Due to the seasonal nature of coffee growing there is rarely a time when the Coffee Lab at our Roastery isn’t being used by our roasting & sourcing team to find new crop coffees to replace those going out of season. Within this room we systematically smell, slurp and contemplate our way through potential coffees sourced from many growing regions around the world. From February through March there is usually a frenzy of activity as freshly harvested samples arrive from Central America for consideration. This period is counterbalanced by an equally active session in September and October when offerings from South America are on the table.
The timing of this process is largely driven by major climatic factors, namely temperature and rainfall, that determine the time of year when a coffee tree flowers and the duration of the subsequent ripening period. Most coffee growing regions have what is called a unimodal rainfall pattern - an annual cycle where there is usually a single short dry season followed by an extended wet season. For example, below is a rainfall chart for Jacaltenano in Huehuetenango, Guatemala:
The extended dry period triggers the coffee tree to prepare for its next annual flowering. Flowering will only occur, however, upon the arrival of rains at the beginning of the wet season. Conveniently, the harvest of ripe cherries (containing the seeds that we transform into a cup of coffee) occurs at the onset of the next dry season when conditions are perfect for drying out the seeds to avoid mold and fungus issues.
Guatemala lies North of the Equator and, like most Northern growing regions, the coffee harvest there is during our winter. Contrast this cycle with the rainfall pattern in Jaén, in Northern Peru, where the harvest falls toward the end of our summer:
It was the June - August harvest in Northern Peru that brought us there toward the end of this summer to find single farm coffees from individual producers associated with the cooperative CENFROCAFE. With fresh crop having recently arrived from across Central America, our sights have now turned to sourcing awesome coffees from small-scale organic producers in South America in Central Africa.
CENFRO is a relatively large association of approximately 2150 small producers growing coffee in over 80 communities in the Northern Peruvian provinces of Jaén and San Ignacio. They have existed since 1999 and their purpose, as with all small producer cooperatives, is to improve the economic security and potential of small scale coffee producers by providing support and linking them to directly to the international market.
The process of producing and exporting coffee in Northern Peru begins at the farm owned and operated typically by a single family with very little recourse to external labour. Most farms in the region are quite small, with the typical producer owning approximately two hectares. This is sufficient land to produce as much as 3,000 pounds of exportable specialty coffee. Below are a few photographs of the producers of CENFROCAFE working on the coffee we’ll be drinking in Ottawa early in 2015!
Don Santos (left) and Don Mardoqueo (right),live in San Pablo, Jaén. They are organic coffee producers and associates of CENFROCAFE. They also grow some of the best coffee in the country!
One of Amaro Chasquero Jaramillo’s sons picking coffee during the August harvest. Coffee picking has to be done entirely by hand due to the steep slopes on which quality coffee grows.
Once the coffee has been picked it must be immediately pulped to separate the seeds from the fruit. Most farms in the region have their own ‘wet mills’ where coffee can be pulped, fermented, washed and dried before delivery to the cooperative as ‘dry parchment’.
Coffee is dried using heat from the sun. This is normally done on tarps laid out on concrete patios, however the frequent rainfall during the harvest season in Jaén has forced many producers to get creative. Above is a parabolic drier that regulates heat and humidity while keeping the rain out. Don Mardoqueo and various other producers have also built second stories to their houses and they use the second floor as a covered drying patio with doors built on either side of the structure to allow for adequate ventilation.
The above processes must be handled very carefully in order to yield a truly great coffee. With all associations of small coffee producers one invariably finds certain producers with the right combination of experience, knowledge and physical growing conditions to produce excellent coffee and others who could see improvement in these areas. Identifying those producers who grew the best coffee in the region was the primary purpose of my trip to CENFRO this year.
The cooperative has a quality control lab in Jaén, a lively town just East of the Andes mountain range. To get there one has to fly from Lima to Piura, a bustling desert town with a local economy driven by the nearby Port of Paita, the second largest in the country next to the Port of Callao in Lima. Given the proximity of the port, coffee from CENFROCAFE is dry milled (a process of sorting and removing the dry parchment husk that surrounds the seeds) in Piura by a mill called Norandino.
Coffee being delievered to the Norandino Mill in Piura
From Piura one takes a very long, windy road over the Andes to get to Jaén. The journey takes around 8 hours and is not particularly comfortable, although the landscapes are certainly magnificent and more than make up for it. Once passing the highest altitudes of the pass one finds oneself descending from rugged, rocky terrain all but free of vegetation into the lush Northern Highlands of this beautifully diverse country.
Crossing the Andes to get to Jaén and the bountiful coffeelands to the East
Jaén, city of Mototaxis.
My purpose in Jaén was to evaluate a number of single producer coffees that the cooperative’s quality control staff had identified as likely to be significantly better than average. The standard top grade that CENFROCAFE exports – called ‘’Apu’’, a traditional term for a guardian-mountain – is a blend of modest to high quality coffees from hundreds of producers. To acquire higher quality coffee for our Single Farm program we have to intercept the best of these coffees before they get lost in the aggregate, losing their value. This involves a relatively straightforward but nonetheless ritualistic and systematic process called cupping – essentially, tasting many many cups of coffee and scoring them on various taste, aroma and tactile elements.
Cupping single producer lots at the QC lab in Jaén
We had around 25 lots to cup over a single day, which is not a very high number (we had 60 in one day at a similar event in Guatemala earlier this year!) but is still an all-day affair that requires sustained concentration. The best coffees from this region can be quite tasty – the best way to describe them is sugary, with dominant flavours of sugar cane, honey and caramel. Occasionally you can also find coffees from this area that feature terrific dried fruit flavours similar to dates or figs. The objective of this cupping day was to identify these great coffees while rejecting coffees that did not meet our quality requirements. At the end of the day we had scores for all of the coffees and had identified about 6 that we were interested in for our Single Farm program. These coffees will be available starting in January or February of 2015!
Interviewing Jose Umberto Mejilla Romero in San Francisco Agua Colorada, a very small town at what appeared to be the end of the road. Jose’s coffee had the highest average score after the first day of cupping and we felt compelled to make the four hour journey into the mountains to visit him.
The road to San Francisco Agua Colorada in the misty mountains of Jaén, one of over 80 communities associated with CENFROCAFE
We will be pleased to offer some of the best coffees of Northern Peru when the Southern season commences in early 2015. Until then, we hope you enjoy our fresh Central American and Ethiopian coffees!
- Ian Clark