A few weeks ago, a few members of our team went on a research trip to better understand the staggering complexities of an often invisible—yet ubiquitous—industry: coffee. It’s challenging to distill a trip like this: after a day of flying we found ourselves hitting the tarmac in Tapachula, a border-town in the state of Chiapas, Mexico at the edge of Guatemala; only to load up in the car the next day and set out for the rural Tapachula Highlands.
We can’t begin to exude the smells, the touch of coffee trees, the humidity in the air, the roads we traveled, and the people that surrounded us, hosted us, educated us for one week. This is just the beginning of our travels with San Francisco Bay Coffee. And we can’t wait to share some of the lens through Honey’s eyes here.
Coffee: The Plant
Let’s get into it, coffee starts with a farm and a farm is full of plants (clearly) but what’s a coffee plant? There are two types of coffee trees: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica trees are far superior to Robusta, producing the best coffee in the world—if you’ve had an incredible cup of coffee, you were probably drinking Arabica.
Like any plant, each of these species has a long list of varieties. Some produce higher-quality coffee, but are susceptible to disease and pests. Others have high yield, but result in low cupping scores and undesirable tastes. SFBC is doing work to find the center of that Venn-diagram: high-quality, disease-tolerant, high-yield trees that elevate the rural farmer on the basis of quality. Disease-tolerance reduces pesticides and loss of yield, high-quality ensures market viability, and high-yield means the farmer is guaranteed a stable living.
On day three, we took a tour of the variety garden at Finca la San Nicolas where SFBC is trialing all of these varieties and got a crash course in Arabica varieties that have been successful all over the globe: Pacamara, Catuai, Bourbon 300, the list goes on.
Coffee: The Process
A cup of coffee has gone through 8 steps (roughly, excluding transport): growing, picking, milling, drying, aging, roasting, grinding, and brewing, ¡ahí está! a cup of coffee!
The first five steps (the bulk of the work) happen at the farm. In all, we toured three different farms that SFBC owns, each one with their own breathtaking qualities and rich history.
The first farm we visited was La Patria, where we toured the newly built wet mills and learned about the process of separating bean from cherry (milling). SFBC is introducing new innovations at this step, embracing the process of fermentation and experimenting with the yeast they use to remove the mucilage from the bean.
They went on to explain changes they’ve introduced in the drying process, designing new dryers to use less energy and are more careful with the bean. Previously a 150lb bag of green coffee took an acre of trees in wood to dry—these new dryers use natural gas and a fraction of the energy.
Coffee: The People
Throughout the trip, we learned about the inspiring social programs that SFBC establishes not only on their own farms, but throughout the area. We toured the new schools, dormitories, and kitchens while comparing them to the standard facilities. The juxtaposition is eye-opening. We got to visit their first private high school, where we met the students and took them on in a soccer match—Honey lost. Ha!
We ended the trip at Finca Hamburgo, a farm established in the late 1800’s that houses a little 9-room hotel in the highlands. They say it’s “a media cuadra del Cielo”—or, in English—“half a block from heaven,” and once you’re there you see why: within an hour we went from a 360º vista to being surrounded by clouds.
That evening, engulfed in clouds and a lightning storm, we let everything we had heard and saw set-in. An epic ending to an unforgettable trip. In the morning we spent a few hours chatting with the Edelmann family (who own the farm) over coffee and chilaquiles about the current state of the industry and their excitement for the future.
We know exactly where to go with this brand and there was something surreal that happened at Finca Hamburgo for our team.
We are so thankful for this trip. We learned more than we could’ve imagined and met some truly incredible people. This kind of work confirms what we love to do – tell people’s stories.