THE BEST COFFEES DON'T NECESSARILY NEED CERTIFICATIONS TO TASTE GOOD. THEY NEED A ROASTER WHO WILL TELL THE STORY OF GREAT COFFEES FROM GREAT PEOPLE TO ANYONE WHO WANTS TO DIG JUST A LITTLE DEEPER. HERE ARE SOME OF THOSE STORIES.
Mendez y Urena
Finca El Pilon, Tarrazu, Costa Rica
The life of a coffee hunter is glamorous. And mundane. And sometimes it surprises you.
Miles and miles of coffee farm after coffee farm and seeing the same things over and over again; smiles and "Mucho Gustos" and "Hasta Luegos" often turn up nothing that is a good match for what you're trying to offer. And then...you turn off the road onto an unsuspecting path that leads to something unique. This is the story of El Pilon.
The collaborative project of two independent farmers. Each with their own farms. Each with their own interests. Working together toward something unique in its place. Costa Rica is a country long known for sparkling, clean, fully washed coffees. It is a hallmark and one of those types of coffees one can put on a beginner's cupping table as a "Geography As Flavor" archetype of bright, crisp acidity. That is Costa Rica coffee. Or it was.
But the times, they are a-changing; a micromill revolution (yes, revolution) is taking place in Costa RIca and the democratization of technology has brought its infectious enthusiasm into the back valleys of remote Central America, where smallholder farmers can process coffees in ways that were up until a few years ago considered rare birds at best, verboten at worst.
Enter El Pilon. A natural process coffee thoughtfully and meticulously cared for by Mssrs Urena and Mendez, each taking shifts turning perfectly ripe coffee cherries on black nylon raised beds, to let the sun dry them evenly, perfectly. So much can go wrong all along the path to bringing a full natural processed coffee to market. Often mold, mildew and just plain rotten fruit can dominate the flavor in the cup if the drying of the coffee beans inside the intact coffee cherry skin doesn't happen just so. Turning coffee hourly in the sun so that it dries evenly and sugars develop fully is not many people's idea of adventure. Back and forth the hand rakes go. Bed to bed and back again for yet another pass. Details must be attended to. One cannot lapse in one's duties to bring this slow-motion beauty into the world. Days on days of this tedious, monotonous work produces something very much not tedious or monotonous...something, in fact, that is near-revelatory, as when this coffee buyer reached into a sack of recently dried coffee cherries and smelled the most uniquely fragrant, clean dried fruits he has ever smelled in almost a decade of buying coffees. Everything had gone right here. We had to have this coffee.
Fortunately, the good people of Exclusive Coffees do this kind of thing all day, every day during harvest season--matching up small producers with small buyers. And so we pulled the trigger on El Pilon. And it just showed up a couple weeks ago. And that same rush of fruited aromatic beauty took this coffee buyer back to that exact first moment he was nose deep in that sack of freshly dried coffee cherries. It was that perfect. In the cup it's the same story of perfection. Black cherry. Dried raspberry and blackberry. Dried strawberry. Madeira wine Plush and inviting. Tea-like. Perfect.
We hope you'll take advantage of this rare and special coffee while it's here at Brown.
Miguel Menendez Family
FINCA BUENA VISTA | FINCA LAS DELICIAS | FINCA SANTA BARBARA | FINCA EL ROSARIO
Apaneca-Ilamatepec Region, El Salvador
It's all important.
Doing coffee well and right and good means leaving nothing to chance. It means taking care of coffee down to the soil and up to the proper height between the top of the coffee trees and the bottom of the shade canopies. It means purposely incurring the extra expense of keeping a staff of locals in steady employment instead of investing in a quick, one-time capital investment of machinery that will do the same thing as the humans.
These are the things "Don" Miguel Menendez does as part of their coffee operations in northwest El Salvador. Don Miguel has been at this for decades, and as such he has become a respected member of the business community. He has led the charge to help raise both the quality of the coffees he and others around him produce, as well as to raise the awareness of that quality on an international level by helping secure international AOC-type recognitions for coffees from the Apaneca and Ilamatepec departments.
Don Miguel's family owns and operates six coffee farms (four of which are specialty-grade) as well as a wet and dry milling operation. He has divided the family's business between his daughter and two sons even though he is very much alive and kicking, doubtless to ensure a seamless transition to the next generation. By all accounts, it's working.
I first visited the Menendez family in early 2011after a slightly harrowing border crossing between Guatemala and El Salvador (another story). Don Miguel met two of us coffee buyers on the El Salvador side, where we promptly hopped into the cabin of his Dodge Ram truck while his man, rifle slung over his shoulder, hopped into the truck bed in back.
Over the next two days we traveled the length and breadth of the Menendez family's impressive coffee operation, listening to Mr Menendez, or his agronomist, or his various farm managers speak intelligently and exhaustively about fixing the right inputs in just the right quantities into the soil to keep it healthy and balanced and to coax the trees to produce superior taste quality. Or about what they believe is the proper humidity level for coffee trees to be happy and how one can manage the shade canopy to maintain those levels. Or about planting massive windbreak trees to help delicate Bourbon trees maintain their coffee cherries during storms and strong winds. Or about an incredible new find on one of the trees that one of the managers discovered quite by accident--probably a natural mutation--that was producing coffee cherries with the distinct aroma and taste of ripe peaches.
And so on and so forth, fascinatingly.
We listened to the sound of armies of bees in one of the farms that was in full coffee blossom blooms a week after surprise rains. The sound was deafening and beautiful: a healthy macro-organism being tended in concert between bees, trees and man.
We spoke in hushed tones reverently over a (literal) hole in the ground where they had recently dug out a tree that was no longer producing well, victim of some ailment that affects coffee trees, almost in the way one speaks of an older relative who has just passed. It was best, the explanation came, to spread the tree's remains among its peers, a final gift of itself to the ongoing larger good, as organic matter returned to organic matter and produced yet another organic item, a drinkable one that enriched the lives of all around it.
"Enriched" is a good word. Not because we're talking about fabulously wealthy people. But because the Menendez family is rich where it counts: in heart. Coffee buyers like to come down to farms and hand out checklists of things they want to see, boxes to be ticked to assuage the white para-guilt that consumes so many American consumers these days. I personally like to glance into the eyes and watch the body language of the "little people" when the boss man arrives on the scene. Do they bow, eyes low to the ground, in obeisance, or do they smile that grateful smile people get when they're contented in their work? All I saw was the latter: women chatting it up and laughing as we walked through the dry mill where they were sitting sorting out defects on the coffee treadmill; managers who pull up a porch rocking chair and sit with us--not behind us, or standing--as we watch the sun fall asleep behind the trees and the mountains. People. It's all important. The Menendez family gets this in crystal clear ways. And the coffees provide ample testament to that care and expertise.
The farms, the mills, the whole production was top-level. Heart-smiles were emanating from this coffee buyer as small detail after small detail kept coming up roses in my mental inventory of what a well-run coffee operation should be. These guys had it down.
We at Brown have been fortunate enough to have two seasons of great coffees from the Menendez family. We look forward to many more--because of the coffee details, of course. But also all the other tiny details that were obviously paid attention to. Because it's all important.
Aarlie and Larry Hull
Western Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea
Madan Estate, above, is situated several miles outside of Mt. Hagen, the nearest thing to a "town" that this part of Papua New Guinea has.
Sometimes the best coffees find you. Such it was with Madan Estate. Cole Arendt, who does US sales for New Guinea Traders (the parent company of Madan Estate), and Larry and Aarlie Hull's son-in-law approached us one day about five years ago with a message: "We think Madan coffees are a good match for Brown Coffee."
Always on the lookout for great new coffees, I took him up on his offer to send us samples of their wares. To say it has indeed been a good match would be something of an understatement. The coffee samples we received were big and bad ("good" bad), with a huge body and very low acidity. Spice and sweetness was redulant. We were in love; and Madan quickly made its way into our lineup, both as a single-origin offering as well as the anchor of our flagship espresso, Cottonwood.
Brown was still a small child of a company then; but one thing I knew: great coffees don't happen by chance. So I began to dig a little deeper and discovered more and more interesting and encouraging tidbits about the farm itself and the people who produced it. I learned that Larry Hull, a now-retired orthopaedic surgeon, and his wife Aarlie, had been traveling to PNG for years as medical missionaries, until one day Madan Estate basically fell into their laps (another story for another time). I learned that since coming into Madan they had worked tirelessly to produce higher and higher coffee quality using smart-earth practices while also cultivating meaningful social and economic relationships with the people who work the farm with them, as well as those in the surrounding community. Things like building worm beds to create richer soil; cultivating multiple shade canopies for more complex coffee bean maturation; sinking well after well in the area for better access to clean water and planting flora around the farm for erosion control. Things like building and maintaining a medical clinic where upwards of 10,000 patients are treated and around around 5,000 children receive immunizations annually. Things like fair and stable wages for every Madan worker. Things like literacy projects that have seen some 50,000 books to date set up in a local library they built.
And so forth.
The Hulls are committed to a full-spectrum approach to their work and it shows. Happy people produce happy products and it is obvious that everyone who has a hand in bringing Madan Estate coffee to market cares deeply about what they are doing. We think that's what makes them such a good match for Brown Coffee Company.