does good. The other school focuses on exotic varieties and processing methods.
The truth is, in many cases, farmers and producers often don’t have the ability or quality to meet certification standards. Sometimes, because they are not the right type of organization. Others…well…they just don’t have the money yet, and they’re busy working on making their farm actually sustainable.
On the other side, we often see coffee nerds demanding crazy processing and boutique varieties. “Are you growing geisha? SL-28? How are you fermenting? Malolactic Anaerobic fermentation?!?!”
Fuego (left) and Acatenango (right) - two volcanoes that have contributed to the fertile volcanic soil of the Antigua Valley
A lot of coffee is not sexy or hip. But, often, it can be sustainably delicious. True sustainability happens only when you’re able to build something repeatable, invest in your farm, invest in your workers, and make something genuinely great! That is the case with our coffee from Finca Retana in Antigua, Guatemala.
We found this coffee with the help of our friends at San Miguel Coffee, a large mill found in Antigua. They’ve been the pinnacle of sustainability for years and now are helping other farms around Guatemala get exposure and teaching them this same sustainable model. San Miguel embraces many of the same values as Retana: they provide housing for workers, have a school on-premise for children of pickers and anyone else in the region who can’t afford school, and provides free clinics to all pickers/workers of the mill.
The drying patio at San Miguel Coffees. The Volcano Agua is in the background.
Let’s pause for a quick primer on why we love Antigua coffees. First, if you know a little about geography in Central America and Guatemala in particular, you’ll know that volcanoes are all over the place. In the region of Antigua, there are three that surround the entire valley: Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. The later of the three is still active and has caused some crazy scary damage to the surrounding community (lava flows and random ash falls…). But, while there is some risk, the reward of volcanic soil marries perfectly with coffee varieties.
Second, the Antigua Regional Association (APCA) is one of the more progressive guiding associations in specialty coffee. Why? They’ve set up a regional price floor for specialty coffee in this region that is high enough to pay for the cost of production + cost of living + reinvestment. This price is often at or above USD 3.00 and doesn’t fluctuate with the specialty coffee market. As I write today (7/29/2019) the commodity coffee market is USD 1.00 per lb. That’s a significant difference.
Does that mean that the Antigua valley is perfect? No. But, producers there can thrive, grow, and build a coffee-growing community.
In the fields of Finca Retana. Photo credit:San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
Let’s take a closer look at Finca Retana. The land where Retana currently lives has gone through a handful of owners, originally owned by an order of friars who were led by Father Retana (the namesake of the farm). At different points, it has been home to sugar cane farms (used in making the traditional Antigua candy (rapadura), milk cattle, avocados, macadamia, and finally coffee.
Retana currently is about 125 acres of land planted with two varieties (yellow bourbon and Caturra). At the end of the harvest, they can produce around 1500 bags of green coffee every year.
Drying patios at Finca Retana. Also, #coffeedog. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana.
With this success, they were able to give back and support their picking families. There is a small settlement on the farm for its workers, where about 20 families live there. They pay for the education of children and supplies electricity, drinking water, and 3.46 acres of land for those families to plant and cultivate their own food.
The lot that we selected from Finca Retana is a 100% Bourbon variety that has been fully washed and dried on patios. In the cup, you’ll taste the rich volcanic soil express itself as a rich cocoa nib and lush body texture. The acidity in this cup is balanced and floral.
Ripe Yellow Bourbon ready for processing. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
So, if you support sustainable coffee, buy a bag of Finca Retana. Or, if you want an accessible and all-day drinking coffee, this one will be your jam.
Blends are one of the most undefined and unrefined practices in the coffee world today. I would argue that a coffee company often spends a good amount of time fine-tuning their espresso blend, and then leaves the rest to chance.
Have a coffee that is turning old? Throw it in a blend. Have a coffee that didn’t sell well? Throw it in a blend. Need a cheap coffee to spread out the cost of an expensive lot? Throw it in a blend. Arguably, I’ve seen many coffee blends in the past that have performed one or many of these functions: pair a decent coffee with a not so decent one, and you have the lesser of two evils that still tastes pretty good. In this era of single origin and crazy processing styles (carbonic maceration, what is that?!) I think we under-appreciate the complexity offered from a well thought-out blend of coffee.
Taking a step back, I like to draw inspiration from the wine industry. When I search for a bottle of wine, I’m enamored with single varietals—grapes that I’ve never tasted before to expand my palate. Some are floral. Some are heavy-bodied. None are terribly balanced. They’re great for one or two applications, or for sipping at a tasting, but they’re often not dynamic nor complex in flavor and overall profile.
Enter: blends. Some of the most prestigious wines in the world (Burgundy, Bordeaux, California Reds) are all blends of a variety of grapes. Each by themselves is delicious, but in layering several together, you get a complexity that is not possible by itself.
The whole of a blend should be greater than its parts.
That was the inspiration behind this year’s Sun Summer Blend. We wanted to use coffees that would be delicious enough to serve as a single source coffee, yet becomes something more unique and special when blended together. Even before we knew which specific coffees we wanted to feature, we knew our game plan. We wanted to recreate the sensation of an “Arnold Palmer in coffee format.” We quickly thought of two regions of coffees that strongly exemplified these characteristics: the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia and the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala.
What we ended up choosing was a rad combo of coffee. First, let’s introduce you to the two players in this blend.
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Reko: This was, by far, our favorite Ethiopia Yirgacheffe we’ve cupped this year. Reko comes from a washing station of the same name, found in the Kochere region of Ethiopia. Reko translates to “challenge,” as this hill is steep and treacherous. That said, the coffee brought here by 850+ small coffee farmers have a phenomenal profile year after year. Their meticulous attention to detail and ability to educate their producer partners sets this coffee apart. In processing, it’s floated, separated by stages of harvest, and meticulously watched every step of the way. This coffee is a floral bomb, with notes of black tea, jasmine, and citrus.
A handful of producers that deliver coffee to the Reko Washing Station in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Trabocca
Washing channels and density sorting at Reko Washing Station. Photo credit: Trabocca
Guatemala COMYPE S A: We found this one off a blind sample table of Guatemalan coffees from our friends at San Miguel Coffees. The brightness and cleanliness of this cup, along with its crisp acidity, made us want to learn more. When we revealed the lot, we learned it was from a small cooperative in Huehuetenango called COMYPE. This group is composed of small producers, 70% which are women owned. This lot features a washed coffee that is a blend of Pache, Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, and Typica varieties. The terroir and variety give this coffee an extremely punchy acidity, along with strong notes of citrus and brown sugar.
Meticulously pulped and washed coffee at COMPYE in Huehuetenango. Photo credit: ACODIHUE
A picture of just a few of the women farmers who work with COMPYE in Huehuetenango. Photo Credit: ACORDIHUE
So, when you put these two together, you get some magical sparks. Again, the goal was to create a blend that was reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer. In our Sun Blend, you’ll get a dynamic mouthfeel created by both coffees playing off of each other. You’ll get the black tea and jasmine texture of the along with the sweet juiciness of the COMYPE. The acidities layer nicely to give you the feeling of a bright squeeze of citrus fruit. The finish of both coffees, layered together, is sweet and floral.
We get excited when we source coffees from remote or widely unknown countries or regions. Yes, coffees from Sidamo, Nyeri, and Antigua are certainly delicious. But, when you’re able to focus on new and lesser-known frontiers, you can find amazing producers that aren’t as well represented in the coffee market. In fact, many of them don’t have the same access to sell their coffee as other well-known regions. Because we’re a small team, we can’t travel to all these places (yet). So, it’s up to us to align with importers who want to explore these frontiers as well, and, more importantly, do it in a way that’s sustainable to the coffee farmers with whom they work.
This is what happened when we tasted a set of Peruvian coffees from Red Fox Importers a few months ago. I knew they were working in Peru, and I knew I wanted to highlight a coffee from this country. Peru has made immense strides in quality over the past five years. And Peru is less well known than coffee giants like Colombia, Brazil, and Ethiopia. That said, they have some amazing terroir for growing coffee. One thing that has kept them out of the spotlight is their accessibility; particularly their road infrastructure, especially in the most remote regions. The Andes are not the friendliest places to drive— and it takes a staggering 24 hours to drive from the capitol of Lima all the way to the southeastern remote Sandia Province, the area where our favorite coffee was from.
One of the small farm producers who deliver to the Inambari Cooperative. This is a typical solar (greenhouse) style dryer. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers
Thinking back on a few of the other coffees that we’ve recently released, you might remember us talking about market accessibility. If a coffee farmer doesn’t personally have the relationship or resources to get their coffee exposed to the specialty world, they’re often dependent on local cooperatives or exporters to do that work for them. These cooperatives often comingle coffee from many small farmers and group it together into similar profile lots. This gives the cooperative larger lots of coffee, which tend to be more appealing to higher-volume buyers. These cooperatives also yield a bit more support in getting certifications like Fair Trade or Organic, which do add on small, yet significant, premiums to small-holder farmers.
Washed parchment coffee drying on platforms inside of a solar drier. Notice how the ends are open...this allows for excellent ventilation. It takes longer for this coffee to dry, but slow drying = better tasting coffee. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
But farmers lose a bit of autonomy when they do this. The coffee is no longer “their coffee.” It’s a blend, either of a neighborhood, town, region, or state. This has often been the case with remote Peruvian farmers. It’s also been fair to say that folks aren’t pounding down Peru’s door when it comes to their coffee offerings. They’re often overlooked, and their coffee goes into blends that are less special (and fetch lower premiums) on the market.
Enter the team from Red Fox, who has been personally invested in Peru since 2007. Back then, they had the opportunity to cup coffees from the Sandia Valley, and realized that this flavor profile was unique. These coffees drank with beautiful florals and sweetness. After cupping, they were driven to figure out why. That led them to several small cooperatives in the region, one of which this coffee comes from.
Enter: the Inambari Cooperative, a small cooperative that represents farmers that have an average of 2.5 hectares of coffee land. In terms that I think we can more easily grasp, that’s equal to about 4.75 football fields worth of land. And with regard to farming, that’s not really a lot. Plus, when you’re talking farming in the mountains, that’s even crazier. A farmer that remote, and that small, is dependent on a cooperative to make connections happen.
So, what makes the coffee of the Sandia Valley so special? Back in the 1980’s, the UN led a replanting of the region, which brought many desirable/boutique varieties into the region—particularly the Bourbon (which we know well from both Africa and other Central America countries). While not the easiest plant to cultivate, the quality from the Bourbon typically yields chocolate, cherry, and floral-like coffees. And that’s exactly what we tasted in this lot.
Once their coffee is dried to the proper moisture, producers deliver their finished parchment coffee dry mill used by the Inambari Cooperative. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
This lot from the Inambari Cooperative is a fully washed Caturra and Bourbon mix. The coffee is fully washed (a process where the coffee pulped, fermented, and then remnant fruit washed off) and dried on patios and parabolic (greenhouse-style) solar driers. In the brew, we taste a sweet and fruity body that’s suggestive of a vibrant cocoa and sweet grape jelly. The acidity on this coffee is clean, bright, and malic. It will finish with sweet fruit and florals, reminiscent of chamomile.
If you’ve never had a coffee from Peru before, this is a good place to start. Or even if you’re familiar with Peruvian coffees, we suggest you try this one out. It’ll change the way you think about coffees from this country.
We often get asked, how do you meet the coffee producers that you work with? It might sound like such a hard task with producers living thousands of miles away, but in the age of technology and social media, we are actually very closely connected. But it starts with who you know.
Finca El Crucero
At Mission Coffee Co., we were introduced to our friend Herbert, a coffee farmer and representative of a small cooperative called La Real Expedición Botánica (which we will call La REB), by Brandon, our Lead Roaster. The two of them had met in Florida and tried to start a coffee relationship there but could never get the timing right. They kept in touch, and when we had the chance to cup from La REB late last year (Thanksgiving Day, actually!) we jumped at the opportunity.
So, how do you get noticed in a sea of other coffee producers? Well, you could get lucky and (if you have enough money to afford it) send a coffee to Cup of Excellence, win, and receive recognition and awareness that way. This is unfortunately the exception, not the rule. Another way to build awareness is to build relationships directly with roasters, which obviously takes time, money, and resources that most Colombian farmers don’t have. In fact, a 2012 survey of Colombian farmers found that over a third of those polled had some sort of off-farm income; almost all had to diversify their farming; only 17% were considered “coffee specialists.”
It’s hard to get noticed and to build a relationship on your own. If you don’t get lucky, you need to find another way to make those connections. That’s where our connection with La REB comes into play. Unlike a traditional co-operative, La REB combines coffee knowledge, resources, and marketing, and even has some investment from roasters here in the United States. The folks representing La REB (like Herbert) are all coffee farmers working towards improving quality and finding roasters who want to share in this experience. Ana Mustafa, who oversees El Crucero, is part of this group.
Coffee Blossoms at El Crucero.
Just a few years ago, Ana didn’t sell coffee at a specialty grade—she and her family were dependent on prices of the Colombia Federation. Unlike most countries, at least Colombia has an internal federation that dictates a premium above C-Market prices, but it’s still not high enough to make a sustainable wage. When we first cupped this coffee late last year, we were intrigued both by Ana’s story and willingness to experiment. The first lot (that we released in January of 2019) was a “double fermentation,” which is a hybrid of “natural” and “washed” process. Coffee sits in cherry for two days (a la natural process), but then is pulped, fermented, and washed. It was really an amazing coffee (and if you did not get any of that first round, well, you missed out!)
This harvest was a little different. From the money that Ana made from the last harvest, she was able to do more experimentation to improve the quality. We saw that the milling (both wet and dry) were improved (this improves the integrity of the green coffee). Plus, they were able to further dial in what fermentation duration does to the overall profile (ferment at 12 hours, 24, 36, or longer). And, surprise, surprise: with a bit more resources and some guidance from La REB, her quality went up. And higher quality means that roasters are willing to buy at higher prices.
A stunning view of Ana's farm.
This harvest’s Crucero features what’s called a “layered washed” process. This is a result of their experimentation with processing. It blends several different processing durations, and each one adds a bit of complexity to the overall cup profile. This advancement in processing has yielded a familiar, yet slightly cleaner, cup profile. When you sit down and enjoy a cup, you will notice a rich, round cocoa-like body. As it sits on your palate, you get a fruitiness of peach jam and fresh fruits. On the finish, we think you will still get a rum-like aftertaste. This is an amazing coffee that you don’t want to miss. (Order now!)
We’re excited for our continued relationship with Ana, El Crucero, and La REB. We’ve heard plans for more experimentation, more progress, and more improvement. This coffee will only get better with time.
The road to producing specialty coffee is not an easy one. I think many of us assume if we go to our local coffee roaster, they’ll just happen to have amazing coffees. But amazing coffee isn’t just dependent on roasters or branding or hip baristas—it’s the farmers who build sustainable and quality-centric farms. They’re the ones who commit year after year to improving product quality and infrastructure.
Finca El Platanar - Acatenango, Guatemala (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
I’m not sure how many of you realize this, but coffee farming is effing hard. There’s no magic formula that drops a bazillion pounds of coffee on grocery store shelves each year. The work is arduous—it’s labor-intensive and a huge investment on all fronts. And, if you make less money than you invest, it’s nearly impossible to create a sustainable business model.
Speaking of hard work and relentless dedication, let’s check out our new relationship coffee from Finca El Platanar in Acatenango, Guatemala.
This farm, like most other farms in the world, grew coffee that was delivered and sold on the open coffee market. At times, selling on the open market can seem beneficial to producers. For example, if the market is high, they can receive a premium for simply delivering average qualities of coffee. If the market is low, however, they’ll receive a much lower price for that same product. That’s what happened back in 2011/2012. In 2011, the market swung dramatically in the producers’ favor, topping out at $3.00/lb. for commodity-quality coffee—a price for most producers that’s well above cost of production. But, by the end of 2013, that same coffee fell to just above $1.00/lb. On top of that, in 2012, a major coffee epidemic swept through Central America called “rust.” This is a fungus that spreads quickly in moist environments and attaches onto the leaves of coffee plants. As it matures, it eventually eats up the plant’s resources, causing the leaves to fall off the tree. Without leaves, plants do not have the power to ripen their coffee cherry. To make matters worse, this rust had mutated from earlier forms, and was resistant to fungicides.
I took this picture while traveling in Nicaragua back in 2014. You can clearly see these tress have been affected by rust due to lack of leaves on the plants.
Think about that. Put yourself in the farmer’s shoes. You were getting $2.00 less for the same product. And to keep the farm in healthy operational status, you also needed to spend more money for pesticides, more fertilizer, and added labor to help clean up the farm.
You can imagine how this caused one of the major breaking points for small holder coffee farmers in Central America in the past ten years. La Roya (Coffee Rust) and low coffee prices forced many producing families to downscale or abandon their coffee growing operations. Many were better off investing in different crops and forgoing the coffee they had grown for generations.
Don Daniel, Farm Manager at El Platanar. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
Enter: Don Daniel, farm manager at Finca El Platanar. When that rust hit in 2012—in tandem with a poor market—they chose to abandon 50 percent of their coffee farm. With the plummeting prices, they just couldn’t afford to reinvest the time, energy, and money into that part of the farm
That’s the downside to selling coffee in an open market. When times are good, they’re really good. But when they’re not (which is more often the case), market pricing makes it very difficult-to-impossible for a farm to be sustainable. El Platanar knows this reality all too well. Without direct access to coffee roasters (who typically reward quality with higher prices), there was really no incentive for the team to push toward quality premiums.
Newly renovated land with young coffee trees. This is immaculate. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
But there’s a happy ending to this story, thanks to our friends at Yepocapa and La Cooperativa San Pedrana. They connected with Don Daniel and have been able to directly export his farm’s coffee as a single farm lot. They gave him a platform to highlight his quality, which only a few years removed from such a massive issue, is dang good. They’ve also been able to support with processing and agronomy help to support his reinvestment into the land.
This lot from El Platanar is a fully washed single variety (Caturra) lot. Coffee was picked and sorted at Finca El Platanar, then processed (fully washed, dry fermentation, and patio dried) at San Pedrana Co-op. This coffee tastes like a typical Central America Caturra: notes of sweet apricot, honey, and roasted nuts can be easily picked out of the body, with a lingering black tea note and sweet apricot/apple-like acidity.
You should really pick up a bag of this coffee. And, when you do, let Don Daniel know that both Mission and you, our customers, care about quality and buying a sustainable coffee product that will give us opportunities to grow in the future.