Robbie recently visited Don Manuel Castaneda's farm in Honduras for the first time since 2011. Read his trip report below!
Marcala, La Paz, Honduras February 2013
I had to squint and peel off my sweater as soon as we landed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras last week. The tropical sun shines with a unique intensity, as if clarified, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky that afternoon.
We immediately struck out (and up) for Santa Rosa de Copan, in the western mountains near the border with Guatemala, for a visit to the Beneficio de Santa Rosa, where the coffee we buy from Don Manuel Castandeda of Marcala is milled, graded, bagged and set on its way to ultimately blend into our espresso or shine alone as a bright, crisp single origin from his farm called Mogola.
The humidity and intense sunshine of the city quickly moderated as we tackled the switchbacks that took us up and up. The mill had grown in the two years since I had been there. Two large buildings were in use — while still under construction — behind the facility that I remembered. Twelve driers had been added and a mill that hadn’t processed any coffee in 2004 was well into processing 700 lots this season. The beneficio is dedicated to individual farmers in western Honduras, to helping them segregate their coffee into microlots, if the farmer so desires, and to track and bag their production with what can only called individualized care. Such attention to detail allows the beneficio’s client farmers to bring their coffee to market themselves.
And Peter Rodriguez, who runs the mill and has overseen its electric growth, is now trying to give back. He has begun a foundation — Fundacion Amigos del Cafe — to make sure the local coffee community can participate in the beneficio’s success, with the foundation sponsoring education and infrastructure projects in coffee-growing communities all around the country.
At this point in the year, most of the coffee in Honduras has been harvested, washed and dried, and the mill is busy well past dark, with literally tons of coffee waiting to be bagged and shipped. This is their busy season and will be well into spring.
The next day, it was on to Marcala to meet with Don Manuel and understand how he was being affected by roya — or coffee rust — a fungal disease that is prevalent in Central America this year.
As Don Manuel dropped his pickup into four-wheel drive and started up from the village of Marcala into the mountains that ring the town, the roya was obvious and its presence tragic. Trees were bare of leaves, some skinny branches still heavy with coffee cherries but not a leaf in sight. Under the healthy canopy of shade trees, coffee foliage that usually glows a deep green was nowhere to be seen, and the majority of farms looked like total losses.
Ironically, the year had brought a good harvest, lots of coffee. But the rainy season had come a month early, and then the rain had stopped for a month. And then started again.
The humid then hot conditions were perfect for fungus, and Honduras has felt the disease the most of any Central American nation. The affected trees will have to be pruned all the way back — or replaced. There are varietals that resist rust, and I expect many of the farms to replace their Bourbon and Cataui varieties with some of these. But the new coffees are unproved at the cupping table, and the road back to quality will be as circuitous and bumpy as the roads in and out of these enchanting mountains.
Either way, old trees brought back or new ones brought on line, much of Marcala won’t produce a crop for at least two years, and hard times are assured.
Don Manuel said that he is committed to coffee, to the jobs it produces for his village, and so will re-start and reinvest into the two of his farms — Musula and La Cueva — that have been defoliated. He is even experimenting with a varietal called Lempira, which has a gene from Robusta varietals and is resistant to the rust. He is using it on the periphery of his new plantings, as a surrounding hedge. Some evidence suggests it can be a barrier to new roya infestations by stopping the fungus on that periphery. We will see, and we will see if the Lempira will stand up in the cup, as well.
The coffee we buy, from his Mogola farm, will be there for him and for us. Mogola is located on one of the tallest mountains in the area, and the altitude has kept the fungus at bay somewhat. Don Manuel estimates that 25 to 30 percent of Mogola will have to be cut back or replaced but that he will have coffee next year.
In the afternoon, at the offices of Cafe Marcala, which denotes and certifies the coffees that can label themselves as of the denominacion de origen Marcala, I had the good fortune to find Hubert Nicolas at the cupping table. He invited me to join him, and three of the four samples were so juicy, and one so floral and special, that the thought of doing without this coffee for two or three years is just plain depressing.
Hubert’s passion for coffee was obvious in the way his eyes shone as he slurped on a particularly distinctive sample and then dipped his spoon in again. His is a microcosm of the passion that Honduras has for coffee, which is everywhere — on the steepest slopes and in the tamest front yards. I’m hoping it’s a passion that can carry the country through this rough patch.
As we leave Marcala, I stop for an espresso at Nancy Contrera’s Aroma Cafe, just up from the river and a couple blocks off the village square. Nancy is a certified cupper, a coffee entrepreneur and a blending genius. She makes me an espresso from coffees sourced solely in Marcala and roasted by her. Heaven in a cup, citrusy and round and creamy.
With a great taste in my mouth, I say goodbye to Marcala, but not farewell. Never farewell.
- Robbie Roberts