Travel Journal: South America Update

Perfectly ripe stone fruit. Tart green grape. Juicy red apple. Fragrant floral aromatics reminiscent of wildflower honey and Queen of the Night. Toasted pecan. Toasted almond. Macadamia. Sugars ranging from cane to muscovado, turbinado to panela. High percentage fine cacao.

These are the things we love about the very best South American coffees. And these are the coffees we’re searching tirelessly to discover. Finding them and the people who produce them is not easy, though. It’s taken years of travel and a constant focus on development to bring the top Inzas and Punos and Pichincha coffees to market the over past decade. We spend a good part of our spring, summer, and early fall making the journey to Colombia, across the border into Ecuador, down to Peru, and over the altiplano to Bolivia. We do it several times over to make sure we have a strong strategy in place, to check in during harvest time and select lots, to ensure that our work isn’t all for naught in the dry mill. It’s my favorite time of year. South America is often the overlooked continent in our specialty coffee industry. Sure, Colombia is on the radar, but Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador often are not. One of our primary aims at Red Fox is to change that; to give the smallholder farmers of these origins a voice in the marketplace.

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I’m hopping a plane to Peru in just a couple of hours and will be making the trek from Puno to Cuzco over the course of a couple weeks. The harvest is just past peak, meaning it’s the perfect time to get our spoons into some samples.

I personally have been working in the Sandia Valley of Puno for five years now, in a handful of different communities. These are the most special coffees in all of Peru, in my opinion. Elevations soar here, reaching over 2,000 masl in certain areas. Caturra and Typica are grown across the valley, but the secret here is the Bourbon. A UN-funded development project in the 80’s reintroduced Bourbon to the valley, and it’s the best explanation I have for the wild floral flavors, layered acidity, and saturated sweetness we find in the top lots.

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Cuzco was my introduction to Peruvian coffee back in 2006, but, after purchasing from an isolated community deep in the valleys of La Convencion the first year, we lost the coffee when a mega-sized cooperative took over the region and made transparent buying impossible. This year, farmers in Cuzco are once again able to trade freely and directly, and that means we’re right back into the fray. We’re hoping to select a handful of top lots during my trip next month, and are looking forward to building our relationship with this community again.

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Newsletter: Rwanda Kanzu Offerings 2014

Very few coffee-producing countries have received the kind of focused aid that Rwanda has seen since the end of the genocide in 1994. Beginning in 2001 with the PEARL Project, and continuing with SPREAD, which ended in 2012, the Rwandese coffee industry was the focus of a series of collaborative development projects designed to rebuild the agricultural sector, mainly coffee & cassava, after the devastation of genocide & civil war. PEARL and SPREAD were funded by USAID and U.S. universities and led by Dr. Tim Schilling. By building washing stations, forming coops, and training agronomists, cuppers and quality control personnel, the programs helped to elevate Rwandese coffee to new heights, giving farmers access to specialty coffee markets and prices.

Thanks to the success of these innovative programs, the Rwandese coffee industry has become one of Eastern Africa’s crown jewels. Its countryside is covered in beautiful Bourbon trees growing at elevations that can exceed 2,000 masl. Processing is meticulous and done with as much or more attention to detail than most origins out there, giving us some of the cleanest, most perceptible flavor profiles of anywhere we work.

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My first visit to Rwanda was for the Golden Cup in 2007, a precursor to Africa’s first Cup of Excellence competition that took place in Butare the following year. It was a great introduction to the amazing potential of Rwandese coffee quality. Although we ended up buying the first and third place coffees in the auction held immediately after the event, I was quite taken by the 4th place coffee from the southern region of Nyamasheke, a region that’s perched high above Lake Kivu facing the DRC on Rwanda’s western border. Kanzu was the name of the washing station and the small surrounding area. The coffee was laden with crisp, refreshing malic acidity, leaning towards a hybrid of asian pear and fuji apple. The mouthfeel was rich and creamy; so stout it was almost Kenya-like. The massive sweetness was what really captivated me, though, with flavors ranging the dried fruit gamut of raisin to apricot, with dark sugar notes of muscovado. It was as complete a coffee as I had tasted from the actual auction lot arrivals. I couldn’t stop drinking it.

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So, in 2008, I set out to learn more about Nyamasheke and Kanzu. I spent several weeks on two different trips out on the lake and up at the washing station. Despite the high premiums we were paying, it was difficult to secure coffee from the washing station year after year. Finance issues made keeping Kanzu open an annual struggle. It was heartbreaking knowing the potential of the Kanzu farmers’ coffee and not being able to buy from them. In early 2012, the washing station was sold to C. Dorman of Nairobi. Our relationship with Kanzu is now thankfully stable.

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If you tasted last year’s Kanzu lots, you know how phenomenal this coffee can be. We think this year may be the best yet. As always, we’ve cupped through the entire separation of lots, done by week at Kanzu. We have selected the very best available and are offering them individually.

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Newsletter: Kenya Nyeri Offerings 2014

If anything is certain in the coffee industry in Kenya, it’s that politics will always have a presence. This past 2013/2014 season was no exception. The industry saw a heavy dose of interference from outside players, politicians with no prior experience in the coffee trade, and it has taken a serious toll on farmers across Kenya’s most fabled coffee growing region. Sadly, the propaganda driven by the county office of Nyeri has resulted in unfulfilled promises and greater hardship for farmers in the region. Not only were the record prices promised by the Nyeri government not delivered, but half the crop failed to be delivered the the market at all. It’s one of the biggest tragedies I’ve witnessed in my short coffee career to date.

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Nyeri is one of the coffee industry’s most prized growing areas. Most of the production is centered between Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare mountain range. The town of Karatina sits at its epicenter. With the perfect mix of high altitude, quality varietals, and climate, it’s a garden of eden for top coffee lots. Very few other coffees, if any, receive the justified acclaim and accompanying price differentials that the best Nyeri lots receive.

This year, Red Fox has continued to work with our one and only supplier of Kenyan coffees and our patience has paid off. We have top lots now afloat from Nyeri; lots that fortunately made it out of the governor’s grasp and on to the CKCM mill in the Central Highlands. By all appearances, and based on the latest news coming from Kenya, I’m confident enough to surmise that things will be back to working order come next season. At the very least we hope that this latest political interference in Nyeri will no longer affect our ability to purchase top Kenyan coffees, nor our ability to ensure that farmers in Nyeri are paid for the exquisite coffees they produce.

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Kenya has some of the most unique and powerful cup profiles in all of the coffee producing world. Flavors tend to run the full sensorial gamut — from dark fruits to refreshing citrus, from raw honey to dark muscovado sugar, and from a syrupy mouthfeel to a mouthfeel full of fresh cream. We’re offering three lots from a range of altitudes in the Abderdare range this season. We put these samples, and dozens more, through heavy scrutiny on our cupping table. They are the best lots Red Fox saw this season and are in very limited supply.

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