Getting our hands dirty to produce organic compost material for coffee trees, at Finca Santa Ana La Huerta, Guatemala. These California worms are one of the magic ingredients that produce the rich nutrients for the coffee trees.

Coffee Pulp: Organic Composting by Wiggly Worms from Steven Macatonia on Vimeo.

Steven at Finca Santa Ana La Huerta, Guatemala. May 09

Over the eight years we’ve been sourcing Santa Ana coffee we’ve managed to get out to the farm every few years. It’s amazing to be out here again, and see how the farm has evolved and matured. Driving from Guatemala City to Sierra de las Minas, Rony and I were talking about the early days of the farm.

The story of how Rony Asensio started his farm really demonstrates his motivation. He bought the land back in the mid 90’s—married with two young children he believed he was finally in a place to begin to fulfil his dream to start a coffee farm.

Rony’s family comes from “Genuine Antigua coffee rootstock”. His father had a coffee farm near the colonial city of Antigua; but when Rony was a young boy, his father died and his mother was unable to continue to look after the farm so it was sold.

Rony vowed that one day he would follow in has fathers’ footsteps and start his own coffee farm. But when he decided to take the first step, the land prices in Antigua (the most famous coffee growing region in Guatemala) was too expensive and Rony spent two years searching for the perfect location. He needed somewhere that he could afford and would give high altitude, rainfall and that magic soil to support the cultivation of high quality coffee trees.
Nursery trees: ready for planting
Eventually he found land in the Sierra de las Minas mountain range in Morazan. He had to be persuasive to get the owner to sell the land to him; but after long negotiations, the deal was done and Rony began to create his coffee farm. He took advice from the legendary Luis Pedro Zelaya Senior, whose family has farmed coffee in Guatemala for generations, and who happens to be Rony’s father-in-law. It took meticulous planning to decide which varietals to plant at different sections around the farm, owing to the delicate microclimate. We reflected now, 15 years later, how this has ensured the coffee cherries ripen at a gradual rate through the harvest. This was critical in controlling the pace of coffee cherry delivery at the farms beneficio pulpers so that processing is never delayed and quality is not lost.

Rony planted the coffee trees and shade trees, and over the years we’ve seen the farm double in size. But it has been far from easy and has taken great tenacity. During the late 90s; when world coffee prices started to crash, Rony almost lost the farm. His brother-in-law, Luis Pedro Zelaya Jnr, put in an investment which saved him, and It was around this time Jeremy and I first started to source coffee from Santa Ana la Huerta. And now, so many years later, we can see how this long-term relationship has been an important factor: supporting Rony to keep his farm in production, and instead of abandoning it as was happening with so many farms in Central America at that time, actually seeing the quality increase!

Patience: I’m privileged to have seen how the farm has matured and expanded and to have seen the quality improvements that Rony has implemented. On this trip I’m impressed how Rony had upgraded and increased the number of electric pulpers so that now the coffee cherries are pulped without any delay. He’s greatly enlarged the drying patios to increase the amount and control of sun-drying. We think these have been integral in how the quality and complexity in the coffee has developed and is preserved.

The farm’s social compliance has also evolved to a new level that we’re really delighted to be associated with. Rony first talked with me about his plan to build high quality housing and amenities for the farm workers over five years ago, but he had to get the farm into profit first.

New cooking stove and workers refectory. A couple of blistering hot, hand-made corn tortilla for breakfast set me up for the day. The farm provides three full meals a day for the workers, and also has small plots to grow fresh produce.

Then, three years ago, he showed me the blue prints, but it wasn’t until this trip that I saw the construction with my own eyes. It was amazing to think that through our ethical sourcing, focusing on paying a sustainable price for Santa Ana La Huerta, we’ve contributed towards improving the labour conditions on the farm. The payoff is that the good workers and expert pickers have come back to the farm though the season because they can appreciate what the farm provides them. The time spent training workers means that the knowledge is retained on the farm and has created a really good feeling among the workers.

After the harvest has been picked is an interesting time to visit the farm. The trees are in a state of exhaustion and need time to recover from yielding their crop. Hard systematic pruning—part of a 3 year cycle—is nearly completed for this year, and in some areas of the farm signs of new growth are starting to emerge. But Rony talks about how the timing of each task is critical. The weather has such a huge influence, and each task has to be undertaken with a patience and discipline, waiting for the rhythm of the season. Delay, and you lose the moment and the effect ripples through the season and can take year to get back into the cadence again. There’s still a significant workforce on the farm, mostly now involved in planting new young trees with Catuai and Bourbon varietals. Some workers only speak Q’eqchi’, a native language, and no Spanish! Fortunately for us, the farm managers speak Spanish & Q’eqchi’ which allows us to talk to each other. They tell me the auxiliary verbs are the same as English but I had to check wikepedia to learn what they are.

The first phase of the completed workers’ dormitories. Once dusk starts it gets pitch black really fast and the only thing to do is sleep. Rony’s next project is to bring electricity to these building and with a really generous amount raised from the 1960’s themed party night organized by the Tolly family at Taylor Street Baristas and a donation from Union, we were able to give Rony USD$ 5000 to get this work underway. The farm workers said the installation of electricity will let them sit and talk with their families and friends in the evenings.

I trundle with Rony & Edin on our quad bikes to the western side of the farm where Rony wants to show me his newest stewardship project now reaching its second year. The local Environmental agency permitted Rony to grow coffee in exchange for undertaking a re-forestation project. He planted 6000 cedar trees which I tell Rony are looking rather spindly. So he then wants to show me his first re-forestation project—this one 12 years old. It takes us about one hour to reach, and it’s a great blast practising my wheelie skills on the quad bike. Lightening is flashing in the far distance but we’re relaxed as it seems to be moving further away. We get to the massive cedar trees, creating impressive dense, thick woodland. The birds are piercingly shrill, and then the next moment lightening is on top of us. Rony calls to run back to the quad bikes and we go at full throttle. The rain starts violently, and I pull out my GAP pak-a-mac, amazed that in the 8 years of coffee travels that its been sitting in my holdall, this is the first time ever I’ve remembered to take it and hook it to my belt. Edin and Rony pull on plastic ponchos and we hurtle down the tracks with ponchos billowing out behind. The rain is getting torrential! It takes me back 6 years to the time I got caught in a hammering downpour crossing the centre of Lake Kivu, with Tim Schilling (PEARL) and Paul De Lucca (ACDI/ VOCA), in a tiny open motor launch. That day had started in brilliant sunshine and we’d gone to visit Copac co-operative on the north of the lake. On our return trip, the heavens opened and we had no waterproofs. In Rwanda I had learned my lesson the hard way.

Fortunately here in Guatemala the rain didn’t last and we got back to the farm mostly intact, apart from drenched 501’s.

In the near future, Rony’s son will be ready to take up the mantel and get involved in the stewardship of Santa Ana La Huerta. If there’s one thing Rony’s story teaches us, it’s that it takes a generation to create a coffee farm.

More images can be seen at the Santa Ana flickr set.

Nicaragua, Esteli, May 22nd, 2009

nicaragua-esteli-20-5-2009This being the 10th year of Cup of Excellence, throughout the week at the Nicaragua competition, much reference was made to how the programme took the first tentative steps to launch off the ground over a decade ago. The first format of the Cup of Excellence started back in 1999, in Brazil. Initially it was an approach to let the coffee world know that Brazil had the capacity to produce coffees that were just as valuable as some of the more well known speciality origins that commanded a price premium. The auction, for this first competition was a wild success and evolved into a second programme in 2000 with a larger International Jury participating.

exacting-precison-roasting-for-each-cupping-lot-jose-erasmo-villaho-arauzThe following year, as the programme was still fragile, the first competition to be held in Guatemala, even farmers didn’t believe they would even receive a premium so they had pre-sold their coffee, just in case!

So from these delicate beginnings the programme has now expanded to El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia, Nicaragua and of course Rwanda and has gone on to create the most stringent selection process known in the coffee industry. Described as the “Oscars for Coffee” the Cup of Excellence programme has become respected around the world.

nicaragua-checking-consistency-degree-of-roast-for-each-cupping-lotIn 2002, Nicaragua was the 3rd producer country to commit to Cup of Excellence, and now, ten years on I was privileged to reprise my role in Nicaragua 02, and participate again as a member of the International Jury in the Nicaragua 2009 competition, billed as the “50th Competition Event”. From the ground that has been covered it’s possible to see what a significant impact the event has had on the way specialty coffee is now perceived by producers.

The premise behind Cup of Excellence is to create a pinnacle of high quality coffee that rewards farmers directly. This creates a momentum and over successive years, with farmers putting more care and attention to the production of their coffee, submitting lots to competition, with the hope of winning, there would be an overall increase in the quality of coffee produced by an origin country. Indeed, this premise is most notable in Guatemala and Brazil where coffee is consistently recognized to be of increasingly higher quality as the same farms consistently get their coffees into the finals.

nicaragua-carefully-adding-water-to-the-cupsHead Judge, Silvio Leite presided over the event and turned in a flawless performance. We cupped 61 different lots that were selected by the national jury. From these, the final 26 made it into the winners enclose, and on the last day, we ranked the top 10. Five coffees scored greater than 95/100.

At the evening awards ceremony, all of the 61 farmers, whose coffee was selected by the National jury for entry into the Cup of Excellence were given high praise indeed.

The winning lot was produced by Maria Amparo Castellano Paguaga, of Finca La Esperanza She deserved the recognition for producing an exemplary coffee. Second place was Jose Efraim Espinales, Finca El Recuerdo and both top places are from de Dipilto in Northern Nicaragua near the Honduras border. The on-line auction is 2nd July.waiting-to-break

First stepsWe held another Espresso Emergency Room a couple of weekends ago – a hands-on clinic for home espresso users joined us the Union Roastery cupping room along with their own trusty espresso machines lugged from their own kitchens.

We tinkered with a selection of Gaggia domestic machines, two Rancillios, La Pavoni lever, Krups and even a trusty stovetop appeared.

The Kitchen Aid – reasonable to good shots but the tiny little steam nozzle (!!!) takes a heck of a long time to produce enough foam for one cappuccino. But with some patience a tight, textured, glossy meringue foam can be produced.

The Rancillios on first look have good build quality, robust brass group head really solid. With two machines on the table – one was producing water in low 90’s C and the other was 96-97 C– even trying to “manage” this by flushing the group heads was still problematic. Running water off the group for 10-15 secs brought the temp down but merely served to demonstrate the capacity of the boilers was insufficient as the performance was unstable. Small boilers, common on domestic machines lack capacity to stablise at a lower temp before the temp plummets down in a straight line.

The shots showed burnt crema and taste- playing with the grind and dose weights achieved good body – but lacked sweetness. Checking with the thermocouple probe – recorded 96C.

The best on the day was the little Gaggia – solid, robust, but the gaggia burr grinder couldn’t quite achieve the fineness to get the balance. But coupled with our Mazzer Mini, Revelation yielded – sweet red blackcurrant upfront, almond marzipan with dark choc lingering final notes.

The planned 3 hour session extended to 5 hours – so I think everyone had a good time. The event highlighted the difference between domestic & commercial machines although some machines appear to have a full size group head with solid construction, the domestic machines don’t get close to the turbo drive that we expect.

Kitchen Aid, La Pavoni & Rancillio on the bench with Mazzer grindersThe La Pavoni – unfortunately just served to reinforce the view – asthetically pleasing, but injecting water into a group head from a boiler can only ever burn the coffee! Bare in mind we’re talking about premium delicate arabica -as apposed to commercial robusta based blends that can tolerate a wide temp because, in our opinion, they lack finesse.

It was a real eye opener when giving everyone a chance to play on the Linea and GB5 – most impressive aspect was the shear raw power apparent in the steam wands like stepping from a a Skoda to getting behind a 911. Not a criticism of the owners machines, just a comparison of the amazing power generated from the professional machines.

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