Back when Red Fox Coffee Merchants was still a daydream of mine, one of my more lucid visions was that Peru would become the defining origin for a nascent sourcing business. No other producing country fulfills the core ideals of our mantra so seamlessly: coffee-producing communities so far off the grid that they have been left behind by much or all of the specialty market; quality that has the potential to change the way people think about coffee. Getting around Peru is more difficult than any other origin I’ve ever worked in. And, yes, that includes Ethiopia, Indonesia, and everywhere else. The south is particularly tricky to traverse. Each trip involves several flights, dozens of hours in the car, challenging hikes to get in and out of the producing valleys. Visiting one farmer often takes an entire day.
Being a coffee farmer from the Sandia Valley in Puno or from Incahuasi or Huadquina in Cusco is as grueling a proposition as anywhere I’ve seen. Note the photo of Ciriaco Quispe and his homemade wooden cart, which holds 2 bags of parchment coffee — bags that weigh somewhere around 40kg each. Ciriaco’s farm is a 90 minute hike off of the main road on a rugged dirt trail at what feels like a 90-degree angle, and it yields roughly ten 69kg bags of 1st quality exportable green coffee a year. Let’s use the standard translation of 70% parchment to 1st quality green to estimate that Ciriaco makes this trip at least 12 times a season to deliver all his coffee to the mill. This is the standard for coffee farmers across the greater Sandia Valley.
We think it’s important for everyone to understand what the reality is for these folks. We pay a whole lot of money in Peru because we love the coffees, because we know what it takes for farmers here to deliver their coffees to market, and because we think there is even more potential to develop.
As many of you know, Red Fox added a full-time field agent, Tibed Yujra, on the ground in Peru going into the harvest this past spring. Tibed and I have cupped together since 2009, when I first began working in the Sandia Valley of Puno. Back in those days, Tibed was Quality Control manager for the entire cooperative society that we worked with.
We brought Tibed on board to help us acheive our vision for the country. There are more obstacles to overcome in Peru than in almost any other coffee producing country in Latin America, but the potential for top quality is equally as large. What are the prerequisites that a coffee buyer looks for when venturing into new territory? Elevation? Varietals? Microclimate? Processing technique? Peru has everything we’re looking for and in spades. Elevations soar well over 1,800 masl across the country and reach 2,200 masl in a few specific regions. Caturra and Typica are commonly found top to bottom in the Peruvian Andes, and one of the south’s best kept secrets is the abundance of Bourbon. The Peruvian Andes are more arid than most, allowing for proper drying and storage conditions. We are often conditioning parchment at over 10,000 feet. Processing in our projects is similar to Colombia in that it’s done very simply with manual techniques. Drying on raised parabolic beds is also a commonality.
This year Red Fox is working in three departments of Peru. Coffees from two of these regions are arriving now on both east and west coasts:
Peru started for us in Puno. We were initially, and still are, attracted to the potential for micro lots with dramatically floral character. I sometimes refer to them as ‘Junior Yirgacheffe.’ People occasionally confuse them for Geisha. They’re neither — I mean what is? — but that delicious confusion is thanks to the United Nations. In an attempt to rejuvenate coffee production in the Sandia Valley, a UN-funded project brought the aforementioned Bourbon seed stock to producers in the region during the 80’s and 90’s.
Along with these unique, floral-driven coffees we also find coffees that are filled with fresh cream, fine chocolate, black walnut, toasted sugar and a range of fruit from red apple to apricot to raisin. They cup very solid on the table, but they brew even better. We encourage you to put these samples through your harios and kalitas after you cup. It adds perspective.
Within Puno is the Sandia Valley, which is due north of the department capital of Juliaca, saddled right up along the border of Bolivia. Within Sandia are several other valleys that we work in, from Inambari at the southern entrance to Tambopata further north. There are thousands of farmers producing in the valley, but we work with a select number who have the elevation and varietals we’re looking for. Our selection process is ultra-intensive. We’ve screened well over 1,000 samples this fall, with an approval rate of approximately 10%. We’re more strict this year than we’ve ever been when it comes to cup quality, water activity, moisture content, and physical preparation. These lots are clean and stable.
My very first trip to Peru was centered around an adventure to the Incahuasi Valley of Cusco. It’s a 10+ hour drive to get out there from the city of Cusco; a drive that takes you from the Department of Cusco into Apurimac before winding its way back into Cusco. It’s one of the more epic rides you can take as a coffee buyer, especially the crossing over the altiplano at 15,000 feet. Breathing is not to be taken for granted up there.
I took two trips to Incahuasi in the summer of 2006, but the outcome was disappointing. A large trade organization that was not open to outside buyers working directly with farmers pushed us out of the region. They were an immovable obstacle in the road to transparent sourcing.
In 2014 that group disintegrated, a moment I had personally been waiting for since my initial visits, and now not only are we able to trade directly with farmers in the Incahuasi Valley, but Tibed and I are focused on scouring the rest of the Department for its finest coffees. Our search has taken us to the Yanatile Valley as well as to Ocobamba and Santa Teresa. There is a treasure chest of amazing Cusco coffees that we can’t wait to bring to market in the coming years.
Elevations can reach well over 2,000 meters in the region, and there are small pockets of Bourbon to be found, along with more widespread Caturra and Typica. These coffees are exciting and demonstrate an entirely different cup profile than their neighbors to the south. The range of flavor begins with a bounty of yellow fruits from mango to peach and apricot to meyer lemon. Muscovado and darker sugars and honeys drift through the profile from start to finish.
We’re really proud of where our projects in Peru are now, and we’re very happy about the qualities we’re bringing in. These are coffees that will bring a whole lot of life to your menus throughout the winter. Please email email@example.com for samples.