Small Batch on the road
Mexico Filming Done
The third and final instalment of reports from my January trip to Central America comes as we welcome a fantastic coffee to the roastery: Finca Muxbal from Chiapas Mexico.
It’s another very exciting week here at the roastery, as our coffee from Santa Ana La Huerta in Guatemala arrived in Brighton today. So it seems a good time for Al to give us a quick run down on the Guatemalan leg of his buying trip this past January and why he is so excited to work with Santa Ana. I was really excited about learning more about Guatemalan coffee on this leg of the trip as for such a major coffee producer it wasn’t an origin that I had a ton of experience with in the past. Outside of a few small lots from the Antigua region, we had never had a huge amount of Guats at Small Batch. I arrived in the capital Guatemala City where I was met by Christian Schaps from Mercanta one of the importers that we use and Ronald ‘Rony’ Asensio the owner of Finca Santa Ana la Huerta the first farm we would be visiting. We quickly made our way out of the city and headed East toward the Sierra de las Minas region where Rony's farm is situated. We moved from arid valleys up into the highlands and, after an amazing lunch of ceviche and avocado on the side of the road, into the rain-soaked cloud forests of the Sierra de las Minas. On the drive up Rony told me how he bought the farm in the 1990’s after falling in love with the beautiful, isolated location and as we arrived at the gates the view over the mist shrouded mountains was breathtaking. [caption id="attachment_956" align="aligncenter" width="910"] Drying Patios at Santa Ana. During wet weather the coffee is covered to keep it dry[/caption] As we toured the fields in the back of Rony’s truck in the company of his two dogs Max and Coffee, Rony told me about the extraordinary range of wildlife they have in this protected biosphere; everything from armadillo and deer to Quetzal birds and a local mountain crab of sorts that eats coffee cherries. Unfortunately, as with everywhere I visited in Central America, Santa Ana was having problems with Roya (or Coffee Leaf Rust) and Rony had been forced to prune a lot of mature trees that will affect his yield next year. The Roya was nowhere near as bad here as other places I had seen thanks to Rony’s judicious pruning and spraying and helped as well by Santa Ana’s remote location (the mould is spread between plants by human or animals carrying the spores) but it remains a very real problem for all farmers in the region and means their cost of production is spiralling worrying high while their yields are falling. [caption id="attachment_960" align="aligncenter" width="910"] Day’s harvest at Santa Ana[/caption] As we waited for the day’s harvest to arrive at the wet mill Rony showed me his worm culture. With the washed method of coffee processing there is a lot of leftover coffee cherry pulp which is used as fertilizer. In Guatemala farmers have also developed a worm culture using African Red Worms that eat the leftover pulp and whose urine makes even more effective fertilizer. [caption id="attachment_961" align="aligncenter" width="910"] African Red Worm culture at Santa Ana[/caption] Over dinner (and a bottle of Zacapa rum) we discussed the Roya problem and what it would mean for the coffee industry in Central America. Rony is a very passionate and engaging man with a long history in coffee farming, as well as Santa Ana he owns three other farms and his wife has a farm in Antigua region, and it was brilliant to pick his brains for a few hours on everything from Roya to Starbucks. Rony has sold coffee from all of his farms to Starbucks at one time or another and has nothing but good things to say about the prices they pay, the social conditions they demand and the long term commitments they are prepared to make. This was a very common theme among a lot of farmers I spoke to across Central America, and whatever you might think about Starbucks they have been committed to ethical, direct trade sourcing for a very long time. Rony explained he has moved away from dealing with Starbucks now because they blend his coffee in bulk with countless other farms from Guatemala. When you work so hard to create something special he said, you want it to keep its identity, to keep the farms name and not to have all the flavour burnt out. It is great to know that the producers are so proud of their product and again it really instils the sense of responsibility in us to do the best possible job we can with the coffee as it represents not just Small Batch, but Rony and his crew as well. [caption id="attachment_962" align="aligncenter" width="910"] The correteo drying channel used to give the beans a post-fermentation clean[/caption] The next morning we were up early and on the road to one of Guatemala’s most famous towns and coffee regions, the old colonial capital of Antigua where we were to meet Ricardo Zelaya, owner of several farms in the area and coincidentally Rony’s brother in law. Ricardo is a larger than life ball of laughing energy who owns Finca Santa Clara, Puerta Verde and a new farm Finca Jowja all around Antigua. We have had coffee from Santa Clara and Puerta Verde at Small Batch before and Ricardo’s coffees are always outstanding. [caption id="attachment_963" align="aligncenter" width="910"] Finca Santa Clara high above the colonial capital Antigua[/caption] Antigua is surrounded by three volcanoes Acatenango, Fuego and Agua which dominate the valley and whose mineral rich soil give Antigua coffees their distinct fruity flavour. Volcan de Fuego is still active and Ricardo told us about a fairly large eruption the previous year that he watched from his fields. The Zelayas have been farming at Santa Clara for around 150 years and Ricardo told me that his great grandfather agreed to buy the farm whilst at the barbershop causing the barber to run to Mrs Zelaya’s house and make sure this was ok. We toured the farm on quad bikes (“this is gas, this is brake, this is handbrake. Let’s Go!”) winding our way up to the very top of the estate, which lies at 1,750m above sea level. This altitude (even the valley floor is at 1,200 metre) means Ricardo has to protect his trees from freezing during the coldest times of the year, and the new plants in the nursery have to be insulated. Santa Clara grows a lot of Bourboncillo (Dwarf Bourbon) varietal, a variety Ricardo planted for its flavour and resistance to low temperatures but which he has recently found to be more resistant to Roya than normal bourbon. Alongside the bourbon and bourboncillo there is caturra, and villa sarchi with the different varieties planted in different areas as they all ripen at different times, making harvesting easier and more efficient. [caption id="attachment_964" align="aligncenter" width="910"] Delivering the cherries to the wet mill[/caption] After lunch we headed into Antigua town and had a look at Puerta Verde, a small and very well organised plantation on the valley floor and Jowja, Ricardo’s new project that included an area of avocado trees with around twenty different local varieties of avocado that Ricardo assured me he was personally tasting and classifying. All of Ricardo’s farms are a model of professionalism, efficiency and quality, they are quite simply some of the best coffee farms in Guatemala and it is no surprise that his coffees are so excellent year in year out. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay longer in Antigua as the road to El Salvador was calling, but I was struck by the beauty of the valley and the history of the town and of Santa Clara. Ricardo is a fantastic host and like Rony his passion and knowledge for coffee is obvious and infectious. As a final treat Ricardo gave me a bag of the peaberry beans he had separated out of his Cup of Excellence lot which came 6th in the 2012 competition that he had roasted at the farm and which we are still enjoying through careful rationing at the roastery. Before leaving Guatemala I managed to meet up with Rony in Guatemala City and along with his son Stefan we went for Sunday lunch at their favourite steak house. I couldn’t have hoped for a better host than Rony to show me around Guatemala, his and Ricardo’s hospitality and wealth of knowledge were amazing. I am so happy to be receiving his coffee now at the roastery and incredibly proud to be working with a producer of Rony’s quality. It really is an honour to present his coffee and I really hope you all enjoy it. [caption id="attachment_971" align="aligncenter" width="910"] Al and Rony Asensio of Finca Santa Ana La Huerta / The first of the coffee arrives at the Roastery in Hove[/caption]
In January I was lucky enough to travel to Central America to visit some of the farms we currently deal with, find some new ones and select the coffees we will be roasting this summer. The trip took in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador and all the farms were slap bang in the middle of harvest when I was there. Fast forward to now and the first container from El Salvador has arrived at Felixstowe. As the coffees arrive I will be posting a little report of my trip to each country here on the blog so you can see a little of the people and the hard work that goes into producing these exceptional coffees. We entered El Salvador by road from Guatemala, the two countries are divided by the Rio Paz river and after you cross the bridge there are lot of windows, questions and red tape to navigate before you are allowed onto the other side, a classic example of socialist Salvador’s pointless bureaucracy according to my Guatemalan companions. Once over the border we immediately started climbing as we headed toward the highlands and Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city and the hub of the coffee region. Our first stop was the mill owned by the Pacas family.
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