I write from Tapachula, the bustling border city about an hour down the Tacaná volcano from BellaVista de Cacahoatan, where our 9 partners live and work. It's about 90 degrees here but they are making an ice-skating rink and some "snow"-covered slides for sledding in Tapachula's central park. I can only imagine the energy consumption...
Note that the coffee from Bella Vista currently makes up 10% of our hot blend and 30% of our iced blend. Also note that this is Coffea Canephora aka Robusta, the less sweet, but disease/pest/climate-change resilient, sister species to Coffea Arabica. We've been working with these farmers for about 3 years exactly.
It was a REALLY GOOD thing that I showed up this week. They just started the harvest a few weeks ago. Last year, we promised the then 13 families that we would pay them a higher price for fully ripe fruit, no green cherry, dried on newly paved patios (smooth drying patios eliminate the chance of rocks in the coffee and prevent broken seeds and uneven drying)
Of last year's 13 socios, 4 detested the idea of spending money to build patios and working harder to pick out unripe fruit. So our shipment from last year was of mixed quality from these 4. None of the 13 socios built a new patio. Because these 4 families didn't want to work under these guidelines (these were mostly the wealthier and younger families, disinterested in working hard because they're already making money elsewhere), in August we went down to 9 obedient families.
However, obedience and clarity can be different things... Somewhere lost in these conversations was a clarification of what I meant by fully ripe.
When I arrived on Sunday morning, the 9 socios showed me their new! drying patios. They are smooth and clean and awesome. For this coming harvest, we have sent them each about the cost of these patios.
They all showed me the coffee they'd started harvesting, and showed me how they were separating the green cherries.
I noticed something. They were only picking out the green cherry. They were leaving everything yellow, orangeish, pink, striped. I told them that's not ripe fruit. They said "sure, it's good coffee!! It's ripe! See, it's not green..."
I sat on a patio with a few of the workers sorting fruit the way we want everyone to sort it. Galileo, son of one of our socios, used to work in Paterson, NJ harvesting blueberries, so he really understands the requirements for ripeness. We spent some time picking out EVERYTHING that was not red to create a through sample of we want to show all 9 socios.
We then held a meeting, all 9 families together, and I showed them the uniformly red and purple coffee fruit that Galileo and I had prepared. I had them taste the difference in the fruit itself. The difference is tremendous. Red is sweet and sticky, everything else is dry and crunchy and bitter - think about tomatoes of varying ripeness. This coffee dries in its skin for 10 days, then sits in this form in sacks in their houses for up to three months before going to the dry mill, so what we drink really takes on the flavor of its cherry's skin.
We argued a little bit. They said it would be difficult. I showed them that Gali & I just did it in a few hours. They told me that some varietals ripen at a lighter color. I showed them samples from the tree they were talking about, and how the ripest fruit is still an even-toned pink. They submitted, something clicked, and each socio began rolling the gears to eliminate everything but red and purple cherry. They talked to their workers.
For the next two days, I walked around the various mountainous plots of land, talked with the pickers (each farmer employs 2-4 people, either from the neighborhood or from neighboring Guatemala, where they pay is low to harvest and sort for them) and we told them to avoid picking fruit unless it was red or dark purple. I spent some time at each farmer's house sorting out the un- and under- ripe fruit.
I gave spur of the moment English lessons to some kids. We ate a lot of chicken-cabbage-watercress-squash soup. I asked to help make tortillas and cleaned up after dinner. It's bizarre how much the women in this community cook and clean without help from their husbands or sons. Only one of our socios is a woman; the rest are men. Hoping to address this somehow in the future. Machismo is a real thing.
Epifanio's wife had 25 lbs of their coffee roasted and ground at the market for about 8 dollars. I showed them how to make unsweetened, strong coffee, but that's never really going to stick. Everyone still likes their coffee watery and brimming with sugar.
It's been raining often, which is a bizarre climatic change for summer in Chiapas - it's supposed to be the dry season. This means that a lot of ripe coffee will fall to the ground, and because they are prohibited by organic standards to sell this coffee, it's going to be lost. The socios ensure me that they are going to have enough coffee for us. If not, we will deal with this come late February.
I interviewed all 9 socios (and a few kids who wanted time in the spotlight) yesterday on video. It was a little on-the-fly, and as I worried, they mostly just wanted to thank you all for your support and encourage that you continue drinking their coffee. It's still a good start to see them in their world, feel a little more connected, and hear their voices. These videos will all be subtitled and ready for you to watch in a few weeks.
To close: we have a really great group of farmers who actually understand what it means to harvest ripe coffee. It is my goal to make this coffee so good that nobody can scoff at the word "robusta" ever again. I want it on the Single Source menu and I want specialty coffee snobs to shut up about Robusta's inferiority. Please stop trying to compare a green olive to a green grape. By doing so you are making real people suffer.
These families are working HARD and soon we will be able to taste the fruits of their labor. Once quality is secured, we can start working on wilder projects here. And I want these farmers to be so proud of their quality, to teach their kids the same, and to start being able to sell this coffee at a high price to other companies. Robusta is the way of the future; we're going there with these 9 socios...
More photos available here.
As always, if you have questions about this or any of our other coffees, please let me know.
Noah Welch, Director of Coffee & International Projects | firstname.lastname@example.org