I’ve met a lot of farmers in my life. Somehow, I’ve been lucky enough to create a career journey that’s afforded me the pleasure of visitas al campo with the salt of the earth from Ecuador to Bangaladesh to the Great Plains to right here in urban Denver. After a while, you see some patterns with this bunch - the work ethic (think raw hands that deserve a homemade salve at the end of the day), the pride (think grandma and her tamal recipe) and the artistry of course. But, in my experience, there is one common trait among the cream of the crop farmers (excuse the pun), and that is experimentation.
To really win in the farming world, you have to experiment - be open to innovation, comfortable with trial and error, curious about doting on all the details of each change you make to the process. There are about a million variables each season, and you’re on the playing field with all of them. I think it’s about a balance of meticulous management and flowing with the fun of the one constant - change.
Luis Minas, our new partner farmer in Antigua, has got that experimental spirit. And lucky for him - and us - his processing and roaster partner Leo has got it too.
During our origin visit last month, we met Luis and Leo for a visita al campo and boy were we impressed.
Farming in las faldas (foothills)
Luis learned how to farm coffee from his Dad. In the misty Antigua mornings of his childhood, he would plop on his sun hat and boots, jump in the back of the truck, and watch Volcán de Agua grow taller and taller in the foreground as they approached their fields on its faldas (or skirts, as they call the foothills of the volcanoes).
Every week, in every season, was a lot of learning. Watching to see how different coffee varietals die or thrive as you go 10 more meters up the hillside, seeing how a natural compost - made from cutting the leaves of shade trees - affects growth patterns, tinkering with rainwater capture systems for efficiency and effectiveness, to identifying pests and diseases on the plants. And, of course, taking each harvest season to perfect the right palo (stick) and canasta (basket) combination to get the most ruby red fruits off the trees the easiest.
“You have to learn all this, to take it over from me some day when you get older,” his Dad told him. And he took pride in that.
One day, his Dad told him they were considering selling off a few acres. “ ¿Te animas?” he asked. “Do you want to farm it?” Luis got cracking on his first coffee cultivation of his own.
Luis is now thirty something, two kiddos, an entrepreneurial wife Aracely by his side that helps with the farm and sells homemade popsicles on the side He’s somewhat of an anomaly in that sense - lots of younger generations that have inherited land are leaving the farm for life in the city. Luis is different, he's up for the task.
His farming is about passion - loving his land, the soil, the volcano it sits under, the sun it lives off of - and experimentation - from coffee varietals to shade trees to processing methods. There’s the varietal catuii that sells the best, the caturra that comes out as a yellow fruit, the borbón that grows the tallest, harder to harvest but durable.
Then there's the shade trees. Izote and gravilea, towering beauties of shade and respite for birds are sprinkled throughout the hillside. In June they're pruned back to let coffee trees eat up the sunlight and grow long, beautiful, shiny foliage. In November, as the shade trees extend their arms upward and outward, they blanket the coffee with dappled light so the foliage can take a rest and the plump, red cherries can start to form. Not to mention a few avocado trees give a nice shade from the mountain sun as well as a creamy snack with a little limón y sal sprinkled on top.
What’s the spacing in between each coffee tree - How do you know? We asked him. He stretched out one arm to the side, pointing at the middle of his chest with the other hand. “Del pecho hasta este punto,” he said.
We reach the corona of the farm, as he calls it, the crown atop where you can see nearly all of Antigua in the valley below. Luis's kids - Luis David and Fátima Jazmín, the next in line to inherit the farmland - tell me this is the best view. During the long days of harvest, when everyone from niños to abuelos are helping out, they love taking a break up here on the corona to suck on a few of the sweet cherries.
Having a little fun with processing
Processing coffee - taking it from the cherry fruit form to the green bean (ready to roast) form- is a huge part of the coffee supply chain. There's washing, de-pulping, fermenting, more washing... for more on that read our blog here . Often times, smallholder farmers are left out of this process, which causes them to earn even less from their product.
But with Luis, he's got access to a small beneficio (processing plant) and a great partner Leo at Paralelo 14 Coffee, that's down to experiment, play and adventure their way in to finding more ways to process coffee that benefit the small farmer and the consumer!
We met Leo like we've met everyone else in this Convivio Café' journey - a friend of a friend of a friend. Turns out, the world of loving Guatemala, coffee and food is a small one! Leo earned his foodie stripes in Chicago working for breweries and learning the art and affect of yeast. When he moved back to his homeland of Guatemala, he decided to take those skills to the coffee industry. His goal: sell directly sourced from single-origin small coffee producers, ensuring an above market price that better represents their hard work. And: experiment with the processing of coffee, to see how to incorporate some of what he learned in the beer industry, see ways to use other ingredients available in Antigua, see what unique flavors can be brought out, and have FUN.
For every quintal (100-pound bag) of coffee cherries, about five pounds end up as segundo - less than perfect cherries that might be less ripe, smaller, dented, or just not quite right. Often, these are sold at lower prices, blended and shipped all over the world. But as Leo says, "Si puedes jugar un poquito con esas 5 libras, por qué no?” Why not play around with those extra cherries and see what we can do? Leo started experimenting with fermentation methods. The ones that work, they can do in bigger batches with next year’s harvest.
What you get is extremely unique coffee profiles, a fun adventure for your taste buds, and support for small producers that lets them be the natural entrepreneurs and artesanos (creators) they are.
Leo prepared a cupping for us, showcasing just a scratch of the surface of what he's been able to do. We tasted coffee fermented in orange and salt (my tasting notes said "orange dreamsicle!"), coffee fermented with yeast from the local Antigua Brewery's IPA (lovingly called sin novia, girlfriend-less), coffee fermented and then aged in a whisky barrel for four months (think dark red wine coffee).
What we love about this is, well, the experimentation spirit. We do this wine, why not coffee? And why not alongside the farmer at origin. Luis is right there tasting the product with Leo, doting on the details of what it takes to get to the prefect concoction.
Convivio + Paralelo = experimental deliciousness
At the corona near the end of the farm tour, I asked Luis Minas what his dream was for all of this. He said, “Espero traspasar fronteras.” Cross borders. He wants his product - from the seed to the plant to the growth under the shade trees to the picking cherries by hand with his kids to the experimental processing plant to the roasting…. To cross borders around the world and reach people he’s never met before. He wants to show them what this land is capable of.
I've been lucky to meet a lot of farmers in my career, been on a lot of visitas al campo. But this combo of Luis and Leo is one for the books (or blog, in this case). Hearts of hard work, passion and play of entrepreneurs, we are so proud to add this duo to our origin coffee lineup at Convivio Café.
You can find their Antigua Experimental Coffee lineup at our café opening in September, and stay tuned for a cupping of a few different experiments in the Spring.