Nine Days, Three Countries, Eight Flights and 151 Coffee Samples Cupped…Central America 2014
- Chuck Patton

I don’t think anyone in coffee can discuss or write about Central America this year without mentioned the tragic impact Roya has had on the region; most counties’ volume is down at least 30% from last year and with the exception of Nicaragua, no country has been as severally impacted by Roya than El Salvador. Perhaps as much as 70% of this year’s harvest has been destroyed by the disease – a staggering amount. The impact on the coffee supply chain is clear (one reason for sky-rocketing coffee prices), but the profound economical impact cannot be over-estimated. Literally thousands of jobs have been eliminated — in counties where un-employment is already high — because there is simply so little coffee to harvest, mill, and export.

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While we all saw this coming a year ago, it still leaves one to wonder how the devastation can be this bad given farms have had time to work on the problem. Many in Central America and South America (particularly Peru) blame the lack of government help. Too often farms just cannot afford Roya treatment so government assistance in the form of low-interest loans, and tech support can help farmers to weather the Roya storm. In Costa Rica, for example, the government was aggressive early on with technical assistance, free copper (an effective treatment), and low interest loans for replacement plants. As a result, the Costa Rica crop is shaping up to be a fine one in 2014. However, many other governments were slow to help farmers and now are playing catch up.

There is too the argument that many farmers could have done a lot more to help themselves. Unfortunately, many farmers did not fully grasp the potential impact of Roya and did not engage effectively and early enough so are now left with a completely destroyed farm that will take them years to re-build – unless they simply abandon it which is likely in many instances.

This year’s Central American Sourcing Trip would be my first opportunity to see first-hand how severe the damage is on the farm-level and how Roya would impact coffee quality in the cup. Once I arrived in Guatemala, our friend Gabriela Cordon, picked me up at the airport after my red-eye and we were off to meet with new farmers. Gabriela used to work for Guatemala’s Anacafe, the association that promotes the Guatemalan coffee industry. Now, Gabriela works as a consultant and helps with farms on technique support and connects farmers with buyers like us.

Our first stop was just outside Guatemala City to Fraijanes, the first coffee-growing region in Guatemala. Many of the farms that were closest to Guatemala City are long gone, having given way to development, but one that still exists is Finca Ravamales which was founded in the 1850s. While they have sold coffee to Illy for years, the family-run farm is moving towards the specialty market and is working to produce some interesting varietals.

We cupped some very nice early lots from them, dominated by milk chocolate in the cup. From there, we were off to a cupping at Finca La Bolsa’s office in Guatemala City. La Bolsa is a large farm in Huehuetenango that has enjoyed great success in Guatemala’s Cup of Excellence over the years and how have built up a reputation for quality coffee and one of the better farms in Guatemala. The standout on the table was a Pacamara/Maragogype blend that was sublime. Hopefully, we will be able to offer this lot in the spring.

Day two, we enjoyed a cupping with our long-time partners at Servex where we secured another great Pacamara lot from our Direct Trade partner, Finca Guatelon; 2014 will be the second year we have worked with this Santa Rosa farm. We followed up this cupping with a visit to our friends at El Injerto where we cupped some lots destined for their up-coming auction, and then a cupping with a new company for us, TG Labs, who had some very interesting micro-lots we will be bringing in.

The Guatemala coffee industry is being hit hard by Roya. The crop this year is down between 35-45% — depending on who you talk to. And I would say the overall quality may not be as good this year — a combination of Roya and less-than-optimal growing conditions, but we managed to find some outstanding lots that, at this writing, we are working on exporting the coffee so we hope to have it here in Bird Rock by the middle of April.

Next Stop, El Salvador and a cupping at JASAL in Santa Ana. JASAL is the mother company and Mill name for the Salaverria family that owns about 10 specialty coffee farms in the region. We have bought a fair amount of coffee from the family over the last couple years, but this year their harvest is down about 55% so, simply, there will not be much coffee available.

We are excited to be bringing in the Pacamara Los Luchadores again this year and one very special, very tiny, lot of Black Honeyed coffee – it was one of the deeper, sweeter, and more complex cups I sampled on this trip.

While in El Salvador, we also did an extensive cupping with our friend Graciano Cruz at HiU. We secured some really nice lots we are excited about including one honeyed Caturra lot form his farm in Panama. Pretty great stuff!

Onward to Panama. I had never been to Panama but, of course, we have purchased some great Panamanian coffee over the years, namely via the La Esmeralda Geisha auction. In a rare move, my wife Elke met me in Panama City and we had a few hours to kill before our flight to Boquete so we played tourist for the day and checked out the ruins of the original Panama City and had lunch at the Panama Canal.

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I never really thought about the Canal before but, man, what an amazing few hours we spent there. It is mind-blowing in its scale and its engineering; certainly not to be missed by anyone who has an opportunity to visit Panama.

After a quick flight and a restful night in beautiful Boquette, Rachel from La Esmeralda picked us up and took us to meet Wilford at Elida Estate where I cupped some wonderful natural lots. It is always an honor to cup with someone not just passionate about coffee, but truly talented with their crop as well. Elida Estate has been in the Lamastus family since 1918 and their land straddles a beautiful national rainforest reserve, elevation, soil and climate all optimal for coffee-growing.

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Wilford mainly grows Cataui and Geisha and most of his coffee these days is dry-processed, not washed. Wilford first started experimenting with dry-processing his coffee a few years ago and the results have been so good, that each year he dedicates more of his coffee to this processing method. We secured one 10-bag lot from Elida Estate that is marvelous.

The reputation of the La Esmeralda Estate was cemented a few years ago when they began selling their best geisha lots via an on-line auction where prices for the best lots far exceeded anything that was paid for coffee before. It is still not uncommon for their best coffee to sell via the auction for around $100/lb.
The Peterson family is all still actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the La Esmeralda. They are still growing expanding the farm and still experimenting with new varietals and processing methods. Their care and passion for the coffee shows up in the cup and we were excited to try some early lots that may show up in their auction in addition to a few lots we may have access to outside of the auction.

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This is a challenging season for Central America. But, the region has faced hard times in the past and will re-cover from this off-season. In fact, we did note a lot of healthy flowering on many of the coffee shrubs we inspected in El Salvador. An average rainfall during the rainy season that starts in April would do a great deal towards helping the region re-bound sooner than later. Our fingers are crossed and we are hopeful that farmers and governments can work together to establish a long-term healthy recovery.