New, different, exciting – this central value proposition on which most roasters’ small-lot programs are based, relies on effective systems for the reliable separation and differentiation of coffee by cup and physical preparation. Whether geographical positioning, variety isolation, processing methodology, producer provenance, delivery period, or all of the above, each unique lot stands to reflect specific taste characteristics that provide our shared guests a dynamic and unusual experience. For many roasters, surveying SPOT inventory from their preferred suppliers, sampling numerous micro and nano-lots – shelved and ready, and firing off a quick web order and/or string of emails to get an order on the road and moving has become normal practice. Bottom line, there has never been greater access to outstanding SPOT small-lot coffees in consuming markets globally.
While this is excellent news for start-up and established specialty roasters alike, it can understate the challenges around bringing these coffees to market. To reliably deliver new, different, and exciting coffees requires careful attention to detail and highly organized operations. To better appreciate this hard work, let’s take a close look at one of the very best examples of specialty coffee engineering at source, Beneficio San Vicente.
Beneficio San Vicente is a family owned and operated dry mill and exporter located in the town of Pena Blanca in Northwestern Honduras. Founder and longtime coffee buyer Fidel Paz constructed the current milling facility in 2000 as production in the surrounding area (Santa Barbara) increased, affording the family the opportunity to connect their producing community directly to international buyers. Fidel’s sons Benjamin and Fidel, as well as nephew Arturo, play integral roles in their unique and holistic approach to creating opportunity with and for the local producing community. Over the years, San Vicente has become a financing partner for new and existing growers, allowing producers to find buyers willing to pay fair and competitive prices instead of floor prices. Additionally, they are regularly available to deliver farm-level agronomic consultation as well as advice for processing cherry to produce the highest quality possible. As a result, the number of farmers separating and differentiating their coffees for sale into the specialty market is growing each year. To best support these producers, San Vicente does not buy their coffees as an intermediary, but rather connects these producers directly to buyers for more transparent price negotiations. Coffees produced within the San Vicente community frequently place as finalists in the national Cup of Excellence competition year after year, establishing the mill and family as a globally recognized leader among specialty coffee producers in Honduras.
As with all specialty coffees, San Vicente begins with healthy plants and well-tended soils. In the various areas delivering parchment coffee to San Vicente (El Cedral, El Cielito, and Las Flores) farms are on average 2-3 hectares with several much larger farms and many far smaller farms. Approximate average production volume in these areas is twelve 69 kilo bags of finished milled coffee per hectare. When harvest arrives to Santa Barbara, from February through July, each producer organizes the picking of their ripe cherry. To maximize potential cup quality, and due to long slow maturation periods, small-lot specialty coffees might require 3-5 individual picks. Each pick is then de-pulped by the farmers themselves using their own milling equipment or small mills shared by families and/or micro communities. The coffees in this part of Honduras are most typically fermented without water, either in tanks or bags and then washed and sundried on raised beds. Some producers opt to process small amounts of their coffees naturally, drying with skin and fruit intact. Throughout this process, separation is meticulously maintained according producer and in some cases variety and process. Once parchment is dried to levels near its export moisture, it is brought out of mountains to nearby Pena Blanca where it is received at Beneficio San Vicente.
On receipt, each unique delivery is recorded, tagged, and sampled by Benjamin, Arturo, as well as Lab Manager Raul Moreno. Quality is appraised and notes are rendered back to the producer / coffee-owner for future picks and processing in an effort to maximize the potential across the harvest’s cycle. It is at this stage that coffees are sampled to long standing roaster buyers, new separations are offered to new buyers and decisions are made to separate lots for submission to COE and other special programs. All deliveries at this stage are held in inventory separately for future allocation and milling. Day by day, countless samples are cupped and information is documented and centralized. By the end of the 2017 shipping period, San Vicente will have shipped more than 300 unique specialty small-lot coffees to roasters all over the world!
In early April of this year that I found myself cupping in San Vicente’s lab alongside Benjamin, Arturo, and Raul. We blind-cupped over 90 unique lot separations over three days. Lots were organized by delivery period, variety (in this case Pacas, Catuai, Bourbon, Parainema), and producer / coffee owner to identify the coffees that Olam might import with the goal of connecting new North American roasters to fantastic specialty coffee producers coming online across Santa Barbara and in San Vicente’s program. In the weeks and months since, the producers of these particular coffees have completed their deliveries to San Vicente where the parchment has been meticulously dry milled. The dry mill process for specialty small-lots begins with the de-hulling of the coffee’s parchment outer layer. This is followed by mechanical sorting by gravity table, optical color sorting, and finished with hand-picking any remaining imperfections.
The final result is a stellar suite of coffees, ranging in lot size from 3 – 25 bags, and from unique producers across El Cedral, El Cielito, and Las Flores. In some cases, several single variety sub-separations are available from specific producers. These coffees represent the fantastic potential and variety of Honduras’ specialty coffee along with the incredible impact an organization such as Beneficio San Vicente can achieve with and for their community. We are truly humbled and grateful for the opportunity to partner in their effort.