Halfwit Coffee Roasters

Mr. Hu and Chinese Coffee

Halfwit Coffee

Written by Eli Ramirez of Halfwit Coffee

Just a month ago, I left the country embarking on a week long journey through rural China in preparation for the United States Barista Championship. I would spend my trip touring the coffee farms of China, meeting the farmer responsible for growing the coffee I was using, and soaking up every bit of culture that I could. Going into this, I had very little knowledge of China; I don’t speak the language, and I was not very familiar with the geography, or the culture and customs.

During my preparation for the trip, I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the fact that I’d actually be in China. I had a million questions running through my head. What if one of my three flights doesn’t connect? What if I somehow get completely lost and have no way to communicate with anyone? What if one of the vaccination shots I got before going doesn’t work and I get sick? This was my first trip to origin as well as the farthest away from home I’d ever been. I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to actually be there until I stepped off my final plane in Pu’er and met Tim, my partner for the entirety of the trip. The moment I stepped out of the plane (because yes, I only got mildly lost and I did find my gates) was the moment everything seemed to come together. I was immediately surrounded by endless forest-covered mountains and beautiful, ornately decorated buildings. The air seemed different and the sun seemed brighter. I was completely immersed into a new world of culture, food, coffee and people, and I was so excited to take in everything I could.

Landing in Pu’er was step one to getting to the farm I’d be staying at, step two being the five hour drive southwest to a town called Menglian, about ten miles east of the Myanmar border. During every part of the drive, it seemed like we were at the top of a mountain, and in every direction were endless hills, mountains, tea fields, rice terraces, and massive plantations. It looked like a patchwork quilt was laid over every surface - each new thing growing was segmented into square fields, bunched up right next to each other. I knew that I was heading to rural south China but I had always imagined China as a bustling, cosmopolitan, big city focused place with big businesses and even bigger skyscrapers. The China that I was experiencing seemed so small and intimate. The food we were eating with so fresh and thoughtfully prepared but best of all, the people that I was meeting were so generous and warm. I had to remember that my job here was to learn as much about their coffee as possible, while also having the trip of a lifetime.

Chinese coffee has an interesting story. Since the 50’s, Nestle has been opening plants all around the Yunnan area, which is basically all of southern China. A huge majority of tea and rice farmers are also growing coffee, to be sold to Nestle. Nestle will strike agreements with these farmers to buy their entire lot of coffee for a lump sum, regardless of quality, to be turned straight into instant coffee. In the mid 90’s, the Chinese government realized that they were missing out on huge profits from coffee growing, so they decided to put a larger emphasis on growing coffee but then selling it internally to stimulate their own economy. In 2000, a man named Mr. Hu was hired to consult multiple coffee cooperatives in the area on how to run efficiently but also how to grow healthy, delicious coffee.  I had the honor of staying with him at his house, on one of his farms. Mr. Hu has been farming in China for almost 40 years, starting out as a tea growing consultant before making his way to coffee growing. In 2003, after an intense frost hit his region and wiped out the coffee cooperative that he was working for, he decided to start his own.

Today, Mr. Hu owns and runs seven farms in Menglian, four that produce commercial grade coffee and three that produce specialty grade. Mr. Hu, a botanist at heart, is someone who fully understands the hardships of being a farmer and how to run a successful business. Over the years, he has formed an incredibly efficient chain of command to run this complex operation, with himself at the top. He employs seven different farm managers, each one living on their respective farm and overseeing the day to day operations. Each of these managers then hire and employ pickers and processors, people whose job it is to specifically make sure only the ripest coffee cherries are being picked every day while also ensuring that the processing conditions are clean and organized. With this chain of command, Mr. Hu is able to have a hand in everything that happens at each of his farms, while also letting his employees know that he trusts them enough to act and work independently. However, it is not uncommon for him to get involved in the personal issues of the pickers that work multiple levels under him. He makes it known that he is there to help with work and personal issues at anytime, because the well-being of his employees mean business will run smoothly.

Being able to live at Mr. Hu’s house for five days allowed me to get an amazing view into the life of Mr. Hu and his business. Every morning at sunrise we would sit on his porch and chat while Mr. Hu made multiple V60’s of coffee from his various farms. We would walk around his property while he watered his plants and fed his flocks of animals. He would inspect his coffee trees to see how they were doing while checking in on his coffee tree nursery, another army of coffee tree babies waiting to be planted in his fields. Taking the day in one step at a time allowed him to divide and conquer, ensuring that every cog in his business ran smoothly. Throughout the trip we tasted coffee, picked coffee cherries, processed coffee, toured his coffee farms, roasted coffee, cupped coffee, and lived within the rhythm of his life. Though our days were consistently filled with activity, I found myself taking pauses just to marvel at and contemplate how complex this chain of events is. Before this trip it was difficult to conceptualize how many hands it really took for coffee to grow, get processed, get shipped, and get to Chicago.

While overwhelming to experience coffee in a new way, I found the process of gaining insight into this end of the coffee chain exhilarating. It is easy to assume that I knew how processing works and that I knew how coffee gets all the way to us, but this trip taught me that I, in reality, didn’t know anything about that. As I walked through the chain of coffee growing and processing, I was relearning what coffee is and what coffee means to hundreds of families in the Yunnan Province. Being able to see the amount of time and care Mr. Hu put into this coffee was priceless because every hour seemed to include another eye-opening experience. This came in the form of tasting a coffee cherry for the first time, or hand sorting cherry shells during the dry milling phase of processing. I was finally realizing just how much effort gets poured into growing coffee. The amount of effort is rivaled only by the sheer amount of time this takes, literal decades spent building this empire of coffee, all run by Mr. Hu. These years were spent building a community of coffee farmers, all looking towards him for farm advice and how to run a successful business.

I spent my week in China absorbing everything around me that I was experiencing for the very first time. This trip was seven days full of new adventures that fundamentally changed who I am and how I see my industry. I went into this not knowing what was going to happen and I came out with a renewed sense of being and belonging, feeling more grounded and attached to this profession than ever. All the incredible elements of this trip have changed the way I see coffee.

In the next installment of this blog series, I will go in depth into the processing methods at one of Mr. Hu’s and how they change the flavor of his coffee.

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Guatemala: Finca Rosario de Fátima

Andrea Otte
The lush and mostly liquid landscape of Finca Rosario de Fátima. March 20, 2017

The lush and mostly liquid landscape of Finca Rosario de Fátima. March 20, 2017

By Andrea Otte, Director of Coffee

Chipi chipi, the word in Spanish for the slow, misty rains that fall in the northern part of Guatemala for nine months out of the year, is predictably coating the windshield of our van as we arrive in Cobán. The dense, orchid-strewn forests of the Alta Verapaz department, of which Cobán is the capital, lie in a tropical valley surrounded by mountains. These mountains, many of which are dormant (or not so dormant) volcanos, trap the ocean winds from the surrounding coasts and create a unique microclimate of cool, moist air. On our way to visit Finca Rosario de Fátima, by way of a few wrong turns, we get a tour of the surrounding town and its people, who are busy going about their late afternoon as we make our seventh left. Men in rubber boots and muddy jeans stand in the back of pickup trucks on their way home from work, many of them coming from the farms and mills that we have just arrived to visit. Kids with the same types of garish plastic backpacks I see in my neighborhood in Chicago shuffle home from school on skinny sidewalks. After giving up entirely on our handheld technology, we finally arrive at the gates of Fátima with the last hour of sunlight hustling us out of the van.

Coffee farming in Guatemala has been around for over 140 years. Towards the end of the 19th century, German immigrants migrated to the Alta Verapaz region and established the first coffee plantations, with a small but prosperous population thriving up until the second World War. Prior to WWII, Germans immigrants owned approximately 80% of all arable land in Cobán (1). However, during the war the Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico, under pressure from the United States, kidnapped and shipped over 4000 Guatemalan Germans to internment camps in Texas. Following the end of the war some returned to Cobán, but the population never rebounded to its former numbers.

Joerg Sterkel, the son of Jens Sterkel, is a member of one of these German families who have continued the family business since the 19th century. In addition to owning Finca Rosario de Fátima, a coffee Halfwit has been purchasing for three years, the Sterkel family also founded what is now the oldest coffee exporting company in Guatemala, the Camec Corporation. With dwindling commercial export numbers in recent decades, Camec recently merged operations with our partners at TG Lab, consciously shifting to a new specialty emphasis. This combination of quality expertise and international logistics has helped drive growth - TG has seen 500% this year alone - and Joerg himself now runs operational logistics for both companies out of the TG offices in Guatemala City.

Despite the family pedigree, the business of running a coffee farm in Cobán (or anywhere) has never been easy, and may be more difficult now than ever before in the age of global warming. As we confirmed during our damp walk through the fields, Fátima receives four meters of rain per year, more than twice the national average. Being both cool and wet can be a challenge for fighting certain types of plant diseases, and it also makes drying coffee an issue, since there is little sun and a constant risk of rainfall. To combat this, the farm has taken an unorthodox approach. For one, because of the frequent cloud cover, they have very few shade trees, to allow their plants to soak up as much sun as possible. They space their coffee trees out much wider than normal so there are ventilation gaps between rows, which helps to prevent the spread of disease. The trees themselves are an impressive 35-60 years old, mostly Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuaí. Due to all of this, they also fertilize differently, using smaller, more frequent applications and timing them using soil analysis.

Josué Morales (left), our partner at TG Lab, stands with Don Carlos, the manager of Fátima, in front of the farm’s tiny onsite mill.

Josué Morales (left), our partner at TG Lab, stands with Don Carlos, the manager of Fátima, in front of the farm’s tiny onsite mill.

Fátima’s processing style was set up only a few years ago, during the coffee leaf rust crisis that many are still recovering from. TG worked with Don Carlos, the farm manager, to set up this system to their specific microclimate conditions. With fifty years of experience working at Fátima, a respectable length by any measure, Don Carlos is able to identify the healthiest and most productive areas of the farm, cordoning off those that need additional care, and providing a lot-by-lot approach to farm management. By sending samples throughout harvest to TG, the lab provides cupping analysis and technical consulting throughout the year, constantly evaluating the effectiveness of their processing, fertilization, and picking methods. You can see the results when you look around the farm - the trees are a deep, glossy green, with beautiful old growth rings at their trunks and healthy undergrowth.

Lichen-covered trunk of one of the farm’s 60-year old Bourbon trees.

Lichen-covered trunk of one of the farm’s 60-year old Bourbon trees.

It may surprise some readers that all of this goes into a coffee that has been used exclusively as a blender for Halfwit for the past two years. When in season, it is the primary component in our Triforce blend, and a supporting component in our Moonbat blend. We chose it because of its smooth texture, its approachable milk chocolate and caramel sweetness, and its consistency both in the roaster and as a brewed coffee. Finding coffees that have been well processed, are balanced but unique, and won’t break the bank is the holy grail of coffee sourcing. And that’s why we have invested in this relationship so strongly, because every year it has been a bulwark of quality and stability. Visiting only confirmed what we already suspected - a well managed, well loved, and beautiful farm that produces coffee that reflects exactly that.

Truth be told, while we cherish the opportunity to visit our friends and partners at origin, to get our boots dirty (or, in my case, my all-black sneakers that have now gone to shoe heaven) the majority of the work selecting coffees happens in the cupping lab. Tasting this year’s best lots with Josué and the team at TG, I can report with full confidence that this is the best harvest I’ve seen in three years. I look forward to combining the tasting, testing, and experimenting in our roastery with the work done by our partners at origin. Needless to say, we have much to look forward to from Guatemala, this season and many years to come.

Finca Rosario de Fátima. Photo courtesy of InterAmerican Coffee

Finca Rosario de Fátima. Photo courtesy of InterAmerican Coffee