In September of 2021 Brendon Maxwell, Utopian Coffee’s founder, and I (Nick B – manager of sourcing and roasting) traveled to Cajamarca in northern Peru to establish direct relationships with a group of farmers working with our good friends at Origin Coffee Lab.
It’s hard to summarize exactly what Origin Coffee Lab does because they do so much for the farmers they work with. In some ways, they function like any coffee exporter: they purchase coffee from farmers, grade it, and then find customers to sell these coffees to. But to say this is all OCL does would be a huge mistake!
In everything they do, OCL ensures coffee farmers are well cared for, which is rare in the competitive world of specialty coffee where sales and prices tend to rule the market and dictate how companies function. With supply chain issues plaguing the coffee industry through 2021, many coffee exporters in Peru weren’t paying coffee farmers until the coffee had sold and left the country, leaving countless farmers with “IOU’s” instead of receiving any actual money from the coffee they had produced. This keeps big multi-national business’ assets safe, but it harms the people producing the coffee.
While this was happening, Origin Coffee Lab was going about things completely differently: paying farmers within hours of coffee delivery. This wasn’t easy, and it takes one heck of an operation to make this possible, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you genuinely care for the people you work with.
To make this happen, OCL’s operations in the city of Jaen consist of a collection station where coffee is delivered directly from farms. Within a few hours, the OCL team took samples from every single bag delivered, roasted them, and tasted/graded the coffee to make sure farmers were paid in a timely and orderly fashion. The result is OCL’s team tasting around 30000+ individual coffees each year.
It’s easy to read about these operations on paper but to see it firsthand is nothing short of magic.
The OCL team never stopped moving, never stopped roasting, and never stopped tasting. By doing this, OCL was able to value the farmers in a way that the rest of the coffee industry in Peru wasn’t. On top of this, OCL was paying farmers who delivered quality coffee higher premiums than anyone else in the area. By incentivizing quality through premium payment programs, OCL is changing the landscape of specialty coffee in Peru.
In addition, farmers working with OCL not only received higher payment remarkably quicker than anywhere else, but they also displayed genuine regard for the hard work of every farmer delivering coffee. There were several times during our visit when farmers delivering coffee would come into the lab while we were cupping to hangout with Jose and Stan (the two brains behind the wild success at OCL) and talk about how things were going during harvest!
These are the sorts of people Utopian Coffee partners with. While many other companies were exploiting the vulnerability of coffee farmers in a time of market fluctuations, Origin Coffee Lab was treating them with dignity and respect.
But what takes place at the lab and receiving center in Jaen is only one part of what Origin Coffee Lab does. In the field, the OCL team offers agricultural, technological, and financial services to farmers who sign up to become a part of the Cafe Solidario program.
This program was invented to help coffee farmers understand the costs of production, and find a viable route forward toward creating a financially viable farm. Believe it or not, many coffee farmers do not track their costs across the harvest. Some of these costs include fertilizers used on their trees and day labor from migratory workers during the height of harvest. The result is farmers losing money each year instead of making a profit. The Cafe Solidario program not only helps farmers understand their costs but also plans for how to wisely reinvest in their farms each year. This is sustainability.
One of the most important aspects of our trip to Peru was the ability to see different levels of farms, from the most rudimentary farms to professional level farms where reinvestment had taken place over decades.
We often forget that every individual farm is very different and that the path toward success is extremely slow for coffee farmers. A lot of times, only the nicest farms are shown to potential buyers, leaving up-and-coming farmers without opportunities to connect with buyers. Instead of only showing us the best farms, OCL was willing to take us to farms in various conditions, from the pristine and well-organized to farms that were actively struggling to become viable. By seeing each of these different kinds of farms, we were able to gain a better understanding of the difficulties faced by farmers as they transition to making coffee farming a sustainable business.
On the first day of visiting farms, we traveled to an area called El Huabo, not far from OCL’s lab in Jaen. Here we met several farmers including the wonderful Cleotilde Saavedra, who along with her husband Jhonny are producing truly amazing coffees.
Life hasn’t been easy for the two of them. Like most smallholder farmers (farms around 20 acres or less) the Saavedra’s had to overcome numerous obstacles to create specialty-quality coffees. While we were walking around her farm, Cleotilde told us she and Jhonny had considered abandoning the farm because it brought them so little money. With the help of Origin Coffee Lab’s team, the Saavedra’s have made significant improvements to their farm, and are on the path to becoming viable and profitable.
When we visited they had recently replanted an entire part of their farm with need trees, replacing some of the older and lower-qualities varieties with high yielding trees that produce excellent quality coffee. This sort of work is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the farm, but it’s also extraordinarily difficult to give up nearly 3 years’ worth of crop in the immediate present in hopes of a larger yield in the future. This is just one example of the kinds of hurdles coffee farmers face to make a living wage. Luckily, the support given by the OCL team has helped the Saavedras make wise long-term decisions that will enable them to operate a financially sustainable farm.
After visiting Cleotilde, we walked a few hundred feet down the road to meet Maxamillian Garcia, a producer who’s consistently reinvested in his farm for decades and is now seeing the results of his investments. As we walked onto his farm we saw Max sitting in front of a small raised bed, hand sorting through fresh parchment coffee. When I asked him what coffee it was, he replied that it was his gesha variety (queue angelic choir!).
For the uninitiated, the gesha variety is so, so rare and is well known for its intense bouquet of floral aromas and flavors. The gesha variety is highly sought after by the best roasters in the world because of its unparalleled quality, and it’s regularly used in global coffee competitions. It’s almost comical that we happened to walk onto his farm as he hand-picked through his nicest coffee – it was the perfect encapsulation of Max’s dedication and thoroughness toward his work.
***Be on the lookout for a special release from Max in the next month!***
As we walked through his farm, we saw what years of reinvestment and strategic planning looked like: rare coffee varieties grown and processed with enormous care at each level. Not only was Maxamilliano cultivating the rare gesha variety, but he was also cultivating Java and Yellow Bourbon, two varieties that are also known for their extremely high cup qualities. He had also begun planting another full acre of gesha trees, which are surely going to grow and become some of the best coffee cultivated in Peru, period. Through his work, and the continued support of the OCL team, Maxamilliano has become a leader in his community and is continuing to inspire his neighbors to reinvest in their farms.
Colasay – Felix Mundaca
During our second day of travel, we drove to the remote district of Colasay where OCL has set up a remote receiving office and cupping lab. Colasay is so far off the grid that most coffee buyers don’t even try to work in this area – it’s just too difficult. But OCL has established itself in the area and is making major moves to help these farmers reach the global specialty coffee marketplace. We drove over 2 hours to reach the village of Colasay, where we had lunch as a team and cupped through several of the notable farmers producing in the area, including a Mr. Felix Mundaca, whose coffee immediately stood out to us as something special!
Reaching Felix’s farm from the cupping lab was an intense journey. We drove another hour and a half up the mountain outside of the village until the road ended – yes, the road came to a complete stop. We hopped out of the car and began the two-hour hike up to his farm. Remote is a nice way of putting things. Essentially, we were off-the-grid in the Peruvian backcountry. We walked on a small footpath alongside the hills, overlooking various coffee farms. While the hike could have been shorter, we made a wrong turn, and what was an intense hike became a full-out jungle scramble really quick.
After our grueling hike, we finally reached the farm of Felix Mundaca. You may wonder why we traveled so far to meet one farmer, and this is a great question. If you’ve tasted Felix’s coffee, then you understand why! His coffee is so good and stood out amongst the 70 other single-farm coffees I tasted during our trip. We knew we had to meet the man behind such excellent work.
Felix oversees about 10 acres of property sitting at a stunning 1850 meters above sea level. On his farm, Felix cultivates Bourbon and Catimor varieties. Like many of the farms in Colasay, Felix’s farm, La Higuera, was quite rustic with very basic practices being used to produce the coffee. Despite this, Felix has figured it out – he’s using his basic understanding and knowledge to produce some genuinely spectacular coffee! His coffee has the classic Peruvian candied nuts and toffee sweetness, but lots of bright citrus and cranberry on top! Delicious!
We spoke with Felix at length about his life, and how he sees his future in coffee farming. He inherited his land from his father, and now is completely alone in his endeavors, with no family remaining. With unstable prices in past seasons, Felix has felt largely uneasy about his future. When we asked if he had hope for his future, his response was “I wait for the day [to have hope].”
This is the outlook of many farmers, who’ve experienced hardship after hardship at the hand of a market price that doesn’t value the work of coffee farmers. Since working with Origin Coffee Lab, Felix has felt much better since he is now receiving a reasonable wage for his coffee, though he remains skeptical, naturally, since things can always change, and farmers are used to being subject to market fluctuations.
We are hopeful for Felix’s future, and since we visited have been able to text him and talk to him about changes he is making to his farm, namely improving his drying bed and washing area where he processes his freshly picked coffee cherries. He has told us that our visit to his farm inspired him to improve his methods and that he is excited to be producing coffee for Utopian!
It’s easy to forget that most of these farmers don’t receive regular visitors, in fact, we were the first people to ever visit Felix Mundaca. Our short visit, where we told him how much we appreciate his work and recognized the quality of his coffee, genuinely impacted him. Imagine someone never telling you how much they appreciate your work… I can imagine it’d be difficult to find any hope. Part of what Utopian Coffee has set out to do is recognize the inherent value of the coffee farmers as individuals and to come alongside them and support them in whatever ways we can. Sometimes all that means is recognizing their work and recognizing their inherent human dignity while paying equitable prices for their coffee. It’s the little things that can make a long-lasting impact.
The final farm we visited was La Palestina, another farm that’s strategically reinvested to create an ideal context for cultivating coffee. The team at Origin Coffee Lab told us the Alarcon family, who operates La Palestina, were one of the premier coffee-producing families in northern Peru. Visiting their farm was like arriving at the Garden of Eden. The entire farm was surrounded by beautiful and lush forests with flowers blossoming everywhere you looked.
The Alarcon family purchased land in the San Jose de Alto region decades ago, when this area was mostly empty frontier land. Since then, the family has continued to progress toward creating an ideal coffee farm, doing everything the correct way from building raised beds that slowly dries their coffees, and building a very progressive wet mill that allows much greater control over the fermentation of their coffees. The result is coffees that genuinely shine – they express complexity and structure that just isn’t typical of coffees from Peru. In fact, La Palestina is producing some of the best coffee we’ve ever tasted.
We walked with brothers Jose and Juan through their gorgeous farm, inspecting the various varieties of trees they were cultivating. I was particularly drawn toward their Java trees, an Ethiopian landrace variety that is slowly making its way across Latin America and tastes a lot like classic Ethiopian coffees! These trees still had a few coffee blossoms attached, and I picked one to smell it. It smelled like jasmine mixed with fresh orange blossom – absolutely stunning and intoxicating, to say the least!
What I noticed most was the care put into every single aspect of their farm, from the way planted trees to how they broke the farm up into different parcels with individual varieties growing in each area. As we stood at their wet mill, Jose brought us a drink they created from cultivated wine yeasts they use during fermentation. They infused this with their Gesha coffee to create a beverage that tasted very similar to kombucha, with a noticeable coffee-cherry flavor to it! I never thought I’d be drinking Gesha juice on a farm in Peru, but I have to say it was one of the major highlights of our experience!
As I looked around La Palestina I realized how much work had been put into preserving some of the natural fauna and trees of the area. Instead of just completely wiping out all of the local plant growth, the Alarcon’s created a farm with biodiversity at its core, which provides the coffee trees with nutrients and creates an ecosystem that’s not merely beautiful to gaze at, but good for the local animals and plants. By planting shade trees and promoting organic and biodiverse practices, La Palestina has created an ideal coffee farm.
We were lucky enough to end our visit to La Palestina with an amazing lunch with the entire family. During lunch, Juan roasted some of their coffee on the stove and serve it to us cowboy style. As I drank their coffee I noticed a specific flavor of hazelnut-chocolate truffle (specific, I know) but it stood out immediately.
There’s truly no experience like drinking coffee on the farm, and it made me recognize how important it is to always remember coffee comes from people, not just a place. The hard work and dedication of the Alarcon family and their dedication to ecologically sustainable principles are why their coffee tastes so amazingly good!
The next day when I tasted through their coffees I was stunned by the clarity of flavor I found. La Palestina has elevated what Peruvian coffee can taste like, and it’s something you won’t want to miss when we release it here in a couple of weeks!
It’s hard to summarize or even put into words this experience. Every farm we visited taught me something, namely the challenges and hurdles that coffee farmers face to produce high-quality coffee. It’s easy as a roaster to be overly judgemental and to focus on scores and flavor profiles instead of the work of the people who produced the coffee. By partnering with companies like Origin Coffee Lab, we are able to not only purchase and roast excellent coffees but also know that every purchase genuinely impacts a person’s livelihood for the better. It’s no secret that many companies purchase coffee cheaply, or offer very little help to the farmers they source from. The difficulty is actually in finding partners that share the vision of a better world, through coffee.
As you enjoy your cup of coffee, I ask that you try and ponder the fact that what your drinking is the result of many careful hands. Coffee is a human product and created by people for people, and it’s when we forget this that coffee loses its magic. I hope this blog post inspires you to seek out coffee that you know comes from secure and sustainable sources.