With regards to direct sourcing, Honduras is a coffee origin where we’ve struggled to find our footing. Part of the reason is that as a coffee producing country, Honduras has historically positioned themselves with volume-oriented exporters who place value on quantity over quality. Add to that the fact that most farmers grow disease-resistant hybrids rather than varieties thought to produce a good cup (like Caturra and Bourbon), and we’ve found ourselves struggling to find coffees we like.
Honduras is the #1 coffee producing country in Central America, out-producing most South American countries too. But of the 7 million+ bags exported last year, less than 1/3 are “value added” coffees: those that command a higher price than commodity coffee, based on certifications or level of cup quality. In years past, a booming coffee market helped bring somewhat stable prices to the country. But with the recent market hovering around $1.00, it’s become increasingly difficult to drive sustainability at the farm level from pennies on the pound (a problem we’re seeing in all producing countries).
After a leaf rust (“La Roya”) epidemic claimed more than 25% of the 2012/13 harvest, the Honduran central coffee authority IHCAFE (“Instituto Hondureno del Cafe”) stepped in to minimize the fallout by offering farmers aid in the form of technical assistance, loans and disease resistant, “Catimor” coffee hybrids. The latter have certainly helped to bolster overall production numbers. But like we’ve seen in other countries who have suffered the devastating effects of leaf rust (see Colombia), simply planting disease resistant hybrids doesn’t necessarily equate to higher value coffee. The Timor Hybrid genes that makes these hybrids so resilient can also have a negative impact on the cup.
Of course, a lot more goes into cup quality than just the cultivar. 100% Bourbon grown at 1500 meters means very little if poorly processed. As we cup more and more Catimor coffees from Honduras, we’re finding that the flavor profiles vary quite a bit (no surprise!),and are dependent on factors like altitude, processing and when the cherry is harvested. Once again we see that universal truths rarely apply in coffee.
Most of our Honduras sourcing the past 3 years has been through a Honduran export group in Corquín. Starting back in 2008 sourcing coffee from 35 producers, the number of farmers they represent has grown exponentially. They offer the farmers they buy from a tiered pricing program, paying value-added premiums based off of final cup quality as well as through farm certifications.
They now work in more than half a dozen growing regions across the country and their broad reach has afforded us access to coffee we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Last year we brought in nearly a full container of Honduras coffee (that may not sound like a lot, but a significant bump up for us), a volume I would partly credit to us having access to more coffees than in previous years.
Their growth hasn’t been entirely organic, as they’re also part of a large multinational coffee company. On the positive side, this has meant the ability to finance coffee projects in the various growing regions they work in, including new processing machinery and infrastructure, a team of agronomists, a state of the art coffee lab and more. But the strains of being a customer of a rapidly growing supplier have also been felt to some extent.
Nevertheless, after cupping through several rounds of offer samples, we managed to piece together a fairly diverse container of coffee; especially considering they’re all wet process. I tend to think of Honduran coffees as being balanced and bittersweet, because they often are. But this year many of the coffees we tasted were also fruit-forward and bright, delicate and tea-like, some of which can be attributed to the hybrid cultivars. Coffees that come to mind that are currently available are La Lesquiñada and Angel Vasquez. In addition, we have two more single producer lots that we sourced through this particular export group on the way in the next couple of months.
I should also mention that we bought a 30 bag lot from a new importer right here in Oakland for the first time this year. He’s a familiar face to us, having worn many hats at coffee import companies we do business with. A completely self-funded venture and without outside investment, he’s set out on his own to import coffees from producer groups and cooperatives that he’s come across during his years as a coffee trader. With an eye on conservation, he is sourcing from groups who are active participants in forest restoration. The coffee we picked up is fully organic, from a producer named Yuliana Aguilar in Santa Maria, La Paz. Tasting it side by side with a few other coffees from Honduras and El Salvador, Yuliana’s coffee stood out as being delicate and even ‘bright’ for Honduras.
While we may have struggled to find a consistent source in Honduras, we continue to come up with good coffee. I think as more small scale exporters with a mindset to identify farmers who are capable of producing top lots, and are willing to pay a premium for the added labor involved, we’ll continue to see an upward tick in cup quality from the region. We’ve made several trips to Honduras the past few years, cupping coffees in labs and living rooms, as well as making selections from our cupping lab in Oakland. There is a reason we keep going back.
In terms of finding coffees we enjoy, this year was a success and we look forward to exploring avenues new and old in the coming harvest.