November 23, 2015

Interview: How Specialty Coffee in Honduras Rocketed to the Top


How would you feel if your family was responsible for changing the entire face of your country’s specialty coffee? Proud? Excited?

The Paz family of Santa Barbara, Honduras are in exactly that situation. Not only do they get to see the incredible harvests that come out of their region, but they know that they are, in part, responsible for these amazing, world-renowned coffees through their support and evolving relationships with local farmers.

SEE ALSO: 3 Factors Which Impact A Farmer’s Decision On Which Coffee Variety To Plant

They built the Beneficio San Vincente Mill in Peña Blanca, Santa Barbara in 2000. Since 2008, Beneficio San Vincente has produced a jaw-dropping six Honduran Cup of Excellence-winning coffees. Clearly, they’re doing something right.

To find out exactly what it takes to make consistently award-winning coffee, we chatted to people on both sides of the coin: producing and consuming. Benjamin Paz, whose family has spearheaded these changes in Honduras, gives us the deets from the source, while Andrew Kelly from Small Batch Roasting Co., Melbourne tells us what it’s like to visit this hallowed specialty coffee ground.

Coffee farm Santa Barbara, Honduras

The coffee fields Santa Barbara, Honduras. Credit: Andrew Kelly @smallbatchroast

Benjamin, can you tell me about your work supporting and nurturing Santa Barbara producers?

Benjamin: At San Vincente, we find farmers who produce good coffee or have the potential to do so, and connect them with specialty coffee roasters around the globe. We want to create that bond, that connection. I think the most important and influential thing we have done was to discover the area’s potential and show that to the coffee world.

Also, with the help of coffee buyers, we organise farmers and prepare and teach them how to produce better coffee. We also collaborate to provide farmers with economic resources and needed operational resources. At the end of the day, the goal is to ensure farmers have a sustainable price and roasters/buyers receive good, consistent coffee.

Beneficio San Vicente coffee farm

The demand for high quality coffee from Beneficio San Vincente is growing fast. Credit: @smallbatchroast

What’s exciting about the coffees produced from the Beneficio San Vincente mill?

Benjamin: I think the most exciting thing about these coffees is the complexity of the flavours. There are passion fruit, papaya, nectarine, blackberry, plum, and all kinds of citrus flavours. The diversity coming from one mountain is so wild and interesting that it makes every single cupping or brew a totally new adventure.

The unique climate, temperature, and soil in the mountain creates this, with the added value of the care and passion for processing the coffee from plant to green. 

As a leading specialty coffee producer, what do you see as the future of specialty coffee for Honduras/Beneficio San Vincente?

Benjamin: Every time I think about the future, I always think about the upcoming harvest and all the work we have to do as farmers and also as a company. The future for Honduras is now—today. We need to increase production, improve quality, build more relationships. The market is growing really fast; the demand for great coffee is increasing and more good coffees are showing up at other origins. We have to remain competitive and stay at the level of other producing countries.

Hand sorting coffee

Coffee is carefully hand-sorted at Beneficio San Vincente. Credit: @smallbatchroast

Benjamin, could you share some words with consumers about the coffees being offered by Small Batch Roasting Co. in Melbourne?

Benjamin: All coffees are special, and those lots were carefully saved and selected for Small Batch. They got almost everything we offered. They ended up buying more than they expected and probably more than they needed. That is something we appreciate a lot and that means the quality was good. The farmers work really hard all year round in order to achieve the goal of having a buyer, having a relationship, and having a fair price. We are really happy about those coffees being in great hands. I hope you all enjoy all the work going in those beans.

Andrew, why did coffee from Santa Barbara captivate you?

Andrew: Santa Barbara had long been something of a mythical font of good coffee to me.

Why? There’s a high level of representation of Santa Barbara coffee both at the Cup of Excellence level and also on the menus of respected roasteries/cafes around the world — especially among our favourite North American and Scandinavian roasters.

It always puzzled me that the representation of these coffees in Australia was, however, quite low by comparison. I was motivated to find out why this was the case and assess first hand the quality and characteristics of coffee available.

Coffee farm

Angel Arturo Paz Ramirez, Orlando Guzman, and Andrew Kelly during Small Batch Roast Co.’s visit to Santa Barbara. Credit: @smallbatchroast

At face value, the whole concept of “visiting origin” sounds thrilling. Can you tell us more about it?

Andrew: The first visit in August 2014 allowed us to tour the bulk of the producing regions in Honduras and start to assess which millers/exporters/regions we may wish to work with. We cupped last pickings even though the last few containers of quality coffee were mostly already dispatched. This enabled us to commence our efforts to profile the country’s coffees (in totality, not just the Santa Barbara area), to learn what varietals and plant husbandry predominate, and also see the regional and cultural differences in processing of cherry and parchment compared to other coffee countries of the Americas.

I also got to assess what kind of producers there are in the region and to assess how knowledgeable they are in coffee production. Are they already doing all they physically can to produce superlative coffee, or is there still room for improvement? How much animo do they have? Are they happy with the prices they’ve historically received? Finally, I got to see for myself the harvest cycle in the key areas and to assess logistics (storage, milling, export conditions). So it was a pretty ambitious and valuable trip! Overall, happily, I was able to confirm the uniqueness of the coffees of Santa Barbara and began the process of finding the source of the uniqueness.

Coffee farm

Andrew Kelly, Angel Arturo Paz Ramirez, Orlando Guzman in Santa Barbara. Credit: @smallbatchroast

My second trip, in February 2015, was to follow up with the producers I’d met on the first trip who I’d expected to have some unsold produce. This was still early in the harvest, and this gave us a chance to select particular producers off the cupping table whose coffee we really liked in order to secure more while the harvest continued. It was really also to start to understand the climatic conditions during which harvest occurs, and see generally what quality and progression of harvest there was so far. 

The third trip, in May 2015, was to cup these later pickings and find out exactly what was available to purchase, and then make offers. It was clear that we’d have to be persistent to ensure we could receive the quality of coffee desired, and clear also that the producers had other avenues through which to sell their coffee at a premium. We needed to cup when the coffees were at their peak, and have our fingers crossed that the producers we were invested in relationship-wise had brought in the goods. 

Coffee tasting

Alice L’Estrange, a green buyer for Small Batch, often goes on trips to the Americas. Credit: @smallbatchroast

Making three trips to secure one purchase of coffee may seem like a lot, but it demonstrates the value of being on the ground and how important details and relationships are in securing great coffee. The producer needs to know the buyer will be there when they say they will, and will pay for the extra efforts in producing high-grade specialty coffee that the buyer demands.

My point is that, yes, visiting lovely countries is indeed thrilling—especially countries bursting with possibilities of unexplored geography, new flavours, and different, lovely people… But what should be evident from the description above is the sheer amount of detail involved in buying the best coffee. It’s the small things that are important along every step of the path: the exactly correct ripeness of coffee cherry, cherry flotation, precise depulping, intentional fermentation, painstakingly careful drying, optimal storage, timely and exact milling and shipping, etc. The devil’s in the detail, as well as the nuggets of gold!

Coffee farm Honduras

Santos Martinez, one of the producers in Santa Barbara, and Angel Arturo Paz Ramirez, a producer who was awarded the COE many times. Credit: @smallbatchroast

As an innovative micro-roaster based in Melbourne, what do you see as the future of specialty coffee for Honduras?

Andrew: We’re working towards a future in which consumers identify positively with particular producers from the area (when roasted transparently by good roasters, and used when fresh) and are prepared to pay a premium to enjoy them. This premium sustains these producers better than they have been sustained in the past.

This future involves us giving feedback, assisting with provision of equipment or technical assistance all resulting in an improvement in the flavour and simultaneously the livelihood of everyone involved in the chain. Preferential flavours in the coffee will be more able to be targeted as techniques improve and understanding grows.

The kids of these producers can get sent to school and college, but also see that specialty coffee is a good business and one that is sustainable environmentally and financially, and that provides the great satisfaction that only production of an advanced sensory item can.

Santos Martinez and Angel Arturo Paz Ramirez

Santos Martinez and Angel Arturo Paz Ramirez stand amongst a plot of coffee plants. Credit: @smallbatchroast

Andrew, could you share some words with consumers about the coffees being offered by yourself in Melbourne?

Andrew: Small Batch Roasting Co is privileged to be offering these sought after and rare coffees that reveal very transparently the environments of their production. These cool climate coffees have a really interesting and unique fruitiness and sweetness and lots of character in general. We have chosen to circumvent the limitations of the small quantity of many of the lots by adopting the handle “The Santa Barbara Project” as the headline identification of the coffee to try and encourage people to sample all of the producers efforts sequentially or simultaneously.

There is only one Santa Barbara, and we are confident that we are bringing you some of the best coffee from the region you will ever taste. Strongly embracing the project will enable us to more strongly support producers in our purchasing in coming years.

Pacas coffee variety

Pacas variety coffee plants in Santa Barbara, Honduras. Credit: @smallbatchroast

Edited by K. Beard.

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