Sourcing coffee in Coban, Guatemala.
Day Two Part Two Finca Santa Isabel
Today is a very special day for me, today I get to meet one of my favourite coffee producers of all time and better still we meet on his farm. I should start by setting the scene. Finca Santa Isabel is a farm in Guatemala and one which we have bought from for the past few years.
I first discovered this coffee about four years ago at a cupping with one of our suppliers, Mercanta based in London. On a table full of Kenyan samples sat this coffee from a producer from Guatemala it had all the characteristics of Kenyan coffee, fruity aromatics bold acidity and a rather winey flavour profile. I chose the coffee as my favourite without knowing where it was from it just really stood out. We have bought this coffee every year since and I always get excited when summer comes and it arrives in the roastery.
Our day started with a short drive through the town of San Cristóbal Verapaz to the gates of Santa Isabel. Santa Isabel is about 300 hectares in size and does not seem to be at particularly high altitude especially in compassion to the other farms we visited in the previous days. However the farm sits at 1400 - 1600 metres above sea level. We start in the farm house which was built in the 1960s. Luis Valdes nicknamed Wicho (photographed at the top) gave us the tour for the day. Wicho is the son of Don Luis Valdes and the farm has been in the family since 1875. Wicho has made Santa Isabel what it is today. The farm and the family have always grown coffee however they have immersed themselves into the world of specialty for the past 15 years or so. The region of Coban is rainy, hot and humid. This creates a hard environment for speciality coffee production so Wicho and his team have adapted and created new and unique farming methods to get the results they look for in coffee. Some years the coffees have been so good from Santa Isabel they have competed in the Cup of Excellence programme.
Our tour takes us firstly to the store and drying facility. As mentioned it rains here.... A LOT. The annual precipitation at Santa Isabel is around 3,500mm, with regular rainfall between nine and ten months of the year. Constant rain (much of it gentle drizzle) means that flowering is very staggered, with 8-9 flowerings per year. This means that during harvest the pickers need to re pick the same areas 10 times to make sure they only pick the ripest coffee cherries. This also means that after all the picking and patio drying pretty much all the coffee needs to have some time spent in the mechanical dryers. These are huge rotating drums much like a coffee roaster but the heat is much more gentle. Wood is burnt and the warm air is flowed into the dryers to slowly heat the beans, moisture is constantly monitored and when they hit the target moisture the huge drums are emptied. This is a system very commonly used in Brazil and in areas where there is lots of rainfall. If this was not used the coffee would back up on the patios or worse still rot while waiting to be processed.
We move from here mainly because now it 30 degrees outside but pushing 40 in here! The trees are planted in strict rows on this farm and it has the feeling of a vineyard beautifully manicured and extremely organised. Wicho explains as we walk around about how they have developed a pruning cycle which means they keep high yield, high quality and low use of pesticides. It has taken years to perfect plants are pruned according to a five row/five year cycle that is further fine-tuned according to each plant’s need for aeration and light. This has been hugely important to Santa Isabel as they have managed to minimise the spread of a disease called roya of leaf rust. We are visiting the farm in March and the trees are being picked and harvested to we get to taste some coffee fruits, plummy, juicy and sweet with a jasmine like aroma. Santa Isabel mainly grows Caturra and Catuai trees.
We have to cross the road to visit the wet mill and the Patios. Wicho and his family have invested heavily in machinery more commonly found in Brazil to help them streamline and improve the wet milling process. New technology sorts the cherries and grades them removing and under or over ripe fruits before the first fermentation process. They are then mechanically pulped. Coffee is fermented for up to 48 hours and is covered at night to maintain constant temperatures. After fermentation, the coffee is washed and then soaked in clean water for 24 hours to remove any traces of mucilage before being dried. The coffee can also be stored here in clean water if there is no space on the Patios.
The coffee is then spread onto the patios making sure that days (or lots) of pickings are kept separate. This is the complicated part of process and now starts the battle with the rain. There are teams of pickers who monitor, rake and keep the coffee turning on the patios ready to run out and bag it all up if the rains come. Some lots are placed into a small green house they built to make sure the drying process is perfect. It's a huge puzzle and the team take split shifts, they work on rotation so one week they are in the fields picking the next they are on the patios. This is mainly due to the intense heat on the patios and the very heavy work that is required to make sure quality is kept high and lots stay separate. Once the moisture is right the coffee is bagged up and taken back across the road to be finished in he mechanical dryers.
Santa Isabel trains and employees 40 permanent workers year-around; up to 500 seasonal labourers are brought in for the coffee harvest. Wicho has commented that although many farms in the region find it increasingly difficult to secure labour for the entirety of the harvest, Santa Isabel has a stable and reliable work force, despite their reputation for being very demanding with regards to selective picking. In addition to paying fairly, a picker at Santa Isabel can harvest up to 160 pounds of cherry a day, which means many of the same workers come back year after year!
Our day is over however there is time for some chats and discussions back in the farm house. I have met Wicho before in London with Mercanta and it was good to talk about the progress with Round Hill. He was super happy to know that we always have put Finca Santa Isabel on the bag as all to often his coffee ends up in a blend. We didn't have any samples so we made do with his coffee in a beer! The craft beer scene is taking off in Guatemala! I actually got to meet his friend later on the trip in Antiqua who is the brewer...walk into a bar and drop the "oh we know Wicho Valdes line" and we got superb service. It made me very happy to meet Luis Valdes, he loves his coffee, he loves his farm and he loves his truck this all adds up to a VERY HAPPY roaster.