January 28, 2015

A letter from central america #1

Tres Rios Coffee Estate, San Jose, Panama

In January our co-founder and coffee buyer Steve Simmons travelled through Central America to forge new and closer relationships with the region's coffee farmers. Over the next few weeks Steve will be posting a few of his experiences and reflections from his first trip to the region.

"Central America is renowned as a region for growing some of the finest coffees in the world. I recently travelled through Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador - four of the regions most productive coffee growing nations – meeting farmers and building closer relationships with some of the region’s best growers. Perhaps what struck me most vividly, was the stark contrast experienced from farm to farm, let alone country to country. Two themes became apparent during the course of the trip: diversity and a passion for quality.

Coffee growing in Central America

We had the pleasure of visiting Finca Coffea Diversa in the Biolley Valley, Costa Rica, home to the largest private collection of varietals of coffee in the world. The diversity of varietals growing from farm to farm is striking. Following the same path as the wine industry, the farmers we met are working hard to improve traceability and are setting aside small plots of land on their farm to experiment with new varietals - not simply because they are resistant to disease or will yield more coffee, but because the flavour profile is distinct, interesting and wonderful.

Couple this experimentation with the natural variations of micro-climate and the control of processing methods and it all adds up to a very diverse result flavour-wise. On many farms even a few hundred metres can create vast differences in difference in rainfall, ripening times and soil composition - leading to vastly different flavours in the cup.  A case in point was the cupping session at Hartmann Estate in Volcan, Panama.  Ratibo, owner of Hartmann Estate, and Carlos, owner of Carmen Estate in Boquete, collaborate on quality assurance initiatives to improve their coffee. With both their coffees on the table we were treated to a perfect comparison of the possibilities for different farms on either side of the Baru Volcano. 

Coffee growing in Central America

In the same way as we get excited showing others what we do at Industry Beans, the enthusiasm from farmers throughout our trip was palpable. The sheer amount of time each farmer dedicated to showing us their estates and "beneficios" (processing plants) reflected the pride they take in producing the best coffee possible. For many farmers tasting the cherry from the tree has traditionally been the best way to confirm the timing of harvest and the quality of each vintage. While the introduction of cost effective technology, such as Brix meters and small roasters has helped develop quality, the art of farming is still often handed down through generations. And this skill is highlighted no better than when we observed healthy trees, bearing astonishing volumes of fruit - at even the most humble of estates."

- Steve Simmons

Stay tuned for more from Steve about his trip throughout the region - including on his discussions with Central American farmers about their ongoing battle with the leaf rust "Roya", a disease that has ravaged much of the region's crops over recent years.