The idea of sourcing coffee “Direct”, also called Direct Trade, is a serious buzz in specialty coffee. There are many legit coffee companies who pursue this idea to improve quality, as well as maintain integrity to a set of values. There are also those who simply buy from importers, and make the claim to Direct Trade without actually doing it . . .
In fact, we have sat in meetings with importers who explained to us “We buy from Farm X, so when you buy from us, you can put Direct Trade on your label”. This is no exaggeration. For those who do not understand the concept of Direct Trade (which itself doesn’t have official definition), it is geared to buying directly from the grower, and implies a relationship with the grower. There is a partnership being pursued, and a mutual benefit.
In our work with Portola Coffee Lab, we have been developing a cold brew program with an eye to working from “Farm to Tap”. 3 of their current products (Cold Brew, Nitro Cold Brew, and Root Beer Spiced Nitro) are built around a unique relationship that goes from the farmer, directly to the actual consumer i.e. the person drinking it. Following is a little bit about the farm and a summary description of how we approach Direct Trade, and how this focus has the potential to improve quality for years to come.
Direct Trade in Action
For the last two years, Portola has purchased all the coffee produced in Panama by Hector “Tito” Vargas at Finca La Milagrosa. Nestled into the Jaramillo highlands of Boquete, Finca La Milagrosa appreciates an incredible micro-climate and is direct neighbor to one of the famed Hacienda La Esmeralda farms owned by the Peterson family. In addition to traditional cultivars such as Typica, Catuai, and Caturra, Finca La Milagrosa produces Geisha. The approximate production is 16,000 lbs of the “Mixto” lot and 1500 lbs of Tito’s Geisha.
Portola Coffee Roasters has a very special relationship with the Tito Vargas. Owner Jeff Duggan, while participating as a judge at the “Best of Panama” coffee competition in 2013, met Tito and toured his farm. What impressed Jeff the most was the passion and perseverance that Tito demonstrated on his farm. Tito purchased his farm, which was a plot of land with only coffee shrubs and no processing facilities or equipment. To make matters worse, he purchased the farm when the coffee market had crashed and producers were losing farms all over the World. Everybody thought he was making a poor decision and couldn’t possibly succeed.
With very little capital, Tito could not afford new or even used coffee processing equipment. Instead, he hand built many of the needed tools and equipment out of scrap metal and old car parts. To this day, several of those “machines” are still in use on his farm. He named his farm “La Milagrosa” (The Miracle) as a result of him beating the odds.
For the last two years, Portola has purchased all the coffee produced by Tito at Finca La Milagrosa, which is approximately 120-150 bags (132 lbs./ea) per year. Tito is a great producer, but what excites us most about La Milagrosa is the future potential. In 2015, his coffee was better quality than last year. As a matter of fact, his Mixto lot took 7th Place at the 2015 Best of Panama in the Traditional Washed category. This is an incredible accomplishment.
To help Tito get a better understanding of his quality potential, and how to replicate quality from year-to-year, Portola engaged in a special project at Finca La Milagrosa. In February 2016, Jeff conducted fermentation experiments on the farm, as well as drying experiments, to help identify measurable “quality” points in the process. Tito is very much a hands on, intuition-based farmer, which is amazing. What we aim to do is allow Tito to use a little science to predict quality through reliable measurements so he hits his mark every time. This initial experiment will be to help Tito find the “mark” that he will be aiming for from year-to-year. We each year’s crop to be measurably better then the previous. Portola expects to be paying him more for this coffee and expect an appropriate price increase as quality improves.
The Geisha cultivar is unique. It has a flavor profile like no other. This year’s crop was better than last in our opinion. It has wonderful fruit and flower characteristics and really set it apart from its non-Geisha counterparts. This for the coffee drinkers that take it black, no cream and sugar. It is complex but those mind blowing flavors are delicate and quickly trampled by any accouterments.