Day One began with an early start at IH Cafe, a government enterprise whose roles include; the promotion of specialty coffee in Honduras, educating producers and marketing Honduran Specialty coffee internationally.
Our host and guide for the week, Rony, met Raul and I bright and early at the IH cafe laboratory in San Pedro Sula, and we immediately cupped our first table of coffee. We quickly calibrated to cupping very fresh coffee on the first of three tables, the coffee varied in age from four days to two weeks from the drying patio. The difference in cup profile from what you encounter once it landed in our warehouses is huge. The tables included coffee from a number of farms from which we have bought in previous years and it is encouraging to see the continuation of quality from those producers.
We spent our afternoon driving to the remote IH Cafe training laboratory in the mountains of Santa Barbara Montecillo, it contains a teaching laboratory, a small farm, a processing plant and a cupping lab. Farmers are able to stay at the coffee school while they are taking courses. They can learn about farming, picking and processing techniques before learning to roast and cup for quality and profile differences in the coffee tasting the improvements these aspects of farm management produce.
Carlos, a lecturer at the school couldn’t wait for us to taste the two tables of coffee he has prepared for us… many of the farms we will cup are owned by his past students and he is very proud of their hard work and the results that it has yielded. As we finished the second table we are joined by Tatiana Lara Pineda, owner of Finca Montana a farm from which we bought last year and which I was very happy to select blind as a lot which we will buy this year. We learned about the issues affecting Tatiana’s farm this year, particularly rust. Unfortunately this is not the last time we will come across the rust issue on our trip. We then roasted up some more samples to cup at our destination the next morning. As the sun dropped out of the sky we went to bed for the night at a cattle and horse ranch on the edge of Lake Johowa, tomorrow has another early start in store!
As the sun rose on Day Two of our journey we were already well on our way to Marcala and the farm’s of Carlos Mejia and the Castillo family. We arrived just in time for breakfast with the family and were treated to a traditional Honduran meal of Fried Plantain, eggs, refried beans, cheese, ripe avocado and unleavened bread. Having brought a range of coffee along with me I prepared a Kenyan coffee roasted by one of our customers to share with the family, using my trusty Aeropress and Porlex grinder. Carlos really enjoyed the opportunity to taste coffee from another coffee producing continent dried using raised beds – a process he invested in a number of years ago this was his first opportunity to taste coffee from the origin in which they became so renowned. Everyone quickly agreed that although this Kenyan coffee was sweet and delicious it wasn’t a patch on Honduran coffee.
As we discuss this year’s yields it was disappointing to hear that even with prudent care and attention including pruning and spraying the rust epidemic currently afflicting Central America has driven total production down across the farm to 40% of last years production. The damage has been devastating and will last for years.
With the major drop in yield has come a drop in quality as some farmers and mills reduce their screening measures to maximise possible output, we were in Honduras on the ground to find and maintain relationships with those producers who maintain their quality throughout these issues and pay them the prices they deserve for their superior quality product. I was happy to learn that they had recently invested in a new covered solar drier which has doubled the family’s capacity to dry coffee inside and on raised beds. This has meant that all specialty coffee grown by the families can now by dried this way. We spent the afternoon walking through the farms and we were given the same lesson each picker receives on arrival at the beginning of the season in how to select only the fully ripe cherries and leave those with even the lightest striations of yellow for the next pass. The evening was spent in the town of Marcala from where we venture out into the surrounding rainforest to dine under the huge trees and blanket of stars.
We broke the first of many tables on Day Three early and with a host of producers waiting just outside the cupping lab, we made our first pass of the table and then invited them in to join us, blindly evaluating the sets of coffee with no idea which bowls represent their lots. We were happy to cup a delightful table and be able to offer positive feedback. We had an opportunity to drive out of the town to briefly visit the farm of one of the producers from which we buy Finca Las Flores and take a walk down its steep mountainous slop before rushing back to Marcala for the next cupping of the day at a local Organic Dry Mill. There was only one table of coffee available to cup from the mill but with lot sizes that ranged from a couple of bags to nearly 300 bags. Having cupped the table through a number of times in a sweltering windowless room we settled on a couple of lots we were very happy with and to our surprise it turned out that the owner of each farm was in fact working at the dry mill. Having met them, discussed the coffee and secured it’s purchase for this year we headed home to rest before tomorrow’s mammoth day travelling East towards our next destination.
We stopped briefly on the road to Santa Rosa de Copan to visit a beautiful farm planted really well and meticulously pruned at 1700m above the town of Panila. The farm looked fantastically well groomed with every fifth line of trees pruned back and a huge diversity in local shade trees. As we walk through the farm the manager explains the split of the farm between Catuai and Villa Sarchi varieties before guiding us back to the wet mill, drying patios and storage silo. We all look forward to finding this coffee on the blind table during tomorrow’s cupping in Santa Rosa. We continue on our journey in the pitch black along the bumpy roads swerving regularly to miss the giant potholes, passing through town after town. We arrived into the old Colonial city of Santa Rosa late, but the old cobbled streets are still bustling with people, the architecture reminded me of that of Antigua, Guatemala but with modern buildings beginning to creep between the classic Spanish style.
Day Four gave us a little time to catch up with ourselves, we spent the day cupping at a number of labs local to Santa Barbara including a new Organic Mill in the city as well as extra samples which we had collected along our route. We visited some very large dry mills with the capacity to process parchment coffee on a massive scale but with the new demand for coffee produced and processed in micro lots they have now added smaller processing lines to be used exclusively with small lot specialty coffee to ensure their security. We quickly cupped through three more tables of coffee, experiencing the differences in cup profile that the region of Copan has to offer before retiring back to our accommodation for the night to work through the pages of cupping notes accrued over the previous days of tasting. Unfortunately it turned out that the sample provided by the farm we had visited the previous day had a high occurrence of phenol and although it cupped fantastically aside from this we could not buy it, it is always disappointing to see all that hard work dashed by a simple processing error.
Day Five was spent returning to San Pedro Sula, it was a long drive and one of the hottest day that we had experienced during our visit. Having returned to the IH Cafe lab Raul headed to the airport and I talked through my week and about the coffee that we would be purchasing with Rony. It turned out that there was another table of samples that were available so we roasted them up for an early morning cupping before I flew out the next day.
Saturday morning’s cupping was quiet, there was a skeleton staff at the IH Cafe lab receiving samples and roasting them for constant evaluation, the guys there get very little time off from the beginning of the harvest period through to the end of the shipping window and I was very thankful that they spared so much time to help us find the wonderful coffee we had tasted on this trip. The cupping was over before I knew it and following rushed farewell’s I was on route to the airport.
I cannot wait to see the coffees again, this time in the UK!!