How did we discover COCASMIL?

It has always been bit of a quest for us to find really tasty organic certified coffees that comply with our strict quality requirements. Finding a coffee with the flavour profile we look for and also certified organic that we can roast for our Organic Natural Spirit Blend has not been easy. Fortunately we were introduced to COCASMIL by Beneficio Santa Rosa in Honduras. We were excited because we weren’t offering any Honduras coffees. For many years, when talking about speciality coffee, Honduras was not an origin that popped to our mind and our concern was that harvesting techniques would not be to the stringent degree we require which would affect the flavour profile.


What impressed us about this coffee?

So when we first cupped COCASMIL, we were very happy. We found the coffee was exceptionally fresh, creamy and sweet with notes of vanilla, peach and fudgy-like finish.This is the first season we have bought from this producer and we are in that process of getting to know them and their coffee.  Pascale Schuit, who manages our farmer relationships, visited them in March to understand how we can developing a long-term Union Direct Trade relationship with them. She is hopeful because she observed how Beneficio Santa Rosa, the dry mill organization through which the coffee is prepared for export, delivers regular training on quality, and also on social aspects such as security and hygiene on the farm. Effective management is the key to success.

About these Producers

COCASMIL is a Co-operative; which means they are a group of 82 organized small-scale farmers, including 6 women, located in a mountain range up to 1700 mASL near San Miguel in the Intibucta department. The cooperative takes its name from this: Cooperativa Cafetera San Miguel Intibuca or “Coffee Cooperative San Miguel Intibuca”.  It started in 1999 and has built cement patios for sun-drying and an office for good administration; and now they work with the local school to provide books and help to support the health centre.

These 82 producers organized themselves to work together as a cooperative entity because they all have small plots of land for their farm. Each individual producer would never have enough coffee to export directly to Union Hand Roasted Coffee. They have different varieties, but mainly Catuai, Caturra and Villa Sarchi. Their coffee is washed and then sundried.


About the farmers

All farmers in the co-operative produce organic coffee. Each farm takes special care to weed by hand or using a machete, no herbicides are allowed and they apply microorganisms; coffee pulp compost and bocashi to enrich the soil. Bocashi (from the Japanese bokashi) is a highly effective natural organic fertiliser grown from microbial cultures from locally available organic material resources.


 Jorge Vásques

Jorge Alberto Vásques


Jorge Alberto Vásques is a member of COCASMI and he is committed to producing coffee through sustainable farming.

The technique of land management by terracing


The picture above shows terracing; a method used to transform steep sloping farms that can be unworkable, into areas with level strips of land that are easier to manage. Constructing these terraces is very labour intensive and very few farmers opt to do so.

Terracing manages soil erosion, avoids landslides and prevents fertiliser and mulch from washing away quickly.  They make working in the coffee more comfortable.


Meet Benjamín Mejía Vásquez

When Pascale was in Honduras earlier in the year, Benjamín Mejía Vásquez explained how he prepared cultures of microorganisms to apply on his farm.

Farmer Benjamín Mejía Vásquez


Benjamín collects layers of sand from high up into the mountains, an area untouched by human activity and where there is a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. The microorganisms present in the sand are brought back to his farm and applied to the soil; this can support re-establishing the equilibrium in the farms soil.

This in turn yields a healthier crop, with fewer problems from pests, and is a convenient and cheap way of managing soil fertility. Bejamín has a very small de-pulper and does not work with a washing channel.

The coffee is both washed and fermented in the same tank. On his cement patio it takes around 3-4 days to dry the coffee.

Benjamín’s de-pulper; simple but perfectly functional


Here at Union we’re very excited to be one of the sponsors of the 2012 UK Barista Championships. Marc Pierre Dietrich from UK Coffee Events spoke to Alan Miller from Union recently about what’s in store this year.


MPD:  UK Coffee Events would like to thank yourself and Union Hand Roasted for getting involved with UK Coffee Events this year.

Additionally we would like to thank you for introducing a brand new prize category for the UK Barista Championships – Best Newcomer (Working Barista) – and for offering a trip to origin for the best newcomer in the UKBC.

What gave you the idea?

AM: Thanks Marc. We are pleased to be associated with UK Coffee Events as Roasted Coffee Supplier, and have been part of the UKBC for several years now, hosting the SouthEast Heat in London last year.

We are hoping to bring a new dynamic to the UKBC with this Origin trip prize. In our day job we support, advise and train many in the coffee industry: baristas, restaurant and bar managers, cafe owners. With the current upward trend in new businesses to the industry, we believe it’s important to support new talent, encourage skills development, as well as bringing our expertise in our ‘Direct Trade’ sourcing model to a wider audience.

Coffee education is pivotal in a barista’s understanding of coffee, from how to recognise quality in coffee to best practice brewing. A true 360 degree knowledge of how to extract the best out of the coffee is really important to arm the barista with knowledge and confidence to showcase the contributions of both producer and roaster.


MPD: This is a very generous offer. With taste being so important, will the baristas be cupping at origin?

AM: Places on trips like this are highly sought after, and are once in a lifetime opportunity for most people. The best newcomer to the UKBC, who is a working barista – who has scored the highest points after the regional heats – could find themselves heading off to a producing country such as Rwanda, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica or El Salvador.

This will not be a 5 star holiday in comfort, but will be 5 star in experience!

During the trip the barista may need to adjust to altitude or put up with extreme weather, and he or she should be prepared to help with a coffee harvest (if one is taking place when they visit), or maybe get their hands dirty sorting or grading coffee. They may participate in a cupping but more importantly he or she will get to meet with farmers who we source from whilst seeing at first hand a working coffee farm and experiencing its environment.

The trip will be led by either Steven Macatonia or Jeremy Torz – both of whom travel regularly to origin to build relationships with existing producers for Union as well as uncovering new coffee gems, as their Direct Trade sourcing model delivers.


MPD: What reaction do you envisage from the barista community?

AM: It is our intention, I hope, that we engage and excite a whole new generation of coffee enthusiasts who are inspired enough to choose coffee as a career as Jeremy and Steven were when they first discovered their love of coffee.


MPD: Why do you work for Union Hand Roasted coffee?

AM: The energy in the coffee industry in the UK currently is exciting. The opportunity to tell our story and meet very talented people, be they baristas, producers (farmers) or suppliers, is a great part of the job that I do. And with such fabulous coffees in our portfolio to enjoy, the challenge in foodservice is maintaining the quality through to serve across a diverse group of customers.

People shouldn’t have to settle for a dud cup of coffee in the UK these days. Being part of the team that aims to bring great tasting coffee to all who want it, direct from origin in an honest and transparent manner is satisfying and fun!


MPD: What trends are you noticing in the UK at the moment?

AM: Tea menus are a common sight. Many cafes are now thinking about offering multiple coffees on their menus. We are excited that operators are beginning to realise that coffee drinkers want choice as well, so there is the start of offering a menu coffees with diverse taste profiles, or perhaps brew methods, will in turn showcase a good barista’s knowledge in understanding the large variety of wonderful coffees now available.


MPD: If you were entering the UKBC what coffee would you use this year and why?

AM: (without hesitation) I would use the Genesis Microlot, West Valley from Costa Rica.

The taste is wonderful, allowing the opportunity to create a superb signature drink marrying up with the flavours of red berries, toasted hazelnut and dried apricot.

This coffee is grown by Oscar Mendez who is almost theological about coffee. His approach is very inspirational, as he grows for quality not quantity and his focus and commitment to great coffee grown in harmony with the land on his farm is just brilliant.


Series about Union Direct Trade

In previous post about Union Direct Trade we’ve talked about how we’re gathering information from smallscale coffee farmers in Huehuetenango in Guatemala. This work has been undertaken by Pascale, a masters graduate in Development Economics from Wageningen University as a research project to define how Union can have a positive impact on the lives of coffee farmers.

Pascale has been in Huehuetenango for five months and now reflects on her experiences as she completes her first period of work there and prepares to move on to Costa Rica.

Emigration was one of the coping mechanisms to deal with the coffee crisis in the late 90s. It has become the major reality of rural economies Central America.

Of the 87 households I’ve interviewed here in Huehuetenango. I discovered that 72% have or had migrant family members. The majority immigrated to the United States
(89%) and 11% to Mexico. In 40% of the cases it was the farmer (head of family) who went to the United States. The reasons for migration are: earn money to pay off debts, buy land to cultivate coffee, buying a car, or construct a house.

Although migration and the money earned from this have positive effects, such as lower poverty rates there are many social costs; broken families, a reduction in labour supply, the risk of death, injury or imprisonment from illegal border crossing, and a reduction in knowledge and skill transfer since producers are not there to teach their children how to cultivate coffee. (Steven has previously talked about the impact on the women who are left behind – Abandoned in Guatemala)

Listening to the women farmers at Todos Santos

Fair and reasonable coffee prices and long-term commitment is therefore very important for coffee producers. As the groups I interviewed indicated, knowing that they have a committed buyer such as Union Hand-Roasted Coffee gives them just and spirit to keep on working to produce high quality coffee. The previous unstable markets impeded producers from investing in their coffee fields because prices hardly covered the cost of production, it also does not make any sense investing in high quality coffee if there was no premium for quality coffee. Quality coffee requires extra labour and money investments. Only ripe cherries must be picked and traditionally pickers get paid by piece (per
quintal (46Kg) of coffee harvested). A disadvantage of paying by quintal is that workers will pick as much as possible, to earn more. To incentivise pickers to only select the ripe coffee cherries, farmers pay day labourers a higher price per day.

Although these producers in Huehuetenango are on the right track, it is important that low interest credits to fund paying for the harvest becomes available to producers.  This will reduce their cost of production increasing the profits.

Guatemala is a beautiful country, colourful, rich in culture and tradition and inhabited by a population which is generous, hospitable and hard-working. Yet, Guatemala faces many difficulties. The country is very unsafe and Huehuetenango bordering Mexico is a collection of drug traffickers. Bad road conditions, landslides and (violent) demonstrations on the roads make it difficult or sometimes impossible to travel from one place to another. Especially during the harvest this is a serious problem for those preparing their coffee for export. Hence, I have the highest respect for those working under these conditions. The farmers of La Libertad and Todos Santos have faced many barriers, but they never gave up. “For every problem there is a solution” is their motto. I believe that the fair and transparent relationship that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has with the organizations that form these co-operatives will contribute to the development of towns in La Libertad, Chanjon and Tuiboch (Todos Santos).

boarding the bus to agronomy classes

boarding the bus to agronomy classes


Transparency and traceability are two important aspect of a company’s business model. Only by being transparent in the whole coffee chain, can both buyer and producer be sure that the benefits really reach the producers.

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !

Almost Integrated into Guatemala Culture !


My next stop is going to be Costa Rica; there I anticipate the situation with farmers will be completely different. Besides the fact that the country is much more stable and is classified as a middle–development country, Costa Rica has embraced a micro-mill revolution which Union has talked about before and I will describe more in my next post.



Series about Direct Trade

My previous blog post introduced Pascale; she is studying the working and living conditions of some of the small holder coffee farmers that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee source from in Central America.  Here is Pascale’s next update of her work in Huehuetenanago.  This is a new relationship for Union;  now in our second year of sourcing from these producers, we want to identify the complexities the farmers face to enable us to determine what actions we can take to support them in the future.  (SM)



 Everybody in the cooperative (and La Libertad) has been extremely helpful and friendly to me. I feel very welcome here. However, it is a distinct area they have their own rules which are important to respect. Therefore I prefer to stay close to the people of the cooperative since they know what to do and what not to do. However, this has several implications for the research:

It may influence amount of structured formal interviews that I can do; maybe not as many as planned. This is because everybody in the cooperative is extremely busy. The last harvest is coming in, contracts need to be made, the last coffee needs to be collected, people need to be paid. After this period there will be more time they assure me (semana santa, the period of rest, is coming).

 I know I must have a control group, although this is difficult for two reasons: First the speed in which I can work the questionnaire is slow. Therefore, I will first try to interview as many cooperative members as possible. Second, I prefer to stay within the area of cooperative members because it is safer and less risk when in remote rural areas.

Putting aside any negativity about these limitations, the cooperative is doing loads and loads of positive stuff. There is so much to write about. Iliana, the Manager of the Cooperative, is amazing; very smart, enthusiastic and full of energy to change and develop things.

I have started to perform formal interviews. I have spoken to several people and gathered a large amount of knowledge. I have collected coffee in Palmira and spoke briefly with the people there, I had a quick visit to ANACAFE (the Guatemala Coffee Board), I have cupped coffee in La Libertad and Huehuetenango, I have visited the export company where the coffee is prepared to be exported. Talked to some people of the cooperative and now know a lot the history of the cooperative. This has meant leaving the house at 7am and coming back at 9pm exhausted in the evening, so there has been until now little time to write down everything. But I am catching up with this now in the coming weeks.

The farmers are introduced to me “as the girl who is going to calculate what is a fair coffee price”. Although for me this is a very interesting and challenging assignment it is an extremely difficult and complicated job. Information on other areas of interest, such as I will therefore collect in a more qualitative way.  I really believe that it will help the cooperative if I can help calculate a fair coffee price for them. It is not easy to do but will be very worthwhile.



 Pascales’ main work is to focus on the social conditions of farmers but the producers want to take full advantage of her background in development economics to create a business model.  I think it helps to be transparent and reveal the complexities that happen in the field. Producing coffee is hard work, not romance. And farmers’ livelihoods depend upon getting a good income.  These cooperatives in Northern Guatemala are in remote areas and life is about survival. Until Union started to work with them they had uncertainty from one season to the next. Through continuing our relationship, our vision is to bring stability and economic prosperity.

Next posts from Pascale will continue to talk about the importance of helping small scale farmers do business.


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