Direct Trade: Relationships

by David Eldridge

Why get into the cof­fee busi­ness?  Relationships.  Seeking out like-minded peo­ple all over the cof­fee grow­ing world and return­ing home with their hard work to share is what sep­a­rates cof­fee as a busi­ness from cof­fee as a lifestyle. My col­league Brandon Bir and I were for­tu­nate to find our­selves in Guatemala ear­lier this year amongst the finest of cof­fee and people.

We drop out of the sky and into the land of eter­nal spring. The weather in Guatemala, as adver­tised, is going to make our search that more enjoy­able. Brandon and I are here in search of that moment – hard to define but easy to spot once it hap­pens – when we dis­cover a cof­fee we just have to have. After cup­ping cof­fee together daily, Brandon and I know what we’re look­ing for.

At the air­port gate, we’re met by a friend who has set aside a few days to guide us. He is no stranger to this jour­ney; in fact, he has ded­i­cated his life to it. Once the youngest Q-grader in the world, Jorge Ovalle now spends most of his time look­ing for great cof­fee. We have arrived with the same purpose.

We quickly escape the air­port and embark on our quest. We are headed to Antigua, a grow­ing region of great tra­di­tion and renown. Some of the world’s most elo­quent cups of cof­fee are born in Antigua every year, but this year’s har­vest has come under attack. The region, like much of Central America, has fallen prey to Roya, or cof­fee rust, caused by the fun­gus hemileia vas­ta­trix. Even at drive-by speeds the effect is obvi­ous. The once-lush green foliage usu­ally adorn­ing the hill­sides has been replaced by spindly twigs, mere skele­tons of their for­mer grandeur. Some hold on to their dig­nity despite the plague and bravely man­age clus­ters of bright crim­son berries. The extent of the dam­age varies from one farm to another, as each uti­lizes its own prac­tices. Of course, the most vul­ner­a­ble farmer is the organic farmer, who can­not use chem­i­cal fungi­cides to com­bat the plague.

Jorge takes us to Maria del Pintado, the only Antigua cof­fee farm that is cer­ti­fied organic. Standing in the shad­ows of a majes­tic 400-year-old hacienda, which once housed Mother Teresa for a visit, we are wit­ness to a near-apocalyptic scene of denuded cof­fee trees. While Mad Max may have looked around, dusted him­self off and moved on, the owner and man­agers here have shown more back­bone. Within a few weeks, they must decide whether or not they are going to pull up all the plants and start over. If they do, there will be no yields for years to come. The other option is the use of non-organic fer­til­iz­ers. After meet­ing Belarmino, the man­ager, I don’t believe that this was ever a con­sid­er­a­tion. While tour­ing the grounds we learn of his fierce ded­i­ca­tion to this land and the cof­fee on it. Every aspect of pro­cess­ing El Pintado cof­fee takes place on the farm and under Belamino’s over­sight. “This was to be the year,” Belarmino told us, “But for the rust.”  The yield for this year’s har­vest can’t be ignored. Only 60 bags.

When the meet­ing of minds takes place and the fate of El Pintado is deter­mined, a key fig­ure in the deci­sion will be Jorge’s father, Jorge De Leon, Sr. He started in cof­fee in 1981 at age 17. He got a job clean­ing the cup­ping labs and orga­niz­ing the results. He would blind cup the sam­ples him­self and com­pare his notes with cup­pers’ records while no one was watch­ing. Jorge cleaned for years before he was offered the addi­tional duties of roast­ing the sam­ples. After work, he would go to the library and learn what he could about grow­ing and pro­cess­ing cof­fee. He has since worked as a cup­per for farms and labs through­out Guatemala, advis­ing on all aspects of qual­ity con­trol: farm­ing, milling, and cup­ping. In 2011 he won Guatemala’s national cup­ping com­pe­ti­tion and rep­re­sented Guatemala in Amsterdam at the world cup­ping com­pe­ti­tion where he was a final­ist. His work ethic remains unchanged 30 years later. Next to his house is his roast­ing and cup­ping lab. After vis­it­ing farms all day with Jorge Jr. we join Jorge Sr. at his house each night. We start cup­ping again between 8 and 9 p.m. Sometime after mid­night Brandon and I have to call it a night. Our nerves are on over­drive from a steady diet of caf­feine and we have new farms to see and new cof­fees to try first thing in the morn­ing. You just can’t out-cup the De Leons.

It was in the De Leons’ pri­vate cof­fee lab where we had that moment for the first time in Guatemala. Brandon and I both know this is what we are look­ing for. It was a blend that Jorge Jr. had put together using beans from local small-lot farms. We dubbed this blend “Jorge’s Pick.” Jorge had already taken us to visit many of the farms where the cof­fee was grown. Unfortunately, none of them would be able to help export the unusual blend, and the De Leons don’t have an export license. Still, we had to have this coffee.

The next day we cupped some good cof­fees and a few that stood out when that moment hit us again. It was the quin­tes­sen­tial Antigua, bal­anced and soft, rich with choco­late notes but still no real spikes. It is exactly what I want in an Antigua, and we have to have some of this too. As it turns out, this cof­fee is the prod­uct of El Pintado. But with such a small yield this year and reg­u­lar cus­tomers in Korea, would there be any left for us?  Obtaining the cof­fee would involve call­ing the owner, who was out of the coun­try at the time. She made her­self avail­able for us and agreed to set aside some bags of cof­fee. We also were for­tu­nate to make arrange­ments for export­ing the two types of cof­fee.  We have recently learned that the cof­fee trees of El Pintado will be spared.  I hope we are able to join them next har­vest, see their progress and shake hands again.

Coffee is a busi­ness of rela­tion­ships. The trick, when it comes down to it, is do you trust who you’re doing busi­ness with?  We trav­eled to Guatemala to find great cof­fee but more impor­tantly, strengthen the rela­tion­ships with the peo­ple behind the coffee.

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