Dances With Beans

Winter Is Coming

Lima, Peru
View from the front gate of Finca Belempata, Dept. of Cusco, Peru
18 JUNE 2017, 11:01 PM

Aside from Game of Thrones being one of my favorite shows, having "winter is coming" running through my head as I sat at LAX's United Airlines terminal, awaiting my flight to Lima, Peru, might seem strange. But being the day before what we call the summer solstice in the Northern Hemishpere is actually the day before the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. I would be leaving 90°F+ weather in L.A. for maybe 15°C (somewhere in the 60s), which is a good time to go to a coffee-producing country if you want to find great coffees. 

If you're looking for great certified organic coffees, Peru is ground zero. Why? Because Peru is the largest grower of ceritfied organic coffees in the world. When I travel elsewhere — last month to Honduras, for example — telling farmers that I buy only certified organic coffee prompts one of several responses: 1) I get that look that someone might get if they had just eaten some spinach and had a bunch of it still stuck in their teeth; 2) I get a look of wonder as if they can't believe that I actually said what they heard me say; 3) I get a sympathetic look as if they were speaking to a young child who just said the stupidest/silliest thing; 4) I get an angry look and response as if what I said was personally insulting to them. I rarely get a proud/satisfied look that is preceded wth a big smile and followed by a resounding "Si!" or the local equivalent. Traveling to Peru, for me, must be like what my kids felt when, on the way to Disneyland, they first caught a glimpse of the Matterhorn's peak appearing over the roofs of the local buildings.

Producer Norberto Quintas standing next to his
fermentation tank full of Typica and Yellow Bourbon


Morning dew clinging to ripe Typica cherries,
Finca Belempata, Dept. of Cusco, Peru


Peru, like California, is one of those places that has almost every kind of climate zone within a short flight of Lima. Notice that I didn't say "short drive," because in Peru they have this thing between the coast and the Coffee Lands called The Andes, which translates into English as "big-ass mountain range that turns what should be an hour-long flight into a 15-hour driving ordeal." Or something along those lines . . . I'm a bit rusty on the local dialect. Unlike some countries, like Rwanda, where the government mandates that one grow the Arabica Bourbon variety of coffee and wet-process it, Peru has a huge variety of coffees and micro-climates and processes available. Looking for a fantastic organic Geisha? Look no further! In fact, they will come looking for you.

So, while I may be trading a week of summer for a week of winter on this trip, I couldn't be more excited.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

 Learn more about Groundwork Coffee's new Maria Potosi single origin offering

Being an organic farmer isn’t easy. When something like Rust Disease breaks out in the coffee world, a farmer may have to choose between not spraying a copper sulfate solution to save her/his trees and keeping their certification or spraying and being able to feed their family. This is a simplistic view of the situation, but it is a real one that many certified organic farmers have faced. There is a lot of paperwork, fees, an annual audit, and, perhaps most of all, restrictions on what fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides you can use, too. Sometimes the farmer can get the premium price they deserve and sometimes they can’t. As a result, there are fewer and fewer certified organic coffee farmers each year. This is happening in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Colombia . . . the list goes on. So, what’s an organic coffee roaster to do? Find ways to help those farmers who have kept their certifications and find incentives to encourage other farmers to transition to organic certification.

Not all of AMUCC’s farms are certified; about 20% are in the program and a few others in transition.  It was with this in mind that we offered to pay additional premiums to support the maintenance and development of AMUCC’s organic program.  It’s why we initiated the program for an interest-free microloan program with them as well. But being certified organic isn’t enough, right? The coffee still has to taste good. So, let’s encourage the farmers to not only get certified organic, but to produce great coffee as well by holding a contest of sorts. This year we didn’t have a contest, but we wanted to show the farmers that quality pays, so we have a winner anyway: Maria Potosi. Next year, we are going to plan a contest with participation from our customers and choose three coffees, with first place getting $1 additional per pound of coffee we buy from them; second place .75¢ per pound, and third place .50¢ per pound.

This money doesn’t go to the coop. It goes right into the hands of the farmer who grew the winning coffees. Sounds great, right? Yeah, but this can’t be a fly-by-night thing. Being there, just being there, year after year is at the core of our definition of relationship when we call a coffee a relationship coffee. Being a fair-weather buyer doesn’t really work in our book. Here-today-gone-tomorrow? Nope. That’s why you see many of the same coffees in our offerings year after year. We call them “core coffees.” We may do a special offering of, let’s say, a Colombian coffee from a different region or coop but our core Colombian coffee stays the same.

Our goal is to find and develop relationships in as many of the countries of origin that we buy from as we can. That’s not to say that there won’t be some change in our lineup; sometimes we need to buy from other farmers or coops because of the limited amounts of coffee that a given farm or group can grow. Our demand may outstrip their production, in other words.  But overall, we’re in it for the long haul.

Learn more about Maria Potosi's award-winning coffee here!

Growing Coffee in Portland

Coffee Cherries growing in Portland

So, in our Vaughn Street store in Portland, we have some coffee trees that were given to our GM Brian as a gift recently. They look to be at least four to five years old, which is amazing given that, well, they live in Portland, Oregon. That's way outside the so-called Coffee Belt (about 1000 miles on either side of the equator). What's really amazing...or that one if the trees is fruiting. Not a lot, mind you, but still three little cherries have somehow developed on one of the older tree's branches.

Honduran National Barista Team

 Honduran National Barista Team member competing

As a means of introducing the Honduran staff to the International Jurors, an impromptu barista jam was organized at IHCAFE with their staff, challenging any of the International Jurors who happened to be barista (baristi just sounds so affected, doesn’t it?) and/or barista trainers. Being the good sports that we are, we naively accepted the challenge and got several of our team to compete on our behalf. The Specialty Coffee Community, globally, is pretty small. In origin countries, that community is even smaller, so someone who knew someone who had a cousin who is on the Honduran National Barista Team got in touch with said cousin . . . Get where I am going? The cousin got the members of the Honduran National Coffee Team interested, and they all showed up at IHCAFE to compete. Initially we were thinking, Hey, let’s take it easy on them, since they may not have any experience, etc. etc. You can pretty much guess what happened.  

The Honduran National Team members are:

Eleazar Caceres, Liquidambar

Valeria Carranza, Cafe Tinto

Pedro Lezama, Independent

Damaris Carranxa, Cafe Passion

Santiago Vasquez, Cafetano

Having watched the Hondurans prepare their warm-up drinks [see accompanying image], I put money on Team Honduras and then drank one of those colorful drinks . . . and then gave away the other before the Internationals could see the quality the Hondurans could produce. Yours truly was happy to take in the slaughter from the sidelines. The announcement came at the finish. Then a resounding cheer filled the room. The Hondurans trampled the International Jurors.  Humble Pie is the name of our new signature drink. Who says life is fair?

-Jeff Chean

The Ritual of Formal Cupping

Groundwork Coffee's, Jeff Chean, writes from in country at Honduras' Cup of Excellence competition.

While there are many differences in cultural preferences, age, and language among the jurors, what we have in common is just as easy to point out: One of our commonalities is the dance of the cupping ritual. As the International Cuppers, we are treated like visiting nobility. An entire cadre of "Porters" stands by, ready to dose, grind, set the cups, pour the water, fill and refill the spoon-rinse water, etc. Our job is just to cup, skim the coffee crust (that forms after water is poured on the grounds), record and score our sensory impressions, and keep the %@&* out of the Porters' way — they are very serious about what and how they do what they do.

The first time I experienced this sort of being "taken care of," I was uncomfortable. I think Americans, in general, approach things in an egalitarian way. Maybe I take it too seriously, because I’m the guy who bags his own groceries at Trader Joe's. Hey, the cashier is already busy, right? In any event, it took me a while to realize that, even though the Trader Joe's staff is grateful, the cupping staff feels differently. When a cupper injects themselves into a part of the dance where their partner needs to lead, it’s taken as a comment on the perception of their competency. Or, to be more specific, on their lack of competency.

The biggest show of respect one can give to the team is to let them do their part and acknowledge a job well done, when it is, and to gently correct (or ask the table leader to do so) when it is not. The Porters are an indispensable part of the competition process.

-Jeff Chean