Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

The Honduran coffee, that is. Since 2011, Honduras has been Central America’s top producer of coffee, outperforming the historical leader Guatemala, with 280,000,000 kilograms produced every year, mostly for export to the US and Europe.

Although there are coffee fincas (plantations) all over the country, western Honduras, with its mountainous terrain and hot, wet climate, is considered the best place for the crop. And although there are villages and towns all over western Honduras, the tourist infrastructure out in the sticks (in the whole country, in fact) is considerably more limited than in neighbouring countries. And so it is that I find myself rattling along in a ‘carriage’ attached to the back of a tractor, with a bunch of other (local) tourists, over a dirt road in Finca Santa Isabel, just outside of the town of Copan Ruinas.

Copan Ruinas is right next to its famous namesake Maya ruins (the town is named after the ruins, so it probably only exists because of them). And while sipping my latte in Café Welchez the day before, the lovely lady barista mentioned that they do tours of the very finca that produces their coffee.

And so we trundle along the dirt road to the beginning of the tour, and then walk gently downhill through the jungle to the nursery. There are rows and rows of tiny coffee plants, each one in a small black plastic bag the size of my fist, protected in the nursery from the blazing Honduran sun. There are thousands of them, and in a few months they’ll all have to be replanted in the 375-acre finca. By hand. The tour guide (who’s remarkably knowledgeable for a teenager) is talking about soil quality and nitrogen and humidity and elevation and rainfall and so forth. My Spanish still isn’t quite up to the task (especially when it comes to the rapid-fire Hondurans); but I understand enough to get that altitude seems to be the key factor, affecting the acidity and taste.

Finca Santa Isabel was started by the German Welchez family over one hundred years ago (like in Guatemala, the coffee industry here was started by the Krauts, of all people. And I thought that they were more into sausages and beer). The finca is shade-grown (it has a large canopy of trees that shield the coffee from direct sunlight), and organic (the trees provide an environment for insects and birds, whose natural fertiliser eliminates the need for chemicals). The result is an environmentally-friendly process that produces some of the tastiest Arabica in the world.

It’s the tail end of the three-month-long harvest, when the finca is at its busiest all year. Over 300 people from the local villages work from dawn till dusk, plucking the valuable berries from the trees. An experienced picker can collect 90 kilos of coffee cherries per day, and every year Santa Isabel produces 5,000 sacks – 250,000 kilos of coffee beans (only 20% of the cherry’s weight is the actual bean, so 5 kg of coffee berries produces 1 kg of coffee beans).

When the cherries ripen from green to yellow to red, they’re picked by the army of locals, who are paid per basket that they collect. And at the end of every day, they’re weighed and checked, and then sent into a holding tank. Each cherry contains two coffee beans (technically, they’re not beans, they’re the seeds of the coffee cherry); and it takes a long time and many different machines to process them. The coffee cherries are sorted by immersion in water, the bad or unripe fruit floating at the top, and the good, ripe fruit sinking to the bottom. After lots of washing, the thick skin is removed (coffee production uses a huge amount of water, up to 140 litres per cup). Then, the cherries are sent through a system of tiled baths and canals, to separate the pulpy flesh from the beans. After that, they’re sent to another vat, where they’re left to ferment for several days. According to the guide, some fincas skip the fermentation process, but apparently that’s the part where the aroma and taste develop (and it helps to remove any last fruity bits from the beans). Then, the seeds are washed (I did say there was lots of water involved). And finally, they’re dried (in a hot country like Honduras, they’re left outside in the tropical sun for several days – which, in Santa Isabel’s case, is on the concrete patio that doubles as a football pitch).

We take a look in a huge warehouse that could double as an aircraft hangar. On one side are several enormous dryers, which will bring the beans’ temperature to 200°C. And on the other side, a stack of enormous sacks that must weigh hundreds of kilos each, all waiting to be shipped off.

The final part of the tour is lunch, at the finca’s treehouse-like restaurant in the jungle. And the food is plato tipico, typical Honduran fare. In general, Central American cuisine isn’t going to win any culinary awards, being heavy on the carbs and low on the variety (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten fried chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas; and more than once, I’ve had a dish that came with rice AND tortillas AND potatoes). But this is excellent stuff – a grilled chicken breast, freshly-cooked beans, a piece of chili-flecked cheese, some vegetables (vegetables!), and (of course) a stack of home-made tortillas. And all followed by a perfectly-poured cappuccino or espresso.

One thing that a tour round a coffee farm teaches you is that the process from seed to fruit to bean to cup is long and labour-intensive. And much of the work is hard, dirty, sweaty, and low-paid. And then there’s all the massive, expensive machines, for sorting, washing, pulping, drying, hulling, and roasting. All in all, it’s quite an education into the world’s most popular beverage. And a Honduran coffee finca is the perfect spot for it.

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