Peru


July 2007
Chris Davidson

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CEPROAP (Central Productores Agroecologicos Pichanaki) applied for a grant from Holland based Green Development Fund to facilitate an instructional program for their producer members addressing quality control, green coffee defects, coffee roasting, coffee cupping and the specialty coffee market in the United States.  In May, CEPROAP’s general manager Elizabeth Villa Junco, along with Mario Chacon of the Green Development Fund approached Atlas and asked if we could help them execute this event.  I sent a proposal for the event, which Elizabeth refined and submitted to Green Development, they were awarded the grant and I was able to go down to teach the course.

Monday 16, July

I arrived in Lima around 8pm and stayed in a nondescript hotel in the shopping district of Miraflores. I can’t believe how cold and humid Lima is; a lot like San Francisco, even though it’s the middle of the dry season in Peru as well.

Tuesday 17, July

I left chilly, foggy Lima by bus around 8am, traveling through the sprawl of the outer city, into the mountains, over the pass at around 4,000 meters and arrived in the commercial town of La Merced around 5pm.  Rianne Van der Bom, a Dutch engineer working with CEPROAP, met me at the station in La Merced and we continued by taxi to Pichanaki.  Since Pichanaki is another two hours away by car from La Merced, we had to wait for our driver to find more fare so we could cram as many passengers and cases of fertilizer into his Subaru wagon as possible.  With the cab riding low, and the reggaeton music bumping, Rianne and I departed from La Merced and arrived in Pichanaki, Chanchamayo around 7pm.  On a map of Peru, the easiest way to find this area is by moving east and slightly north about halfway across the country until you find La Merced, then following the Perene river south to the town of Satipo.  Pichanaki is halfway between Satipo and La Merced.  CEPROAP has their main offices in Pichanaki; a town only 30 years old, but already bustling due to its thriving coffee production.  All of the towns along the highway between La Merced and Satipo specialize in commercial production of some kind, be it citrus fruits, domestic chickens, or coffee. 

Wednesday 18, July

Wednesday is an orientation day, and Rianne takes me to CEPROAP’s offices to meet the administrative staff, and the producers who will be participating in the events in the coming week.  CEPROAP’s structure is a little confusing, but essentially it’s an organization made up of small co-operatives; each co-operative made up of anywhere from a few to several dozen small producers.  CEPROAP has 23 co-op members, and a total of 300 producers who sell their coffee through the organization.  Participating members receive an excellent base price for the parchment coffee they bring in, as well as a dividend at the end of the year depending on the market and the price CEPROAP is able to get for the coffee.  Each of the 23 member co-ops were invited to submit samples of coffee to be cupped during the event, as well as send a representative of their group to participate in the event.  Only 16 member groups submitted samples, and around 18 producers attended the event. 

The structure of the event was based around six days in Pichanaki; two days of visits to farms in order to assess the cleanliness, quality and technology of their processing facilities, and four days of instruction, roasting and cupping in the classroom. CE-PROAP was able to rent a sample roaster from a nearby co-operative, and the grant from Green Development supplied them with all the cupping accessories we would need to cup with twenty people for four days straight.

Thursday 19, July

First day of farm visits. We meandered briefly through the back roads of Pichanaki before pushing up a narrow road that leads directly into the hills. Our goal for the day was to visit a half a dozen producers that live and work in a river valley called Valle Hermoso that runs perpendicular to the Perene River on which Pichanaki sits. We aimed for the highest point at the top of the valley, the farm of Don Silvestre at around 1,500 meters. Don Silvestre is a clean cut, disciplined man in is mid-thirties who has earned a reputation for the unusually high yield of his small parcel of land. A former member of the Peru national army, Don Silvestre evokes discipline, and was extremely systematic in his approach to developing the three hectares of highland jungle his family left to him five years ago. Average yield for a hectare of arable land in Chanchamayo is around 15 quintales, or 1,500 pounds of parchment coffee each year. Some farms produce as few as 8 quintales, but Don Silvestre’s land produces a staggering 30 quintales or 3,000 pounds of coffee per hectare. His ability to produce almost 10,000 pounds of coffee off of one small parcel is what earns him his fame, and respect from his neighbors as a role model of what is possible through using resources smartly.

CEPROAP has a unique program that involves a relationship with an agronomy laboratory in Lima. For a nominal fee, producers may send samples of their soil through CEPROAP to be analyzed at the lab in Lima. The chemist in the lab will not only give the producers a full report on the quality of their soil (pH, mineral content, level of useful microorganisms) but will also give them the exact recipe they need for fertilizer to bring the levels of these components up to their ideal specifications for maximum production. This will save the producers a lot of money in the long run, since they can use precise amounts of specially developed additives to get the most out of their land in a manner that will allow them to farm continually for years to come. The unfortunate alternative is the course many producers take; spreading large amounts of generic fertilizer all over the land in the hope that it will help, without regard to whether or not the actual needs of the land are being met. The reason Don Silvestre’s farm is such a great example is that he used the resources made available to him by CEPROAP to their full potential, methodically applied their suggestions and recommendations, and invested his profits year after year back into his land and his equipment rather than spending his earnings on comforts or luxuries.

We moved down the valley to the farm of Don Heracleo, who is reviving 15 hectares of land formerly laid to waste by irresponsible farming. Using innovative, sustainable techniques, and relying heavily on the help and advice of CEPROAP, Don Heracleo is planting fruit and shade trees in order to improve biodiversity and erosion resistance on his practically clear-cut hillside property. California red worms are used extensively to help compost the pulp from Don Heracleo’s wet mill, and tilapia fish and nitrogen fixing water lilies help clean the water used from processing so it can be re-used in the wet milling cycle or re-introduced into the environment. Don Heracleo’s family hosted us for lunch, and though he has a large enclosed pen for breeding guinea pigs (their waste is extremely nutrient rich and useful in the compost,) we feasted on chicken soup and tender beef. Guinea pig, or “cuy,” is a staple of the sierra campesino diet in Peru, and while I had it on my must-try list, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the experience until my last meal before leaving Lima.

Friday 20, July

Our second day of farm tours took us east of Pichanaki to an area called Boyoz. The main purpose of this trip was to see an ingenious type of fermentation system that uses only one tank for both the fermentation and washing steps of the wet process. The tank is cast of smooth, acid-resistant concrete, and the bottom inside edges of the tank are rounded out rather than squared like traditional tanks to avoid corners where waste might build up and decay between cycles. At the bottom of the tank is a grate that allows water, but not coffee to pass through. Once fermentation is complete, the dirty water exits the tank and moves downhill to an oxidation pool. Clean water is add-ed to the tank, the parchment coffee is rinsed of any residual mucilage and the rinsing water is also transferred to the oxidation pool. A second valve is opened, and the washed coffee moves through another tube to be collected, removed and spread onto the patio to dry. The design of this tank is more common in northern Peru and parts of Colombia, but for farmers in Pichanaki it is a relatively new concept, and will save them money while improving the quality of their processing drastically. Fermentation tanks lined with ceramic tile are rare in the poorer producing countries, but producers in Chanchamayo know that lining their tanks with tile is a goal to aspire to, and many have already committed their future process to this addition.

A major highlight of visiting Boyoz is a brief stop at the waterfalls. Story goes: a woman inherited the property from her family without even knowing what value it had. While exploring her inheritance one afternoon, she and her husband stumbled upon two sets of gorgeous falls. The lower waterfall was named “The Veil of the Bride” (for obvious reasons once you see a picture,) the upper falls are known simply as “The Upper Falls.” The concession stand between the two falls sells fresh coconut with a straw stuck inside, so I felt über-touristy sucking on my coconut milk while gawking at the cataratas and snapping pictures like mad.

Saturday 21, July

Saturday was the first day of classroom instruction, and we began with a lengthy discussion of green coffee processing methods, and the way they influence traditional flavor profiles of coffees from around the world. While the dry (natural) process is standard practice for many other producing regions, in Latin America it is generally used only for drying the dregs of the harvest that will be used for internal consumption (Brazil being the huge exception.) Some Central and South American countries have dabbled in using the dry process on quality, ripe cherries, but it is generally at the behest of specialty coffee importers looking to add body and weight to a typical profile of bright acidity and light mouth feel. Learning that many specialty coffee producers in other parts of the world use this process exclusively was a surprise to many of the producers from Chanchamayo, as was the idea of the “semi-washed” process, where the skin and pulp is removed from the coffee grain, but the coffee is allowed to dry with parchment and mucilage intact. There are processes involving equipment that mechanically remove mucilage from parchment coffee without the use of water being explored in some areas of Chanchamayo, but these cases are rare.

Before my trip to Peru, I roasted several samples of coffees from different parts of the world, representing differing processing methods as well as growing regions, so that the producers in Chanchamayo might see how important variety in profile is to spe-cialty coffee consumers. Most of these producers have never tasted coffee from out-side their own area, so our Sumatra Lintong, Kenya AB “Fairview Estate,” Ethiopia Yirgacheffe “Kochere” and Guatemala “Trapichitos” totally blew their minds; not to mention the dry processed Ethiopia Harrar “Makeda.” The amazing thing about cupping international coffees with producers from Latin America is that the variety that many specialty coffee aficionados cherish from region to region may often appear as negative qualities (or in the worst case, defects,) to farmers focused on cleanliness in the cup. Imagine tasting the dry leaf, sweet herb and tobacco qualities of the Sumatra, or the brisk, jasmine tea and meyer lemon characteristics of the Yirgacheffe; not to mention the fruit forward syrupy dark berry personality of many Ethiopia Harrars, for the very first time. Many of these profiles veer wildly away from traditional flavors of Café Peruano, and some (like the Sumatra and Harrar) can be outright signs of mistakes in processing or ailments of the coffee. This two hour cupping and discussion of what specialty coffee consumers are looking for in top quality coffees permeated all of our conversations for the rest of the week. It was a huge paradigm shift, for many of the producers, to approach focusing on quality in production rather than quantity, and to think of their financial success as being determined by a subjective evaluation of their product rather than mass and objective yield.

The second half of Saturday was devoted to the basic mechanics, physics and chemistry of coffee roasting. CEPROAP was able to rent a Brazilian made Palini & Alves sample roaster, fired with propane and sporting a built in burr grinder, from a neighbor co-operative in Pichanaki. The goal of this portion of the training was to de-scribe the profile of a standard, ten minute sample roast, so that the producers could roast the 23 samples that we would be cupping the rest of the week on their own. Thankfully, the sample roaster consistently cranked out 200 gram, ten minute roasts without much adjustment, so the roasting progressed smoothly for the rest of the week.

Sunday 22, July

With the majority of classroom instruction over, we were free to roast and cup on a fairly regular schedule; with time built in for discussion of each cupping, and a ques-tion and answer period to review material we had covered in the previous days. Unfor-tunately, the city of Pichanaki decided that our roasting and cupping schedule took second place to more pressing needs, and the bulk of the town (including CEPROAP’s lab) was without power for most of Sunday. Luckily, we had eight samples roasted the previous afternoon to cup through, and the remaining 15 samples to hull (remove par-chment) and grade before roasting so there was no shortage of work despite the lack of electricity. Much of Sunday was spent discussing the differing number of certain de-fects from specific regions of Chanchamayo, hypothesizing why one area might be affected by a certain defect while another might be untouched, and theorizing potential solutions to the occasion of these defects. We also called it a day early, and spend the happy hour drinking Peruana “Cristal” lager beer in front of the office with the CE-PROAP staff, several producers and the general manager of the nearby Pangoa co-operative.

Monday 23, July

With power restored to the lab, we set about furiously roasting and grinding as many samples as possible, with the fear that we might lose electricity again in the afternoon. We were able to fit in a second cupping before noon, but sure enough, around 3pm the lights flickered and the power went out again. One lesson I’ve learned from travelling in Latin America is to go with the flow, even if the flow doesn’t go your way. My goal was to have all 23 samples roasted and cupped by the end of the day, Monday. Instead, we left the office Monday evening with eight samples remaining to be cupped and nobody complaining. The previous five days had been so crammed full of new information that any chance to decompress and sort through the material was welcome by both the producers and by me. We all had a big day ahead of us on Tuesday, but we welcomed the respite and geared up for the push forward.

Tuesday 24, July

My last day with CEPROAP was intended to be an overview of my time spend in Pichanaki, a cupping of all 23 samples at the same time to evaluate consistency in the cup and compare certain producing groups to others, and my analysis of the current production quality of the group, with suggestions of where to proceed in order to im-prove output. Actually, we started a little earlier than normal in order to fit in the last eight samples, then scrambled to get all 23 samples set up to cup together just as the lunch hour was approaching. For educational purposes, we roasted a blend of the samples to a traditional French Roast, so the producers could experience their coffee the way millions of Americans do every day. Also, we roasted a sample of all the de-fects pulled out of their coffees to be cupped in order to better understand the difference between a clean cup and a dirty cup. Finally, we bought a sample of parchment coffee from a street vender (coyote) to compare it to the quality of coffee being produced by CEPROAP members. Selling coffee by producers directly to intermediaries, or coyotes, is very common in Pichanaki, because the purchase price can often be several cents per kilo higher than from a co-operative. The problem is, co-operative members always receive a premium at the end of the year in addition to the daily purchase price of their parchment coffee based on the success of the co-op selling the coffee that year, and the relative price of the “C” market at that point in time. Traceability is also possible when working through a co-operative, while selling directly to an intermediary often means that coffee can not be traced to a region of a country smaller than a department. This exercise was meant to illustrate the relative lack of personality and character, and relatively high occasion of defects, common in coffee submitted to agencies that do not have quality foremost in their minds.

The outcome of the cupping was extremely interesting, with coffee from five co-operative members of CEPROAP standing far above the majority of the producers. We were able to narrow down the contributing factors to four main variables: genetic variety, soil quality, altitude and time of harvest. If all four of these variables were at their ideal point, the coffee would invariably cup better than the average. For example, many producers have invested in catimor varieties to improve the overall yield of their farms, and provide some security against the impending threat of insect (broca) infestation, and climate change. Although catimor can be a more robust variety, the quality of the cup is affected tremendously and farms that featured this variety suffered in the final cupping. Likewise, farms with unbalanced soil, or low elevation also suffered in the last cupping due to lack of nutrients being delivered to the fruit and mild temperature fluctuations that lead to mediocre development of sugars in the pulp. The five best coffees of the more than 25 that we cupped were from at least 1,200 meters elevation, normally of varieties catuai, caturra, mundo nuovo, bourbon and pache, from soil that was extremely nutrient rich or well tended, and were picked at the height of production rather than at the tail end of the harvest when the plants are giving their last gasps. The quality of these individual lots was mind-bending, and cupped more like coffees from Honduras or Guatemala than from Peru. It was sad to understand how the quality of coffees produced by farmers with the best intentions (maybe 5% of the overall production) could be so under-whelmed by being blended with clean but mediocre quality coffees.

Wednesday 25, July

After a week of work in Pichanaki, I was ready to get out for a little R & R. Luckily, one of the producing members of CEPROAP is also a tour guide; appropriately named Tarzan. Tarzan agreed to take me around Pichanaki for a half day to see the sights and beauties of the region. We first visited a nearby fruit orchard where we broke fast on star fruit, mango, passion fruit, plantain, orange and finally ripe cacao fruit. Next we motored out to a set of waterfalls for some rapelling, and wrapped up the day with a boat ride down the river. I used the afternoon to finish up some work in the CEPROAP offices before my final dinner with the admin staff. My nerves were a little on edge as I prepared for the journey back to Lima, since some worker’s unions had been threatening to strike for the past few days and there was a rumor that the strike would begin that evening. One of the most common forms of striking in Latin America is the huelga, which normally involves roadblocks across major highways that keep traffic backed up for days and flow in and out of the cities at a stand still. I first experienced the huelga during a trip to Honduras earlier in the spring, and knew how badly they could mess up any hope of punctuality. I built a few days of slack time into the trip, knowing how Latin American clocks generally run at different tempos than those of North America, so I wasn’t too concerned about missing my flight out. Still, I was relieved to hear, when I boarded the overnight bus to Lima that the chances of encountering a huelga were slim to none and we were expected to reach the city on time.

Thursday 26, July

Arriving at the bus station near the shopping district of Miraflores relatively on time (an hour late,) I caught a cab to a small hostel by the beach and power napped for part of the morning. I had two days in Lima to see the sights, and I knew I wanted to spend at least part of that time exploring the cafes, bars and restaurants of Miraflores; the most cosmopolitan district of Lima. Gladly, “cosmopolitan” in Lima is hardly Fifth Avenue, and though I encountered more than my fair share of tourists, I was also able to escape down side streets to log some journal time in out of the way shops. I made it down to the surf beach, and out to the Parque de Amor, and chanced upon the hippest coffee shop in Lima: Café Zeta. Café Zeta sported three, mid-sixties Gaggia lever ma-chines: a four group, a two group and a one group, all fully functioning. All of the furniture looked handmade, and featured some of the simplest but hippest wrought ironwork I’ve ever seen. The menu behind the counter advertised coffee from the Pangoa organization (a group very similar to CEPROAP but larger and located several hundred miles south of Pichanaki) and indicated the elevation the coffee was grown at, as well as the date the coffee was roasted. The baristas and clientele were equally attractive, and I got the sense that Café Zeta could easily compete with the trendiest of cafes in Seattle.

I had enough time in the afternoon to grab a cross town cab to see the Museum of the Nation. Three hours later, I left crammed full of all the information I could hold about indigenous pre-Incan civilizations from around Lima. A chilling photography exhibit documenting many of the crimes of violence during the 1970’s and 1980’s in Peru added to the weight, and I felt some relief as I pulled away from the museum and headed back towards my hostel in Miraflores. Often times it’s difficult to realize how cultures as vital as those of Peru, and Lima in particular, have suffered such tragedy in a relatively recent period of time. One photograph in the exhibit showed a crater left by a massive car bomb in the middle of the main promenade of Miraflores that left all the windows of the neighboring buildings blown away, but no one killed. The site of the car bomb was two blocks from my hostel, and I couldn’t ignore the images from the museum as I walked about my touristy routine through a community that used to be a war zone.

Friday 27, July

My last day in Lima. After cappuccino at Café Zeta, I went for a brisk walk out to Huanca Pucllana; an excavated archaeological site smack dab in the center of Miraflores. Another amazing experience for me was seeing these five hundred year old ruins surrounded by shopping centers and sky rises, with the Pacific Ocean on the horizon. I commented to some of the other visitors to the park on the guided tour that it’s incredible that buildings from the 16th century are relatively commonplace in many parts of Europe, but that here in Peru, the civilizations that produced entire cities have been all but forgotten in the same time period.

After Huanca Pucllana, I hailed a cab with a fellow tourist and visited the Plaza de Armas, the giant central plaza at the center of downtown Lima. The Plaza de Armas is connected to the Plaza de San Martin by Jiron de la Union: a six block long arcade lined with shops, restaurants and bars on both sides and open only to foot traffic. The Plaza de Armas happened to be the center of an annual pisco festival, and we were lucky enough to stumble upon it just as they were closing up. Rather than waiting for hours in line with the rest of the pisco-holics, we scammed some free plastic shot glasses and snuck into line just as they were stopping the pours. Many piscos later, we moseyed down the Jiron de la Union for a brief visit to the Plaza de San Martin, then took a cab back to Huanca Pucllana for my last meal in Peru. I mentioned earlier that one of my missions while in Peru was to sample the cuy, but that I was having trouble finding it in the countryside. I turns out that the restaurant at Huanca Pucllana specializes in dishes unique to Peru, and cuy happens to be one of their specialties. Vindicated, I sat down at the table to my plate of cuy, finally, took several bites and decided that I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel bad at all, building up drama for two weeks towards this culinary culmination and deciding at the end that I don’t prefer the gristly bones, fatty flesh and tough skin of the cuy. I tried it. Mission accomplished. I recommend it to everyone.

Peru is a country unlike any other in South America. Its micro-climates include Lima’s fog encased metropolis, desert sand dunes, sunny beaches, sweltering jungles and snow capped alpine peaks. It is the cradle of the ancient Incan civilization, and has one of the most international populations of all Latin America. The coffee produced in Peru has been poorly represented and sadly under estimated in my opinion, and I can’t wait to see how the quality of their specialty grade improves in the coming seasons.

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