Cristal farm is located in the El Sauce community in the municipality of Santa Bárbara.

Cristal farm owner Jose Villanueva

Jose Esteban Madrid Villanueva started growing coffee with his father in 1985 when he was a child and now about 10% of his farm (about 2.5 hectares) is dedicated to coffee. Jose clearly understands the relationship between selection of ripe, healthy coffee cherries, a good technical approach to post harvest processing and excellent cup quality because his coffee is a regular finalist in Cup of Excellence competitions. He represents the new generation of farmers from this region.

The Cup of Excellence is a competition established to discover and promote the very best coffees from the producer countries in which it operates.
We were pleased to have two representatives invited to take judge as part of the international panel. Read more about their experience here.

How to serve

Our recommendation is that you experience this amazing coffee as a filter, ideally brewed in a Hario V60 and served without milk to get the best from these beans.

Discover the beans

Cristal Cup of Excellence microlot 13

Roasted apple, honey and  cinnamon milk chocolate flavour with  gooseberry and sweet tropical fruits on the finish. Clean and balanced with a lovely soft silky mouthfeel.

Category: Microlot

Varietal: Pacas

Process: Washed, sun-dried on patios.

Defining Excellence

The Alliance for Coffee Excellence established the Cup of Excellence to promote coffee quality in the countries where it works. The prestigious award generally represents the best coffee at that particular time from a given country.

Prices at these auctions can reach around $45/lb of coffee, with the highest bidders often being from coffee roasters in Japan, China and other countries in that region.

In this short post I thought I’d rest on the psychiatrist couch & talk about emotions I experience on every trip and why I try to control the overwhelming desire to do a runner. In a second post I’ll discuss specifically what I’ve discovered from this trip to visit producers in Peru and why I do care passionately about the job.

There is a wonderful romance that is attributed to coffee, from the delight of the exotic countries and distant lands, through to the creativity of coffee roasting. But for me the reality can be harsh.  In my pursuit of coffee and developing our Union Direct Trade relationship it means that both Jeremy and I do a lot of long haul travel (mostly separately). This is a fantastic perk of the job, in fact getting deep in the rural areas of Central & South America, East Africa & Indonesia – it has to be the best job in the world. Yet before every trip I experience an anxiety attack.  It’s hard to put my finger on what sets me off, it’s not just fear of flying (I write this whilst sitting in Lima airport waiting for my long journey home) but that is one element.

This trip was particularly demanding, involving getting out to evaluate potential new producers down in the south of the country as well as re-visiting to catch up on existing relationships in the North. What was so gruelling this time? Maybe I’m just getting old, but crashing about in the back of a truck or bus perched on a narrow ledge climbing to 13,000ft + and looking out of the side window seeing the sheer drop really freaked me out this time. When the journey goes on for 8 hours, its cold, foggy, torrential rain causing rocks to fall off the mountain onto the road makes it  punishing, particularly  having to change a flat tyre and then still avoiding the boulders in the road. It doesn’t help that every vehicle coming in the opposite direction means we have to back up, to find a ledge wide enough to pass each other.


I’m not a fan of American 5 star hotels, but accommodation can be primitive in some rural places. Jeremy & I refer to the quality of sleeping facilities as the “Yirgacheffe Scale” – this was one of our early trips more than 10 years ago that we did together. The hostel was so scuzzy that I laid out my towel on top of the filthy mattress and slept fully clothed, with boots on, and hat pulled over my face to try keep the mosquitoes off. At least there was cold water and we had a torch for light.

By now I should be prepared for anything but stupidly this trip I forgot the torch, and I wasn’t so lucky to get water either.  Yes, the farm visits and huge mountain vistas are joy to experience. But by the time I returned back to Lima for the second leg of my trip I lost my bottle and couldn’t face a reprise of the experience again, I was close to bolting. I did a quick scrutiny and I could get a flight to Paris and be home the following day. I was desperate. What a wimp, but I could feel the tears but what do you do? I clamp my jaw and grind my teeth and stick to the plan.

I guess the point is, this trip wasn’t that different to any other. There’s always some problem or tricky issue and you have to just get over yourself.  Now I’m back at Lima airport again waiting to go home, and of course I loved the complete trip, as I always do. Our relationship with coffee producers is a privilege for me; from the warmth of their hospitality, their deep desire to please and demonstrate to me the extra work that is required for the quality of coffee we demand; it re-programmes me again why we do this.

This weekend I returned back from 3 weeks in Africa, which included visiting coffee producers in Rwanda. Over the years, Steven and I have come to understand how essential these face-to-face meetings are. They give us an accurate picture of the complexities small-scale farmers are faced with, and ensure we continue to select and secure the best quality coffee for Union.

Two issues that are always important are; the local impact on small scale farmers of the volatile coffee market and secondly, how we select the specific lots of coffee that we want to buy from the new season harvest.

Coffee Markets and Small Scale Farmers

Over the last nine years we’ve been worked initially with one Co-operative, Abahuzamugami  ba Kawa, (Maraba), who  we proudly launched onto the speciality coffee market  in 2003. In more recent years our relationships expanded to a second group, COCAGI (Gashonga) and this year, now we are also excited to introduce Karaba Co-operative.

Offices at Abahuzamugabi ba Kawa Maraba

The nature of our relationship with these coffee producers involved many aspects aside from just being a commercial partner (buyer). Our participation has helped transform aspirations into a sustainable reality and we have increasingly and fascinatingly immersed ourselves in issues of community development, health and welfare, capacity building (business and management skills) and Co-operative development, as well as helping to train the first professional speciality coffee cuppers, all in the pursuit of bringing our Rwandan coffee up to the very best international standards of production and cup quality.

This year, due to the volatile coffee market and a number of weather and seasonal problems that coffee farmers faced, I decided to spend a period out here in Kigali at Rwashoscco, the Co-operative owned export organisation. I went to “cup the harvest” to select exactly which parcels and lots we’d be buying, and also to have our regular review meeting with the General Managers of Abahuzamugambi and COCAGI Cooperatives to find out how they have fared in this difficult season. Steven met with the Co-operatives before the season, in February-11, to plan the strategy, and now we meet to review how the season played out, and to plan for the next year.

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Many people will no doubt wonder why this year (climate aside) could be seen as challenging, surely the high market prices must be a goldmine for the farmers, and the coffee must be great, right?  Well, from what I’ve seen and experienced here and our work in Guatemala plus my recent visit to Costa Rica in May, high markets can bring as many problems as benefits to many coffee communities around the globe.

Many of the communities that we source from are not single farm businesses but Co-operatives: They function by buying coffee cherries from their members who are small-scale farmer families (Maraba have around 1300 families) as the ripe coffee cherries are picked, usually over a harvest period of around twelve weeks.  At the beginning of the harvest, the Co-operative must have enough funds to pay all the farmers for their picking.  At the end of the season, when the coffee is finally sold, the Co-operative receives their money from the buyers and a second ‘top up’ payment is made to the farmers; the community decide how to portion out any remaining profits.  They may vote to retain some capital for next year, possibly to invest in washing station equipment or for community projects such as a school or hardship fund for older members.

The key difference about how co-operatives operate and compete for the benefit of their community members against potentially better funded private businesses is in this first and second payment system. Private companies buy cherries by making a one-off payment to farmers, but in co-operatives where farmers initially accept a lower price, the co-operative can reduce the level of loans required from local banks to fund the coffee cherry harvest, and therefore reduce their interest costs which can be a significant part of annual expenditure.  The ‘difference’ is made up to the farmers at the end of the season. In well managed co-operatives, with good buyer relations such as we enjoy, they can provide the farmer with a higher income as the profits are shared in the community as opposed to being retained for the owners of private companies.

The challenge I mention is that this year, the market price of coffee has nearly doubled in the period since last harvest and the amount of cash the cooperatives need to fund cherry purchase has therefore similarly increased.  Such rapid increases in cost really puts these communities under stress as the amount of retained profit may not be enough to cover the increase and thus higher loans and interest payments are experienced.  Additionally, although cooperatives operate for the benefit of their members, they still experience competition locally as other coffee cherry buyers working as agents for the private exporters compete to buy this coffee.  There is no obligation for co-operative members to give their co-operative first refusal on their crop. But if the Co-operative is not offering the highest price, other benefits are available to members throughout the year.

With such young cooperatives where the full understanding of their concept is under-developed, the farmer, understandably wants money now, rather than a promise of (more) money later. This issue often will take a long time to become fully recognised and supported by farmers but it is important as spreading out of payments helps families who haven’t been educated about budgeting to manage their cash over a full year cycle.

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Over recent years, Union Hand Roasted Coffee assisted communities like Maraba and Gashonga by paying a percentage of our purchases in advance of the season; a mechanism known as pre-financing.  This year again we provided pre-financing but due to the high prices that we agreed for the finished exportable coffee, we also faced similar cash constraints and could not assist pre-financing to the same degree as we would have liked.  To continue providing the best upkeep, we support the co-operatives in working with additional NGO’s and pre-finance trade organisations that provide credit to developing communities at a preferential interest rate.  As market conditions stabilise we hope to return to the level of pre-financing the co-operatives desire and help them to develop their community.

In my next post I’ll discuss how quality control influences small scale farmers.


Last time I introduced our Union Direct Trade and what the benefits are from working this way with our coffee sourcing. In this follow up, I want to describe the steps we are taking to address one of the main weaknesses which is lack of accountability or verifiable claims that we make.

How do we tackle this weakness?

We realise that one of the main weakness of our Union Direct Trade, was that any claims we make about the benefits of our ethical sourcing are not verifiable. Essentially we are asking our customers to take us on trust. But I wanted to see how we could take a more transparent approach to support any views we express or indeed reveal short comings that we could learn from.  We’ve addressed this in a couple of different ways. Firstly we joined the Ethical Trading Initiative  (ETI) in 2003.  This organization is made up of three types of members:

        1) Trade Unions,

        2) Non-Governmental Organizations

        3) Companies. 

Even though Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, is the smallest company within the ETI organization, I have found it a useful experience that has provided access to established learning—particularly how to implement an Ethical Trade programme. It is from the ETI that we created our Union Code of Conduct for Ethical Sourcing. This document sets out our expectation of working conditions and labour standards at the farms we source from. We directly educate and inspect coffee producers against our criteria for labour standards. And as a trained Social Auditor, when I visit producers, I actively monitor working conditions of hired labour in farms and dry mills. If I observe poor conditions (non-compliances) at a farm, my approach is to engage in communication with the farm or cooperative managers to find solutions. It is far more productive to create a corrective action plan together, rather than stop working with this producer group.

This “auditing” methodology can be a beneficial approach to take with coffee estate farm managers where the enterprise is managed to good working practices. But with smallholder farmers it certainly has limitations because, from my experience, they organize their farm work in a less formal way. Frequently, smallholders have had a limited opportunity for formal education beyond primary level, and tend not to run their farm as a disciplined business enterprise but rely on (unpaid) family labour. So we have to be realistic about what can be achieved in the short term yet still have ambitious goals for the future. Can we accurately and openly determine the benefits of Union Direct Trade for coffee farmers, and communicate this with clarity and transparency.

So, to create a robust and formal mechanism to measure the impact of our purchasing practices, we worked with students studying for their Masters’ Programme at the Institute of Sustainable Development, University of Wageningen, The Netherlands. They created a monitoring and evaluation system to record details about the lives of the coffee farmers and their workers that we trade with. This is designed as a longitudinal study (over several years) and will be investigated in the countries where we have developed Union Direct Trade. Similar published academic studies of this nature have mostly been taken for a limited time period that gives a brief snapshot. This can be misleading when analysed in isolation. We hope our approach, by gathering information over several years, and looked at in a wide frame context, may be useful to determine the impact (good or bad) of our relationships with producers, as markets and other local or world events change.

This study may reveal complexities with our relationship with these coffee farmers, that we’re currently unaware of. We cannot claim we’ll have solutions to the problems we expose but the knowledge is power and underpins the value we place on transparency. Not only can we learn about the farmers and their working conditions, but we can analyse the impact of the trading practices we undertake.

In my next blog post I’ll introduce Pascale, a Masters graduate in economic development who is now in Guatemala gathering research data for the Union Direct Trade programme

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