Monday, November 26, 2012

Cyber Monday is On!

Whew - we've been working all weekend to get all the Black Friday orders out - just in time for Cyber Monday! Look how many boxes we've packed already and it's not even 11 AM yet:

Don't miss the last day of our Black Friday / Cyber Monday sale event! You have until midnight tonight (November 26) to use your discount code HOL10 and save 10% off your entire order. There is no limit on this code and you can share it with your friends, too. Coffee for everyone! Hooray!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Puerto Rico Coffee Expedition

Surprises and discoveries in Puerto Rico

When we decided to go to Puerto Rico for a short vacation in early 2011, we had little idea just how much coffee was produced there. We really did not know much about the topography or history of coffee there. In fact, when asking around we found that almost nobody knew much about coffee in Puerto Rico, except our Puerto Rican friends... and even they could only name a few brands or sources.

Much to our surprise, we found Puerto Rico to be far more mountainous than we expected. It reminds Pearl of her home in the Philippines. About 70% of the country is mountainous terrain.

The mountains are mostly of similar altitudes, between 2500 and 3500 feet at their peaks. There are about a dozen distinct micro-environments at this altitude, and possibly 100 different haciendas (small plantations) that we located on maps and while traveling.

Our first attempts (in 2011) to visit these coffee haciendas or fincas (farms) fell short of producing results... we got lost in the mountains and discovered that GPS does not show half the roads. And if you blink you can pass the single sign telling you to take a right or left. There are over a thousand miles of mountain roads that consist mostly of switchbacks with little or no shoulders, and two lanes not really wide enough to accommodate two vehicles. Needless to say, navigating these roads to the tops of the mountains is not for the faint of heart.

Believe it or not, this is a relatively flat area
On our recent trip we made better plans. We arranged to stay at one hacienda and visit at least two others during our trip. We also poked around every corner we might find a farm or a place selling coffee from a source we hadn't seen. All in all, we uncovered about 25 estate-grown coffees and learned a lot about coffee in Puerto Rico.

Coffee History of Puerto Rico

The Spanish controlled Puerto Rico for hundreds of years. Their trade routes across the Atlantic and Pacific resulted in spreading hundreds of flora and fauna between their various destinations. Most notable among these are coffee, coconut palms and sugar cane. At one time Puerto Rico was the main supplier of coffee to Europe, earning it the nickname “The Coffee of Popes and Kings”.

In more recent times, land reforms and government initiatives broke up most of the grand haciendas and resulted in smaller farms that were not economical to operate. Too small to afford machinery, and having to pay high scale wages (Puerto Rico is bound by USA labor laws and minimum wage), many productive farms became only hobbies or fell fallow, and the coffee industry declined. Just in the last ten years, however, creative initiatives by new and traditional owners to band together for complex processing equipment, or outright combine the farms as cooperatives, has helped fuel a resurgence in Puerto Rico specialty coffee.

The recent 80% sale of the iconic Yaucono Coffee Company to Coca Cola has been devastating to the quality of the “everyday” coffee that Puerto Ricans have enjoyed for many decades. This leaves many coffee aficionados turning to more expensive estate farms for some of the world’s best coffee. Many of the smaller farms have received high reviews for their growing conditions and climates, and the resultant coffees are scoring high on standard cupping scales.

Click to open a new window with
the Wikipedia page on Coqui
Puerto Rican coffee farmers must pay  up to 20X the cost of labor and materials as farms in countries that don't have minimum wage requirements, and as a result their coffees cannot compete on price alone. Instead, they compete on quality. Puerto Rican estates strive to excel with a unique blend of beans, meticulous care in processing, and natural growing methods that result in superior taste, size and quality. Coffee is treated not as a mere commodity but is rather a source of national and personal pride.

This all-pervasive coffee culture is observed even when one enters a typical sandwich shop or roadside diner... you will find expensive espresso bar equipment and trained baristas everywhere, and we truly have not had one bad cup of coffee in Puerto Rico anywhere we went. It's amazing!

Golden Roseapple Farm, producers of Café Pomerosa

Kurt leads us through his estate
Owned and operated by Kurt Legner and his wife Eva, this delightful farm is incredibly picturesque and offers overnight stays at perfect little cabins. Remnants of the hurricane came through the night we stayed there, but though we lost power, we had a nice hot shower and lanterns to see by. During the night Coqui frogs, the mascots of Puerto Rico, peeped all night. A few tried to get into the cabin. When we were packing to leave, a baby coqui hopped into our ice cooler and apparently wanted to try his luck in Boston... but we told him we had 6 more days to spend in Puerto Rico so he hopped away.

The rain and winds kept the coffee pickers in town that day but by 11 am it was sunny and beautiful out. Kurt shared his knowledge of coffee history and local coffee and and then showed us around the farm. Typical of most Puerto Rican farms, the topography was so irregular that coffee plants were scattered wherever they seemed to find a good spot, receiving shade from a variety of taller plants including avocados.

It was peak picking season and everywhere we looked we saw ripe coffee cherries. Kurt grows a variety of Bourbon Arabicas, including a little Paca and Caturra. There are Typica plantings as well. This blend is traditional, and seems to be part of what produces the distinctive flavor and aroma of most Puerto Rican coffees. The farm is situated at about 3700 feet, and boasts one of the islands best-rated coffee growing site ratings.
Kurt demos his machinery

Kurt has an engineering background and located to the coffee growing region north of Ponce to become a gentleman farmer and enjoy the beauty of Peurto Rico. His engineering skills modernized the processing on the farm and helped him produce more coffee with less labor. It's quite a trip up the mountain to Golden Roseapple Farm, so labor comes at a premium.

He’s also a keen researcher, and he exploded a number of historical myths about coffee, some of which we had never thought to question, such as coffee's orgin. There is a popular fairy tale about the goat herder in Ethiopia who discovered coffee, but in fact, Kurt notes from his research, coffee “energy balls” were created by the Romans from the skins of the coffee fruits and were chewed upon going into battle for quick energy... and long before that, coffee was a medicinal and therapeutic herb used by shamans in rituals and healing.

Coffee and breakfast and coffee

Chickens range free outside the cabin
The farm has a beautiful rotunda that is semi-enclosed and has a full coffee bar and kitchen for serving breakfast and... coffee of course. We had a french press, we had espresso, it was all fabulous and even Pearl drank it black for probably the first time ever!

We were sorry to leave, and hope to be back soon to Golden Roseapple Farm. Kurt had no green beans available at the time but he has promised to ship us enough beans to feature his Cafe Pomarrosa in our Tour of Puerto Rican Coffees this holiday season.

Hacienda San Pedro

One of Puerto Rico’s largest independent coffee plantations, but still small enough to be personable and handle each visitor with care and respect, Hacienda San Pedro is operated by Roberto Atienza, one of the island's top coffee authorities. The hacienda is truly an impressive layout, with a full coffee shop situated adjacent to the processing facility. The shop is open weekends only but Roberto was kind enough to entertain us on a busy weekday. This location was relatively easy to find, after a torturous trip we undertook from the east side (go from the west!) to enter Jayuya (pronounced, roughly, Hai-oo-yah or Ha-ju-yah, depending on who is saying it). We went with "Hai-oo-yah".

Beautiful Bourbon Arabica tree
Hacienda San Pedro produces primarily a blend of Arabica Typica and Bourbon varieties, but does enough volume to separate out a peaberry blend that is sharp and distinctive.

Roberto markets his basic coffee line under a brand name Cafe Finca. This line might be a good successor to the deprecated Yaucono coffee that is Puerto Rico’s household name coffee. Even though Cafe Finca is better quality than Yaucono, the price is still reasonably affordable because Hacienda San Pedro produces greater volume than most farms.

We tried his AA Select Arabica Blend and decided that was what we wanted to bring back. It's astoundingly good, and cupped above 90 in competitions. We got some tips on roasting it and he packed 40 pounds for us on the spot to take back to Boston. We hope to feature Roberto’s excellent coffees as a permanent addition to our websites.

They operate a coffee shop in San Juan on Caille street, De Diego, that is a model of decor and service, with highly trained baristas and one of the island's finest coffee menus.

Sandra Farms, Adjuntas

Sandra Farms is named after... Sandra, of course, who operates this 225 acre farm at the top of Puerto Rico (it seems) with her husband Israel Gonzales.

This farm is located on the very top of a sharp peak and boasts a 360-degree view of astounding beauty. With a background of farms and hills and ravines, and a foreground of beautiful tropical flowering plants and fruit trees, this is a panorama to compare with anything you can reach in just two hours of heart-stopping mountain switchback roads (don't say we didn't warn you!). Sandra’s directions were perfect, though, right down to “take a left at the orange and green house hanging over the cliff on the right”.

Israel jokes about working harder since he "retired" to the farm years ago. He shows us around and explains how everything is different from when they bought the farm. The fixtures and structures were a hundred years old... they started new and built into the framework and layout. Israel is a tinkerer and has put together a combination of equipment to sort and separate coffee that would have made Dr. Suess want to write a book called “Oh, the places that coffee cherry will go!”.

Israel and Sandra are former Peace Corps volunteers who have a strong commitment to environmentally responsible farming. Their operation has virtually no net impact on the environment and they even heat their dryers with coffee bean husks for fuel.

We mailed the green coffee home
directly by USPS - so convenient!
Israel showed me his prize private stash of beans, so perfectly selected that we could not find a defective bean in the lot, then offered to pack our 40 pounds of green beans up at the house, tossing the 50-pound sack on his back and walking straight uphill for 200 yards. He kept 10 pounds for one of his biggest fans on the north shore, who he said just might drive up to the farm and bludgeon him to death if he didn't deliver his usual shipment to him that week. Not wanting that to happen, we gladly settled for 40 pounds of his fabulous private reserve, and that is what we are roasting today.

Sandra says “Israel loves to plant... we're up to 23 acres of coffee, and I made him stop planting till he can find enough pickers to pick the plants he has already planted!” Bananas and mangoes and avocados, oh my! ... plus a dozen fruits even Israel wasn't sure of the real name for. About half of those grew also in the Philippines and were familiar to Pearl.

We hope to return to Sandra Farms soon... but in the meantime Israel and Sandra have promised to send us new samples of coffee and keep us happy with what we need for the websites.

The Future

We are very excited about the future of our relationship with Puerto Rico and the people we met there. Imagine our delight when the territory recently voted to apply for statehood! It is such a joy to work with domestic producers and be able to source coffee from within America; statehood would bring many more benefits to the people of Puerto Rico, and taxable revenue for the USA. It would vault Puerto Rico into the spotlight and create a lot of interest in what the island has to offer. We very much look forward to seeing how this plays out!

Dave Kellett of "Sheldon" captures our excitement pretty well in his comic posted November 8, 2012:
(Click here to visit the "Sherman" website and see more of Dave's comics)