Life in the Coffee Mountains with Co-ops Big and Small

Sorting at RAOS

Marcala    Thanks to our friends at the small women’s coffee and aloe vera cooperative, COMUCAP, we usually stay at their cabinas high in the mountains.  There’s no water or electricity, but the setting is beautiful and the bunks work fine for us.  They hope someday eco-tourism will come their way, who knows?  We started driving up before dark and a light, intermittent rain quickly turned some of the clay and rock road up the mountain into gumbo.  We were almost there and two large multi-ton work truckers were stuck ahead of us.  One got through, leaving deep ruts wounding the road and bleeding red clay.  The other backed down the rise, forcing us over to the shoulder.  We tried to climb through twice, each time lacking enough clearance in the small rental car to make it, and ended up backing down ourselves.  We found a $20 hotel in town with hot water, then jumped a ride with a 4×4 diesel Toyota pickup first thing in the morning to recover our gear, none the worse for wear.  Life in the coffee mountains!

COMUCAP and its hopes for eco-tourism

The late morning and early afternoon were spent in productive meetings with COMUCAP about plans to buy coffee and to sell aloe vera.  They are now fair trade certified by FLO in Germany, so we believe we may have potential customers for them in Canada, if we can figure it all out.

The trick for us in coffee is now bringing back crop samples to New Orleans so that our roaster at Fair Grinds can test the quality of various crops and see if we can get others to join us in buying a larger lot of coffee to directly ship to the city.  Before this trip is over we will lug 30 pounds of green, dried coffee beans back for roasting to see if we can organize a buying cooperative from the cooperatives, as it were.  The devil is in the details though, and we are struggling to get the pricing in line.

Cupping some of the coffee for us at RAOS

We had run into a fellow I had originally met at COMUCAP on my first visit three years ago, who was now working at another, larger coffee cooperative in Marcala called RAOS.  He invited us to take a look at their operation.  Wow!  We were impressed.  It was huge comparatively.  Two shifts of workers, including rows of women sorting out bad beans to ensure the quality and gangs of young men bagging the beans, including fair trade and multi-certified beans, as well as rakers to keep the beans dry, and other workers cupping the coffee in the lab, working the drying machines, and altogether adding up to probably 100 workers employed not as producers but in the final process after the beans left the coffee plantations.  RAOS produces enough coffee to ship 30 containers to various markets.

Filling a Fair Trade quintal at RAOS

It was encouraging to see how producers could come together to get to the next level!


Facing the Competition to Land a Big Broker’s Contract

Marcala      The day moved in the slow deliberate, yet sometimes desperate, speed of the countryside, filled with quite, almost boredom, one minute, and adventure and mayhem the next.

We started down the mountainside to an uncertain appointment in Marcala.  We were joining our friends at COMUCAP, the small women’s coffee and aloe vera growing cooperative, here in the mountains of the state of La Paz, abutting the El Salvador border.   Even before we got to the restaurant out of town where the tasting competition was to be held, we were all curious how it would work since the word was already out that there would be no electricity in Marcala until 4PM in the afternoon.  That answer came quickly with the roar of a generator when we arrived, but the rest took longer to unfold, since the brokers and the tasting committee from Korea and Belgium were late.

We didn’t mind at first because it gave us a chance to meet some of the other co-ops from around Marcala, most of which were very large.  There were five Marcala co-ops in the tasting competition, so we got a better idea of the world past our normal sightline.

The brokers with Coffee Team and others had organized the tasting.  The price being dangled involved something like contracts for 7 containers to Europe, but that was never expressly stated that I could hear.  One co-op recognized a taster/broker he had sold to before and during the tasting, got the OK high sign from the taster after the spitting and sipping was done.  The Korean women reportedly represented a group of specialty coffee shops and bought haeavily as well, but who knows.  This was the brokers show and everyone kowtowed to them, including starting whenever they were ready.

We continued to learn more and with every conversation our margins of error got thinner along with everything else.  It was fascinating.

After our debriefing we headed up the mountain before nightfall in an uneven, but mainly light, rain.  Unfortunately way pass the halfway mark we came upon two huge dump trucks in the middle of a slippery incline.  The lead truck was in the ditch and being dug out, successfully, but leaving rutted road behind him.  The second truck was backing down and giving up getting by.  In our little rental Toyota with no clearance the odds weren’t good.  Nonetheless I tried twice to make it up the hill only to have to back down and finally abandon the notion of making the mountain this evening.

Limping back we heard from COMCUCAP that they had won several ribbons against this stiff competition and been invited to Copan for the next round.  For our part we ended up being led to a $20 per night motel and pulling into the gravel lot, I joked that anyone of those pickups could have gotten us up the mountain.  True indeed!  A closer looked showed the same brokers running more testing trials in the rooms of the motel for the coffee men in front of their trucks.

Marcala coffee in this region according to a brochure the co-op coordinators left out has a famous and distinctive taste, slightly acidic with orange-citrus notes.  I didn’t realize it before, but now that you mention it, I can taste everything from the dirt up in Marcala now.