By: James Fairweather 14 June 2019
As some of you may have been aware, thanks to the tremendous amount of coffee related photo spam sent out by our ever-faithful master of wholesale, we were lucky enough to visit our producing partners over in Guatemala and El Salvador back in February this year. We have had a busy few months since, having moved to Armley, received our shiny new Loring and launched our sexy new packaging. However, now the dust has settled, I thought it’d be a nice idea to revisit this incredibly insightful trip to Central America. It was a special adventure for myself, being my first trip to origin and one that I’d like to share with you all.
Like any other coffee lover, a trip to origin has always been at the top of the old bucket list. And when I found out about a potential excursion to Central America with my colleague and personal translator, none other than the bi-lingual brewing master Oliver Sears, I was enthused at the potential realisation of that coffee dream. My well travelled colleagues have tread many a patio in their time and had regaled me with stories of coffee trees laden with ripe cherry, perforated sacks bursting with dried green and bustling wet mills packed with pickers looking to sell freshly harvested fruit. With this in mind I felt prepared, seriously excited and ready to begin my adventure.
I’ll quickly skim over the part where I missed my connecting flight from Paris to Atlanta (cue a teary farewell with my travel buddy), before somehow managing to wangle my way onto a flight to San Jose… Well, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure if everything went to plan would it?!
Anyway, tiny setback aside, we both somehow managed to make it to Guatemala City in one piece. After the initial excitement of being reunited with Mr Sears and the terrible decision to eat my bodyweight in American candy, a combination of travel-induced sleep deprivation and a massive crash in blood sugar resulted in me falling asleep before my head had hit the pillow. Next morning we headed down to breakfast and were confronted by a smorgasboard of traditional Guatemalan dishes. Fried plantain, frijole, corn tortillas, scrambed eggs, pan dulce and many more delicacies filled the buffet table. Let’s just say it was an incredibly tasty introduction to Central American cuisine and exactly the fuel needed for a day of exploration.
Seeing as we had a day to kill before meeting up with our guide, we decided to jump in a taxi and head to the beautiful Unesco-listed city of Antigua. It was here where I got to experience some authentic Guatemalan culture first hand. Brightly coloured colonial buildings line cobblestone streets, earthquake damaged 16th Century ruins nestle between renovated shops and looming volcanoes surround the city on three sides. We strolled through the hustle and bustle of the tree-lined Central Plaza – street vendors in traditional dress called out, Preacher’s preached and the sound of traditional marimba echoed around the square. It was a Sunday afternoon and everyone seemed to be out and about. There were people soaking up the sun’s rays by the fountain, crowds gathered around street performers and various couple’s stopped to dance to Marimba on the steps of the Municipal building. Such a vibrant, social atmosphere – a city so full of life. We explored until the sun set and having stumbled across Antigua Cerveza, a microbrewery and bar, we decided that it’d be rude not to wet our palette with the local tipple. After a swift one I consumed what could quite possibly be the best burrito that has ever passed my lips before heading back to the hotel to get a decent nights sleep and prepare for the day to come.
After a morning of exploring more of the stunning City, we arrived back at our hotel to find a dusty Toyota Hi-Lux packed full of fertiliser parked outside. It was pretty obvious that our ride had arrived. Cristina (our friendly and incredibly patient guide) was tasked with babysitting Mr Sears and myself for the next few days. We were on our way to see the amazing work being carried out in Huehuetenango by Vides 58, a third generation of producers who are big into sustainable farming practices and firmly committed to innovation, precision and quality. Only a 6-hour drive and an overnight stay in Huehue City stood between us and this epic coffee oasis.
We arrived at Finca La Bolsa after a 2-hour drive from Huehue City. It was pretty clear we were nearing our destination when tarmac roads turned into winding, bumpy tracks and beautiful mountains seemingly grew around us. As I stepped out of the car the smell of fermenting fruit filled my nostrils. We had arrived! I was greeted by a number of friendly faces each bidding me ‘buen dias’ as they waited to unload trucks laden with perforated sacks of green coffee. Each sack ready to be weighed, labelled and stored in the bodega next to the farms entrance. As I turned to walk through the gate, I had unknowingly stumbled out onto an incredibly vast, multi-coloured patio. Various shades of green, yellow, red, brown and black, raked into large rectangles, stretched out in front of me. Different varieties of coffees, processed in various ways, lay drying under the watchful eye of the surrounding mountains. Patio employees were making pass after pass over each section of colour, raking the beans in the direction of the sun’s rays. It was truly mesmerising to watch.
After another tasty traditional Guatemalan breakfast of scrambled eggs, fried plantain and frijole we began our tour of the farm with a trip up to the Almacigo (Nursery) where we discovered row after row of baby coffee trees. An unbelievable amount of varietals all lined up neatly and labelled – Typica, Bourbon, SL-28, Moca, Obatal, Caturra, Red Pacamara, Yellow Pacamara… an A-Z of little bright green plants, leaves shining in the sun. We passed through a small wooden gate and under an archway into another section identical to the first, brimming with young plants. In here one of the nursery workers (or ‘Seedlings’ as they are known) was methodically walking the rows, pump on back, delivering an exact amount of fertiliser to each individual plant, making sure all were well nourished. This is vital in giving each little coffee tree the best possible start to grow into healthy, cherry producing plants. It was impossible not to be impressed by the incredible attention to detail and sheer organisation employed on the farm. In fact, I’d go as far to say it puts many garden centres in the UK to shame.
We had a bit of time to kill before meeting Mercedes, the Operations Manager, so we stopped in at the farm’s amazing on-site school. Here we were introduced to some very curious and excited children who were as intrigued about us as we were about them and their education. The farm has had a school since 1980, was set up for the worker’s children, as well as the neighbouring community and has since grown and been moved to it’s current location. It’s a vibrant, colourful space, with green walls, red doors and is teeming with very happy miniature people. As well as academia, the school has also made Associate Coffee Care available to it’s students and is a project that seeks to reduce child labour and improve quality of life for coffee pickers and their families. Students aged between 2-14 years old have access to nutritional advice and are taught valuable life skills that have been designed to aid them in every day life and improve general health. After chatting to the teachers and hearing about the incredible work carried out here I was tasked with hunting down my sunglasses, which I had been relieved of earlier by a cheeky chappy in the playground. As I exited through the school gates I felt a real sense of what the farm’s founder, Jorges Vides, was trying to achieve here. Creating a real community spirit, providing a safe environment for youngsters whilst their parents worked and generally looking out for the wellbeing of families working on the farm, as well as the neighbouring towns and villages.
It was then time to venture up into the coffee fields with Mercedes, to witness what will be the final destination for many of the young trees we had seen earlier. We climbed and climbed (and stopped for a breather) and climbed again. Snaked through well-organised sections of crop, most of which were clearly signposted and laden with juicy fruit ready for harvest. So plentiful, an agronomist’s dream and exactly what you’d expect from an incredibly well kept farm. Like kids in a sweet shop, we stopped at each variety of tree and had a cheeky little try before you buy. An explosion of juicy sweetness filled my mouth with each cherry and gave me the opportunity to compare the differences and nuances in flavour of each varietal. This was all taking place against the beautiful backdrop of a panorama of healthy green coffee trees and lush mountains either side of the valley. It was a surreal experience. We carried on walking along steep paths, through natural rocky archways, wide-open spaces and under a lush green canopy. The scale of it all was simply breath taking. On the trek back down towards the on-site school I could not help but be impressed by the ever apparent and striking biodiversity of the farm in general. An incredibly varied ecosystem buzzing with life. There were numerous species of other trees that provide natural shade, a cacophony of birdsong, butterflies fluttering and generally an impressive amount of life other than coffee. It all just goes to highlight how healthy the land is on which the farm stands and emphasises the remarkably high level of nutrients feeding the coffee itself.
After lunch we took a trip up to Las Terrazas and El Rincon to see other areas owned by the farm. With Las Terrazas providing altitudes of up to an impressive 1800m and experienced agronomists/pickers tending to the crops you can see why this farm is so well known around the globe and prized for the high quality of coffee it produces. Again, we were introduced to healthy trees whose branches were heavy with big fat ripe cherries. It was a sight to behold!
Finally, we made our way down to the wet mill where workers were busy de-pulping cherry that was waiting to be washed and sent down to the patio. The farm’s mill is an impressive feat of engineering and is comprised of a number of large de-pulpers, numerous fermentation tanks and a network of channels fed by a freshwater reservoir that is filled by a spring from the mountains. The de-pulped coffee seeds are washed in the tanks with a hose and then released into channels that lead down to the patio. A farm worker then dams the channel, only letting the floaters (unripe cherries) and coffee skin/pulp through. All whilst the flowing water runs over the coffee seeds that sink, effectively cleaning them. Such an intricate and well thought out process utilising clean water, gravity and an ingenious time saving way to get the coffee down to the patio.
This was truly an experience that I will never forget. I’m incredibly grateful that I got the opportunity to see the life cycle of this legendary fruit, as well as the various processes each seed goes through before it gets shipped and is received by us in our roastery on the other side of the globe. It is now easier than ever to access information regarding coffee farming practices either online or in literature but nothing quite compares to seeing, touching and smelling each stage and process in action. Getting the chance to talk to the people that work so tirelessly every day and finding out snippets of information, however insignificant, really highlights the human aspect of this side of the industry. What a day!
Finca La Bolsa isn’t just your run of the mill coffee farm. It is a large extended coffee family where social, agricultural and environmental aspects of farming are the main focus of plantation management. This helps to ensure sustainable practices throughout all stages of production. The farm has a huge social responsibility, and from what I have seen, it delivers big time and as a result has become an important hub for both the local and neighbouring communities providing work, education and healthcare. Everyone I encountered seemed incredibly happy to be part of this amazing little society. The fertility of the land, general health of the crops and organization throughout the farm is incredibly impressive and testament to the skilled agronomists on site who enforce good agronomic practices which align and sometimes even surpass Rainforest Alliance standards. Lastly, their commitment to the conservation of the ecosystem that they are farming/living in is so apparent due to the abundance of life witnessed throughout the farm.
Having spent almost three incredibly interesting and fun days with Cristina, it was a bit sad to say goodbye to such a warm and friendly host. However, we had more producers’ to meet and a number of farms to visit across the border in neighbouring El Salvador. “Did you manage to make it to San Salvador without missing another flight”? I hear you ask. Find out in our next installment of Origin Virgin.