Honduras, a country of tropical mountains, sprawling cities and hill top villages has a complicated reputation within the international media. Marked as the worlds ‘Murder Capital’ it perhaps does not set itself out as a recommended travel destination. Any trepidation I felt about going there was quickly quashed by my colleagues who had been before and all made it back safe, and spoke fondly of the experience. This being my first time in Central America I asked what I needed to know in order to stay afloat. I was gifted a copy of Coffee Spanish: A Field Guide for Coffee Buyers and told that as long as I liked beans and tortilla I would be just fine. Having studied agriculture at university and worked with small holder coffee farmers in Uganda, I was interested to draw any comparisons that the farmers might take to overcome agronomic challenges. With Priscilla leading the way, we went to find out what the largest coffee producing country by volume in Central America had to offer.
Honduras Trade Logistic, San Pedro Sula
Our journey began by touching down in Honduras’ second city of San Pedro Sula on a sunny but humid morning. We were met by Hilda and Virginia from Honduras Trade Logistic, who arrived in their gleaming pickup trucks and drove us down the duel carriageway past the horse-drawn vegetable carts and bright yellow school buses into the centre of San Pedro. The USA’s influence in the region did not go unnoticed with our first stop being a Denny’s for a breakfast meeting with the brokering firm. Having both spent many years working for exporters the two partners felt they had the skills and knowledge to setup their own business. They are expanding fast with the aim of shifting 100 containers in only their third year of operation. To maintain flexibility, they work with conventional and speciality Honduran exporters, enabling them to tailor their business to the different demands of their clients. Hilda also roasts for the internal market for chains such as Cinnabon. With breakfast over and revelation that I did in fact like the beans, as well as all the accompaniments forming a traditional Honduran breakfast we headed further into the city to our second stop.
Hawit Caffex, San Pedro Sula
Located in their state of the art coffee shop and roastery, Cafeto, the Hawit Caffex team greeted us with lunch and a number of interesting presentations. Lead by brothers Munir and Raul this young and enthusiastic team working with over 30 cooperatives explained to us the projects they are running. These included training for farmers on best practices for agronomy and harvesting, and the ways in which they are changing the structure of childcare amongst migrant coffee picker families. With combined efforts from other coffee companies, Caffex has ensured pickers are paid a higher wage and have built Kindergartens to look after the children whilst the parents work in the fields. Another objective of theirs is to improve the categorisation of coffee profiles. This goes beyond the traditional grouping by SCA scoring system and uses a physical analysis of the beans and their own software system to create an overall combined score that allows the exporter to more accurately group coffees into similar profiles. Recently they decided to sell their own specialty farm and instead build a wet mill for use by the neighbouring farms to allow for better quality control.
With the presentations over we said our “hasta luegos” and Jorge, the General manager of the Producer Group Cafesa, took us out of the concrete and up the winding roads into the pine forested hills. On the way we took a small detour and stopped off at Pulha Waterfall which proved a welcome break from the heat. We drove into the night and arrived at our hilltop gîte to find a meal of barbequed meat and (yes you guessed it) beans and tortilla waiting for us.
Cafesa, Marcala, Santa Maria
In 2005 Marcala received a Denomination of Origin with DRWakefield being the first international buyer to receive coffee from this small but well established Producer Group. Cafesa is Fairtrade, Organic, and Rainforest certified as well as Cosecha Azul. Sat in the hills around Santa Maria it became our home for the next couple of days as we explored how they have made a number of significant steps over the last few years to increase the quality and quantity of coffee they supply. They have focused on drying experimentation in green houses, on tarpaulins and raised African beds, monitoring the temperature and moisture content of the beans with electronic probes to determine the most effective methods. They have found that drying outside is faster due to more direct radiation from the sun but the greenhouses produces a better cup score. In the next year they will be building a new wet mill or ‘Beneficio Humedo’, allowing them to triple their processing capacity.
That afternoon we visited Udwin’s farm, Finca De Diana (which I had been patiently waiting for) and I was able to delve into the farming system. One of the most interesting points of note was their natural pest control methods. They grow Gravileo trees which produce an odour similar to garlic, repelling insects away. Any that make it past the first defence are lured in by pots of molasses and get stuck.
The next morning we headed out and had a short layover at Comicovel. USA.I.D and Ceres funds have enabled this Coop to expand greatly over the last couple of years through the building of their own dry mill called Acqua Grupo which contains all new Pinhalense grading equipment and by increasing their drying capacity through the building of a large poly tunnel and drying area. They too are part of Cosecha Azul and had experimented with different processing methods and we cupped a 90 hour natural fermentation which exceeded expectations. The afternoon was progressing fast and we needed to hit the road as we had a long journey ahead of us. On the way we stopped off at the 2018 world record for the largest cup of coffee in the world in the hometown of the president, Gracias.
Cocafelol, Amprocal, and Beneficio San Marcos, Ocotepeque
Ocotepeque, one of the departments of Western Honduras, is renowned for producing great tasting coffees. We were shown around a collection of organisations all playing a part in taking these coffees from the farms, to our cups by Delmy Regalado. First on the list was Cocafelol, who have a wet and dry mill able to process conventional, Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance coffees. All the coffee husks processed at their wet mill are combined with minerals and naturally occurring fungus and broken down into an organic compost that can be applied back to the farms. This is provided free to their members and is sold to local vegetable producers as an extra source of income. Last year they provided 30,000 bags free and sold a further 20,000.
Just down the road is Amprocal, a woman’s Coop that began as a microfinance organisation and has developed to own their own roastery and coffee shop, as well as supplying green coffee. This is where we stopped for lunch before moving on to see La Guadalupe, a farm owned by Selin, a member of Cocafelol. Spread over 22 hectares this fits into the medium sized category in Honduras. Being Organic certified the farm relies on natural methods of pest control. Through a careful program of shade tree coverage, spacing and varietal selection the farm has massively reduced the incidence of leaf rust. A combination of banana and Gravileo shade trees are used to provide adequate shade coverage but have a high canopy to reduce the level of humidity. The trees are spaced at 1.5m x 2m to maximise yield and are subject to yearly pruning and selective stumping. Selin noted that due to Cocafelol’s fertiliser program his biggest cost is no longer plant nutrition but now the labour cost of weeding and cleaning the farm.
Next Delmy took us to Beneficio San Marcos, a smaller dry mill recently set up purely to process microlots. Here we cupped some of the latest 121 Project coffees and luckily, they did not disappoint. Delmy stole the show offering up a delicious honey and aromatic anaerobic washed from her own farm. Leaving Ocotepeque we bounced up the dusty roads to the mountainside town of Capucas in Copan. Within view of Honduras’s highest peak, Mt Celaque, it’s fair to say this is a pretty great spot to indulge in coffee.
Much has been written on Cocafcal (colloquially known as Capucas) by DRWakefield over the years we have been working with them, but with each visit comes a new development. This time we learned about Coffee Cloud, their new software system which enables them to monitor climatic conditions and so most effectively prevent against leaf rust. By recording rainfall patterns, relative humidity and temperature the team can work out the ideal breeding conditions for the fungus. With this information they work out when a preventative organic fungicide applied to the coffee will be most effective. The fungicide in question is created by Capucas, using components sourced from BioCapucas, and phosphoric rock imported from Colombia.
BioCapucas is one of the many subsidiary businesses Capucas has set up in order to diversify their resources and manage their cash flow. They also operate a honey project, fishpond and nursery growing coffee seedlings and ornamental plants. Furthermore, they research anaerobic processing methods designed to save water, costs and improve cup scores. The group has grown from just 500 coffee trees planned by Omar’s (The General Manager) grandfather to over 700 members.
Coffee Planet and Beneficio Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Town, Copan
Coffee Planet, an international exporter sits in the city of Santa Rosa. They have a dry mill, cupping lab and brand new warehouse that can store 130,000 bags of parchment. Working closely with Capucas, they export conventional and speciality coffees around the world. As part of their grading equipment they have a hand sorting conveyor belt for microlots. We had our reactions put to the test when we were sat down and told to start sorting. It didn’t take long for the staff to decide they wouldn’t be employing us, and we left feeling rather dizzy.
Just over the road from Coffee Planet, Beneficio Santa Rosa has its own dry mill and warehouse. Having worked in the past with middlemen who struggle to deliver good quality and provide traceability, they have realised that this approach has its days numbered in an ever-changing market. Their new strategy is to invest further down the supply chain first building regional mechanical dryers and providing certification services allowing them to receive the coffee before it reaches the middlemen.
Coagriscal/ BEO, La Entrada Town, Copan/ Cortes
Our final stop was the Coop and exporter Coagriscal/ Beo based in the town of La Entrada. Here our priority was to visit their new chocolate factory. We were showed the fermentation, roasting, conching and tempering and although no golden tickets were found of course we got to try the finished product at the end. Unknown to us, we had a further treat in store as that evening, we dined in Coagriscal’s restaurant where a chef trained in Italy had prepared for us a selection of cold meats and salads, with not a tortilla in sight.
The following morning, we headed out to see Finca Beatriz, Don Oscar’s 130 hectare estate in the mountains above La Entrada. Situated at 1250 m.a.s.l Don Oscar grows Icatu, Pacamara, Catuai and other varieties including a sample field of an indigenous variety know as Indio. By far the largest farm we visited it was interesting to see that it followed a similar structure to that of the small and medium farms, with only a few differences. Having steep slopes and sitting on the lower end of the shade coverage scale they had only 1900 trees per hectare in some areas, lower than we had previously seen. The farm also has their own wet mill on site and a myriad of water sources and areas of untouched forest to promote biodiversity.
I was very impressed with the knowledge and dedication that was shown towards coffee throughout the value chain in Honduras. Each producer demonstrated a great understanding of coffee as a plant, a bean and a drink. A number of reoccurring themes appeared throughout our journey indicating the changing social and climatic landscape of coffee. All the groups we visited showed a desire (if they hadn’t done already) to move away from the traditional supply chain involving a middleman, stating the need for transparency and traceability.
There is a general shift towards the creation of Producer Groups and Cooperatives, enabling in many cases the coffee to go from farm to export through the same organisation. They also believed that the harvest this year will be between 20-40% lower than originally predicted. This is a result of multiple factors, including a lack of labour as workers choose to abandon their farms and emigrate in search of more lucrative work. Secondly, erratic weather conditions preceding the harvest, causing lower yields and difficulties in picking the cherries. Reassuringly many of the producers were aware of the risk’s climate changes poses to their livelihoods and had plans in place already to mitigate the impacts they were noticing.
Another theme was that of experimentation to develop and improve. The realisation that different processing methods can help a producer to engage with new markets and change the profile of their coffees has led to many investing in new equipment such an anaerobic fermentation tanks. We cupped some excellent coffees and we are very excited to see what the future has in store for Honduran specialty coffee.