Peru Cusco Quillabamba
Origin. It's the place where coffee comes from. It's a place with "Suelos Ricos" and "Suenos de Amor." Everything tastes better at origin. Or so it seems. I traveled with K.C. O' Keefe and Aleco Chigounis for something around a week, cupping, meeting some "producores de cafes especiales" and learning all about Peruvian Java.
Actually, the pictures were better than the coffee, and the coffee was better than all the little biting gnats. The trip yielded some great images, but as far as the coffee side of things, it wasn't that successful. Here we have coffee sources that I have already worked with, old Typica trees, farms at 1900 meters ... in other words, everything sounds fantastic. But actually realizing the potential of a coffee like this is another matter. We needed a certain quantity of coffee that rates at good quality; 86 or higher. What they delivered was parchment coffee totalling less that what our 2 companies (Stumptown and Sweet Maria's) needed, and of that we only approved roughly 1/10th of the samples. The producers at the coop have an option: sell their parchment coffee at a lower price locally to some outfit like Cocla, and get the standard Fair Trade Organic price, or sell it at a premium to our project, get a great price, but the catch is they need to pick only ripe cherry, and they need to dry it well. Certainly, if they do those things, they can get an 86 score on the cupping table. But they seem to prefer the first option. They delivered the bulk of their coffee to the local FTO market, and saved only a small amount to offer to us. If what I see in living conditions is any clue, the FTO price keeps them and theirs fed, but leaves little for actual improvement.
The premium we offer would make a big difference. Why wouldn't they pursue it? A lot has to do with organization. They can get paid rapidly for selling to the bulk local FTO market. To sell to us means a delayed payment contingent on the cupping and approval the sample. There is an easy solution. Micro-loan programs are broadly available to coops, and are used often. Once they have a contract with us (which they have way in advance of the harvest) they take that to the micro-loan program and can receive 70% advance in low interest loan. They can pay the coop members immediately for any parchment coffee received, then award them full payment plus the premium once they are approved with an 86+ score. The loan is repaid in full each season once we pay for the shipment. It's very simple, but it takes filling out some forms for the loan application. The coop leadership seems to lack the foresight and competence to do this on behalf of the members. So what producer would chose NO payment, and then possible rejection of their coffee, when they can get an assured yet measley payment for local FTO delivery. KC has offered to advise and assist them with the loan forms, but at some point, how much hand-holding can you do for producer groups? Is that good for them in the long term?
Once they have received training in quality programs, been show the steps to separate quality coffees and gain premium prices for them, and a way to pay producer-members up front and nearly no cost to the coop, shouldn't they be able to do these things themselves? That's the real problem we face in Peru. And let's not even talk about training in good coffee practices. Because despite altitude, cultivar and every other advantage here, the coffee is so often ruined by bad picking and bad drying. That's first grade stuff. If we could get past those issues, we would delve into the mismanagement of the farms, the lack of pruning, trees too close together, lack of air and resulting Ojo de Pollo fungus, depletion of soils, and on and on. When you get to those things, you really start to reach the potential of what a coffee can be. In Peru, we still find, buy and offer great lots, which represent only these fleeting moments of brilliance, hinting at what this coffee could be. Sadly we might not ever get there. -Tom