Small Batch on the road

Small Batch on the road

Rwanda May 2015

Back in May, we headed out for our first trip to Rwanda. We have just released the first of three coffees we bought on the trip and it seems an apt time to examine how we are now working in Rwanda and why we want to increase our volumes and involvement in this great little country.


Small Batch on the road

How We Buy In Ethiopia

1 With the release of Guji Sidamo, our second Ethiopian coffee of the year this seems a good time to reflect on my trip to Ethiopia last year and the two varying ways that we buy coffee in Ethiopia. The way we source coffee has evolved significantly over the last eight years and as our volumes increase, our sourcing and buying procedures are becoming more specific to each origin we work in. Central America, our primary buying region, is relatively straightforward; our importers help us find and finance the coffee, a local exporter receives the coffee from the producers and prepares it for export, it is trucked to a relatively close Atlantic port and then shipped to the UK, landing a few months after harvest. In truth it is rarely this straightforward, there are always issues unique to each coffee, but the basic chain of events is pretty simple. The supply chain in Africa tends to be a little more complicated, and especially so in Ethiopia. I travelled there last November with one of our importers, Falcon Coffees, to learn more about how exactly we purchase coffee from Ethiopia and why the model there is so different to other origins. After landing in Addis Ababa fresh from an overnight flight the first place we visited in the city was the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange or ECX. The ECX is where all commodities in Ethiopia are traded and is where the vast majority of Ethiopian coffee is bought and sold. The Exchange is set up as a traditional trading floor; digital signs display the lots being traded and coming up, clocks show the time in various cities and the current market prices tick by. Each session begins with a bell and men in green jackets enter the floor and sell warehouse receipts relating to certain lots of coffees to men in khaki jackets representing Addis based exporters. The sellers offer a price and offer up their hands for a high five and, when a buyer agrees, he completes the high five and the deal. 2 So what exactly are they selling? Whose coffee is represented by those warehouse receipts? To answer these questions we need to take a brief look back at the supply chain that brings coffee to the ECX floor. Most coffee in Ethiopia (and indeed Africa as a whole) is grown by smallholder farmers. These are typically family farms with a few hectares of land under coffee but no processing facilities of their own. Because they do not produce enough volume to have their own wet mills, smallholders either become members of a co-operative or Farmers Union or sell their harvested cherries to private washing stations in their area. We will look at the co-operative model in a moment but it is these cherries that are sold to the private washing stations that find their way to the ECX. These private mills process cherries by either the washed or natural method and deliver them to the ECX warehouse in their region where they are graded by quality and designated by processing and region (For example,‘Sidamo Grade 1 Washed’ ‘Djimma Grade 4 Commercial Unwashed’ etc.). The coffees are graded based on the quality of the green coffee and cup profile, with specialty grade coffees receiving a second more detailed sensory assessment. You can view the full list of regions, grades and criteria on the ECX website here. It is purely by region and grade that coffees are bought and sold on the ECX floor. We visited the exchange with Mike Mammo owner of Addis Exporter, a specialty exporter who handles Falcon’s ECX coffees. Mike explained that as buyers they are legally not allowed to know the exact provenance of the coffees they are buying and they are not able to taste or physically examine the coffees either, they are simply buying, for example, a 30 bag lot of ‘Yirgacheffe A 1 Washed Specialty’. This bears repeating, the buyer cannot see the coffee, taste the coffee or know where it comes from. They are simply buying a graded commodity at that day’s market price. This makes sense in the environment of a commodity exchange like the ECX but goes against everything we normally work towards in our sourcing models. Created in April 2008 the ECX was Africa’s first commodity exchange, designed with the goal of developing “an efficient, modern trading system” to protect the rights of “buyers, sellers, intermediaries and the general public”. The fundamental tenets of this were to bring producers and buyers together, provide an independent grading system and ensure financial propriety, essentially making sure farmers got paid in good time (the ECX is now a ‘T+1’ exchange, the only one in Africa, which means all payments are made one day after the trade). [caption id="attachment_1957" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Cherry Delivery at Bokasso Cherry Delivery at Bokasso[/caption] Prior to 2008 coffees were sold in an auction system whereby the private washing stations could sell specific lots from their mills (and even from individual producers) with full traceability and provenance information to the highest bidder. From the perspective of a specialty buyer this seems a more desirable system and indeed the ECX has removed the opportunity for traceability and the development of relationships between producers and roasters. However the supporters of the ECX state that under this old system there was often no path to market for producers, no guarantee on quality and grading for buyers and no rules on payment. A commoditised market like the ECX may not be our ideal sourcing system but it provides a steady stream of quality coffee out of the country and a guaranteed and protected path to market for producers. Some positives have arisen as well. All ECX licensed exporters (ie the buyers) must be Ethiopian nationals ensuring profits stay within the country, there is little risk to the end user (roasters) buying through the exchange as the quality of green coffee and cup profile are strictly regulated and finally the standardising and transparency of prices means the smallholder farmers know what their coffee is selling for and what their cherries are currently worth even in the most rural areas. [caption id="attachment_1959" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Downtown Yirgacheffe Downtown Yirgacheffe[/caption] After leaving Addis we headed south to the famous coffee region of Sidamo and its iconic town Yirgacheffe where we visited several coffee co-operatives including Fero, Belle Kare, Idido and Bokasso all with efficient, modern wet mills, healthy looking cherries and high quality washed and natural coffees. The Co-operatives and Farmers Unions provide a much more familiar path to market for us but have their own problems with volume and availability. Co-operatives work quite similarly to the private washing stations that supply the ECX with two key exceptions. Firstly, the smallholder farmers who deliver cherries are members of the co-operative and as well as being paid for the cherry they deliver they receive a second payment at the end of the harvest in the form of a profit dividend based on the total amount of cherry they delivered that year. Secondly, instead of being sold through the ECX co-operative coffees are sold through one of six regional Farmers Unions that are funded by the co-operatives. The Unions sell the coffee directly to exporters and are allowed to operate outside of the ECX. [caption id="attachment_1960" align="aligncenter" width="500"]A farmers receipt from Fero Farmers Co-operative. These are issued daily after the farmers cherry delivery has been weighed, the co-op and the member both keep copies. A farmers receipt from Fero Farmers Co-operative. These are issued daily after the farmers cherry delivery has been weighed, the co-op and the member both keep copies.[/caption] We loved the Co-ops we visited and were gladly shown detailed financial and payroll records, prices paid, social programmes, dividends and training for the members. This is the kind of open sourcing model we like but nearly all of the coffee we saw was already sold. The out-put of an individual co-op is small and in a competitive specialty market, with lots of roasters and importers seeking these high quality, traceable Ethiopian coffee availability is a real issue. Once bought, receiving co-op coffees in a workable time frame has been a challenge in the past. The exporting can be less efficient than through the ECX and at peak harvest time can often become log jammed especially as one single union, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Union, handles over 50% of all co-operative coffees and so comes under a huge strain every harvest season. [caption id="attachment_1961" align="aligncenter" width="600"]The head members of Belekara co-operative in Yirgacheffe The head members of Belekara co-operative in Yirgacheffe[/caption] The two coffees we have featured so far this year, Nano Challa and Guji Sidamo, are great examples of these two buying models and are both exceptional coffees. The Guji was purchased through the ECX, all we know about it is that it comes from somewhere in the Guji region of Sidamo, is Specialty Grade Q1, fully washed and delivered to the ECX warehouse in Hawassa. I cupped this coffee alongside about 10 other very similar lots and picked this one based purely on the cup profile. It’s delicious. Nano Challa on the other hand we know a lot about. It is a co-operative of around 400 farmer members created in 2010 with the help of Technoserve- a NGO that have done a lot of work in African coffee communities- and is based near the town of Agaro in western Ethiopia close to Djimma and on the edge of the ancient Gera forest. I also picked this coffee out of a lot of samples on the cupping table as it is delicious. The difference of course is that we can hopefully buy again from Nano Challa next year, maybe go visit them and start to build a relationship that could become mutually beneficial for many years. We have no idea whereabouts in Guji the 50 bags we bought this year came from and while we could buy another 50 bags of Q1 Guji Sidamo next year they will not be from the same producers and will not taste the same. [caption id="attachment_1962" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Idido Co-operative, YirgacheffeIdido Co-operative, Yirgacheffe[/caption] This is getting pretty long ,so to recap: The ECX offers guaranteed quality, good availability and the quickest shipping of coffees out of this land-locked East African country. On the downside we have zero traceability and cannot build direct and on-going relationships with producers. The co-operatives are more similar to our existing sourcing models, providing full traceability and high quality coffees from producers that we can potentially work with year after year after year. This is certainly the model we would like to pursue in the future but due to the relative lack of availability this will inevitably take time to pursue and develop. Despite its flaws the ECX has been a power for some advancement in Ethiopian coffee, it has improved the path to market for many producers (especially those that are producing coffee below the specialty level,) and offers us a base on which to evolve our Ethiopian sourcing model. This is by no means an exhaustive and conclusive assessment of the Ethiopian coffee industry. I have spent one week in the country and we buy a comparatively tiny amount of Ethiopian coffee. I just wanted to share in depth some of the complications that go into making Ethiopia such a unique sourcing market and try to explain why we buy as we do currently and what we hope to do in the future. Al


Small Batch on the road

A Film About Coffee

AFAC We are thrilled that in partnership with Falcon Coffees we are hosting the Brighton screening of A Film About Coffee, director Brandon Loper's 'love letter to speciality coffee'. The film tells the story of high end coffee from farms in Rwanda and Honduras through to speciality coffee shops in the US, Europe and Japan. The film is currently touring the UK and we are delighted to be hosting the Brighton premiere this Thursday, 27th November at the Old Courtroom on Church Road opposite the Dome. As well as screening the film we will be serving a very special coffee before hand FOR FREE! Thanks to Mat Smith of Falcon Coffees, who appears in the film, we have secured a small amount of the Huye Mountain coffee that is featured in the Rwandan section of the movie. We will be roasting and serving this coffee exclusively for the screening and a few bags will be available for sale with all proceeds going to charity. [embed]http://vimeo.com/92370761[/embed] After the film we will have a Q and A session where audiences members can ask anything they ever wanted to know about coffee. Featuring on the panel will be Konrad Brits of Falcon Coffees, Tim Williams of Workshop Coffee and Mike Kahn from La Marzocco. Tickets are just £12, they are selling fast but theres still some up for grabs. To get yours follow the link here and we'll see you on thursday night! We are presenting the film in association with Falcon Coffees, Fat Sand Films, Workshop Coffee, La Marzocco, Marco and Cafe Imports, without whose help this would never have been possible.

Small Batch on the road

Joe Goes to Ethiopia

Back in November last year, production roaster Joe was lucky enough to travel out to Ethiopia with our African import specialists Schluter. Now, this may seem like quite a long wait before publishing his account of his experience but we thought that since Ethiopia season is now in full swing, the time is ripe. Like a coffee cherry. Over to you Joe: It’s hard to over emphasise Ethiopia’s importance to the history of coffee and humankind, it seems both were destined to be thrown together and inextricably linked. IMG_5250 The Coffea Arabica tree (the beans of which we at small batch buy, as opposed to Robusta) is indigenous to the country and is the origin of all other varietals that have since been created through cross pollination or splicing by farmers and scientists around the world. So for me, as a first trip out to any origin country, I was pretty excited that it was to be Ethiopia. On the overnight flight to Addis Ababa I was sat, by a happy coincidence, in between two NGO workers specialising in agriculture in Ethiopia. I didn’t get much sleep as I was too busy learning as much as I could and picking their brains! On arrival I met the guys from Schluter, a small coffee exporter that have a long history in the country. We then headed straight to their office in central Addis, pushing through heaving traffic, and having that brilliant feeling of being somewhere completely new. We did a quick tasting of some early crop coffee before our driver arrived to take us the 8 hours or so south to the coffee growing regions of Sidamo. Driving even long journeys on Ethiopian roads is never boring, up there with some of the most dangerous roads in the world; basically anything can happen. We had seven flat tyres in the course of our trip, witnessed many horrendous looking scenes of accidents and generally wore out the horn by trying to get goats, donkeys, children and adults out of the way. Forget about Stop, Look and Listen, people in the countryside actively walk out in front of cars as it is incomprehensibly deemed “good luck”. IMG_4947 As we travelled down the Rift Valley, the open plains slowly gave way as we climbed in altitude to the lush greens of the area called Yirga chefe, which literally means fertile grass. It certainly lives up to its name, producing some delicious coffees that we have been buying at Small Batch for many years now. What I found really interesting was learning how the local people feel about coffee in these regions. It really is part of their day-to-day culture and international coffee prices are quite literally front-page news, with an estimated 15 million people involved in the coffee industry, contributing to roughly 60 percent of the country’s total export market. Most families in the region would have at least a few coffee trees they can pick from and before organized coffee wet mills were introduced in the 70s they would be simply sun dried and used themselves or to sell in the local market. We were offered this green coffee many times in little plastic bags by the side of the road and while it was tempting to buy these little pick n mix bags out of curiosity, it is illegal to leave Ethiopia with coffee so it wasn’t really worth the risk. This brings me onto another point which makes this country unique in coffee terms but not necessarily in a good way. In 2008, under the direction of Eleni Gabre-Madhin a former economist at the World Bank, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established. Gabre-Madhin was deeply concerned that the farmers in the country growing crops like maize, wheat, sesame and coffee were far too vulnerable to the global market price, which can result in the farms running at a loss and crops rotting in the fields. The ECX was to help empower to farmers and secure better financial gains. In doing this it centralised the coffee export market and graded it by region rather than at washing station level. This is a real problem for what most forward thinking coffee companies want; namely, transparency. Essentially this angled their export more towards large bulk roasting companies, which have more financial weight, rather than the specialty market. You can still negotiate the opacity of the ECX, if farmers have formed a cooperative then some provenance still remains but it’s more red tape for them and for us the buyers. This is why it’s so important to have an exporter on the ground in Ethiopia and why we are lucky to work with Schluter, who help us to know what we are buying and from whom. So this is why taking coffee back with me personally was not an option, although I did want to smuggle a few fresh cherries and parchment into my pocket at the last mill we visited. But the instant fear of a life in an Addis Ababa prison put paid to that! So after a night spent in Haile Gebrselassies’ (ex Olympic Gold winning runner and all round Ethiopian legend) hotel on the shore of the beautiful Lake Awasa, we piled back into the car to finally get to my first wet mill, Haicof mill, Sidamo at an altitude of 2000m So now I should probably give you some information on how coffee is processed in Ethiopia, and similarly across most of Africa. The lorries come in with a representative of a co-operative of farmers, where they are paid by the kilo for their cherries, IMG_4990 The bulk of Ethiopian coffee is then Wet Processed, this means loading all the cherries into a silo (at the highest point so everything is gravity and water propelled) and then passing these through a de-pulper. This is a machine with 3 disc burrs that are set to the right grade to take the flesh of the cherry without smashing the bean inside. From this step on the coffee is referred to as parchment, which is a layer of thick skin that needs to be dried to be properly removed. From the de-pulper onwards it is graded continually through channels all the time, with any really light beans or “floaters” separated out. This process is done at night because all the picking is done in daylight, so the mills mostly run under the light of the moon and some very low wattage energy saving bulbs! IMG_4981 These beans of varying sizes are now stored in the fermentation tanks, where it is left for 24 hours, softening the parchment. It is then pushed through channels of water against the current so that again it is graded, by heaviest being best. It is pushed along by a team of men using a kind of wooden paddle. IMG_5139 Once the beans have negotiated this process they are taken on sieve-like trays to the drying beds, these are raised above the ground so that the air can circulate easily and are left to dry being turned regularly and covered at night to keep away the damp. They are dried for around a week to 10 days depending on the weather conditions. IMG_4926 This wet processed coffee is historically what was considered most desirable for export, and as a result is what most mills concentrated on (normally only a very small percentage of natural was produced and it is still graded below washed). However, in the last few years, Ethiopian naturals have become very sought after in the specialty market because of their incredible fruity flavour profiles. Some of the mills we visited (like the Dumerso mill in Yirgacheffe [alt 2200m]) are now paying a higher price to farmers for perfectly ripe red cherries to be sundried naturals. These have increased to make up around 50% of their output as a result of demand from the specialty market. This is a great example of specialty coffee being a force for good and securing the farmers a better price per kilo. This kind of reliability and support is important because it is possible that coffee could become financially unworkable; the farmers have to be very practical and will be quick to switch to other areas of crop production if they can make more money from it. Bad news for coffee lovers but when it might make the difference between secondary school for your children or not, it’s an obvious decision. At the first wet mill we visited they were not yet running due to a slightly late harvest in that region, so we took a little walk and discovered a few interesting and disturbing things. There was vast number of fields that looked recently tilled and planted with small scrubby bushes. What’s been happening is that many of the farmers in the area have pulled up their coffee trees and planted Khat (a leaf which is chewed to attain a mild high). It’s easy to understand why when you take into account that to farm it requires basically no skill, you get two, sometimes four, harvests a year (as opposed to one with coffee) and you will get just over double the price per kilo. Also because it is not registered on the commodities market you can sell it directly at market legally (or export to the Yemen or Somalia). I saw Khat everywhere and it has been growing in use in Ethiopia in recent years. Another problem is that when you grow Khat it alters the PH of the soil making it useless for growing good coffee in the future. IMG_4841 The other interesting thing I saw here was a bridge that had been built over a ravine in between two fields, before the Ethiopian government set up the ECX Starbucks used to buy regularly from this region and built this bridge because the ravine was claiming about one farmer’s life a year. It just reminded me that the company’s buying and social policies are better than many people think and the problem is more at the final stage of the coffee process (i.e. bulk roasting and Soya Mocha Frappacinos) than at origin buying level. It was amazing to wander around the forest of these regions and look at the coffee tree growing in its natural, wild state, under the shade of high forest canopy teeming with large black and white Colobus monkeys and smaller Grivet monkeys. IMG_5215 The farmers here carry out very little agronomy (the science and technology of using plants for food) and as a result the fruits they pick will often vary, which is another reason why the processing mills are so important for quality control. Also the mills are often running for only a short amount of time so the farmers are under pressure to get their cherries to the mill (and collect payment) while it’s still running. As a result they will often strip pick their trees (literally strip each branch of its cherries regardless of whether they are all ripe or not) which is something that would not happen in say Brazil where they could afford to send workers back out multiple times to pick at only the perfect time. All the coffee is still drunk; it’s just that the lower grade beans will stay in the country for local consumption. Seeing these things does make you realise that although this is the birthplace of coffee they have been somewhat left behind in terms of the science and technology of producing excellent coffee and this is something that can still be improved on in Ethiopia, it’s just lucky for them that they still have an amazing unique product naturally. There are companies like Technoserv that are assisting rural communities in learning basic skills to improve quality and help in the forming of co-operatives, but they will always need the security of a guaranteed market. IMG_5262 As we pushed further south we picked up a local translator the brilliantly named Awgicheww which when pronounced properly sounds exactly like ‘I will get you’ which given that he can understand all the local dialects is pretty appropriate. The main spoken language is Amharic but in the south you could be fluent in that language and the kids would just stare at you blankly. Out in the country I had one of my favourite evenings of the whole trip. In an amazing eco lodge type hotel set on a beautiful hillside with incredible plants and animals, where they grew all their own food and we stayed in traditional woven huts. In the evening they do a traditional coffee ceremony in a clearing which is really interesting from a coffee roaster’s point of view. The ceremony starts with the lighting of two clay stoves of coals; one is used to burn frankincense, the smoke of which fills the air. The second stove is used to cook the coffee beans from green, in a pan. So there is this amazing multisensory experience going on with coffee smoke and frankincense and the beans are roasted pretty dark so things get very smoky! The roasted coffee is then crushed in a big pestle and mortar and poured into a clay pot [jebena] and mixed with water to create a kind of Turkish brew. It is then served very hot in tiny handle less cup which is interesting, because there is no table! Coffee is also regularly served with popcorn which I never knew and absolutely love, it also explains why sometimes you will get a bit of popcorn in with Ethiopian coffee when you roast it, a little roasters treat! At this ceremony we were surrounded by vultures and the hyenas feeding on the meat that had been thrown out for them, which was amazing. The next day we walked to see the caves that they sleep in during the day, and had a little crawl inside which was mildly terrifying. I later found out that in the past when someone dies their body would be thrown outside the village or town walls to the hyenas. So they are well used to tasty human bodies… IMG_5297 So after this wonderful night we were back on the road to see the last mill of the trip, Kebado Sabtmo, a pretty large mill for Ethiopian standards and it was going at full pelt. Teams of women working at the raised beds and then moving en masse to the next bed, sorting the red cherries for sun drying, all the time singing local spiritual songs; a really amazing place to be. The women being orthodox Christian dress very modestly but colourfully and mostly with a head scarf. They use these to cover their mouths in what looks like embarrassment when you talk to them. I asked our translator why they are so shy but he pointed out that it was more that they found us hilarious and didn’t want to laugh directly in our faces! IMG_5074 At each farm we would have a chat with the mill owner over coffee and popcorn, which gave us a chance to ask any questions we had and listen to the trials and tribulations of running a wet mill. All too soon we had to head back towards Addis Ababa, and the airport, leaving me happily exhausted and feeling that I had learned more in one week than I had for a long time, and with a new found respect for the coffee that I handle on a daily basis, back in my day job at the roastery. When you see the amount of hard work that goes into producing this amazing coffee it just tastes all the better. Many thanks to Ed at Schluter for looking after me on the trip and of course Al and Brad for sending me out there!

Small Batch on the road

Mexico January 2014

1 With our release of this year’s harvest from Finca Muxbal it seems an apt time to look back at my trip to this amazing farm in Mexico last January. Small Batch regulars will know we have a very close relationship with this farm and Muxbal has become one of the cornerstones of our coffee offering, becoming a key component of Goldstone Espresso as well as one of our favourite single origin coffees. We have been working with Muxbal for three years now having been introduced by our importers Falcon Speciality in 2012. I was lucky enough to visit the plantation in January 2013 and when we decided late last year that we wanted to make a film that would document everything we do here at Small Batch, starting at the farm level, I knew that Muxbal was the only choice. The farm is a beacon of coffee growing excellence not simply for the quality of its product but for the dedication of the owners Jorge and Maeggi to their local environment, the conditions and facilities for their workers and local people, the future of their plantation and the quality of their milling and processing. The fact that Muxbal is stunningly beautiful, situated high on a heavily forested plateau, surrounded by rivers and accessible only by the winding access road known as ‘El Caricol’ (the snail) was a bonus for filming as well. DCIM100GOPRO
Al at Finca Muxbal, It’s a hard life.
I set off from Heathrow with our film crew Sim and Mia of Fat Sand Productions in tow and, via Amsterdam then Mexico City, we eventually arrived in the sweltering tropical heat of Tapachula, the nearest city to the farm. We were greeted by Jorge and as we left the city and wound our way up the mountainside past low growing Robusta coffee and cacao plantations the temperatures began to drop and the clouds rolled in. Muxbal means ‘place surrounded by clouds’ in the local Mame dialect and the farm is indeed surrounded by them most mornings and evenings. The middle of the day is generally clear though and as we rolled into the plantation the view was as impressive as I remembered. Even when you have been somewhere before, it is impossible to be prepared for this kind of outstanding natural beauty and the entrance to the farm, through a valley straight out of The Lost World, took my breath away just as much the first time I saw it (Jorge playing the theme from Jurassic park on the car stereo helped as well). 3
El Caricol, the access road known as ‘the snail’ and the only way in or out of the plantation was built by Jorge's grandfather. Before the road the farm was only accessible by mule trails.
As we toured the farm, Jorge explained that they were already through two passes of picking across most of the farm, meaning the harvest was about 60% complete and thankfully they hadn’t seen as much Roya as the previous year. Coffee leaf rust disease or ‘Roya’ as it is known in Central America is a problem for everyone at the moment but thankfully Jorge said that although they had lost around 10% of their coffee trees to the fungus, they had been better prepared than last year and were able to take more precautions against the problem, cutting out problem trees and spraying chemicals where necessary. Roya has been divesting across the Central American coffee lands in the last few years. The fungus is easily spread by humans and animals who carry its spores unawares and it kills coffee trees quickly and completely forcing farmers to pull out a lot of trees. When you consider that it takes a new coffee tree around three years to produce decent cherry you realise the problem this is causing farmers in the region. Spraying of insecticides is one way of tackling the problem but is very costly, otherwise pulling out and isolating sick trees is the only real solution. Jorge explained that as well as some spraying they increased the amount of new trees in the nursery last year and were also able to get one more year of harvest out of healthy old trees that would normally be replaced to help offset the losses to Roya. DCIM100GOPRO
New seedlings in the nursery to replace trees lost to Coffee Leaf Rust.
Roya was definitely a problem here but compared to what I saw later on in the trip on farms in El Salvador and Guatemala it was not catastrophic and Jorge and his farm manager Elder have done a great job controlling the problem. In fact Jorge told me that production was actually up this year from 6 containers to 7, which is a fantastic achievement in the middle of the Roya outbreak. We chatted about the commodity market price of coffee which at the time was at a five year low and Jorge replied that thankfully he was protected from this by the fact that he sells his entire production to quality conscious importers like Falcon who pay him outright for his coffee and agree a price based on the quality of the coffee not the market price. This is fantastic to hear as it is exactly the sourcing model we follow at Small Batch and why we use specialised importers such as Falcon to find and finance these coffees as it means the best coffees for us and the best prices and payment for producers such as Jorge. Jorge also told me that because all his coffee was already sold and at good prices it meant he could relax, not worry about the fluctuating market and focus on processing the coffee beautifully, preparing the farm for next year, implementing roya prevention and improving facilities for his employees and the people in the local village. Again this is exactly why we buy coffee in the way we do, to try and create long term, relationships like this that allow producers to focus on the issues they need to. The fact that Jorge is able to sell all of his coffee in this manner is awesome and I hope it is a model we can help to recreate with other producers. 5
Coffee drying on patios in the sun
The next day we were up early to hike to the area at the very top of the farm, known as the San Enrique lot, the area where our coffee was coming from this year. For the last two years we have bought the main crop from all over the farm but now that we are buying a larger amount Jorge offered to separate out the highest grown coffee from San Enrique just for us. Generally speaking the higher Arabica coffee grows the better the cup quality. There is obviously a limit to this as the higher you go the lower temperatures become meaning these delicate plants cannot survive. In certain areas where the temperatures stay clement such as Bolivia and Ethiopia, coffee can grow at over 2,000 metres but in Central America the highest we see is usually around 1800m. At Finca Muxbal the San Enrique lot is at around 1650m above sea level and this altitude and temperature suits the three main varietals grown there, caturra, catuai and mundo novo. The view from San Enrique is amazing with the Tacana volcano behind you, Guatemala in the distance and the plantation on it’s raised plateau beneath you. This area contains more Mundo Novo varietal than the rest of the farm as it likes the higher altitude and upon cupping the coffee back in Brighton we found it to be a touch sweeter and more peachy than the main lot. 6
View from the top of the farm looking down onto the plateau. The red roofed buildings are the farm house and wet and dry mills, the smoke is coming from the mechanical dryers. The road on the left is in fact the border between Mexico and Guatemala and high on the right on the other side of the canyon is the village of Union Juarez
After lunch and a swim in the river we visited the school that Jorge and Maeggi built for the children of the farm workers. Muxbal is home to around 15 year round workers and, during harvest season, up to 60 or 70 seasonal pickers who come to stay on the farm with their families. The children are not allowed to work in the fields and instead attend the well-equipped school on site. When we visited last year Jorge told us that they didn’t have enough uniforms for all the kids and that this was a shame as the uniforms motivated the kids more than anything else to attend classes. 7
Sim filming the kids in their Small Batch school uniforms
During the winter me and Mike Riley from Falcon Specialty decided we wanted to help Jorge provide new uniforms for these kids and it was awesome to see them all, many of who we recognised from the previous year in their brand new uniforms (apart from at break time when a lot of football shirts came out. The school really is testament to Jorge and Maeggi’s commitment to their community at Muxbal. As well as the school there is a fully stocked doctors surgery not just for workers but open to all inhabitants of the local village with twice weekly consultations. Meals are prepared in clean and well-equipped kitchens (home to a beautiful antique tortilla press) and must meet minimum protein and vitamin requirements, there is a well-stocked shop, modern toilets and new and expanded housing was in the process of being built. These things may not sound like much but they far exceed the conditions you see on most coffee farms and are a huge part of the reason why Muxbal is the only farm in Central America to receive a 100% audit from Rainforest Alliance, who examine not only environmental but also social conditions on farms. 8
New and improved housing being built for the workers
Unlike many farms in the region Muxbal is home to its own wet and dry mill. While most farms of this size would have their own wet mill, most would send their dry washed coffee to a commercial mill to be hulled, graded and packed for export. Muxbal’s isolated location means it is set up to do everything in-house and this again means Jorge can keep a close eye on all the processing and keep quality high from plant to export bag. 10_11
The wet mill in operation and parchment coffee resting in the dry mill before export
With this in mind we discussed the idea of doing some special natural and honey process lots next year to see how they cup as I explained to Jorge how much we liked natural process coffees here at Small Batch. A few weeks after I got back Jorge sent through pictures of some small African style raised beds they had built for exactly this purpose, and hopefully next year we will have some natural and honey lots to complement the main crop! 12 13
Jorge and Elder’s first experiments with naturals and honeys
After a hugely enjoyable few days it was time to head off for Guatemala but Muxbal had been amazing as ever. We got an absolute ton of beautiful footage for the film and some early samples of the 2014 harvest to take home and taste (sadly these were later confiscated by Nicaraguan customs officers another story for another day). 14
Surrounded by Clouds
In conversations with Jorge after I returned I told him that we really wanted to push forward with the natural and honey process coffees as well as some varietal separations especially as he was developing a small varietal garden at the farm, and we agreed to pay a little extra for our coffee this year and in future years to offset some of the cost of these experiments. A few weeks ago there was a very strong earthquake in the San Marcos region of Guatemala that borders Finca Muxbal. The quake was very strong at the farm and even down in Tapachula where Jorge was, strong enough he said to make everyone run into the street in their bed clothes. Thankfully up at the farm no one was seriously injured but the new worker housing they were building took heavy damage as did the Caricol access road. Some serious landslides down the valley sides led to several large boulders blocking parts of the road and more pressingly the river. The road is the only way in or out of the plantation and is followed closely by the river that was effectively dammed by the boulders, not what was needed at the start of the rainy season. Clearing the road and the river became number one priority at the farm and Jorge emailed me to say that he had to spend some of the extra money on dynamite to clear the fallen boulders! These sorts of events are just one of the many challenges faced by coffee producers and highlight how hard it can be for producers to plan long term, try new techniques or invest in new equipment as there are constantly problems like earthquakes or roya to be dealt with.
It is very easy to ask farmers to do some natural processes for you, or to separate out some day lots but the realities of growing coffee in rural parts of the world mean there must be some financial support there to facilitate this. 15
Jorge and Maeggi Rodriguez
This is becoming rather a long post but I feel like I can’t say enough about this amazing coffee and the amazing farm and family it comes from. I’ve been to many beautiful coffee farms and there are many coffees I love around the world but Finca Muxbal will always be my first love. It was the first farm I ever visited and we more coffee from there than anywhere else. There are many reasons for this and I hope if you have made it this far you will understand some of them! Check out Finca Muxbal in ‘The Origin’ below and please do try the coffee, its awesome! Al

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