Tag Archives: travel

Origin Trip – Guatemala and El Salvador

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I recently traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador on a 12-day trip.  The focus of the trip was to develop relationships with some of the farmers that we are purchasing coffee from this year, to walk these farms and get a better understanding of them, and also to seek out new great new coffees.

With email and social networking, there is much that can be done these days in regards to initiating contact with farmers (many of the farmers we met are more savvy on social networking sites than I am!).  And coffee samples can be shipped across international borders, then roasted and cupped. We can sign contracts with the producers and arrange for importation and then offer our customers ‘Directly Traded’ coffees.  But until you visit the origin, see the farm and shake hands with producers, you simply don’t know what you don’t know.

With this being only my second trip to origin, there was a significant amount of realizations about what I didn’t know.  Some of the producers we visited are well-known in the specialty coffee world and some are not.  After visiting 7 different farms during this trip, an overarching observation is that a producer’s popularity within the industry is not necessarily an indicator of their passion for their people and their coffee.

The motivations and passions of the people we work with are supremely important to Oak Cliff Coffee, and it is something that I could never have appreciated simply via email and Facebook.  You really must know the people to understand their product.

I think this is true of my business and my customers as well.  From our inputs to our outputs, the relationships are really what make up Oak Cliff Coffee.  We are driven to roast the best coffee not just because we love great coffee (of course we do!) but because people rely on and enjoy our coffee, and as a roaster, we are simply stewards of someone else’s creation.

Two farms really stood out to us on the trip because of their love for their people and product:  Finca El Injerto, which sits a few kilometers from the Mexican border in La Libertad, Guatemala, and Hacienda Nombre de Dios in Matapan, El Salvador near the borders of Honduras and Guatemala.

El Injerto’s reputation is impeccable.  1st place finishes in 4 out of the last 5 Guatemala Cup of Excellence competitions, the COE record price of $80.20 per pound in 2008, 1st place in the 2010 Rainforest Alliance Cupping for Quality competition to name a few accolades.  Arturo Agguire, Jr and Sr are known for their meticulous preparation of the coffee.

Hacienda Nombre de Dios is lesser known in the US, despite being a finalist in multiple El Salvador Cup of Excellence competitions.  This is probably due to the fact that Europe and Japan have been buying much of their crop production over the last few years.  Maria and Javier (Maria’s son) Botto are producing great coffee on a beautiful farm, and taking care of the people who work the land for them.

Both of these farms were equally impressive in their own ways, although very different.  I will follow up over the next week or so with more about each of these two farms and our travels in Guatemala and El Salvador.

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A Week in Haiti with ‘Aid for Haiti’

You may remember back in January we offered a special blend of coffee to raise money for an organization called ‘Aid For Haiti’. Since that time I’ve gotten to know one of the doctors/founders, Caleb Trent, and this month I had the opportunity to go to Haiti with Caleb and Aid For Haiti.

We met up with the team in Haiti.  There were 5 medical personnel, 3 non-medical (me being one), and 3 Haitians that helped with translation and other things.  We journeyed to a remote village in the mountains called Potino.   It’s so remote that I can’t find it on a map and we couldn’t get to the village in a vehicle.  By foot or by donkey was the only access.

The doctors set up in a clinic in the village, and they estimate the clinic serves about 50,000 people in the surrounding area.  Clinic makes it sound more glamorous than it really is, though.  It’s an old stone building with no water/bathroom facilities and no electricity.  When one of the doctors performed a surgery we moved the table to a nearby window and shone flashlights to aid him.

We used those stone walls well, though.  The teams saw about 90 patients per day.  Before we arrived we figured that we wouldn’t see much of the cholera epidemic as we were going up in the mountains, and since it spreads mainly through the rivers we thought most of the bacteria would be downstream.  But upon arriving we learned that as many as 15 people in the two weeks prior to our arrival had died from these nasty bacteria.   We saw a few severe cases while we there, and though we thought at least one of those would not pull through, they all did.  I am grateful for that.  But each patient we saw had family members that had recently died from cholera, and knew of more family members that were symptomatic.

I’m confident that the most helpful thing we did there was to teach people how to clean their water and how to make a treatment for cholera out of ingredients most Haitians have in their kitchen.  It is, after all, simple to treat if it’s treated promptly.

From what we saw, I’m convinced the cholera is much more widespread than the Haiti government and the media are portraying.  The country is in disarray and it goes much deeper than the recent tragedies.  The elections this past weekend are just one of many examples of the disarray.  I have traveled to some poor countries before, but nothing quite like Haiti.  It is, however, encouraging to know that there are people (such as Aid for Haiti) that are committed to long-term healing in Haiti, and not simply dumping ‘aid’ that equates to throwing resources at a problem without intimately getting involved (which only begets further reliance).

I also did get to talk a little bit of coffee while down there (and share some of mine) and I have some footage I will post later of the typical Haitian coffee prep.  The best way I could describe Haitian coffee is like filtered Turkish coffee.  Really thick and sweet but a bit cleaner than Turkish.

The week I spent there was an irreplaceable experience.

Labor Day in Austin – Local Coffee and Starbucks

From time to time, Jenni and I receive an envelope in the mail with a short note and newspaper clipping from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.  Her parents reside in Lubbock, and whenever her dad sees anything that might be of interest to us, he mails it our way.  Typically it’s a photo or story about someone we know, but most recently he sent us an article, by Jim Hightower, on a new concept that Starbucks is rolling out in attempt to ‘be local’.  This is just one of many ‘throw-it-atthe-wall-andsee-what-sticks’ corporate strategies they have executed in the past few years. 

Let me go ahead and say, I know many Starbucks’ bashers in the coffee industry, and I do not consider myself one of them.  Firstly, because I do not view them as direct competition to our business, as Starbucks competes more with the likes of McDonald’s than local high-quality roasters.  And secondly, because they helped to start the specialty coffee trend (before they diverted) that local roasters, like myself, are trying to implant and turn into something that is more than a trend. 

Now back to Mr. Hightower’s article, he explains that Starbucks, with their latest maneuver, is trying to fake authentic ‘local feels’ that many independent coffee shops create.  He asserts that it will fail because you cannot fake local.  According to Mr. Hightower, Starbucks hired market researchers to investigate and steal ‘community personality’ in other local coffee shops. 

He ends the article by contrasting Starbucks’ local approach with his nearby Starbucks, in Austin, that is adjacent to a Jiffy Lube.  He quips that it is seemingly functioning in a ‘symbiotic partnership’, which he calls a ‘poetic juxtaposition’.  The article is good and it poses an interesting question about the local movement, “Can you fake it?”  I am not sure I agree with the assertion that it is doomed to fail.  I have witnessed and read of uncountable ‘successful’ corporate deceptions in the coffee industry, and if anyone can pull it off, it is Starbucks.

Stay with me… this ties into my Labor Day trip, I promise.  This past weekend, Jenni, Blaise and I went to the Hill Country for a friend’s wedding, and we decided to extend it by a day or two and take our first mini-vacation since going to Panama last June (on a work-induced vacation).  You can imagine my excitement when, after blowing past our hotel’s exit, I hit a quick u-turn right in front of this poetic juxtaposition:

 

Jenni and Jiffybucks

Jenni and Jiffybucks

While in Austin, we were able to break away from the local Jiffybucks to visit some authentic coffee shops (which everyone should do when in Austin), so I’ll leave Starbucks alone for now… 

In Austin, many people know of Caffe Medici (which was good), but I had my first taste of two other shops that I really enjoyed, in particular.  Little City is on Congress near the Capital and Once Over Coffee Bar is on South 1st Street.  Rob, the owner of Once Over, was buzzing behind the bar, and he showed a much-appreciated intentional and methodical approach to his coffee brewing. 

Little City roasts their own beans (which will always get points in my book) and Once Over uses Cuvee Coffee (as does Caffe Medici and seemingly half of Austin’s coffee shops).  These two shops are definitely worth checking out if you find yourself in Austin.

Panama and the Geisha

Panama is gaining much momentum in popularity within the coffee world.  Over the past few years, coffees from Panama have continued to impress in the cup and win various awards.  Predominately, the hype is about the Geisha bean, which is a varietal of the Coffee Arabica plant. 

 

Geisha is distinct in the cup and has been described anywhere from hot lemonade to a floral tea.  At the Esmeralda Special On-line Auction this past May, single lots of Geisha went for anywhere from $6/lb. up to $105/lb.  For perspective, the current fair trade price for coffee is $1.30/lb.  (5-80 times more!).  Geisha is the most exotic coffee I’ve ever put my tongue to, but it’s an ‘occasional’ coffee in my opinion.

 

At Finca Lerida, in Boquete, Panama, Jenni and I were fortunate enough to cup some Geisha coffee (among others) along with Andres Lopez, the Production Manager of the farm.  We also cupped their estate ‘Honey’ coffee, which is also a very interesting coffee due, mostly, to the unique processing method.  The Honey coffee is outstanding and ranks among my all-time favorites.  

 

Prior to the cupping session, we toured the coffee farm through fields up the side of the volcano.  Although Lerida is not an organic farm, they are making encouraging strides of sustainability and fairness.  For example, they pay the migrant Ngobe Indian workers well above the area’s going rate for coffee picking to ensure only the ripe fruits are being picked (it is truly a win-win situation for both parties). 

 

Andres stirring the mucilage for compostSome of their conservation efforts include using California Red Worms to compost the coffee mucilage that would normally be discarded and flushed into a local river.  This creates a natural fertilizer that saves them money and is much cleaner on the environment.  All of this leads to better situation for the owners, the workers, the environment and to us who get to enjoy the final product of compassion and effort. 

 

 

Speaking of the final product, I was able to bring back some samples, and I will be offering limited amounts of the some of these unique Panama coffees in the coming months.  Finca Lerida’s coffee has been fully committed to distributors already, but through another connection, I ordered limited amounts from the neighboring farm, Finca Elida.  Look for these coming soon!