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By: James Fairweather 20 November 2020
Before roasting our first batch of beans way back in 2013 our vision has always been crystal clear. In fact the inception of Leeds’ very first specialty coffee roastery came about for the sole purpose of creating a more impactful way of sourcing coffee. Our supply chain faces so many challenges; from environmental to social and political volatility and these challenges only seem to be increasing. Right now there is civil unrest in Ethiopia and a hurricane has just decimated Nicaragua and other areas of Central America. So much more has to be done to simply meet the costs of producing coffee let alone generate an impactful and profitable industry to guarantee its survival. Our producing partners bear such an incredible burden and it is our responsibility in the consumer part of the chain to share the load if we want high quality coffee in the years to come.
Last year, we wrote about our second visit to the producers of the Chelazos coffee we buy in El Salvador, a visit we were particularly excited about as it marked the start of our impact driven funding initiative which has been on the cards for us these past 7 years. We are so excited to be able to share an update with you all on this Infrastructure Project – something that has been over 3 years in the making from the moment we established this blissful and fruitful partnership with our Chelazos partners back in 2017. To finally be able to give back to one of our producing partners, in a way that’s about more than just purchasing coffee is something we are immensely proud of.
Back in 2017, Hols & Krag boarded a plane bound to San Salvador on a cold and drizzly January morning. Their mission… to find a suitable farm to partner up with over the coming years whose coffee would go on to form an important component of our house blend, The Docks. Having previously sourced coffee from the well known producing region of Santa Ana in the West (it’s large estates famed for producing many a Cup of Excellence winning coffee) they wanted to explore the possibility of working with smaller producers with the goal of forging a more engaged, impactful and lasting relationship.
It was just outside of La Palma, Chalatenango where Hols & Krag first met two members of the Chelazos cooperative, one of whom we still work with to this day. Alfonso Rodriguez and Leonecio Guillen were in the early stages of revolutionising their harvesting and processing techniques in a quest to grow specialty grade coffee of a higher quality. Having been so impressed by their acceptance and willingness to adapt tradition in order to add value to their crop, the commitment was made to purchase the entirety of both farms harvest, signalling the beginning of a healthy, long-term relationship with the Chelazos producers. A relationship which stands strong to this day and one that has helped pave the way for the exciting improvements that are currently underway.
Fast-forward to yet another cold and drizzly morning in February last year. Myself and Ol had packed our bags and were primed and ready for an important Central American coffee-based assignment. Not only were we tasked with sniffing out some standout new crop coffees in Guatemala and El Salvador, we were also looking forward to treading in the footsteps of our fearless leaders by revisiting the Chelazos producers in La Palma in order to help lay the foundations for our first infrastructure project.
Before setting off on their trip, Ol sent a list of questions over to the PECA team at Caravela Coffee (the green coffee Importer we work with when purchasing most of our Latin American offerings) to help gain some insight into each producer and to ascertain where we should direct our attention and resources in order to have the most positive impact possible. Lead by knowledgeable agronomist Miguel, the PECA analysts share a close relationship with each producer and have an in-depth understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each farm. With the main focus of their work aimed at helping producers improve coffee quality and yield, their involvement proved invaluable in identifying a focal point for our project.
After spending some valuable time with all four Chelazos producers and reviewing the answers to our project planning questions, we found the producer that would most benefit from an improvement in infrastructure to be Maria Zoila Pineda and her farm Finca Margarita. Our research suggested a number of improvements that would aid Maria in her processing operations going forwards and we felt that the construction of raised drying beds for her team to utilise would be the best place to start. With only a small patio available for drying prior to the project, this would greatly increase the amount of coffee Maria could dry at any one time whilst significantly improving the effectiveness of drying in general.
Previously, Maria had been forced to traipse her coffee down to processing facilities at a neighbouring farm owned by fellow Chelazos producer, Alfonso Rodriguez. However amazing it is to see this close coffee community support each other in such a way, having to outsource this element of processing has undoubtedly denied Maria access to a portion of her coffee’s income. Perhaps more crucially though, it has limited her ability to control the performance in the cup – the drying being a really crucial part of determining the characteristics of the coffee itself. This was highlighted in the previous harvest when Maria’s Pacamara varietal had reached scores of up to 90+ on the Caravela cupping table. However, this was unfortunately marked down to the mid 80’s due to inconsistencies in the green coffee as a result of inadequate processing and disease, both issues that can be easily rectified with the financial investment and operational efficiency this project brings.
Given the historical flow of coffee cherries at peak harvest, Caravela have estimated that there is now capacity to dry ALL coffee harvested down at Finca Margarita. Maria can now also expect to produce 12 (69kg) sacks of her Pacas varietal and 6 sacks of her more experimental Pacamara lot, which is a really healthy output from such a small operation. Her patio is now the proud owner of 6 double-level raised beds, which are covered to protect her crop from direct sunlight and lined with a mesh that allows plenty of airflow around the drying seeds. In terms of coffee quality, this new effective and efficient drying infrastructure is predicted to have a really positive impact on cupping scores too. Average cupping scores of 84-85 have been calculated for her Pacas varietal with her Pacamara lot expected to reach scores of 87+. Having cupped a sample of Maria’s Pacamara offering on our February visit to La Palma, we are beyond excited to see what the future holds for Finca Margarita. I have since found my rather colourful description of the coffee we tasted when we visited which I found to be “delightfully tropical in profile. A syrupy mango, pineapple and passionfruit smoothie of a coffee that sent my receptors into overdrive!” If these improvements allow Maria’s coffee to reach it’s full potential our tastebuds have definitely got something incredibly special to look forward to.
Overall, this project will not only aid her coffee quality and consistency in production, but will be a monumental improvement to her team’s working lives (no unnecessary loading and unloading of coffee into trucks for transport, and more efficiency of labour as a result). There is also an environmental positive through removing the need to transport coffee to and from the farm before and after processing, which removes most of the emissions created during production too! And this is only Phase 1 of our very first Infrastructure Project. There are additional improvements we hope to action in the near future that should further benefit both Maria’s coffee and team. Watch this space!
In short, this is the first in hopefully a long line of North Star funded projects with our producing network designed around sustaining the future of our industry by sustaining those that are vital to it. Our key areas for focus are climate change resilience, female and youth empowerment, gender equity and income diversification. We feel these areas are vital in safeguarding our producing families against what is already happening and also what is to come as the impact of global warming continues to make its presence known across the coffee belt. Not only are we committed to paying profitable prices to our producers for their efforts, we intend to work only in supply chains we can have positive impact within – choosing where possible to work with smaller coffee entrepreneurs over large estate owners. When small businesses support each other, big and magical transformations can occur and you are a part of that as a member of our #northstarfamily. Just look at what you have helped to create from your enjoyment and love of quality, ethically sourced coffee. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you!