climate change

Honduras Origin Update: Yields down 50%

I recently returned from my first trip to Honduras, and CCS’ second trip for this harvest. I wanted to write a blog post with poetic descriptions of the beautiful farms, amazing people and delicious coffees I discovered in the region, or how I attempted to break the record for most baleadas eaten at El Rincon Del Sabor (not a pretty story, I’m not a breakfast person). Instead I have bad news to report: 

Yields in Santa Barbara, Honduras, are down almost 50% compared to last year. 

My heart breaks for our partners and producers in the region, knowing the hard work and care they invest in this, and every, season. In this origin update I will try and explain what’s happening to cause such low production, and what the producers are doing to combat these problems and prepare for the future. 

The natural cycle of high years and low years

Last year was an atypically productive year for Honduras, so comparing the 2018 harvest to 2017 is a bit deceiving. Additionally, this year happened to be the lower-yielding year in the bi-annual ebb and flow of productivity.

“In 2016, the rainy season was a bit more typical with multiple rain patterns, producing more flowerings. Because of this, 2017 was a fruitful year,” Benjamin Paz of our export partners, San Vincente, explained. 

“It was a perfect storm for quantity. Numbers were way up. However, in 2017, there was a long period of time over the summer when the weather was atypically hot during stretches when they usually receive rain. This pushed the flowering much later into the year, and plant production suffered. This of course led to smaller production in 2018.”

Benjamin Paz, producer and Everything-You-Need-Coffee-Guy at San Vincente, Honduras

Benjamin Paz, producer and Everything-You-Need-Coffee-Guy at San Vincente, Honduras

Combating Climate Change

Benjamin added “this country is certainly struggling with climate changes. We should all be much more concerned with how we’re treating the environment.”

While many coffee producing countries are experiencing a drop in production, Central and South America seems to have been hit harder than other regions. It is certainly the worst case of climate-induced agricultural issues that I’ve seen to date. It was sad and frightening, but also hopeful to witness the support from Benjamin and his staff, and the work they are doing to prepare producers for future low-yielding seasons.  

Some farmers are switching varietals, moving away from Pacas and planting the more disease resistant option: Paraneima. This variety has become popular the last couple of years because of the mentioned resistance, and the ability to achieve 86+ scores from much lower altitudes, around 1200 m.a.s.l.

Additionally, farmers have renovated existing Pacas and Catimor trees to ensure more fruitful seasons in the future. Some farmers are adding newer, healthier plants altogether. 

Benjamin stated that we should expect climate change to continue impacting yields, but he hopes that production will be more stable in the future. While thinking positively is admirable, it is not enough to protect farmers, so Benjamin and the staff have been working closely with producers to build systems to combat down-years. They have been working on more accurate projection models, and teaching farmers how to predict low production so it’s not as great of a financial shock. This makes it easier for farmers to know when cash flow will be down, and thus, when to invest back into the farm. 

This was my first time in Honduras, an origin that holds a special place in CCS’ heart, with many friends we have been working with for over twelve years. Benjamin Paz, friend to us all, was a wonderful host and we were so well taken care of by the San Vincente team. The coffees were stellar and the high percentage of the offerings that scored 86+ was nothing short of impressive. We have so much love and respect for our friends in Honduras, and we desperately hope their efforts and foresight will help them avoid low-seasons, like this one, in future.

All photos by John Ivar Sørreime, Kaffa Oslo

Check out our current crop Honduras coffees that are all cupping spectacularly well, or contact your sales representative to pre-book new harvest coffees that will be shipping soon. 

Farmer Profile: Jesus Antonio Saavedra, Finca El Placer

Tolima, Colombia

Twenty years ago Antonio Saavedra sold his farm at 1200 masl in Tolima, Colombia, and bought another further up the hill at 1715 masl. Yep, twenty years ago. Before anyone was talking about global warming and its impact on coffee, Antonio realized that temperatures were rising and it would soon be impossible to grow great coffee on his lower altitude farm.

To reach his current farm called El Placer, located in the San Antonio municipality of Tolima, you have to travel one and a half hours by horseback from the nearest road. It’s the kind of trip Antonio is accustomed to making. He once travelled eight hours by horseback to reach the town of Planadas in Tolima, in order to deliver a sample of his coffee to Alejandro Renjifo from Fairfield Trading, our partners in the region. Things are spread out in that part of Colombia and roads don't always take you where you need to go.

This is why Antonio created a school on his property. Seven children from neighboring families attend the school, which covers both primary and secondary curriculum. Of course, "neighbor" is a relative term. Their farms are quite far from Antonio’s, too far for the kids to travel back and forth on a daily basis. So they arrive Monday morning and stay until Friday afternoon.

Children tending to their vegetable garden beside the school on Antonio Saavedra's farm in Tolima, Colombia

Children tending to their vegetable garden beside the school on Antonio Saavedra's farm in Tolima, Colombia

Their teacher is also the head cook and chief caretaker. She walks one and a half hours up the hill to Antonio’s property on a Monday morning, then teaches, cooks and cares for the kids until they all go home on Friday. Next to the school building is a vegetable patch and part of the kids’ daily activity is to maintain the garden and prepare meals using the vegetables they have grown. The kids could attend a government school, but it is further from their homes than Antonio's farm, and it doesn't provide housing during the week. If it wasn’t for the school Antonio built on his property for his neighbor's children, it is unlikely they would get a continuous education.

New plantings on Antonio Saavedra's farm, Finca El Placer

New plantings on Antonio Saavedra's farm, Finca El Placer

The dedication of the teacher and the children is a reflection of Antonio’s own serious approach to life and work. The quality of his coffee is a result of daily persistence and willingness to learn. Antonio renovates his farm regularly to keep the trees young. His pickers are trained to collect only the ripe cherries which he depulps immediately and ferments for 36 hours in lidded containers filled with just enough water to cover the cherries. He washes the coffee up to four times to remove all trace of mucilage, and dries it slowly in a solar drier for around 15 days. He personally inspects every truck that will transport his coffee and accepts only impeccable cleanliness, his last chance to ensure his precious product isn’t contaminated by a smelly truck on its way to a buyer.

Antonio Saavedra at the Expoespeciales specialty coffee event in Bogotá, Colombia, October 2017

Antonio Saavedra at the Expoespeciales specialty coffee event in Bogotá, Colombia, October 2017

“I have coffee in my blood,” Antonio explains, when asked for his secret to producing quality. “I have been a coffee grower for 40 years. Coffee brings me food, life, love. I’m so proud when people buy my coffee and enjoy it.”

Through his connection to Fairfield Trading, Antonio is now working with several buyers he describes as “very serious people who understand coffee,” in other words, people like Antonio. Through these buyers he hopes to learn how he can improve his coffee even more. “I have a lot of discipline,” he said. “I tend to my coffee every day, I will work every day to make it better.” 

Coffees from Tolima and Huila are arriving very soon in the US. Contact Sal on the East Coast and Colleen on the West Coast to get your samples.

Panama Harvest Visit, March 2017

The purpose of my recent visit to Boquete, Panama was to spend a couple of days cupping with long-time friends and partners. Over the course of this visit, I observed and learned about the latest developments concerning how coffee cultivation has changed in this famed micro-region. My hosts and the coffees we cupped included:

  • Hacienda Esmeralda, Geishas, Washed and Naturals
  • Elida Estate, Catuaí and Geisha, Washed and Naturals
  • Panama Coffee Traders (PCT): the new sourcing and export company of Wilford and Wilford Lamastus Jr. of Finca Elida. Catuaí and Geisha, Washed and Naturals.

This visit proved to be a bit early ‘in the season’ for cupping, although mid-March isn’t typically early in Central America. One major reason for this comparatively “later” harvest period is that the farmers we are buying from, along with many more in the Boquete valley, are growing their best coffees at higher and higher altitudes, in part due to climate change.

Climate Change, Geisha & the Harvest Period

Ronaldo, who has been working with coffee farming in Boquete over three decades (most notably at La Hacienda Esmeralda) is unequivocal about the average temperature noticeably increasing upward over the years. Rain patterns have also been changing; there is later or irregular rain, leading to “irregular” flowering and harvest periods. The harvest period is now starting in December lasting in August, with the main harvest period going from February through April.

The farmers in Boquete are incredibly competitive and they have long been rivalling one another in growing Geisha trees at the climactically highest altitudes possible. Early on this meant exceeding 1900 meters above sea level, then 2000 and today, ‘high’ has increased to 2100 masl. What was once not even considered possible is now happening, due both to competition and climate change. What’s next?

Ripe geisha cherries at La Hacienda Esmeralda

Ripe geisha cherries at La Hacienda Esmeralda

Regardless of temperature or climate change, the Geisha plant is a sturdy one once it has settled. But it is also delicate and slow growing in terms of producing fruit worth calling a harvest. These factors, along with the high altitudes, the fact that Geisha cultivation requires seven to eight years or more of careful husbandry, the necessary wind protection, nourishment, and waiting, all culminate in the Geishaendeavour requiring great investments in time and all other imaginable resources.

The coffees themselves are becoming more elegant, whether wet processed or other. I think that when it is well done, Geisha might be one of the best varieties to make naturals from. I’m not saying that natural processing makes for a better cup than washed per se. But the best version of this variety and this method is showing its best and true attributes here. These Geisha naturals showcase the processing method in such a way that makes for both complexity and balance: they have all the floral notes and structured acidity, together with all the sweetness, body, and juiciness that a 94-points kind-of-coffee ought to have.

Hacienda Esmeralda

During the weekend of my visit, La Hacienda Esmeralda was celebrating its 50th Anniversary. The farm started with dairy production during the late ‘60s, moved into coffee soon afterward and is today strong in both fields. In the coffee world, Esmeralda is The World's #1 most recognized farm for Geisha coffee. After all, it was the Peterson family that discovered it. Who even spoke about Geisha before the Best of Panama competition in 2004?

Happy 50th Anniversary, La Hacienda Esmeralda! Big congrats to the Peterson Family.

Happy 50th Anniversary, La Hacienda Esmeralda! Big congrats to the Peterson Family.

Earlier, I mentioned Ronaldo who has been working with the Peterson family since 2002. He arrived when they bought the now-famous plot on the Jaramillo hillside where the first Geisha trees were discovered. Back then, Geisha trees were being harvested from an altitude range of 1450 to 1650 masl. Much has changed since then.

Esmeralda continues to dry their lots on cement patios and in mechanical driers. There has been little innovation there. Their meticulousness, however, is unquestionable, along with their coffees’ cup results. As a matter of fact, I have yet to see the same consistency in results from other markets. I’m thinking particularly about colleagues from across the border in Costa Rica, who claim theirs are the best practices when it comes to drying naturals and ‘honey’ coffee on raised African beds. I’m wondering whether these methods truly make a difference.

What are the cup-profile correlations? And what are the long-term effects of a given method? How well does the processed green coffee keep its quality?

Robert (left) with Wilford Lamastus of Finca Elida

Robert (left) with Wilford Lamastus of Finca Elida

Finca Elida and Designing Flavour

Speaking of processing and cup quality, Wilford Lamastus of Finca Elida told me he is growing more and more skeptical of de-pulping machines (i.e. eco-pulpers). He thinks it is obvious that the pulper’s physical strain on the parchment, including the centrifuging of the mucilage, is damaging the coffee-in-parchment to an extent that is limiting the quality potential of the coffee both in the cup and over time.

While I understood his evidence as anecdotal, I think it is worth following up. Wilford now processes his best coffee without de-pulping. Rather, the skin is removed using good old-fashioned fermentation and washing techniques, which he calls hand washed coffee. I like that.

This classic process uses more water, so for this is a problematic trend (if it becomes one, again) in terms of environmental considerations. On the other hand, and this became clear to me later in the conversation with Wilford, the other motivation for taking the cherry-skin off carefully is to preserve the skin as well as possible so he can make the best possible cascara from it. Some good news for the same environmental analyses.

Drying at Finca Elida

Drying at Finca Elida

Elida’s lots, both washed and natural, are generally cupping great, with scores ranging from 86 to 89 points (the family might have scored them higher). There were only a few scoring a disappointing 84 points and then the family knew something had gone wrong, whether in the drying or in the roasting. There were also cups that were (un)questionably winey, but then again, these are spot-on for other buyers’ preferences. So it goes.

Like those winey flavors in your naturals and want more? You’ve got it! The Elida approach to servicing a market, by designing flavor, is something we are seeing in other places in the coffee world too. Wilford is adamant about this approach being a pragmatic one. From his perspective as a craftsman, the ‘secret’ lies in the drying of naturals. For those that want a cleaner cup with less mature-fruit driven flavors, he will suggest a faster dried coffee cherry: one dried on a hotter surface; using thinner layers; with more sun exposure and more raking; over 5-7 days. Done! For a fruitier cup for other markets, he will deliberately do a slower drying by using raised African beds, thicker layers, less shade or less direct sunlight, turning just once a day, with a two-week drying time, or more.


Beyond the yearly ritual of cupping with Rachel (at Esmeralda) and Wilford & Wilford Jr. (at Elida), I learned a few things about how Boquete producers strategize their production and sales, even designing profiles of their lots to meet various markets. It has been evident for years that Boquete is the home of Geisha in quite literal, as well as statistical senses. There is a tremendous amount of Geisha plants being grown, whether it’s the re-planting of existing farm land, or new plantings. The Lamastus' farms alone will plant 45,000+ trees this year, which is on par with their growth last year. Given the time it takes to see any noticeable harvest, production levels aren’t going to explode any time soon.

The Petersons, easily already the biggest Geisha farmers in this community, continue to buy land and grow trees at a formidable rate. They do so in no rush and with no cutting of corners. The family work with coffee based on solid investments and farm work. I often think that we owe a great deal of gratitude to the fact that it was this family, and this community, that discovered Geisha. Had it been somebody else, what would they have done? Would the field have advanced to where it is today?

The Petersons: (from left) Daniel, Rachel, Erik, Susan & Price)

The Petersons: (from left) Daniel, Rachel, Erik, Susan & Price)

Auctions continue to be a thermometer and a regulator for the price setting of Geisha coffee, although, going from astronomically high prices of $300+ per pound, to more down-to-earth levels of $30/lb and below speaks clearly, in dollar value terms, that not all Geisha lots are ‘worth' the same. At BoP and at Esmeralda’s very own auctions, the lots are very competitive in quality. For example, Esmeralda is not auctioning any lot under 88-points. This means that when they sell their Private Collection, it is a blend of 86-88 points, which is not a bad deal, considering that one does not need to bid for it.

Farmers delivering to and succeeding at Best of Panama know that they cannot expect to sell their non-auction 86-point Geishas at +$30 per pound. While I think these price-structures are interesting and well deserved, we must realize that there is a new economy in coffee that is separate from and totally different than the rest of the coffee market. Like in any other well-functioning economy, knowledge is power. In Boquete, cupping is key, and the best farmers in this town are also the best cuppers, competing with their customers in knowing the most about what’s on the table. When these coffees meet an educated market, offered by empowered farmers, it is a quite beautiful battle. One that is ‘fought’ on equal terms.

The Best of Panama Auction has been instrumental in empowering Panama coffee farmers in setting great benchmark prices for their lots

The Best of Panama Auction has been instrumental in empowering Panama coffee farmers in setting great benchmark prices for their lots

Elida sells its Catuaí cascara for $3.50/lb and its Geisha for $10/lb. Power!

This year, the Lamastuses introduced me to their Panama Coffee Traders' (PCT) program for sourcing and buying lots from neighbours. This company was started with the aim of finding buyers good and sold Boquete coffees that are at a lower price-point. While my visit proved to be a bit early in the season, I still cupped some lots and have asked about places, people and potential for future relationships. I scored one non-Geisha from PCT at 86 points and the highest scores were between 86.5 and 87-points but both were Geisha.

Well, the season isn’t over and symptomatically of climate change and coffee growing at higher altitudes, the BoP which used to take place in Early-April is now happening at the end of May. Hopefully you, the buyer, will accept these realities and not fill up your inventories with other Central American coffees, while Boquete coffee have not yet been harvested.

- Robert

2016 El Niño/La Niña & Effects

Eight months of dry heat has left plants struggling to produce fruit. The farmer pictured above simply had no coffee production as of May, during the usual peak of harvest. Zero.

Eight months of dry heat has left plants struggling to produce fruit. The farmer pictured above simply had no coffee production as of May, during the usual peak of harvest. Zero.

Climate Change & Its Impacts on Coffee Production

Most of us are well aware that coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. During visits to pretty well all coffee producing countries, the evidence - signs and stories - are there for all of us to see and hear.During our recent travels to both Colombia and Brazil, the impacts of climate change were all around us. From Colombian producer stories of little to no (yes, zero) production during peak harvest, to decreased sugar content in cherries due to plants being impacted by severe rains in Brazil, it becomes increasingly obvious that in addition to having strong agronomic practices and great cup profiles, being a great coffee producer now also means being adaptable to climate change.

El Niño vs. La Niña

First a brief background to the two weather phenomena we observed the effects of during our recent trip.

Whereas El Niño is referring to the warming of tropical Pacific surface waters from near the International Date Line to the west coast of South America from November to March once every 3 to 7 years, La Niña is the cooling of sea surface temperatures and takes place roughly half as often as El Niño.

(For an in-depth intro to the connections between climate change and these two weather phenomena, please see the links (below) under "Further Reading".)

El Niño & Colombia's Coffee Harvest

While travelling throughout the countryside in Huila, Colombia our team learned that while there was a net increase in coffee production between July 2015 to July 2016, this figure says nothing of the devastation El Niño wreaked earlier this year. Many of the country's departments, in particular Huila, experienced both the worst drought conditions and some of the highest recorded temperatures in over 130 years.

As described earlier, many farmers suffered through zero production moving into the peak of harvest. The lack of a harvest was caused by cherries not producing seeds due to the lack of rain and lead to a further serious consequence that many cherry picking labourers, who are paid by weight, simply refused to pick whatever was produced on the trees. For affected coffee farmers, the lack of picking causes even more future harm because the trees are then not prepared for the next harvest cycle.

La Niña & Brazil

While El Niño causes dry and even drought like conditions, like the ones our Colombian partners faced, La Niña produces the opposite: excessively rainy/wet conditions. In the case of our partners in the Carmo de Minas region of Brazil, La Niña brought three times the amount of rain at the beginning of the season than normal and this caused not only damage to many of the cherries, but also a disproportionate number of defects due to the increased opportunities for bacteria to infect drying cherries on the branches of coffee trees. In Brazil, the heat is often so intense during the dry season, when coffee is harvested, that fruit begins to parch while its still on the branches.

The results of all of this is evident in the cup, as many of the coffees we tasted had less sweetness and complexity than in previous years. The good news is that we were able to find and pick out the best of what was on offer. It just took more concentration during our screening and more samples to find these gems. From a farm perspective, our partners are fortunately well organized and have great practices and infrastructure in place. They can rely on some of their other farm activities to make up for coffee deficits from this harvest and are able to plan, adapt to and mitigate possible long-term effects from the weather conditions this year.

It wasn't all bad news during the course of this trip. We are delighted to report that in Colombia, production has picked up due to increased and steady rain over the past couple of months. We have begun working with a new partner in the Acevedo, Huila region in Colombia that we will elaborate further on in the near future.

In Brazil, our partners at Carmo Coffees are working on some incredibly interesting and potentially ground-breaking work on varieties and processing. We hope to offer some early showcases from this work in the coming arrivals and will keep you posted on how the coffees cup when we receive samples.


Further Reading