Our Farmers, OUR FRIENDS
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.
LUIS ALBERTO MONGE URENA
FINCA EL DRAGON | PIE SAN
SAN MARCOS, TARRAZU, COSTA RICA
Don Luis is a tinkerer. He likes to ask, "What if?" a lot. You can see those questions being asked all over his farms and mill. The answer comes in the cup, and always makes me smile. Hop into his old Toyota Land Cruiser and head out with him to what to me has to be his heart-and-soul crowning jewel of a farm, Pie San, and you'll see the questions strewn down the steep canyon-like slopes of the mountain upon which this experimental farm rests precariously, like an emerald blanket of lush coffee trees, the roots of which are surely the only thing preventing the whole enterprise from sliding into the valley below. Walk the gravel road that crosses the top of the farm and see sign after sign delineating sections on the farm of the world's most sought after boutique coffee varieties, all perfectly at home in their adopted environment of cool, alpine Tarrazu, all patiently converting mountain sunlight into nutrients that will get converted to sugars inside the dense, sometimes floral and always sweet seeds of the trees on which they grow. It's a murderer's row of the luminaries of the coffee world all standing next to each other, swaying in the breeze, tempting me to creep ever closer to the edge of the road and closer to a blissful tumble down as I open my wallet to try to buy them all. I could stand there all day watching clouds pile up against and spilling over the mountains across the valley while stealing glimpses of the deep blue Pacific 30 kilometers distant. But we've got more stuff to see and do; so it's back into the Land Cruiser and slowly down the 4x4 only road to the front gate of Pie San and eventually out onto the main mountain road that takes us past the town of San Marcos and over to La Lia Mill.
The mill, named for Luis' and his brother Oscar's sweet, almost docile mother Lia, presents more "what ifs" in the nursery tucked behind the dry mill building that tenderly shelters yet more rare, wonderful seedlings of experimental coffee varieties, all awaiting their moment of glory to be planted in one of Luis' several award-winning farms. After a few moments pondering together what the future holds as we look across this green carpet of morning cups yet to be, we march determinedly toward the drying patios where some workers are diligently washing down one section of patio with a water hose, preparing it for a special deposit of, you guessed it, experimentally processed beans from a small lot on Finca El Dragon, the other of Luis' farms from which Brown has purchased coffee for four years running now. "Experimental processing" for Luis means working his depulping equipment just so to remove just so much of the mucilage fruit layer from the beans in this microlot until they look and smell, well, just so. From there they'll be carefully laid out on the aforementioned patio space and methodically turned in the Costa Rica sun with what looks like a wooden rake minus the teeth, every hour on the hour for the next week until the beans are at the precise moisture level Luis deems best for this experiment which, like numberless others, seems to be running concurrently, fluidly, in his mind like a mountain river flowing toward the sea.
A short time hence, the product of all his experimentation will indeed reach the sea and onto our shores in the form of clean, sweet coffees that are crisp and acidic, like a classic Costa Rica coffee, but with a certain added layer of sophistication and nuance, the result of the endless hours of thinking and tinkering Luis does all harvest long. Luis prepares El Dragon for us as a Yellow Honey process, meaning he's left perhaps 40-50% of the fruit mucilage on the beans to dry, which imparts a creamy base of nougat-like sweetness atop the familiar green apple and Riesling acidity this coffee is known and loved for. The last two years we've purchased the SL-28 (a Kenya coffee variety) microlot from Pie San. Two years ago he processed it as Yellow Honey. Last year we asked him via Facebook Messenger to process the lot as Red Honey. "Good timing," he said. "I'm bringing that lot into the mill tomorrow." This year I had planned to ask him what he wanted to do with that lot when he broke the bad news to me in the Land Cruiser ride to Pie San. Hurricane Nate had raged through Central America just a few months before and literally the only microlot on Pie San that had been washed away in a landslide was the SL-28 lot. Considering the number or washed out roads, bridges and homes, and the thousands of displaced Ticos (the colloquial name for the beautiful people of Costa Rica) Nate left in his wake, I could only be thankful Luis and his family were safe and lived to farm another day. So we'll grab another beautiful lot from Pie San this year instead, alongside another year's worth of El Dragon, and celebrate the culmination of all of Luis' "What ifs" as they materialize into liquid beauty in your cups.
CRISTIAN MONGE vargas
Finca Ladera Del Aguacate | D'NINCHO MILL
santa maria, tarrazu, costa rica
Christian is what one might call a rising star in the wold of coffee. Young and energetic, full of knowledge, passion and good humor, he toured me around his farms and mill for several hours, answering every question I could throw at him about soil composition, shade management, his decisions to take over the farms and mill from his father in order to transition them from essentially a subsistence operation to one focused on the higher end of the market, and so forth. A couple years into the transition and it’s clear he’s on to something huge. Costa Rica is unique in the specialty coffee world in that there is significant density in terms of the number of expert specialty coffee producers living and working in relative close quarters to each other, and sharing insights and best practices between them. This has benefited many younger farmers like Cristian, willing to make the leap to higher quality and able to do so because of the treasure trove of information he and his neighbors can share together.
D’Nincho Mill is the place where the coffees he produces get milled. As he took me up to the fourth story of his wet mill, I looked out the windows down to the nursery, then the drying tables, then up the hillside to the farms themselves; and I could see the attention, love and care he had placed into everything under his control.
Ladera Del Aguacate is the name of the farm we purchased from him. On the cupping table back in San Jose we selected the Red Honey version of this coffee because the fruit was pushed well-forward in the mix but not overripe, like a black fig used in a creamy bread pudding. Figgy, jammy, Port-like. Delicately fruited. Beautiful. All of these are apt descriptions of this coffee.
This is our first year purchasing coffees from Christian. I look forward to many more years collaborating with him as we see his plans for D’Nincho grow and become fully realized.
FINCA LAS DELICIAS | FINCA EL ROSARIO
ATACO, APANECA-ILAMATEPEC, 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 his 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 called Piedra Grande, so named for the gigantic boulders all around the area, remnants of ancient deposits left from the numerous local volvanoes. 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 2011 after a slightly (very) 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 articulately and exhaustively about fixing the right inputs in just the right quantities into the soil or onto the coffee tree leaves themselves, as the case may warrant, to keep it healthy, disease free 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 six 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 & LARRY HULL
WESTERN HIGHLANDS, PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Sometimes the best coffees find you. Such it was with Madan Estate. Cole Arendt, who used to do 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 nine 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.
Today we're fortunate to say that Dr Hull and Aarlie actually call San Antonio their home when they're in the US, owing to the fact that two of their sons and their respective families have also called our fair city home. So if you're walking out of one of our shops with a cup of delicious coffee, you've got pretty good odds you might come face to face with the very people who produced the coffee you're enjoying as they walk in for their morning cup as well. Which is kind of how we roll at Brown.
finca vista hermosa
san pedro necta, huehuetenango, guatemala
Returning for its 12th season at Brown Autumn 2018...
githembe cooperative society
gatundu, kiambu county, kenya
I made a movie. Really. Me. Well, me and hundreds of coffees representing thousands of people's livelihoods. It's the story of what we do at Brown, and how not very easy it is to source from scratch the world's most delicious coffees. And at the end of the story there is this faceless cup of coffee from a faceless group of people that never get shown in the film, because, well, that's just part of how difficult it is to source coffees when you're thousands of miles from home and running out of time before catching a flight home. Two years passed with Brown contracting to buy this unbelievably delicious coffee from one of my favorite coffee countries on earth and I had no idea what these people looked like, what they were like...nothing. If I had passed them on the crowded, dusty streets of Nairobi, I would've never known it. That irked me. Like a tiny smudge on a painting you painted that you and only you notice. So in December 2017 I decided to return to Kenya to meet the folks at Githembe "Society"--which is what they call cooperatives in Kenya--and to thank them for producing one of my all-time favorite coffees. So I did (except this time no film makers and camera men were following me around the whole time). To say that I was humbled by the experience doesn't capture the half of it.
So often we coffee buyers think (or like to think) of ourselves as the most important link in the seed to cup chain.
After all, if it weren't for me, the producers would have no one to give them money for their coffees and they'd go under. I'm providing the most valuable part of the transaction by traveling all this way to find you and validate you and your hard work, and in return I'll unlock the gates of the San Antonio coffee market to you by dutifully putting your coffee on my shelves--"Kenya." Check.--alongside the other great coffee countries of the world that grace my cafes.
It's in this skewed mentality that so many dangers lie just beneath the surface, because the fantasy feeds upon itself, producing greater and greater schemes like so many wheels within wheels of things we coffee buyers can do to help these producers produce a better tasting crop, or to enlighten them by allowing them to undertake a risky but chic processing experiment that could fail spectacularly, but, if successful, would bring glory to the buyer as a forward thinking coffee mind.
And on and on I went in my coffee mind.
This was the lather I was working myself up into as I boarded a plane in Houston bound for Dubai and eventually Nairobi. "What great project can I get them to do with me? How much greater is this already great coffee going to be after they add this project to their repertoire?" Armed to the teeth with plans and ideas of what *I* wanted to do for *my* cafes, I was in for a small number of startling revelations.
First, upon arriving in the late afternoon at Thiririka Factory (which is what they call mills in Kenya), a few kilometers up the road from Githembe proper, we discovered there was no electricity there at the mill. None. Not as in, the power was temporarily out that day. As in, there are literally no electrical connections there. All the lighting and equipment and anything mechanical that moves is done by generators. Second, when we had sat down for refreshments with some of the Githembe board members we discovered after some quick mental maths that Brown was purchasing around 80% of all the AA grade coffee Githembe was producing. (AA is officially a size category in Kenya, but generally also unofficially corresponds with quality.) Third, all those great plans I had concocted? They were worthless. What these beautiful and humble people needed was a partner, not a rock star coffee buyer dictator. They had need not of some experimentally radical project, but of some basic nuts and bolts improvements that could very well spell either survival or failure for the small society, or, perhaps more accurately, provide the catalyst to help them move from surviving to thriving. And the fact that I was responsible for such a huge portion of their livelihoods--a shock even to me--quickly brought home the burden of responsibility I had to ask them how I could help them.
So we began to put our heads together, as friends and as partners. One of the immediate needs we agreed we could begin doing was to start the process of changing out warping wooden drying tables with sturdy metal ones. Tables that will probably still be standing when you and I are long dead. This coming year we'll start with a maybe five to ten tables. Next year maybe a dozen to twenty more; and so on until we've converted all 100+ tables. That was an obvious and easy one to come up with. We quickly thought of several more very practical, very cool projects we at Brown could undertake, and, more importantly, invite even you, our friends and supporters, to undertake with us to serve the Githembe Society and to say thank you in tangible terms for the amazing coffees they produce year after year after year. (Watch this space for the launch of the first of these projects soon.)
Finally, I committed within myself that I would stretch the resources of my small company just a little further this year to purchase 100% of Githembe's AA crop. I figured it was a concrete gesture that I was committed to them and to our future success together.
I probably didn't need an airplane to fly home, my heart was so light and full of hope. Not only did I get to put beaming faces to bright coffees; but I put myself and my own contributions to the chain back into proper perspective and found some very down to earth ways to give back to a society and factory that has already given to us so much.
By the way, you can watch the trailer for my movie below or stream the whole thing here.
tarrazu, costa rica
Debuts at Brown Late Autumn 2018....