We're always looking forward to when our team brings back stories from origin.
Our journey this time brings us to a beautiful small town at the base of a stratovolcano, whose slopes are lined with shaded, high altitude coffee plots. San Miguel Escobar is home to a handful of coffee farmers who cultivate, harvest and process the coffee with their families.
I woke at 4am to the sound of a wooden rake on a concrete patio.
For several months during the harvesting and processing season, coffee comes to dominate the daily life in this small community outside of Antigua, Guatemala. And perhaps even more so for the members of the 28-strong Cooperativa Entre Volcanoes.
Situated on the slopes of the dormant Vulcan Agua, and across the valley from the active Fuego, San Miguel Escobar is the home of this cooperative, but also the location of the offices of our importing partner, De la Gente. This non-profit organization has been working in some capacity with the farmers of the cooperative for 11+ years, and in its current form for the last five. For the better part of a year between 2016 and 2017 I worked with this organization, and it’s that experience that has led us on this journey.
I was here this week to organize and judge a micro-lot competition for the cooperative members in San Miguel.
This was the second of what we plan to be an annual competition, after the president of the cooperative and I initiated the project last year. While some cooperatives operate with centralized processing, the farmers bringing the freshly harvested fruit to the milling station and the cooperative taking charge of wet and dry milling, in San Miguel the cooperative members are each responsible for harvest, wet-milling, and drying.
On the one hand, this requires a lot of trust and accountability within the cooperative, as one farmer not putting in the effort to produce a quality coffee could bring down the quality of the entire cooperative blend. On the other hand, producing coffee in this manner allows for a high level of traceability and control. It also allows for the producers to differentiate themselves, and for unique lots of coffee to be discovered, that otherwise would simply be contributed to a cooperative blend.
This week though has been about more than just roasting coffee and judging a competition. It’s been about reconnecting with people that I worked side-by-side with for a year, and with whom we plan to maintain a long-running relationship.
Coffeebar is building a coffee sourcing program that is based on those relationships. Based on moments like surprising Manuel’s two youngest daughters when I showed up to stay on the first night with a cake, and having his wife Rosie break out a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
Like catching a chicken bus out to San Antonio Aguas Calientes, having been invited for lunch by Wilker, the leader of the newly-formed cooperative youth group. Like hiking up into his fields with Manuel, so he could show me the coffee he’s setting aside for a micro-lot, or having Felix drop into the office to ask for feedback on his coffee, and talking about the high altitude lot where he has a new varietal planted, Villa Sarchi, that has only this year reached maturity. Like cupping his own coffee lots with Timoteo, president of the cooperative, and discussing his ideas for improving his quality.
'Mejorando, siempre mejorando.'
Of course, we did also taste some great coffees, and I had the opportunity to judge this competition with Rob Hoos of Nossa Familia and Les Stoneham of Deeper Roots. Les has been traveling down to Guatemala to work with producers for more than ten years, and Rob is famous in roaster circles as a consultant and for a book he wrote entitled ‘Modulating the Flavor Profile of Coffee.’ Yeah, I know. It’s a niche market.
Working with those guys though is just a further reminder of how interconnected our industry is, and how important relationships are, throughout the supply chain.
‘What about the competition, though?!’ you ask. Well I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer. A late harvest this year means that some of the top lots weren’t quite ready for the competition. So samples will be sent out in a month and the three of us will judge a second round remotely.
As important as it is though, and with price premiums and contracts awarded to the winners it is quite important, in a lot of ways the competition feels more like the framework on which everything else here happens. A setting around which the more important things can take place - the industry connections, the sharing of knowledge and experience, the long-lasting relationships and friendships.
Keep an eye out in a few months for a coffee from Antigua bearing the name of a local producer. And know that it won’t simply be a high-quality coffee that we plucked off the shelves because it scored over 87, but that it will be a symbol of a relationship that we’ve nurtured, and the result of the efforts of a family that we’ve broken bread with and worked alongside. And with whom we’ll continue to work alongside.
Author: David Wilson