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.
We have been working on this new idea for a while now, and we’re happy to finally showcase the first in a new series of coffee which we’re calling LIMITED BATCH. These coffees are going to have limited availability, will be sold in 8oz bags, and will be some of the most unique coffees that we’ve ever had. And, you should get them while you can, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Our first LIMITED BATCH coffee comes from a producer that we have served here before at Mission: Rodrigo Sanchez. But, this coffee, and this variety, is one of the most unique coffees in all of Colombia.
Now, that’s a mouthful of terms. So, let’s break what makes this so unique:
Finca Monteblanco is a farm that sits in the ideal coffee growing region of Pitalito, Huila. This farm has been in Rodrigo’s family for three generations now. Their story is like many who have ventured into the specialty coffee world. They grew coffee for years without really understanding much about flavor and quality. And, that is not to say that they didn’t care about quality. But, if you never taste your own coffee, how do you know what affects it?
An overhead view of Finca Monteblanco. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
This changed when Rodrigo learned how to cup and analyze his family’s coffees back in 2002. [Cupping is a process by which we analyze aroma, flavor, aftertaste, body, acidity, and balance of a coffee.] By doing this, he was able to dive a bit deeper into the quality grown on the farm and understood how different varieties were affected by the micro-climates in the different terroir of the farm. Yes, coffee from various parts of the same farm can actually taste dramatically different due to things like soil composition and exposure to /shade…).
Walking the coffee fields at Monteblanco. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
During his investigation of varieties on Monteblanco, he discovered one that was significantly different than others. This was a unique variety that his grandfather had planted back in the 1980s. This is what is now known as Pink Bourbon.
What makes Pink Bourbon special? First, it is a hybrid coffee, meaning that is a crossbreed of different varieties. It physically looked like a Bourbon (tall, skinny trees) and had a solid yield of cherry but had other traits unlike the Bourbon - it was more resistant to coffee diseases. And, its cherries ripened to a unique orange/pink color. After cupping the coffee, it became clear that the Pink Bourbon had shared genetics with coffees from Africa / Ethiopia (those floral and acidic makeup of those coffees are unmistakable). So, Rodrigo started cultivating this variety, and in 2014, planted three hectares of land dedicated to the Pink Bourbon.
Even to the untrained eye, these Pink Bourbon cherries look pink! (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
Around the same time, Rodrigo began toying around with traditional fermentation, seeing if he could modulate and improve cupping scores by changing the process. In case you didn’t know, almost all coffee is fermented somehow. This natural fermentation process helps remove fruit from the outside of the coffee parchment, but also develops flavor and acidity inside of the coffee bean. As many of you know, fermentation can either be an amazing thing (wine, beer, vinegar, etc…) or it can ruin your food (sour milk, food that has gone “bad”, etc…) What Rodrigo noted was that there was a direct correlation between the sugar content of the coffee (which we measure in units called Brix) and temperature. If you could control the fermentation, you could create more desirable flavors.
Looking through a Brix meter, which measures sugar concentration. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
After trial and error, he developed a process that pulped coffee out of the cherry and fermented it for a long time. 76 hours to be exact. But not just at any temperature. Specifically, between 50-55˚F. (You do not just accidentally arrive at this point. There is tons of trial, error, and tasting every step along the way.) This process, which he coined Cold Fermentation resulted in an ideal development of sweetness, acidity, and flavor notes. After fermenting, the coffee is allowed to dry slowly on solar dryers and raised beds for another three weeks.
So, not only do you have a unique variety in Pink Bourbon. You get to taste this unique Cold Fermentation process on top of it. As soon as we cupped this coffee over at our roasting Annex, we knew that we needed to have it. The roast on this coffee is slightly lighter than most. We wanted to develop a bit of sweetness, but really want the coffee to speak for itself. This Pink Bourbon has an extremely floral nose. When you are tasting, you will notice bright notes of lime and delicate citrus along the sides of your tongue. On the finish, you will get a note that is reminiscent of a sweet, floral raspberry.
Mr. Rodrigo Sanchez, the man behind this amazing Pink Bourbon Cold Fermentation Lot. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
We hope that you splurge and try a cup (or a bag) of Pink Bourbon. This is only the first in our LIMITED BATCH series, so if you miss this one, be sure to check back for more offerings in the future.