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Resilience Amidst Change in Honduras

This was my second year returning to Honduras for coffee, so the lens I was viewing it through was slightly different. The first time you visit anywhere you pay attention to the macro details; it is often only upon returning that you notice the smaller details. This was a visit to maintain relationships, understand the troubles faced in Honduras, and discuss how we can continue working sustainably in the future.

Capucas

It takes almost a full day to travel from London to San Pedro Sula, Honduras – so you don’t exactly want to take a long weekend there. Having woken up at 5am GMT to make my flight, we finally arrived at the hotel at 8pm local time – or 2am GMT the next day – so we essentially just went to bed (after indulging in a Salvavida, the local beer, of course).

The next morning, we promptly began the next leg of our journey (the flight wasn’t long enough) – a 5 hour drive from San Pedro Sula to Santa Rosa, locally known as ‘The Coffee City’. Sitting at 1,150 masl in Western Honduras (where most Honduran coffee is grown) on the International Highway, it is perfectly positioned for coffee exporter’s dry mills.

We first visited Capucas’ dry mill in Santa Rosa – a facility that has been in their hands for a couple of years now. Previously, they would have to wet mill and dry the coffee themselves, before sending it to another exporter’s dry mill in Santa Rosa. From here they can then arrange for the coffee to be stored before exporting. Outsourcing can prove cost-effective depending on your business model: it doesn’t require you to own any expensive equipment, if there is a problem with the mill, it’s their responsibility to fix it or find you an alternative, and sometimes you are just not doing enough volume to make it cost-effective on your own. The downside is that you are giving up control of part of your coffee quality to someone else, and if you have enough volume, it is more cost-effective in the long run to do it yourself. I like to think of it as a similar situation to getting somebody else to roast your coffee for you, vs roasting it yourself.

Capucas certainly have the volume, and operation was in full swing when we visited. Since I last saw the mill (January 2023) they had installed all new machines: massive mechanical dryers, add two new automatic sorters for a total of three, and added another colour sorter to the production chain. All this amounts to doubling their milling output to about 2 containers per day during peak season.

It is also common for exporters to have two cuppings labs – one at their wet mill (where they evaluate the coffee quality), and one at the dry mill (to evaluate the export quality). It is in this lab we tried some of the first specialty lots of the season. The Abeja Honey and Armadillo Anaerobic project coffees are something we have been running with Capucas since 2021. We cup and pick some of the best lots from smallholder farmers at Capucas to be processed in honey and anaerobic honey, and this was my first opportunity to try them. Once agreed and approved and shipped to the UK, we usually hold a Thirsty Thursday for people here to try them too. Part of the premium on these coffees then goes back to supporting beekeeping at Capucas, which aids in coffee yield as well as providing secondary income to the farmers. The Honduras Thirsty Thursday will be on July 25th, speak to a trader to register interest.

Capucas dry mill cupping lab

The next day we spent touring the cooperative’s facilities – including their wet mill (with the only cherry colour sorter in Honduras!), their solar dryers, and their cupping lab. Here, excitingly, we had the opportunity to cup and judge their internal competition. Every year Capucas hold a competition for their producers to highlight the quality of these microlots, which may otherwise be lost to blending into larger lots for export. The official competition was happening on the weekend which we unfortunately couldn’t make, but we were told our scores would be used nonetheless! Perhaps next year we will try to coordinate our trip to coincide with the competition!

As we drove through the picturesque tropical mountain town of Capucas, Omar pointed out the coffee trees that were flowering while dried cherries still clung to the branches. This, partnered with the limp-looking trees stressed by the heat and lack of water, is a sign of the challenges producers face with climate change. Warmer climates, more extreme weather and shifting seasons all affect the crop. Research is constantly going into more resistant varietals and farming techniques, but this was a stark reminder that the rate of change is quicker than many of us thought would be possible.

Flowering coffee trees stressed by the heat

COCAFELOL, AMPROCAL, BSM

Next, we went to La Labor, in the Ocotepeque department which borders El Salvador, to visit 3 cooperatives who work closely with one another:

  • COCAFELOL is the oldest cooperative in the region and was founded with a focus on sustainable and organic processes. Since the 90’s they have been one of the leading Fairtrade, Organic and Rainforest certified exporters in the region – producing reliably consistent profiles grown in a sustainable manner.
  • AMPROCAL was originally founded by Delmy and 9 other female members of COCAFELOL to highlight and invest in female producers. They do not export themselves, but instead offer women’s grown coffee to be exported through COCAFELOL or BSM and run several initiatives to help their all-female roster of members.
  • BSM was founded by Delmy (of AMPROCAL and COCAFELOL) in 2013 to serve as a more specialty exporter for the region. Most of our Honduran 1-2-1 project lots and other specials are milled and exported through here.
Finca Terra Nova, left to right: Delmy, myself, Roseyly's husband, Roseyly

Much like Capucas, almost all the harvest had been completed by the time we visited in early March – and most of the exporters were in full milling mode. I was lucky enough to visit one high altitude farm, Finca Terra Nova – owned by the lovely Roseyly Hernandez, which was yet to be picked. In general, the higher the altitude, the longer the cherries take to develop. This usually translates to a higher cup score, but also a later harvest.

We also managed to visit Finca Pashaba, where they are experimenting with small lots of new varietals, including Java and Geisha. We’ll be excited to try these when they are ready for export, maybe next year. Until then, we were just teased with the prospect!

We were given extensive tours of their milling operations whilst there also. At BSM, Delmy has constructed a section of the warehouse next to the coffee storage for female workers to hand sort the coffee for a higher quality. She was excited to show me the beautiful ‘manos de mujeres’ (women’s hands) prints they have been putting on their bags.

Women of BSM hand sorting the coffee

After 6 days of cupping over 130 coffees and visiting coffee farms, I’m not sure I was quite ready to go home, but it was certainly time to. Taking in the 8 hour drive from La Labor back to San Pedro Sula I had a chance to discuss and reflect on the challenges faced by producers at origin. From climate change to lack of pickers, El Niño to La Niña and back again, hurricanes and dry seasons, coffee rust and fertiliser (organic or otherwise); there are so many challenges that have been faced by producers before the coffee even gets to port, yet alone into your mug in the morning! I always find it humbling to visit our partners at origin and see how much work and care goes into the coffee. It makes you appreciate the journey that every bean goes through just to end up in your morning brew. I will always strongly encourage anyone passionate about coffee who hasn’t been to origin to go, and appreciate that in these communities it isn’t just a commodity, but a way of life.

View from hill in Capucas

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