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Direct Trade

Isn’t economy air travel glorious? Who cares! We got to escape the horrid winter cold, visit some amazing locales and meet dedicated and passionate coffee people! We flew in to Guatemala City at dusk.

Travelling with myself (Roaster) and Andy (Owner, Green Bean Buyer) this time was Brett (Ex-manager at Crafted, national barista competitor, Head of our upcoming Tasting Bar), as well as Shawn and Jay of Rooster Coffeehouse, certainly one of the best places to grab great coffee in Toronto.

The first morning we were greeted by Nicholas Hammond of CAFCOM (a supplier of Guatemalan coffee) and owner of Finca Catalan de Las Mercedes, or “Catalan” as he likes to call it. Accompanying Nicholas for a great deal of this trip was Angie, his fiance. Nicholas is 26 years old and has a degree in agricultural engineering, so he is driven and knows what he wants to achieve. A perfect fit for us here at Pilot.

The first place he took us to was a wet mill (or beneficio) that he oversees in Acatenango, called “Puerta Blanca”. I have no idea what that means. (OK it means “white door”) This is also the mill where Nicholas washes his own coffee. It mills around 1500 lbs of cherry each day. At this location and altitude (around 1500m) the coffee undergoes a 12 hour fermentation, and the drying time is around 9 days. There is not much patio space so there are also mechanical dryers, using wood as a fuel source. The pulping equipment and washing channels get covered in chalk powder during downtime to prevent the growth of bacteria. The pulp waste from the cherry is collected and given to local farmers as fertilizer.

The first thing that always strikes me when going to a wet mill is the smell. It is unmistakable and oddly comforting and difficult to describe. In any event it is always a pleasure to see what happens to coffee before it reaches your cup; the wet milling process is just one small part of a larger chain.

Next we were taken to Catalan, over 2000 meters above sea level. And let me tell you: I was instantly in love with the place. I had never seen such healthy-looking trees! And so much gesha! This is right when Nicholas told us that the 25 bags of Catalan we received this past fall was a blend of all the farm’s varieties. We had suspected as much when our initial cupping revealed bursts of jasmine unlike a typical Guatemalan coffee.

The farm is at such a high elevation that leaf rust thankfully does not pose a threat; instead frost is a risk one runs into at this height. Also there is a slightly higher risk of UV damage, but the effects of that are not fully understood; and in any event the entire farm has shade trees (as does something like 98% of all coffee grown in the country). Nicholas uses both Ingas and Gravilea for shade, and also has a few avocado trees around.

His farm is surrounded by 600 acres of natural reserve and Nicholas does his best to preserve what he can: whenever he reclaims land for more coffee, he replants trees elsewhere. He also gives portions of his land over to his employees to plant whatever crops they wish for food. Corn is most common. He has 5 year-round employees and up to 100 during harvest. A good year can see Catalan producing up to 150 70kg bags of green coffee, but you really have to wait for it: again because the coffee grows at such a height, the harvest won’t complete until April.

What we are really excited about is the massive potential at Catalan. We are interested in securing the entire lot from Nicholas this time around, and not only that, but he is also going to separate the coffee by variety! So this time we will be able to offer three coffees from the same farm: Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon and the aforementioned Gesha. This is a first for us and a first for Nicholas, and we are honoured to be able to join him in this journey. He has bigger plans for Catalan in the future as well: he wants to build a wet mill on site so that he will have more control over the processing, and also to experiment with fermentation, soaking, pulping and drying.

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Early this month I was fortunate once again to visit the farms of our producer partners in El Salvador, and I want to share some thoughts from the trip.

Just like last year (my first trip to El Salvador), I was humbled by the kindness and generosity of our hosts, and of the Salvadoran people in general. Gloria, Maria-Jose, and Luis Rodriguez are some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met, and as a bonus they are also amazingly dedicated coffee producers. This year we went a bit earlier to see their farms so we were able to witness the actual first picking which was quite a sight: Dozens upon dozens of people moving over the trees, diligently picking only the ripest cherry with a speed and fluidity that is truly impressive. Determining which is ripe is more challenging than it appears – you don’t merely grab the red ones: it is a combination of sight (looking at just the right spot on a cherry) and touch (the way the cherry detaches from the stem) that takes great skill and intuition to master, especially if you are wishing to work quickly.

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In addition to visiting the Rodriguez’ many farms and their mill of choice we were also able to visit Ricardo Ariz of Finca El Aguila, a former venture capitalist who took over the farm when his grandmother passed away two years ago. El Aguila (‘The Eagle’) is the largest farm I have seen yet in El Salvador, and it is only 45 hectares of coffee (about 65 in total), going from about 1500m up to 1720m. Ricardo has a large personality to match El Aguila’s impressive size, and is very enthusiastic to be working with us (as are we with him). He even gave a couple of us (we were also travelling with Adam Pesce of Reunion Island) some sweet machetes! We currently have his Pacamara varietal on offer here, and we are hopeful that his Bourbon (and Kenia) varietals will be just as impressive.

I want to speak a little bit here about varietals, Bourbon in particular. Bourbon is one of the oldest known varietals of Arabica, with many offshoots and hybrids and mutants. It is revered for its excellent cup quality and decent yield. However, it has some drawbacks that are only going to become more troublesome with the effects of climate change that seem to continue unabated. You see, Bourbon is not very resistant to many pests and diseases and any drastic changes in climate. One of these pests, coffee leaf rust, or ‘Roya’, is becoming more and more of a threat to coffee producers who grow Bourbon and other such susceptible varietals.

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I sadly saw this with my own eyes when travelling through El Salvador: farms with literally just bare sticks instead of trees – no leaves, no cherry. It was absolutely heartbreaking. These producers will have nothing, their livelihood basically destroyed. The roya attacks the leaves of the coffee tree, draining them of any way to nourish the cherries. If there are already cherries on the tree, they will drop off prematurely; otherwise there will just be no cherry growth at all. What is left is a skeleton, a graveyard of spindly sticks. Current reports estimate that up to forty percent of coffee in Central America is affected by roya (in Guatemala the figure is even higher, at 80%).

This is truly shocking news and should definitely be sobering to all coffee lovers. The outbreak has not affected everybody equally, of course. Did I see signs of roya when I was visiting the Rodriguez’ and Mr. Ariz’ farms? I sure did. In fact, one of the farms owned by Gloria Rodriguez, Nueva Grenada (which we did not visit), has been very heavily affected. But what I saw at the others was not yet alarming, owing to the amount of care and quick reaction to any outbreaks. In fact, the yield this year from our partners is expected to be larger than last year: I saw very healthy trees heavy with ripe cherry, ready to be picked (it was awesome to see our tablon, Los Vientos the day before first picking – the amount of ripe cherry was simply mouthwatering). We will for sure have some exciting coffees from El Salvador in the coming months.

Despite that, I can’t help but be concerned for people growing coffee in the global south: the challenges they will have to face (are facing already) are daunting, but there are a few things that can be done (that we can also do) to help weather the coming storm. One thing is to establish strong relationships with producers, to share some of the burden, to be there for each other through times good and bad. When we have these kinds of relationships, when we pay a premium for their very best, that helps them be able to invest in the future, to develop better methods. Finca La Gloria, acquired by the Rodriguez family in 2009, has this amazing varietal garden featuring 90 different types of Arabica. I helped pick some Geisha, Harrar, Mokka, Kenia, Filipino and many others, and I watched them being milled by hand for replanting. Some of these varieties could have pest resistance and a high yield and amazing cup quality – the trifecta of awesome (my name) for the future.

Furthermore, cementing a strong relationship and paying above C market price allows for certain stopgap measures (like light spraying) to deal with roya as it pops up. These chemicals are unfortunately necessary in some circumstances and they can be expensive as well.

What can coffee drinkers do? Well for starters let’s keep drinking excellent coffee. This is a very general statement, but it tends that the higher a farm’s altitude, the less affected it is by disease and pests. If we pay more for quality coffee then producers will have more capital to invest in better practices and into research on prevention and varietals. Let’s become more invested in where the coffee comes from, in the struggles and stories from the ground level; personally I am humbled by the dedication that is behind each cup, and now I even struggle with just a little bit of waste: every cherry counts.

I feel that if we can become more connected with the coffee we drink, we will in turn have that much more to lose and be more willing to make the sacrifices that I am sure we must.

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We have a bit of a love affair going with Brazil at Te Aro. Besides the nice beaches, good-looking models, smooth beer, and great soccer, Brazil grows really, really, really good coffee beans. We’ve just received shipments of our favourites, from Fazenda Cachoeira De Grama and Fazenda Delarisse, causing much jubilation and excitement around here. We’re all quivering with anticipation to get roasting these amazing coffees and share them with you. Once you try them, you’ll understand.

Both of these coffees have come to us through direct trade. One of the best parts about our business growing is our increasing ability to deepen and widen our direct trade model. That means we can take more trips to warm and sunny places, visit lush green expanses of mountainous farmland, and, most importantly build solid, long-lasting, mutually beneficial friendships with the wonderful people who grow our green beans. For those of you who eagerly follow all our activities over here (which we know is most of you, of course), you may remember Andy’s adventure down to Brazil last spring. He was able to spend some quality time at both of these farms and establish direct trade relationships with their dedicated owners.

And now, let us introduce you to these beautiful beans:

Fazenda Delarisse Chapadão de Ferro

This is Te Aro’s very own micro-lot. Yes, that means it is exclusively ours, and that also means when you have a cup at the café or at home, you’re one of the select few (in the world!) who gets the pleasure of experiencing this bean. We did up a single-origin espresso with this stunning coffee for the Central Regional Barista Competition last year, and it took us all the way to Nationals.

Fazenda Delarisse is in the Cerrado region of Brazil, one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet. Fazenda Delarisse is owned by Ruvaldo Delarisse, who’s family founded the farm in 1977. Ruvaldo is a mechanical engineer who has brought that expertise to his coffee growing, employing incredibly efficient mechanical pickers (one of which he even let Andy ride along the tree-tops, a dream he never even knew he had until that moment).

The farm is situated on the legendary Chapadão de Ferro, or “Plains of Iron,” 1250 meters above sea level and inside the crater of a volcano. With that kind of location you know you’re going to get some pretty special characteristics. The crater is its own little micro-climate, and the coffee grows from iron-rich volcanic soil, producing a delicate cup with exceptional clarity, highlighting notes of toffee and stewed tropical fruit.

Ruvaldo is unflagging in his commitment to quality and is eager to hear feedback from roasters. This is our second year buying a micro-lot from Fazenda Delarisse, and we’re looking forward to many more.

Fazenda Cachoeira De Grama

Andy actually met Gabriel de Carvalho Dias, owner of Fazenda Cachoeira De Grama, right here in Toronto while he was setting up a roastery in Oakville (he still spends a lot of time in Toronto while his son is going to university here). Gabriel is the inheritor of a long tradition of coffee farmers; the Carvalho Dias family has been working the land of Fazenda Cachoeira De Grama since 1890. Some of the bourbon varietal trees are originals from the farms inception over 100 years ago. When Andy went down to Brazil, Gabriel Andy on all sorts of coffee adventures from picking cherries with the farmers to assisting in processing the beans to graciously hosting him for dinner on his farm.

The 417 hectares of Fazenda Cachoeira De Grama are located in the mountainous Mogiana and Sul de Minas regions, about 4 hours drive from Sao Paolo, and is located at an altitude of 1,100-1,250 metres. Because its hilly terrain doesn’t accommodate much machinery, all operations are totally manual.

The hand-harvested coffee is picked with the utmost care to avoid the beans having any contact with the soil. They are then washed and set outside to dry in attentively monitored conditions.

The Carvalho Dias family is strongly committed to social and environmental sustainability. The farm is careful to plant native species to maintain ecological balance. There houses, all with modern facilities, for employees, as well as a school, club and soccer field. They are careful to prevent pollution of the streams, and the farm has a small hydroelectric plant and only buys energy during the peak harvest. This is a farm we can feel great about supporting, for its quality product and its responsible, conscious operation. Not to mention, the sweet chocolate caramel you’ll taste in the cup will melt your heart.

Are you sufficiently pumped for your new favourite coffees? Just a few more sleeps until these beans hit the shelves!