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Honduran Is Here!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Anna Canning, Special Correspondent

Our latest offering comes from a new origin for us: Honduras! COPROCAEL is nestled in the mountains of the Ocotepeque department, wedged between the borders of El Salvador and Guatemala. We've been in preliminary conversations about sourcing a Honduran coffee for over a year and are delighted with what's in the cup, kicking off what we hope will be a fruitful trading relationship.

Back in January, as the harvest was in full swing, Keith Tomlinson, Ringmaster of Coffee, joined with some of our associates from Co-op Coffees to meet with potential farmer groups and negotiate the details of a business partnership. In addition to the face-to-face meetings, cuppings, and hikes from farm to farm that are an integral part of every trip to origin, Keith's trip had a broader mission. Since 2009, Co-op Coffees has been involved in a project that spans the breadth of our work at origin and leverages the collective experience of our own staff, as well as staff and other members of Co-op Coffees, thanks to generous funding from USAID's Farmer-to-Farmer program. The Farmer-to-Farmer program grew out of a Farm Bill that passed Congress in the mid-1980s and focuses, in their words, on "voluntary technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, and agribusinesses in developing and transitional countries to promote sustainable improvements in food security and agricultural processing, production, and marketing." 

In the first phase of the project, Co-op Coffees delegations completed 15 projects in various producer countries, working to broadly address "the challenges and opportunities of working within the Fair Trade, organic, and specialty coffee markets." We've participated in a variety of these projects, leading roasting workshops for coffee farmers, consulting on various economic development projects including eco-tourism and general business development work, as well as cupping and quality improvement workshops, stories which have appeared in more depth in previous newsletters. Against this broader background of technical development, Keith's trip to Honduras focused on sharing information from previous experiences, not simply auditioning farmer groups to choose one. 

In the course of the visit, we met with three farmer co-ops and one group involved in an exciting project that has potential to advance the understanding of quality coffee throughout the region. While Honduras isn't synonymous with delicious coffee the way that Guatemala or Ethiopia (or Colombia, to cite the most famous example) is, the beans that we tasted suggested that it deserves a place in the ranks. 

Some of the common themes that we heard throughout the visit were how the high prices on the commodity market were impacting coffee farmers -- as we've heard around the globe, high market prices may be a windfall to an individual farmer if it's a good year, a moderate to break-even year if yields are sub-par as they have been in many regions this year, and a challenge to the structure of the co-ops as the amount of incoming coffee becomes unpredictable and the demand for credit soars. 

While the high prices of the moment generally encourage farmers to sell their beans for quick cash to local traders (traders who lack the credentials and paper trail to carry the coffee to the organic market), an encouraging theme was that farmers are continuing to invest the enormous amounts of labor required to convert their coffee plots to organic production. It's an aside worth noting, having recently completed the first stage of assessing our own environmental profile, that organic coffee has a significantly lower carbon footprint than its conventionally farmed counterparts, something that we're collectively just beginning to assess, in addition to the benefits that we've long known organic coffee has for the environment and the local habitat -- a reminder of just how important that additional stewardship is for all of us. 

It was this commitment to environmental stewardship and organic practices that made our new producer partners at COPROCAEL stand out in particular. While organic production currently makes up about 40% of their export volume, the co-op has instituted a variety of programs to continue to increase that number. Weening their crops off of the powerful boost of chemical fertilizers is one of the chief challenges that face coffee farmers trying to transition to organic production as it means that a drop in crop yields often accompanies the increase in labor. Understanding that challenge, the co-op has instituted a vast vermiculture project, taking the pulped coffee cherries and heaping them in huge worm composting bins. It's working! The co-op's able to produce enough compost to feed each tree a healthy dose throughout the season and the yields that members are getting are outstanding. They're rightfully proud of their demonstration farm project: Through the use of their own organic inputs, they've transformed an arid, useless plot of land into a vibrant, highly productive coffee field that's an inspiration to their members. 

COPROCAEL takes a far-reaching approach to producing quality coffee. Not only are they investing in infrastructure to efficiently sort and process the delicious coffee to their customers' specifications, they are looking beyond the technical minutiae towards a the goal of creating a culture of exceptional quality throughout the region. In collaboration with several other coffee farming co-ops and NGOs, they're working to open two coffee shops in the town of Santa Rosa de Copanwith the goal of highlighting the distinctive flavor profiles of the regions of Honduras represented by the farmer organizations. With a solid team of coffee and business expertise standing behind the venture, we have high hopes for our next trip to Honduras: lounging in the central square of Santa Rosa de Copan and sipping an exquisite cup of coffee sounds like the perfect break from the 12 hour days of back-to-back meetings, cuppings, and bumpy pickup rides that are standard features of our trips.

Fortunately we don't have to wait until our next trip for another cup of Honduran coffee. The burlap sacks of beans have landed in the warehouse and Derek's honed a roast profile to highlight all their deliciousness. The consensus? Bright notes of grapefruit (the sort that's been drizzled with honey, no mouth-puckering bitterness here!) supported by a warm, toasted almond finish. Over at our Wonderland Park location, they're still debating their favorite way to brew it (a press pot to mute the brightness and bring out the nutty, sweet finish? A pourover that presents the bright citrus notes in all their sparkling glory?), but they agree on one point: it is, in the words of Evan, "endlessly drinkable." Try it for yourself to see what you prefer...and if you're ever in the scenic historic center of Santa Rosa de Copan, poke around to see if you can find another cup of exceptional Honduran coffee. 

Anna Canning wrote this and a few other tidbits while sipping a sampling of Honduran coffees in Portland, OR, where she’s biding time ‘til that cafe opens in a colonial capital in Central America.

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