Coffee quality in Central America
Central America is the narrow ribbon of land that connects the North and South American continents from Southern Mexico to Panama. Not really a part of either, it has a very distinctive geography and history. Running down the centre is a spine of high mountains which catches both the seasonal rains from the warm Caribbean Sea in the east and the cooling breezes from the Pacific to the west. Coffee has been grown in the fertile, often volcanic soils here for a long time and is integral to the economies of virtually all the countries in the region. The history of coffee in Central America is a story of colonisation, struggle and poverty for the vast majority of the people who grow it. Throughout the region the best land is often taken by large estates and farms where coffee and other commodities are grown by comparatively well-off landowners using paid day labour, but this only accounts for a part of the total coffee production. A large part of the coffee in Central America is grown by mostly indigenous producers, on small farms of only a few acres each, growing as little as a few hundred kilos of coffee a year to support their families. The land they farm is often hard to access and steep, and growing coffee and getting it out to market can be extremely challenging.
From the very beginning of Trade Aids’ engagement with coffee, we have been buying from Central America. In 1985, the first coffee that Trade Aid imported came from Nicaragua, which was in the midst of the contra war at the time. The coffee was roasted, ground and vacuum packed in silver foil in the Netherlands.
In 1999, when Trade Aid started importing green coffee to roast and blend in New Zealand, the first two origins were Central American – Nicaragua and Southern Mexico. In Nicaragua, the coffee came from PRODECOOP, a group we still trade with 20 years later. In Mexico, it was ISMAM, who we maintained a trade with until 2017. Both these groups developed quite early in the history of fair trade coffee and their straightforward initial focus was gaining market access for their farmer members and maximising the return they could get from their coffee.
Today, their primary focus remains the same and we now also buy from other groups in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras – who all started with the same goal. However the market these groups are engaging with has developed and changed and is increasingly focused on provenance and quality. Where once it was enough to say Nicaraguan or Guatemalan, many roasters are now wanting to know where in Nicaragua or Guatemala the coffee was grown and at what altitude? They want to know who the farmer was and what varietals he or she grows. How was the coffee processed? How long was the fermentation? Was it dried on a patio? On tables? Or in a mechanical drier? And ultimately, how does the coffee score?
To answer these questions, the cooperatives we deal with are developing more sophisticated approaches to coffee quality and lot separation. Where once they may have sold coffee of a fairly standard grade – HB or SHB for instance – they may now also sell coffee by the cup score or as microlots from individual farmers or regions. Here are two examples of ways in which our Central American trading partners are responding to this market demand.
One of our longest standing trading partners in Central America is Guaya’b Associacion Civil in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, who we first bought coffee from in 2005. We have visited Guaya’b several times since then and seen them develop as an organisation. Justin visited them in February this year and came back with a wealth of information about how they currently collect and process their coffee.
When we first started trading with Guaya’b their coffee was all processed by hand, at home on the farms where it was grown. This meant pulping the cherries with a manual pulper, then fermenting and washing the parchment in buckets and drying it on tarpaulins or black plastic on the ground. This is a time consuming laborious task and is severely limiting of both the quantity and the quality that a farmer is able to produce.
It was always apparent that the coffee from Guaya’b had something special – they grow a lot of Bourbon and a large part of their territory is at quite high altitude – but because of the basic processing, the coffee was often uneven in quality. Sometimes it would have great clarity, acidity and fruit, but sometimes, showing the unevenness of the processing, we would find nutty, quaker (unripe) flavours in the cup. Over the years of our relationship with them, Guaya’b have built and developed a wet mill in Jacaltenango which is now the centre of their operation. Here they are able to grade, pulp, ferment and dry a large proportion of their coffee to an even standard.
Some of the members of Guaya’b are still too far away from the mill to be able to deliver their coffee as cherry. So they still process on the farm, but whether it’s as cherry or parchment, all of Guaya’b’s coffee is collected at the wet mill, and close attention is paid to the quality. The farm processed coffee is assessed for moisture and defects as it comes in as parchment, and samples of each farmer’s lot are sent to Huehuetenango to be further assessed and cupped. When the assessment comes back, shipping lots are accumulated based on the score of the coffees, with anything scoring under 82 points deemed unsuitable for export.
Coffee which is delivered as cherry is also checked for quality as it comes in and graded into different fermentation tanks based on this check; it is accumulated in lots according to the day it arrived and the grade it was given. Samples of these lots are also sent away to Huehuetenango for a cupping assessment and then accumulated into container-sized lots. When we started buying Guaya’b coffee, what we were buying was a standard, export grade coffee, which was often good, sometimes very good, but also sometimes a little less than good. Guaya’b now offers coffee according to its cup score and Trade Aid currently buys coffee that scores in the 84-85 range according to their assessment – which we have found to be very consistent with our own scoring.
Lucas Silvestre, Guaya’b’s manager, is open to ways that Trade Aid could buy smaller, relatively high scoring lots from Guaya’b, and was happy to consider an approach where we allow space in later shipments for microlots to be added in. The cooperative has been able to identify particular farmers who produce higher quality coffee, but currently they only export extremely small quantities of differentiated coffee.
One of the reasons why it has been difficult in the past to export coffee based on its quality, is that from the very beginning of the coop, Guaya’b members have all received the same price for their coffee. This idealistic position has worked well for them in the past, and enabled them as a group to pool their resources and build a mill which was able to improve their coffee quality across the board. But it has also meant that there has been little incentive for higher quality producers, and in a market which is demanding more differentiation they can see an opportunity. This is new ground for an organisation which was founded on equality. They have put together a 2018-2022 business plan which seeks to move to a new process whereby pricing and quality can be related.
One of our most recent trading partners is COMSA, located in Marcala in the department of La Paz in Honduras. In the past, Honduras was always a producing country which was associated with ‘commercial grade’ coffee, in other words lower quality coffee. In 2001, the original 69 small scale farmers who founded COMSA were looking for ways to get away from those commercial markets and find new specialty ones. They identified quality improvements and organic production as the best ways to do this and now, 18 years later, they have 1500 members and a large wet mill/warehouse complex and a dry mill. The main warehouse at COMSA’s wet mill complex holds approximately 150 containers of coffee. This amount of space is deemed OK for current lot accumulation, but looking towards the future, the organisation wants to be able to separate out coffee in storage better – even down to individual producer level, as required – and is currently constructing a large new warehouse for extra coffee storage.
All the coffee that comes through the mill is cupped and graded, and any that scores 87 or over is moved to the dry mill where it is warehoused in GrainPro and offered as microlots. In 2018, around 150 such lots (5-6 containers equivalent in total volume) were deemed to be of this quality. COMSA is developing a market for natural processed coffees; they are focussing on the production of full container lots, but also say that they are willing to offer less than container sized lots to new customers, to help them build a market for FTO Honduran naturals. In the last couple of years, Trade Aid has bought some small lots of natural and honey process coffee from COMSA which were received pretty well by roasters, and on the back of that we’re just starting to look at what we can get this year.
Trade Aid is keen to work with roasters in New Zealand to develop more of a market for these higher scoring coffees from our partners like Guaya’b and COMSA. So if you’re a roaster who is looking for interesting coffees and would also like to have more direct relationships with the growers, let us know and we’ll see what we can work out…