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Dreaming up a better bean, Colima Mexico 2018

March 15, 2018
Category: in Mexico

 

Trip Report, February 2018

Visitng Colima, Mexico

By Ben Heins

Dreaming of a better bean Colima Mexico 2018

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Arriving in Colima couldn’t have been sweeter. Despite sharing a desk in Chicago, it had been quite some time since Jake and I had any time to actually enjoy another’s company. Even the layover in Mexico City was filling the battery.

Boarding the plane to Colima we recognized Daniel, who worked with us in year’s prior as a translator. He was on our connection to Colima – a flight he takes every other week while working towards a degree in Music therapy. We caught up with him as we waited for bags – hauled up from the tarmac in the back of a pickup. Then we piled into his mother’s car for a ride into the Centro. A fortuitous start, broad smiles. It seemed like something was in the air.

For Crop to Cup, this trip was heavy. Colima has been a carrot just out of reach now, and for the past four years. We believe in building around good people, and couldn’t have a better cornerstone in Colima than Martin Gordillo – the man running the nonprofit union/exporter Intregadora. But despite this, and a lot of support, progress in Colima has been hamstrung by a series of unfortunate events. Roya. Volcano eruptions. Collapse of the peso. Unscrupulous financing partner stealing money. There just hasn’t been a crack in the clouds. But this year we were seeing blue sky, and spent the offseason talking about what interventions would get us an 86 point coffee out of Colima in 2018…That was the goal of this trip, hell or high water. We needed to get the band back together. 

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Martin

Martin is not a man of many words. He pulled up to the hotel parking lot in his red pick up – there’d be time to catch up over breakfast. We drove out to a favorite restaurant up the mountains in a small town called Suchitlan. As they often do, the conversation with Martin sauntered lazily over chiliquiles. But there was a strange sparkle, a casual confidence from a man who had a gigantic undertaking in the off-season. This was not how you’d expect a man to comport himself after fighting against acid rains (ref: volcano), cropping / replanting / starting a nursery (read: Roya), and structuring a repayment plan for debt that shouldn’t have been his burden to bear (ref: unscrupulous financing partner). More, Martin’s work is done through influence; to get a drastic increase in quality, Martin would need the cooperation from each of the 8 member groups that make up the intregadora.

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“Tengo un secreto” he says. Our eyebrows arch towards our still healthy hairlines. Martin knowingly smirks, satisfied with getting the reaction he wanted from us. “We received financing to build and distribute 300 drying beds” he says. “Supplies are being delivered to the Beneficios today.”

Coffees from Colima are patio dried; it’s just how it’s always been done. While one of the few coffee ranges that enjoy a dry harvest season, this does make it hot. The patios get hotter still, hungry for the mid-day rays. Coffee dries in 6 days, sometimes less. Last year, we made it clear that these drying times were going to be the biggest barrier to quality – the solution is to get them off the patio, and to make some shade. Hearing that a plan was in place to address drying, made Jake and I side-eye one other. We’re listening.

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As the trip unfolds, Martin’s secrets becomes a jolly refrain. He’s got secret after secret – all pieces of evidence that he’s been busy. Change is happening. This is the year.For a couple of importers that were expecting to deliver some tough talk, we were oddly at ease. Impressed, even.

Some highlights included:

• First evidence of cropping and topping at Yerbabuena; new washing tanks (and shade shelter), plus plans for a pully system to help haul up the harvest. This farm has always produced the highest scoring coffee, and this year is the only member that is expecting to increase yields over last.

• Large-scale stumping ‘demonstration plot’ at Don Nacho’s farm to promote these practices more broadly.

• A serious recommitment by one of the member communities – Arranyal has come to consensus and decided to get serious about quality, bringing a whole new energy to a community that has historically been hit-or-miss.

• Serious experimentation on fermentation and processing; honey, and a technique that was new to us, best described as fermenting in the cherry.

• New toys; a temperature gun, brix & moisture meter. A few tools of the trade that didn’t exist last year, and which Martin is using educate both himself and others.

• An active seedling nursery by and for members of the Intregadora

• Martin is renting land to farm himself….2,000+ Geisha seedlings are going to be planted this summer, and transferred in the fall.

• A pre-crop financing fund (150,000p); fed 1/3 by Rabobank, 1/3 from the Intregadora and 1/3 from C2C – to get started after this harvest. There’s more, but you starting to see the outline of the same painting that was slowly revealed to us. Nothing was as it was. Improvement abounds. “Wow” is as close to articulating our pride in Martin’s work as we were able.

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Fransisco From that breakfast on we saw progress everywhere we went. But when it comes to proving just what Colima is capable of, no place was more important than the benefiscio Jose Portillo. Last year we identified Portillo as Colima’s best chance for rapid improvement. They had the space; Jose Portillo was once a larger company / mill, but withered away under corrupt management.

Then in 2016 this management skipped town, stripping most of the valuables with them. 2017 was a rebuilding year, and this was our year to make things happen. But the real reason we wanted to bet on this horse was because of our high regard of Francisco, the new beneficio manager as of 2017. Francisco is funny, hard-working, wager to impress, and always asking for coaching. I think I have a coffee crush on him.

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When we talk about good coffee comes from good people, Fransisco could be the poster-child. Too proud to do a poor job, no matter what job it is that he has to do. Last year, I unceremoniously pointed out failings at the Benefico – problems that he was inheriting. Issues that needed to be rectified. He listened with a furrowed brow, and waited until I was done. I have a habit of repeating myself. Francisco stopped me. “I don’t need to be told twice. I heard you. I’m going to fix it by next year. Give me time. You’ll see. ”

Walking into Jose Portillo this year, we found Francisco sawing lumber, and not in the sleeping kind of way. He was hard at work constructing raised beds for this harvest. His machines were clean. His washing tanks recently re-tiled. He pulled us aside and shared his excitement for the 2018 harvest. And his reservations. Drying beds were going to help, but the harvest this year is small. What we need, Fransisco tells us, is more farmers to bring cherry.

To get the best fruit you have to be the best buyer. So the first place we looked was to price. Were we paying the highest prices? ‘Yes’, was the immediate response. Which we knew – we have a history here in Colima of upping prices each and every year, only to have Coyotes respond in kind and right on time. But the first move has always been ours – and this year we had an idea. 

What if we not only paid more, but paid WAY more. But only for ripe red cherry.

It’s so simple, but in this context, actually very novel. So we designed an intake that involved floating, removing floaters, then paying a silly premium for what remained. From there the word spread. When the market was 8 pesos per kilo cherry, the Intregadora was paying 12. But only for red ripes. Collections starting flowing in, with less and less being floated out every day.

I’m particularly proud of this maneuver. It helped to reduce the labor needed to pick, paid premium prices for premium berries, and set a good example. It’ll be good for the coffee that comes out this year, and, if they cycle takes off, good for the coffee economy of Colima. Even farmers who have never heard of Crop to Cup should see see a bump in cherry premiums.

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I stayed the day with Franciso as the other went to another member of the Intregadora, Benficio Remudadero. Our goal was to polish the intake process all the way through to documentation. Step one is a station for flotation (Jake’s good idea), made out of two plastic bins, stacked, the inner-one with holes to act as a sieve after floating. Spin for centrifugal force, and stir for good measures; lighter berries float to the top and are removed. The good cherries get put on the sorting table to pick out anything that didn’t float; particularly greens, which sink more than purples.

It was a good exercise. Literally, I broke a sweat. Picking cherry takes forever – even when you’re dealing with 5% or less of the volume. Fransisco built an innovative sorting table; a raised bed on an incline so that cherries could be rolled down as they were sorted, and finally dumped out through a removable channel. While this innovation helped, it was still a lot of effort. We decided that - with all of the additional steps involved (most labor intensive during drying) – Fransisco would need more help. Again, Martin stepped up to the plate – he’d cover an additional salary at that station. So would C2C. A cost-sharing deal was hashed out there on the spot; cherry picking, washing and drying – all would be attended to – this year there would be no excuses.

“What else?” Asked enough times, along with a minimum of five whys, and the conversation starts to go places. The devil is in the details, which I’ll spare you here, but suffice to say that Martin is moving his office out to Jose Portillo, which will also be getting cherry delivery from other members. We are doing a trial to compare washed to honey before switching all processing over, and agreed to sponsor a fishing trip for Fransisco and his staff should this year be a success.

Perfection isn’t the goal this year, but rep-ripe cherry and extended dying times are a must. When we left I felt that we had the three parts working together; Crop to Cup’s commitment to higher minimum prices, Martin’s leadership at the Intregadora and Francisco’s individual hustle. We had created a situation that was set up for success. So far Francisco has made good on his word, and we are going to make good on ours, starting by giving him all of the tools he needs.

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Javier When we visited a year earlier – in 2017 - we hosted a cupping open to all members of the intregadora. But we put coffees from Colima alongside our favorites from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guerrero.

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It was at this cupping that we first me Javier. A robust dude, mustached with a healthy jawline. He’s tall, wears freshly starched jeans, clean boots, and a thoughtful countenance that slid into concern as his coffee (Arranyal) was discussed. Notes like nutshell & chocolate were tossed around. Compared to other coffees, Arranyal lacked fruit and sweetness. We did our best to diagnose the possibilities. Underripes can lead to bitterness, and what we’ve seen of cherry collection would lead us to believe a more than a few of those made their way through the processing. But, the real culprit, the discussion concluded, came in drying – the hot Colima sun simply sucked the life out of the coffee. Without much fanfare the cupping ended. If it wasn’t uplifiting, it was feedback. What you do with it is up to you. Javier is just the type of guy to do something with it. It was painful watching him relived last year’s cupping, explaining what motivated him into action. He’s proud, in his early 40s, and with an accomplished in forestry management. His daily job is monitoring the national forest between Colima Centro and his home town of Aranyal, training volunteer fire fighters and charting so-as to protect ecological zones. He’s passionate about pumas, for example, but had something to say about every river or mountain we passed. This history puts Javier in a position to give back and the will to do so.

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We’re now on the back of a pickup truck going to the peak of Arranyal. He’s talking about the importance of coffee to kids, to fund education and opportunity, to protect farms from fire and erosion and disuse. Based on the bobbing heads, Javier is a leader. The farmers in the area have bought in. Quality is something that is within their power to do. They just wanted to know how. What if a cherry has some yellow in it, is that okay to pick? Greens got to go, some yellow is mellow. What do we do when we come across a tree infected with La Roya? Stump it. If coffee doesn’t get down mountain until after midnight, which is common during peak, do we just let the cherry sit until we get enough deliveries to run the pulper in the morning? Soak it in clean, cold water to keep it fresh for up to 12 hours. We head back down mountain to visit the Beneficio. It’s small but functional. Wood for drying beds being loaded into the bodega. Martin’s magic at work yet again. There was still much to do, but the positive momentum was palpable. It’ll be done, we’re assured. ‘If you do, we responded, we’re coming up here to stay with you next year’.

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Our last stop of the day was mostly for us gringos. We climbed to the top of a massive boulder called ‘the devil’s pillar’ and took in the valley beneath. It stretched out towards the sunset, past the Pacific, 40+ miles in the distance. A fine place to sit. Sitting there I reflected on our company belief that ‘good coffee comes from good people’, considering the post-script ‘and from beautiful places’. Over dinner down at Javier’s brothers house, we talk about the productive Caturra varietals we just saw up mountain, red and yellow. We talked about the challenges they are facing, the same issues we worked through at Jose Portillo. They are eager to learn more, and Martin scheduled a time right then and there to train them on these new practices. There was a reason Martin has been rooting for this community over the past few years, and a reason that this year is different. The willingness to improve is palpable. And once they decide on something, this community has proven to be a force.

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For example every year during fire season the volunteers from Arranyal can be found near and far, stepping up to stem every spark. Just a few months before our visit a nearby mining company drained a river into a salt-flat. In response, the community of Arranyal took to community action, for one day even blocking the main road until they got the company to help. Their agreement included (a) rerouting pipes to restore the lake, (b) a side-road built up to Arranyal community and (c) a central basketball court for kids of Arranyal to play in. Just think what this type of willpower can do when put behind the decision to do specialty. We had a sentimental debrief before jumping back in the car for the ride home. The hospitality was one thing (fantastic home cooked meal), but something else happened. In a group of people that largely couldn’t communicate with one another we had developed the rapport of old college roommates. Something I haven’t experienced, to this extent, so far in my travels.

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While positive, we didn’t skip the challenging. “Smiles are easy, meetings are fun, and talk is cheap. When we depart is when the work starts– for them and for us. You can’t skip the work,” was the message. They responded in kind to the tune of “we won’t disappoint you.” Perhaps because it’s a driving motivation in my own life, but I can empathize with the sentiment – I believe it – and as soon as I taste that sweet cup of Arranyal 2018 – I’m going to tell EVERYBODY.

 

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