Twenty-seven hours is a long time to get anywhere, and it feels especially so if you’re spending all of it cooped up in planes and airport departure lounges. On such journeys, time travels slowly it seems, you uncontrollably check your watch every couple of minutes hoping it had moved forward a couple of hours. Thankfully, this trip is a little different. Our first visit to Central America comes with a backpack full of anticipation and excitement. With a little over two weeks to cover three producing countries, there was plenty to do. Before we knew it, we were landing in Guatemala City. It’s Friday night and there was one thing in particular on our mind, “I hope the shower is good!”.
Guatemala is an important origin for us at St Dreux. We have been purchasing coffee from here for two seasons now and they form an important component in two of our blends. Our first destination in Guatemala was to the department of Sacatepequez, around the old and picturesque city of Antigua. It was an easy drive just over an hour out of Guatemala City. No need for a travel pillow on this drive.
Finca Medina was founded in 1842 on the foothills of the Agua Volcano. It is a large operation, occupying around 74 hectares, and successfully combines modern technology with traditional coffee processing techniques. Here we sampled classic Antiguan coffee, typically described as chocolate, brown sugar and a creamy body. Our pick also featured floral notes and made a very well-balanced cup. It was a very good start. “Coco”, the General Manager, and his team have a well-run operation. The pictures which adorn the walls of their cupping lab, featuring buyers and visitors from internationally known and respected coffee companies give some testimony to their achievements.
Sunday was officially a rest day. The only one during the trip, as it turned out. Faced with a multitude of options, we chose to climb a volcano and shake off the jet-lag. Pacaya is one of the four volcanoes that encircle Antigua. Of the four, it is considered the easier climb at 2,552 metres and it is still active.
Monday morning and we were ready to head to Huehuetenango. Thankfully there is a new charter plane available from Guatemala City which cuts the 7 hour drive to a swift 30 minute flight. We spent twice as long waiting to board the plane at the airport. Our main focus here is to visit producers in Cantinil, La Democracia and La Libertad. We have been purchasing coffee from this area over the past two seasons and the coffee gets better and better. The work is ongoing, and this next shipment promises to be truly exciting.
Our last stop in Guatemala was a visit to Jaime Rios at his farm Sitio de Maria in Jutiapa. Situated right on the border, half the farm lies within Guatemala and the other in El Salvador. Jaime has created a rather unique moniker for his estate, dubbing it the “Republic of Gualvador”. It was also here we encountered what we agreed to be the most bumpy road of the whole trip. Jaime was a great host, and his new projects look to deliver very interesting and surprising results.
Leaving Guatemala, we take a short flight to neighbouring Honduras, landing in San Pedro Sula. The Guardian newspaper once labelled it “the most violent city in the world”. Things are apparently much better now. Honduras is a relatively new origin for us and one we are keen to explore. We head straight out of town and spend the weekend exploring Santa Barbara and Lempira. We had previously purchased Honduran micro-lots, including one of the parainema varietal. Typically sweet, with red fruits and chocolate, it was originally developed by the Honduran Coffee Association (ihcafe) as a leaf rust, (roya in Spanish) resistant varietal. It has a good pedigree with several farms using it to win national Cup Of Exellence (COE) competitions. Unfortunately, parainema now seems to be losing its resistance as the proportion of trees affected by leaf rust is increasing, and the recovery rate slower than other varietals e.g. caturra or catuai.
Despite the issues with leaf rust and labour shortage, we did find some truly outstanding coffees in Honduras. Standouts for us included Finca Monte Vista in Santa Barbara. Situated within the crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by Mahogany and Cedar trees, Monte Vista is owned and operated by father and son duo Juan Hipp and Juan Hipp Jr.
Finca Cimarron, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, is one of the most innovative and enterprising farms we have visited. Operated by brothers Marcos and Olvin Rodriguez, they also sell roasted coffee, roasted by a third party, but have plans to roast their own in the near future. Olvin is a graduate of Earth University and he uses this expertise to good effect with Finca Cimarron supplying some of Europe’s most prestigious roasters.
Finally, onto Nicaragua and what would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip. With no direct flights available from Honduras, we flew in late to Nicaragua via El Salvador. It was like visiting your next door neighbour by first walking around the block instead of going straight to their front door. Up early the next morning for a three-hour drive to La Concordia, Jinotega and some cupping before a further two-hour drive to Ocotal, Nueva Segovia. In many ways it is obvious to see there is plenty of good coffee to be found here and in large part due to the meticulous work by producers, agronomists and others in the chain. After tasting quite a few samples, one place in particular caught our attention, a producer based near Mozonte. Two of the most memorable coffees we cupped here were both from him. One was plummy, citric and floral and the other more winey and reminiscent of port. There was even a hint of beer hops in the aroma. Without delay we made arrangements to visit. Near the top of the mountain, where the road ends and the farm is a further 500m on foot, we met a small producer (I’m keeping his identity a secret, for now at least) with a passion and clear vision for producing specialty coffee. A previous COE winner, his family operated farm nestled in perhaps one of the most ideal locations for producing specialty coffee. We sat down and chatted over coffee. He is confident, and we have no doubt he consistently produces what he claims.
Two weeks is a short time, but it can feel a lot longer when so many things are squeezed into it. We have continued development with our existing supply lines, strengthened existing relationships, made new friends and tasted some really good coffee. We are lucky to have secured some of these and we can’t wait to share it all with you.