Aaron MacDougall, roaster and owner of Broadsheet Coffee Roasters, won our Roast and GO roasting competition — and a trip to origin. Specifically, Honduras, home of Guama Danta, his competition-winning coffee. To our delight, Aaron agreed to write about his experience at origin. This is his fifth installment in the series. His first, second, third and fourth posts are all highly recommended reading.
We covered a tremendous amount of ground today — literally and figuratively.
Set out early on a long, rough drive to Comayagua, a growing region toward the western portion of Honduras, to visit the “Pearl,” a drying, evaluation and storage facility for some of Molinos de Honduras’ (MDH) highest-quality micro-lots. Before reaching the facility, however, we took a detour up the mountains to visit the farm of Camilo Barahona, one of the many farmers in the area selling their coffee to the MDH mill.
Camilo’s farm is about 1600m up on the side of a picture-perfect mountain, with neat rows of coffee considerably less densely planted than the coffees we saw earlier in the trip and without much in the way of shade cover.
Still, his farm is productive, and although he isn’t yet practicing what Carlos Umazor (our Volcafe Way guide) calls the “best practices in agriculture,” Camilo is conforming to IHCAFE (the Honduran Coffee Institute) standards and growing approximately 3,000 plants per hectare. Amazingly, Carlos and Puerto, one of our drivers, manage to set up a picnic for us in the fields and we feast on tortillas, three types of pork — one fiery red and spicy — cheese and chicharrón.
We discuss picking, which Camilo says has been very difficult this year. His first picking of the year was during cold, wet weather and it took 25 pickers 10 days to complete his 2 hectacre farm. He said that he expects his second picking to take even longer, with the higher amount of fruit on the trees at the second pass.
Amazingly, Carlos and Puerto, one of our drivers, manage to set up a picnic for us in the fields and we feast on tortillas, three types of pork — one fiery red and spicy — cheese and chicharrón.
Pickers are apparently in short supply. There was some discussion of people moving into the cities and fewer people willing to do the job, but Carlos is skeptical and says that the trend of people moving to the cities has been around for a long time. Perhaps more correct are theories that in recent years Honduran pickers have been able to buy small plots of their own to farm coffee and that changing weather patterns have made the picking schedule more difficult to predict so getting the pickers to the right place at the right time has become more difficult.
On the flip side, the wages for pickers have spiked over the past year, from 100 lempiras (~$4.50) per 100lb bag of coffee cherries last year, to 140 (~$6) lempiras this year. For the average picker capable of picking 3 to 5 bags per day, this means that they now earn over the minimum wage of about $15 a day and increasingly immigrants (primarily from Nicaragua) are coming to fill the labor gap.
The mill is compact, but clean and efficient and capable of handling about 15 bags of cherries at a time.
We also see Camilo’s pulping mill, which he uses for his own coffee and charges neighbors a toll to use. The mill is compact, but clean and efficient and capable of handling about 15 bags of cherries at a time. A pillow-sized de-pulping cylinder is hooked up to an outboard motor and coffee cherries are dumped into it from above. The pulped cherries are dumped onto a large sieve, which a worker laboriously pushes back and forth to separate out the cherries with too much pulp (these are re-fed through the de-pulper). The sticky pile of freshly pulped coffee seeds collects in a big tub beneath the sieve, and when all the coffee is pulped, it is shoveled into a wheelbarrow to transport about 15m to a washing tub used to remove any residual “honey” left on the parchment. The clean, wet parchment is then quickly bagged up and trucked to the MDH mill a short distance away.
The Comayagua mill is a bit of a fort off the busy main road, surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and armed guards. We enter and it is bustling — lots of producers are wandering around, waiting anxiously for their coffees to be scored and to learn what price they will be paid for the fresh wet parchment coffee they have delivered.
Carlos leads us on a tour of the massive facility, and it is a fascinating bit of industrial engineering. There are dryers — though most of the drying is done on patios (pavement covered with plastic) or in large solar dryers (like ventilated greenhouses with mesh beds for the coffee, to allow for better air circulation). The dried coffee is then elevated to the mouth of a large mill that quickly de-husks the beans. The green beans slide down an angled densitometric bed, which sorts the lighter-density beans from the higher-quality, dense beans. The green coffee can then be sorted by screen size and conveyed to a laser-color sorter, which scans the cascading green coffee and removes off-color beans with precision puffs of air. The sorted coffee is then manually picked through and visible defects are removed by hand (100% of the workers we saw sorting coffee, whether in parchment or green, were women).
Cupping in front of him is, to be honest, somewhat intimidating, as he has perhaps the loudest, most piercing “slurp” I’ve ever heard — the mark of someone who is really, really experienced.
We finish our day at the mill with a cupping led by Jony Rivera, who runs the cupping lab. Unlike an earlier cupping we crashed before our tour of the facility started (“conventional” coffees in the 82–83 point range), the nine micro-lot coffees we cup are for the most part excellent. Jony is another long-time lab leader and a well-known competition judge. Cupping in front of him is, to be honest, somewhat intimidating, as he has perhaps the loudest, most piercing “slurp” I’ve ever heard — the mark of someone who is really, really experienced. And, he should be, as he fills out evaluation forms for thousands of lots, determining what producers are to be paid and how the coffees will be categorized and sold.
Coffees are in the 84–87 point range, but as a group, we feel that they have a fairly different and distinct taste profile from other regions within Honduras that we have cupped previously. These coffees are all crowd pleasers: deeply sweet, with lots of chocolate and cherry and plum. Many of the coffees also have a nice spiced bouquet (I thought one smelled like pumpkin pie!) and a pleasant wine-like acidity. There really is a lot going on with these coffees, and many of them also have a wonderful florality. I’d guess that these would be extremely versatile and perhaps the easiest coffees to decide to buy from amongst those we have tried so far — and one of them is from Camilo’s farm.
— Aaron MacDougall, Broadsheet Coffee Roasters