coffee buying


The road up to Finca Las Delicias hugs the side of the mountain and goes down at a pretty steep angle.

The road up to Finca Las Delicias hugs the side of the mountain and goes down at a pretty steep angle.

The road up here to Finca Las Delicias is ridiculous. Don't even think about it if it's raining. But when you get up here to this spot, one of my all time favorite coffee spots, the beauty of the valley below comes into view, with Guatemala and Honduras just off in the distance, and the cool breezes kiss around the mountain, and time slows down, and all is right with the world. And I'm pretty sure that all your troubles, however big or small they may be, probably aren't able to follow you all the way up here because no one up here seems to do anything but smile.

Pacamara ripens in the El Salvador sun.

Pacamara ripens in the El Salvador sun.

The story of Brown and Las Delicias goes back seven years, when one day I was working at HQ, just doing some whatever, when the door opens and three fellows I've never met before said to me, "Hi, we're farmers from El Salvador. We have really great coffee and we think we might be a good match for you." Skeptical by nature, I said something like, "Well, what are you doing here in December, when there are no coffee samples for you to give me?"  Miguel Jr., Guillermo and their uncle Louis just smiled and said, "Just wait. You'll see." And they were right. The samples arrived a couple months later. I roasted and cupped them. And they were indeed beautiful. Sublime. Sweet and well-structured with a crisp acidity. Exactly the kind of coffee I build in my mind when I'm thinking about what a great El Salvador coffee is like.  We quickly found a place for it in our lineup and now, seven harvests later, we still count the Menendezes as some of our favorite coffee people. Our friendship, like their coffee, is the kind of relationship I build in my mind when I'm thinking about what great coffee friendships are like.

It's very difficult to get a decent shot of Miguel Menendez Sr., pictured at the right here, because he's constantly on the move. He knows his farms and his mill inside and out, having been in the trade for decades. His sons, Miguel Jr and Guillermo live here in the US for most of the year and help coordinate Stateside sales. 

It's very difficult to get a decent shot of Miguel Menendez Sr., pictured at the right here, because he's constantly on the move. He knows his farms and his mill inside and out, having been in the trade for decades. His sons, Miguel Jr and Guillermo live here in the US for most of the year and help coordinate Stateside sales. 

And now it's just about time again for their coffees to arrive. For sure we'll have some FINCA LAS DELICIAS in the mix. And this year we've got a surprise coffee from them to debut to the world. So sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors as I climb to the top of beautiful mountains and look out over the peaceful valley below at the beauty of God's green earth.


Hambela-Alaka Estate in the Guji zone of southern Ethiopia is one of the more impressive coffee places you'll visit. With over two dozen year round employees, the place swells to around 700 seasonal workers as the coffee harvest gets into full swing. These young men were keen to show their strength loading ~100 lb sacks of parchment coffee onto the trucks headed for the dry mill. At one point they offered me the chance to lug a few bags out of the warehouse and onto the back of the truck. But I was happy to just smile and nod and pretend not to understand the language they were speaking plainly with their hand motions. No place to set down my camera, you see. Soon these coffees will be hulled and bagged as green (raw) coffee beans and sent across the ocean to discerning roasters...and perhaps Brown will be lucky enough to be among that number. Anyway, I was there.

This is actually an unofficial NEW COFFEE ALERT. We are currently reviewing pre-ship samples from Metad, the owners of Hambela-Alaka as well as purchasers of quite a lot of outgrower coffees from surrounding smallholders. If the samples are good (a high probability) we'll work through the logistics of bringing in one/some of these coffees to Brown by mid to late Summer 2018. 

One in a MILL-ion (Part Three): BIRD'S EYE VIEW>>

One in a MILL-ion (Part 3): BIRD'S EYE VIEW>> To give a little more spatial perspective of how a lot of wet mills work, here's a top side view of the one we've been posting about in this series. The cherry has been delivered into the ceramic holding tank (see Part 1) and now it's slowly pouring down the drain and into the flume where it's met with fast running water and taken into the separation tank (Part 2). Because this mill has been strategically built into the side of a hill the truck can simply back up to the holding tank. Many free standing mills rely on pneumatic or augered systems to deliver cherry up to the higher starting point, which as you can see here is four stories up. After separation, the coffees move into two separate pulpers, where what often looks like a giant rotating cylinder with cheese grater teeth grabs hold of the outer cherry skins and rips them about halfway off the beans. From here one of several secondary strategies for removing the remaining cherry skins is employed. If you look down to the bottom level on the left toward the end of this video clip you can see the rotating secondary depulper for the lower quality beans that have been separated from the higher grade beans, and its feed pipes bringing those beans into the depulper and then the pipes leading away outside and to the next step. White PVC pipes traverse the wet mill and carry coffee, water or waste/recycling water throughout the mill. The sound of generators and/or depulping equipment is a constant element in the ears during harvest, which is why many wet mill workers wear protective ear plugs. The yellow cat walks here are wet and often slightly slippery, which means safety is a big deal when climbing or descending. Part 4 will show the depulping/demucilaging for the higher quality cherry.


Once coffee cherries have been delivered into the mill (see Part 1 above), the process of separation begins. After the truck dumps the lot into the receiving tank, there's an exit chute at the bottom of the those tanks that cherry tumbles into and down into a flume where water and gravity transport everything that was in the truck delivery--ripe cherry, unripe, leaves, small stones, twigs...everything--into a large hopper filled with water, with a pipe chute out the side that feeds into a slightly lower, smaller holding bin. The water in the large hopper plays a critical role in the separation process. Since the mass of water is heavier than all the foreign material as well as the unripe coffee cherry, it causes most of those to float. Ripe cherry, however, is heavier than water, which causes it to sink and be separated into the next holding bin below and to the right. Hence, the pipe chute feeding the smaller bin is toward the bottom of the large bin. The gratings at the entry of the smaller bin allow most of the water to escape below, where it will be recycled into pulper(s) on the next level down. It is often difficult to distinguish which cherry is fully ripe and which isn't when it's on the tree. Both may be bright red. More or less sugars inside the cherry means more or less density vis-a-vis the water, and that's the brilliance of this simple separation technique. The thing to notice here is that while there may be upwards of 15+% unripe cherry and foreign materials feeding into the big hopper, that number has been reduced to around 5% by the time it reaches the lower hopper. From here, the unripes will be processed and prepared for the local commodity market, while the ripe cherry continues its journey to the depulping

One in a MILL-ion (Part 1): INTO THE SYSTEM>>

One in a MILL-ion (Part 1): INTO THE SYSTEM >> Most coffee cherry around the world (with the notable exception of Brazil) is harvested by hand and brought daily during harvest season to the wet mill ("el beneficio," in Spanish) in the afternoon, where a record is made of which workers brought in how much. This record is especially important if the mill is owned or operated by a cooperative society of some sort. Where the farm and mill are owned and operated by the same person, as here, cherry can be bulked in via truck instead of by ~100 lb sacks. In this video segment you can see the cherry being measured into the blue metal container with the sliding door. Each time the blue container gets filled with cherry eventually represents about a quarter of a bag of green (raw) coffee that will make it to buyers and roasters like Brown. (In the video clip you can hear me erroneously indicating that each blue box represents a full bag of green.) Toward the end of the clip, you can see as Luis Alberto empties the cherry into the ceramic tile-lined holding tank below, then turns around and adjusts the blue counter above the holding tank to keep track of how many containers he has dumped so far into the holding tank. Simply divide by four for a bag count. This tank represents one "lot" of coffee and will get a unique identifier based on the farm, date, variety(ies) and eventually the type of processing the cherry will receive. Everything is separated and accounted for at a quality-minded mill like La Lia, where our famous and beloved El Dragón is processed. Wet mill inprocessing like this will last well into the night during the season.


Tonio Barrantes.JPG

Señor Tonio Barrantes. A giant among men with absolutely huge coffees. His coffees have been on my radar ever since my first visit to Costa Rica back in 2014. It's not exactly like I was finding some hidden gem no one else had ever discovered, though. No discussion of the luminaries of the Costa Rica coffee scene would be complete without him in it. His mill, Herbazu, is the very picture of coffee super-ness: it's super organized, super clean, super inspiring. So when our head roaster Mike and I swung through West Valley this past February and paid him another visit I knew the time was right to finally pull the trigger on one of his coffees. My notion was confirmed a couple days later back in San José when his coffees were consistently scoring toward the top of each cupping table they were on. And so I did it--I pulled the trigger on what is sure to become a favorite among the elite coffee drinkers who choose Brown as the gatekeeper of San Antonio's elite coffees: Finca Lorena. Remember that name because you'll soon be able to say you remember when you first heard it. And before you know it you'll remember the first moment you tasted it. I can promise you that. Landing soon at a Brown near you.  

P.S. Herbazu is an acronym for HER-rmanos BA-rrantes y ZU-niga



Let's talk about knowing where your coffee comes from. Here's a copy of yesterday's coffee harvested from one part of one of my favorite farms in the world. You can see the variety, volume, date, etc., so that everything is traced. This is what repeatable quality looks like, and it's why we continue to partner with the amazing Don Miguel Menendez and his family and his extended farm family, many of whom have been with him for decades. 

As technology advances so much of this paper trail is becoming digitized. We at Brown are actively exploring ways we can help facilitate the transition from paper to digital in as many places we work with around the world. We are already working out the details for our contribution to a digitized scale for our producer friends in Kenya as a way for them to eliminate the time consuming burden of copying everything in triplicate. A digitized scale will give each smallholder producer a unique PIN. When they delivery cherry to the mill, they input their PIN and up comes a readout of their entire history: Did the producer take a loan for inputs? How many visits have they made to the mill and how much cherry was delivered each time? What is the total YTD volume of cherry for him or her? Have they been paid on any of this yet? And so forth. There's even talk of linking the Kenya scale to Mpeza, which is the local Kenya digital currency payment system so that payments can be immediately paid to the farmer via mobile phone. Anything that can be done to speed up the pace of business is good because faster transactions almost always result in more rapid wealth creation. This is the future and it's a good one. 



TERMINOLOGY>> Whenever someone talks about coffee in "parchment" ("pergamino" in Spanish) this is what they mean. Parchment is the last major layer of the coffee cherry before you get to the actual seeds of the cherry. (Technically speaking, there's a paper thin layer that surrounds most coffee varieties called "silverskin" that is mostly processed off, but that's kind of another story. Also technically speaking, the seeds/beans of the coffee tree's fruit are called drupes, which is the same as the avocado, but that's also another story). So here we are with a small pile of parchment, so named because as the beans are dried to the desired level of between 10-12% water/moisture, this layer dries into a crackable, but highly protective layer, not too unlike parchment paper. Seeing coffee in parchment is the first time during the harvest that you can see the actual outline of what looks like a coffee bean. Because parchment is such a reliable barrier against external forces, almost all specialty grade coffee is dried then stored ("rested," or, "en reposo") in parchment for up to three months--sometimes even longer--before being hulled at the dry mill, bagged and containerized for the long trip to a broker's and/or importer's warehouse, or in Brown's case, directly to our roasting facility. The resting phase is widely thought to help the beans settle into a more stable organic scenario and, anecdotally, gives them slightly better solubility potential, which means they won't taste as youngish or greenish/vegetal when roasted and brewed. Green coffees that have their parchment removed too soon tend to taste "LOOM-ey" (Loss Of Organic Material) much sooner after arriving into the roaster's hands than those that are rested properly. Hulled parchment from previous harvests is often used as fuel to fire the large mechanical dryers some coffee producers use to bring their coffees down to 10-12%, saving money and using less external resources.