We’ve launched our 2019 La Senda Series! Merit Green Buyer Jamie Isetts recaps her visit to Finca La Senda in February and discusses the unique processes we’re featuring.
A view from the path through the farm.
After parting ways amicably with a another producer in Guatemala, I began purchasing a small amount from newcomer Finca La Senda last year. Owners Arnoldo and Maria Eugenia Pérez had been selling cherries from their 25 hectares of coffee to a nearby cooperative for years. Last harvest, they made the surprising decision to transition into specialty, hiring our friend Thomas Pingen as a consultant. Their daughter Yancy was also instrumental in helping create this new paradigm on the farm.
Maria Eugenia Pérez, owner and manager of processing. Maria is super detail-oriented, so when she noticed that some of the drying hydronaturals weren't spread just so, she grabbed a rake and showed me how it's done.
This was a huge investment! It’s akin to going from a café to a roastery—they had to build an entirely new wet mill, buy an expensive de-pulping machine, and start from scratch. And they didn’t just go from cherry producers to parchment producers for the internal market. They went directly to exporting specialty coffee, a ballsy move for people way younger than 70-year‐old Arnoldo and Maria Eugenia. The results were surprisingly good. This is in no small way a credit to Arnoldo’s farming—the default state of the coffee had noticeably less quakers and malnutrition than the typical Guatemalan coffee. In 2018, we purchased 24 bags at a “trial price” to get an idea of what was possible. The coffee also lasted a very long time without any age or paper flavors, which means that it was dried very well.
Workers at La Senda's wet mill tend to various experiments. La Senda recognizes that the mill staff is critical in the realization of these complicated processes.
I would argue that Guatemala remains the most colonial country in Latin America. People still use Spanish colloquial measurements from the 15th century (like manzana as a unit of land). The chasm between wealthy, white estate farmers and indigenous workers that live in generational poverty is enough to make me sick to my stomach in many places.
Thus, the most special thing about this farm to me is the level of transparency that Thomas and the owners have offered me, without me even having to ask. It is rare to find a farm that does crazy experiments AND pays their workers fairly, not just competitively. Take, for example, the pickers. Farms in this area hire seasonal labor and pay them a flat daily rate along with a typical rate per “quintal” ( a basket) of cherry that they pick. But for high‐quality specialty coffee, the pickers have to select only cherries at the perfect degree of ripeness. This is about twice as much work. To compensate for this, La Senda is now paying double the “competitive” rate per quintal. Paying more for quality picking is not unusual, but this much of a jump is unique.
A worker tends to drying parchment on stacked, raised beds. The various colors seen in each bed are different processes.
In effect, these farmers hired Thomas and basically gave him free reign to do exactly what he wanted with processing and management. Last year, Thomas did over 120 experiments in various processes and drying protocols, ranging from bland control samples to the wildest carbonic maceration honeys. They essentially threw spaghetti at the wall and saw what stuck. He was instrumental in hiring decisions at the mill and on the farm. For the 2018/2019 harvest, they picked out the most successful protocols to focus on. Here are the ones we will feature:
Washed with long fermentation time
The blend we purchased last year was consistent and sweet, but lacked some complexity. Thomas worked with me on a more complex profile intended for filter coffee. This involved fermenting the coffee longer and more aggressively. On top of the new fermentation protocol, cherry selection was better this year and the harvest was a bit lower. These factors contribute to a higher sugar content in the cherries, meaning more “fuel” for fermentation. Preliminary cuppings were spot on—the coffees are smooth and elegant with a great combination of fruit, chocolate, and caramel/nut.
Just like at Morgan Estate in Panama, the whole cherries are put into a plastic barrel and closed. A small tube comes out of the tank. As the fermentation process progresses, yeasts generate dense carbon dioxide which pushes oxygen through the tube and out of the tank. This creates a mostly anaerobic environment, stimulating different processes and thus different flavors.
Hydro Natural with Yeasts and Acids
“Hydro Natural” is an experimental process designed to get the depth and fruity flavors of naturals with the clean finish and consistency of a washed. The coffee is first dried in cherry for 4-5 days. Then, it is re‐soaked in water overnight with yeast and acids. Once it’s almost at full moisture again, it is taken out and dried to completion. This process produces lots of tartaric acidity (think red wine) and gives a fantastic, deep profile.
Triple Fermentation Red Honey
A surprise favorite last year, I have contracted a sweeter, larger lot for solo espresso. I’ve also booked a special nanolot of the same process that is scoring even higher and, if we didn’t purchase it, was going to be submitted to Cup of Excellence. Screaming with tropical fruits and berry flavors!
To refresh, this process involves three stages. First, the full cherries are rested in the tank for 12 to 24 hours. A type of fermentation occurs at this point, essentially allowing them to “ripen” more. Cherries are de-pulped and fermented in tanks for 12‐24 hours. “Typical” honeys do not have this step and go straight to drying. Allowing this stage definitely adds more fruit flavor. Then, rather than rinsing the broken‐down mucilage like in a washed coffee, the parchment is taken immediately to the drying bed, where a third type of fermentation happens on the beds. Thomas actually adapted this process from his mentor Enrique Lopez of Finca Chelin in Mexico.
When drying, the fruit remaining on the parchment of triple fermentation red honey lots oxidizes to a brilliant orange-crimson.
Look for the La Senda Series label on Merit Coffees to try Arnoldo and Maria Eugenia’s awesome experiments! This farm is truly a gem in a country famous for quality coffee.