March 18, 2020

Huabal 2020

By Jamie Isetts
Huabal 2020

Merit's Director of Green Coffee Jamie Isetts writes on her visit last year to the producers of our spring batch coffee from Huabal, Peru. Have a question? Email

In Peru, large cooperatives have dominated the specialty coffee that people in importing countries drink.  These groups dove heavily into the Fair Trade – Organic movement. While these certifications guarantee a higher price than commodity coffee, they still do not account for better quality and farmers’ cost of production. Individual farmers still lack agency.  Because of this limited scope, I was surprised to discover that 80% of Peruvian producers were not affiliated with any association or coop as of 2017 (Programa Nacional de Renovación de Cafetales. In the last five years, international specialty groups have set up buying stations in Cajamarca, a hot spot for specialty production. This has not only revealed the potential of unincorporated producers, but given coop members more choices and ultimately more power over their livelihood. As an added plus, there is more financial incentive for quality because specialty exporters can now differentiate farmers’ coffees and compensate directly.

Merit has dabbled in these projects before, but what really made us stand at attention were our purchases from Falcon Coffee’s buying station in Jaén. After our first successful season working with Falcon on a community blend in Cajamarca's Huabal district, I made a visit to Northern Peru to investigate further. Falcon’s US Import office is right in Austin, helmed by Kevin Sullivan and Brian Speckman. I’ve wanted to work with Falcon for a while because of their incredible traceability reporting, but as a British company, they have largely focused on Europe for the specialty market. Brian and I worked together at my last job, so I was excited when he came on to start Falcon’s US Specialty sales last year. I met up with him and Simon Brown, who built Falcon’s specialty buying station from scratch in 2018. In just a year, their growth and organization was impressive.

The organization of the warehouse is elegant and smart. After coffees are purchased and cupped, the parchment is placed in bags color-coded by the cup score. They each have an individual ID tag with the lot specs and cup score. When the parchment is moved to the dry mill to be hulled and sorted, the color-coded bags make it difficult to mix up lots of different qualities. It’s a simple solution to a common problem.

Brian Speckman of Falcon in their buying station in Jaén, Peru.

Peruvian farmers are used to getting paid cash-in-hand, so it’s important to have a quick turn-around in QC and payment time if you want farmers to work with you. For this reason, it’s also important to buy a range of qualities of clean coffee (no defects) so that farmers feel it’s worth the risk of waiting even a few hours to get paid. As of last September, their buying station manages to receive lots in the morning, pay a flat base price, cup in the afternoon, and then pay a premium based on cup score in the afternoon. This is a breakneck pace for head cupper David Hancco Cahuapaza and his team, especially during peak harvest season.

The work pays off: farmers who are unfamiliar with specialty are much more willing to deliver coffee here if 1) they can sell clean coffee even if it cups out mediocre and 2) it doesn’t require them to wait for payment and make a second (lengthy) trip into town to collect. The buying station maintains payment and farm information about each farmers’ delivery and pass it on to me, which sounds easy but requires a high level of organization when building blends of different producers and receiving dates. Farm visits, processing and farm advice come from Auber Terrones Rojas, Falcon’s agronomist in the region as well as a professional cupper. 

Falcon agronomist Auber Terrones shows a farmer how to distribute seeds in a germinating bed.

This year, we worked with Falcon to build this 23 farmer blend specifically for Merit. My intention in the long term is to leverage this traceability to create a farmer group like Andino Leal and to create a similar, three-way contract between Merit, Falcon, and specific farmers who we’ve bought from repeatedly. We're excited to share their work with you this spring!