Honduras Trip with 71 Irving Place's John Summerour
We've shared travel diaries from our trips to coffee-growing countries before, but every now and then we get to bring along someone extra-special from the Irving Farm team. John Summerour, a filmmaker and longtime Irving Farm employee, has been working at our Irving Place cafe since 2002. He joined coffee director Dan Streetman on a Honduras trip to origin this past harvest season, and was kind enough to let us reprint his reflections here. When asked if I would be interested in accompanying Dan on a trip to Honduras to meet farmers and sample coffees, I said yes immediately, impulsively. Without knowing anything about what Dan actually does on these trips, I sensed that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I didn't ask any questions. I had the flight information, and I had traveled to South America and the Caribbean before, so I knew to pack lots of sunscreen for my pasty complexion. Sometimes it's best to throw yourself into an experience free of expectations. Be present, observe, absorb, hang on tight.
We were driven from the airport in San Pedro Sula to Hotel Finca Las Glorias on the banks of Lake Yojoa, the largest lake in Honduras. After check-in and lunch at the hotel restaurant we went to the coffee mill at San Vicente which looks out on wildly gorgeous foothills, steep and lush, the light falling in golden sheets all around. The air was warm and dense, but not oppressively so. This was my first time seeing coffee drying patios. Workers unloaded bags of freshly washed beans onto a rectangular slab of concrete where they proceeded to neatly spread them out with rakes, allowing the beans to dry naturally in the sunlight. We toured the mill where I saw the mechanical dryers that are used for large batches of commercial coffee, as well as the machine that removes the outer parchment from each bean, creating a powdery byproduct that settled within the folds of my ears. I watched a vibrating panel brilliantly sort the beans by weight, channeling the denser, more desirable nuggets in one direction while the lighter fellows hopped happily to the side. We walked by the tables where workers carefully handpick through the coffee as a final step, removing any defects. At one point I was directed into a room containing a massive computer that was rapidly sorting thousands of beans per minute, quite possibly transmitting them to outer space. Upstairs we convened in a tasting lab where we cupped 40 samples between Sunday evening and Wednesday morning. Back in New York I had participated in a cupping session with Dan and Irving Farm's core of coffee experts, so I had an idea of what to expect, but suddenly I found myself in a room with people who possess superhuman palates, instantly differentiating between the nuanced flavors of Israeli basil and Thai basil, the aromas of tangerine mist and clementine zest. I felt so out of my depth that I was literally mute after the first cupping. Dan encouraged me to speak up and participate, so the trip represented a gradual emergence from total silence to proudly proclaiming that one particular sample had taken me on a picnic with barbecue, lemonade, vanilla cake and freshly cut grass. Seriously. That coffee was dynamic. I had wondered if we would be treated differently as a group of American buyers, perhaps shielded from the "real Honduras." This question was answered as soon as we visited the first of several farms, all the buyers loaded into the back of a pickup truck, clinging for life as we cruised through the bustling town of Pena Blanca where many businesses were guarded by gunmen (a precaution more than a necessity), along the main paved roads that were riddled with potholes, and into the mountains where the truck bounced and lurched up narrow passages of gravel and dirt.
At each stop we would greet the farmers and chat about their incoming crops. Most farmers had their own drying tables instead of having the mill dry them, increasing the value and quality control of their coffee. They also had bi-level structures for processing the cherries, pouring the ruby fruit down a chute from the top level where they slowly traveled through a de-pulper which resembled a meat grinder/music box. The beans (or "seeds") fell into a concrete tub for fermenting and washing, while the pulp piled at the side to be used for compost. I thought the pulp was delicious, depending on the variety and ripeness, with most of the cherries yielding a sweet fruit that had a touch of bell pepper earthiness. It reminded me of the beach plums on Cape Cod where locals take pride in producing jams in spite of the effort/reward imbalance, and it seemed that there could be an untapped market for turning this byproduct into preserves, infusions and even liquor, but it would require a large outside investment since so many coffee-producing countries still struggle with basic infrastructure. After witnessing the number of people who work tirelessly to plant, grow, pick, process and package the coffee--before the beans even reach Irving Farm for roasting--my initial interest in a coffee cherry-infused sparkling water or spreadable compote slowly faded.
The highlight, and greatest physical challenge, of the trip was hiking amongst the crops. Most farmers would choose to abandon trails and guide us straight through the plants, the larger trees smacking us in the face with thick, waxy leaves. Some farms were planted directly into the crumbling slopes, leaving us with no choice but to descend quickly and precariously as though dirt-surfing. At one point, the truck was parked in a little village and we were led to a trailhead on the side of the road. From there we proceeded to climb steeply and deeply, through mud, over rocks and roots, totally at the mercy of our guide. After much sweating and heaving, we finally reached an isolated plot at the top of the mountain where we were greeted by an old farmer. He had a hose running directly from a mountain spring to water the baby coffee plants. We drank from the hose, and it was the clearest, freshest water I've ever tasted. I marveled as his workers cinched the sacks of freshly picked cherries and roped them to the backs of mules for transport down the same knotty paths we had ascended. We learned that his wife had recently passed away from cancer. The money that he made from last year's crops had afforded him the medicine that kept her alive a few months longer. Nothing could prepare me for that moment, standing on a mountaintop, filthy and exhausted, shaking hands with a farmer whose life had been directly impacted by someone buying his coffee. As I sipped from a cup in New York City, a man in Honduras held his wife's hand, cherishing each moment gained.
How do we wrap our heads around something like that as consumers? Drinking coffee is a privilege, a tiny miracle of nature and people coming together, a dance of expertise and passion and communication and serendipity. I don't think that means each coffee purchase needs to be accompanied by a crippling sense of guilt or responsibility. Rather it's a celebration of connection. Each choice we make is directly tied to other lives, whether it's the clothes we wear or the water we drink. To engage with that narrative is empowering. It's an opportunity to emerge from your daily routine and gain perspective, to awaken curiosity and gratitude. We hiked down the mountain by twilight, the gradual darkening punctuated by a luminous pulse of lightning bugs. That night, sated by the immersive and visceral experience of Honduras, I drank a beer before falling asleep to the thrum of ecstatic fauna, a sound that will reverberate in tomorrow morning's cup of coffee, a resonance that will extend throughout the rest of my life.