The municipality of Santa Elena in Western Honduras is located in the department of La Paz, at an elevation of 1,800 meters above sea level and is very near the border with El Salvador. Most of the Catracha farms are located in this region, and many with long views down the valley below. If you start at the family home of Mayra Orellana-Powell, marketing manager for Royal Coffee and co-founder of Catracha, and depending on which road you take around the mountains, the terrain, landscape, plants, and farms will change dramatically.
You may remember the details of this project: The municipality has approximately 88 square miles and a population of 14,800. Coffee is grown between 1,500 and 1,800 meters above sea level, and we think the quality is very high.
Catracha Coffee is a coffee-buying social enterprise that accesses the specialty coffee market for smallholder farmers. The quality project is an initiative focused on supporting the production of specialty coffee among Catracha Coffee farmers in Honduras.
As I’m writing this, data loggers are running on four farms, in the solar dryers, and near drying patios—installed by farmers (Rosibel Vasquez, Santiago Lopez, Luis Nolasco, and Porfirio Lopez) with the help of Arvin Juan and Lowell Powell with Catracha.
Arvin and Lowell have also encouraged farmers to add more ventilation to their solar dryers and use breathable black mesh under the coffee parchment while it dries to promote slow and even drying in an easy to clean environment free of unwanted contamination.
“People believe drying coffee in 5 days is good because it opens up space to dry more coffee, so the challenge is to convince a producer that 15 days is better because the quality will be better,” Lowell said to me.
The intention of the data loggers is this: they will map the post-harvest process and collect data at each step, from receiving, pulping, fermenting, drying, and storage. “Many farmers have their particular way of doing things, and our goal is to capture the uniqueness from farm to farm so we can learn from each other and get even better,” said Orellana-Powell.
In its first year, Catracha worked with 13 farmers. The following year it was near 30 producers and Mayra is estimating closer to 60 people this year. This is evidence of a great buy-in from people on the ground in Honduras.
On the other side of the business, Catracha is seeing similar excitement from roasters and the industry. You will remember Mayra’s talk at last year’s symposium: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9alAQBTMLw
I had a chance to get the perspective of some of the coffee buyers on this trip (who, I should add, have been offering extremely valuable guidance and support for this project). Many of the buyers agreed that the social aspect of this project—the community building, the focus on transparency, bringing more money back to the producer—is as appealing as the quality aspect of the project (which again, we think is pretty great). The organizing, the market connection, the producer investment is all happening in an exciting way.
What is special about Santa Elena? So many things, but not the least of which is the coffee. The work is beginning, and it is important that Catracha can show continued improvement in quality over the coming years. I’d like to sketch out how we are going to track that progress.
Let’s start with what is happening on the coffee farms. I mentioned some of the ways that data is going to be captured. This is important, baseline information. Going forward, when Catracha experiences quality outliers—coffee that exceeds or does not meet expectation—Catracha should be able to drill into the processing and farm information to identify why and adjust its methods. This will be valuable feedback for farmers and can help explain quality variance, something that can be a mystery.
Giving advice to farmers in Santa Elena based on successes seen in other growing regions of the world could be risky because every growing region can have its own unique micro-climate and favorable factors that are not necessarily transferable to Santa Elena. Having data to analyze before suggesting possible strategies for quality improvements will reduce costly mistakes.
This project is bringing together individuals from wide ranging backgrounds. There are, of course, the coffee professionals. The Catracha team is being guided by advice from experienced coffee buyers. There is a pretty healthy debate happening within the Catracha community about processing techniques, pricing and transparency.
Catracha is also working with John Casazza, a consultant in sustainable agriculture development and food systems, John is working with farms to identify best practices for shade, tree management, application of compost, and ways to protect against la roya or leaf rust. More from John in a future post, but he clearly identified the coffee value chain for Catracha. See below:
And most importantly, Catracha will work with close to sixty producers this year, almost double from 2015. According to Lowell and Mayra, the new additions to the Catracha group have been wonderful to work with and their coffee looks spectacular.
That’s a lot of coffees to sample roast, cup, and analyze. I’m glad that Evan Gilman and Jen Apodaca and the rest of the team at the Crown are developing an engaging platform to share roasting and brewing notes. Having sample roasted, cupped, and written up last year’s Catracha lots (roughly 30), I know that having the Crown structure in place is going to make this easier and ultimately add value for Royal and its customers.