Origin Trip: Emily in Honduras

Mercon Specialty's Sales Executive, Emily Smith visited Honduras earlier this month and had a truly transformative experience. From the moment she arrived, she knew she was entering a magical place full of fascinating coffee stories and traditions. Immerse yourself as she shares her journey through an amazing coffee origin.

Coffee cupping at the Honduras Mercon Office with the quality team

The journey in Honduras starts with landing at the small airport in San Pedro Sula, which sits along the northern Atlantic shore.  It is a short drive from the San Pedro Sula airport to the Mercon Honduras offices. Our trip began with a cupping hosted by the Mercon quality team at the Mercon office. The cupping featured the freshest coffees from the LIFT clusters of Guinope (in the southwestern corner of the country) and Marcala (northwest of Guinope, directly west of Tegucigalpa). Guinope is a very established LIFT cluster, where coffee is bought as cherry and processed by trained Mercon technicians. These LIFT clusters are able to select the perfect cherry for processing in yellow honey, red honey, and through anaerobic fermentations. The processing team, led by Claudia, keeps meticulous records of each fermentation project, including exactly which farms were included, what varieties were used, and the exact details of the method. Claudia approaches coffee processing with a scientific method and a goal of excellence. 

Global Coffee dry mill outside of San Pedro Sula

The second day of the trip was a long day of travel westward to the Lempira department, with visits to two dry mills along the way to help break up the long travel. The first mill that was visited was the Global Coffee dry mill outside of San Pedro Sula, which processes up to 8 containers of coffee per day. The mill was clean and compact in size, for the scale of coffee it processes. George, the mill manager, has been in coffee his whole life. He owns his own roastery and additional micro mill where he processes small specialty lots. The Global Coffee mill will process larger lots of regional Honduran coffees. Specialty lots are processed at a smaller BICAFE dry mill in Santa Rosa, which would be the next stop in our travels. We continued on the highways, headed west to Santa Rosa.  The roads were smooth and well-maintained as we traverse through the small towns and hillsides. As we neared closer to Santa Rosa, one could see coffee cherries out drying on every home patio.  Through the wrought iron fences, you could see young women with wooden rakes turning the coffee on their small patios. 

The BICAFE mill in Santa Rosa is designed for handling even the smallest, most special of lots. The process begins with a truckload of coffee in parchment, stored in red, green, and white plastic bags, arriving at the loading dock. At the dock, as the coffee is unloaded, a sample is taken from each bag of coffee that arrives. The bags of parchment are labeled and unloaded. Before processing, the lot will be sampled for quality assurance and cupped in the quality lab. The coffee is stored in parchment until it approaches a shipment date. Storing the coffee in parchment at the mill, which is situated in the cool hills of Santa Rosa, is the ideal way to store coffee to ensure quality. 

Once the coffee is within 5 days of shipping out, it begins the dry milling process. The parchment lot is fed into a large hopper, where it is then fed through a de-stoner, and into a dehuller to separate the skin from the green coffee.  It is then passed back through to remove any additional silverskin and polish the coffee beans.  Next, the coffee is sent to the screen-size machine to remove any small beans. Then, the coffee goes to the density sorter machine to remove secondary defects, such as insect damage or chipped/broken beans.  After being density sorted, the coffee moves through to the optical sorter which removes any beans that have a color variation (such as blacks, partial blacks).  The coffee passes through the color sorter 3 times to ensure the removal of any primary defects in the lot. The result is a coffee that is virtually zero defects It is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, but essential for assuring the highest level of quality for specialty lots.

After time at the BICAFE mill, we embarked on the last leg of our journey to Lempira, where we would be staying during our days visiting the farms. Our first farm visit on Wednesday morning was to the farm of Antonio Carabantes. Prior to heading to the farm, we grabbed coffee at a small coffee shop at the Victoria Hotel in San Andres. 

The owner of the hotel, and barista for the coffee shop, is Adolfo Perez, who happens to also be a close family friend of Antonio Carabantes. Adolfo served americanos made with Antonio’s coffee, which Adolfo had roasted himself.  It was also here that we were joined by our local LIFT agronomist team, Ricardo, Victor, and Alexis. Ricardo serves as the head of LIFT in Honduras. He is a skilled agronomist and has previously worked in the field of economic development for NGO’s in Honduras. Ricardo’s passion for improving the lives of the producers he meets is evident from the start.  Victor and Alexis live locally and work intensively with the producers in Lempira. 

Having had a preview of the delicious coffee grown on the Carabantes farm, we loaded into the trucks and made the journey out to Finca Carabantes. We were met at the gates to the farm by Antonio, who wears the classic wide-brimmed straw hat of the Lempira area farmers. He has a big warm smile and kind eyes.  We begin the tour of his farm by walking through the tall coffee trees, which grow densely under the shade of a grove of orange trees.  As we stop to talk, Antonio offers everyone to try to oranges that hang ripe from the shady trees above. 

Antonio has been in the LIFT program for three years.  At the onset of the program, every producer receives an evaluation of the farm. LIFT agronomists evaluate how they work, the critical needs of the farm, and current levels of production. After the evaluation, they decide with the producer what practices would be best implemented on the farm to make improvements. Finca Carabantes already had a high production, but needed assistance in managing the shade. The dense production of trees under shade creates higher humidity, and in turn, a higher risk of disease and fungus. Antonio has plans for renovating large portions of his farm to provide better airflow through the trees, which will reduce the humidity. 

He is also keenly focused on steps that he can take to improve his farm for the pickers who do the harvesting. He tells us about adding pathways between the trees so that pickers can move more easily and also replanting with a variety called “Panamera”. Panamera produces larger, denser cherries which are easier to pick and allow the pickers to also earn more money per day.  Pickers on Antonio’s farm are paid by the gallon. They make 40 Lempira per gallon, with an average volume picked of 15 gallons per day. This equates to a daily wage of about 600 Lempira, or $30 USD. The living wage for rural Honduras, as reported in the Global Living Wage Coalition report is approximately $13.85 USD per day (US$277 per month).  Antonio also provides transportation to pick up pickers and bring them to his farm as needed. Most come from the local San Andres region. For those who come from further away, Antonio allows them to stay at his home during the harvest season. It is clear that Antonio is extremely proud of his farm and what he has built. He tells us about his three daughters, one a doctor, one a dentist, and one a local teacher who have all had their educations paid for by the coffee he has grown on his farm.

After a tour of the farm, we load back into trucks to head over to Antonio’s house to see the drying patios and wet mill. The large expansive patios sit to the side of his home, with the wet mill at the far edge of the patios. The patios are covered with coffee on parchment and a young man works raking the coffee under the sun. As we tour the wet mill, Antonio’s wife and daughter bring out pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice for everyone to enjoy. This year Antonio is working on honey and washed processed coffees. Our team of agronomists collects parchment samples of the latest crop to bring back and prepare for our quality office in Seattle. We say our goodbyes and then load back into the trucks to head to the next farm, Finca San Antonio.

The trucks cut through the rough and winding red clay roads, traversing over steep hillsides and back down. We pass men on horseback herding small groups of cattle down the roads and small children walking hand in hand with their mothers. School is on holiday break in Honduras, and the small children are observed playing in nearly every front yard of the small houses we pass. 

At Finca San Antonio we are met by a young man wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. He takes us down a steep hill through dense foliage. We stop to chat about the farm, standing on the steep hillsides that encircle a small valley down below.  At the horizon in front of us are the distant mountains that form the border between Honduras and Guatemala. Ricardo Cortez is soft-spoken, with a voice that is almost hard to hear over the rustling of the wind through the coffee trees. His father, Blandino Cortez owns Finca San Antonio and another farm. They are in their third year of working with the LIFT program. When asked how LIFT has helped them, the first thing that Ricardo talks about is how LIFT has provided them with the personal protective equipment they needed to properly apply chemicals and fertilizers safely.  

The other additional benefit has been the technical experience and guidance. Together with their LIFT agronomy team, they are working on renovations on the farm through cutting, tissue maintenance, and replanting the oldest portions of the 78-year-old farm. A third-generation coffee farmer, Ricardo has his eyes set on the future of specialty Honduran coffee. When asked about the biggest challenge the farm faces today, Ricardo does not hesitate in answering, ‘labor’.  He tells of how mass emigration out of rural Honduras over the last few years has made finding labor during harvest periods difficult. He says that he could name over 100 people from San Andres that have left. While pickers in the Lempira region earn significantly more than the rural living wage during harvest season, the season is short and work is scarce once harvest is over. 

The other challenge facing the farm has been the rising cost of inputs such as fertilizer, which have nearly tripled in cost over the last few years. Ricardo leads us back up the hill to the trucks so that we can go to the family home and meet his father Blandino Cortez.

The Cortez home sits in a large field with an expansive view of the valley below.  To the side of the home are large drying patios covered in parchment coffee.  There is a wet mill alongside the drying patios and a series of bodegas (storehouses) around the main house. Blandino greets us with a big gregarious smile and warm handshake.  He takes us around to the side of the house so that we can see the raised African beds that they have built for drying their natural process and honey-processed coffee lots. Ricardo’s eyes light up when he talks about the specialty processing lots, he is eager to hear what we think about their projects and to also get feedback about what is being done.  As we end the tour of the farm, Ricardo and his brothers gathered parchment samples from all of their lots for us to take back to our lab and cup. 

On our last day in San Andres, we traveled out to the small farm of Finca La Puerta. The road to Finca La Puerta was a steep and narrow cut down the side of a red clay hill. The road winded through switchback curves that were nearly impassable, even in the dry weather. Finca La Puerta sits along the slopes of a series of hills and spans between 1200-1600m in elevation. The slopes are carefully terraced, with the coffee trees nestled under the shade of an old-growth pine forest. The pine trees pose a challenge for producer Mario Castillo, as the shade makes the coffee trees more prone to disease. But Mario is adamant about leaving the forest as it is. The cool shade of the trees causes the coffee fruit to develop very slowly, adding extra sugars and complexity to the final cup. Mario Castillo is a quiet man of slender build. He has an ease and peace about him as he talks about his farm to our group. 

After climbing back up the steep slopes, he takes us over to the wet mill. The mill is pristine and clean. After processing, Mario takes the pulp and spreads it back across the fields as compost for his trees. It is another labor and time-intensive step that Mario does on his farm. Once wet and milled, the parchment is taken to his home to be spread out on patios to dry. Mario’s home is small, with a front courtyard of bushes that were overflowing with pink and white blooms. Three young dogs and a few fat cats lay sprawled out in the courtyard, lazily under the warm sun. On one wall of the courtyard was a corn mill sat atop a rustic wooden table, with fresh masa still in the bowl below. 

A LIFT calendar hung on the wall above the corn mill. Our LIFT agronomist Ricardo was happy to share with Mario the newest calendar for 2023, where Mario’s reputation for hard work and his commitment to quality made him the featured producer for the month of January. Out at the drying patios, Mario tells us that he leaves his coffee to dry for nearly 18 days, nearly 30% longer than most other producers. To accomplish this low, slow, drying process Mario spreads a thin layer of coffee across sheets of netting over the grass, instead of tarps over a concrete patio. The netting allows for air to flow fully around the green parchment coffee, while the grass keeps temperatures cool. It is another time-consuming step that renders a quality that is superior in the cup and also in the longer-term storage of the green coffee once it is stateside.

As our time in Lempira reaches an end, we begin the long six-hour journey back to San Pedro Sula. Sun falls as we near the city, and the landscape shifts from patios of drying coffee to small towns and bustling gas stations. Honduras is not what one would expect from reading the papers in the U.S. The country is brimming with warm hospitality and friendliness. Our hosts with Mercon Honduras made us feel comfortable and safe everywhere that we went. For anyone considering making the journey, it is highly recommended. Honduras is full of beautiful farms and welcoming people who are eager to share their passion for coffee.

Learn more about Honduras, and explore our Honduran coffee offerings!