Friends of Messenger: Finca El Zapote
Nick and Ryan sat down to talk about their recent origin trip to Acatenango, Guatemala.
Ryan: So just briefly describe who you are with Messenger?
Nick: I’m a Managing Partner at Messenger and my responsibilities fall under quality control and green coffee buying.
Ryan: As well as a part time cymbal connoisseur…
Nick: (laughs) Yes. I do dabble.
Ryan: Tell us about the relationship between Messenger and Finca El Zapote…
Nick: We bought our first coffee from Julio Melendez Perez and his family in 2014 and visited the farms Finca El Zapote, Finca Monte Nuevo, and Finca Palestina in February of 2015.
Ryan: So Monte Nuevo is Chepe’s farm, right?
Nick: Yeah, so Jose Leon Perez, whom we call Chepe, inherited his Dad’s farm, which is called Finca Monte Nuevo. His uncle is Julio, who owns Finca El Zapote. And Julio’s cousin, Joel, owns Finca Palestina.
Ryan: Gotcha. What was Julio’s coffee like when you first visited vs. now?
Nick: Well, we are buying a whole lot more just because of our growth since then, which has made a big impact on Finca Monte Nuevo. We’ve also been able to invest in Monte Nuevo a bit with a nursery for geisha seedlings. As far as the quality goes, the climate is changing there and the best coffee is sort of moving up the mountain a little bit. In order to maintain quality, we have to experiment with different processing techniques. A straight up washed coffee doesn’t quite taste like it used to.
Ryan: So what processing techniques are they doing that stick out to you?
Nick: There is a process involving pre-fermentation before the pulping that we experimented with this year. Nilton, Chepe’s brother, is the head of quality control for all these farms and many others in the area. He came up with this idea on his own, but it is actually a process that we used with coffee in El Salvador, which we call Diá Siguiente (meaning "next day"). The coffee is left in sacks for a day, maybe 2 days before pulping. Maybe the bags are air-tight, maybe they are perforated. All of those details are part of the experiment. But with that idea, the intention is to hopefully make the coffee a little bit more complex.
Ryan: What different varieties have we bought from El Zapote?
Nick: The varieties that Julio grows are bourbon, caturra, and geisha. Bourbon is usually what we release as Finca El Zapote. Caturra is a little less acidic, a little less complex, and it is something that we introduce into blends. And then we also sell his highest end varietal which is the geisha.
Ryan: Which Julio named his dog after…
Nick: (laughs) Yeah. His dogs are awesome. We take that geisha coffee and we try to make a production of it and celebrate it. He spends a lot of his time and energy producing it very well. This year we actually did some of that pre-pulping fermentation (Diá Siguiente) with his geisha. With none of us knowing how it's going to turn out, it's a bit of a risk. Especially since it was already excellent in 2017.
Ryan: Tell us a little bit about Julio.
Nick: It’s been super easy to build a relationship with him. He trusts us and we trust him. He is open to experimentation and is very progressive. Definitely a big-picture-guy when it comes to coffee. He is also one of the sweetest people I've met at origin. He has two huge German Shepherds that follow him around the farm, which gives him a real St. Francis vibe.
A few years ago when we were there, they had an end-of-harvest celebration. All of the pickers and their families were there partying. They had set up a piñata for the kids and were blasting music and dancing. Everyone was celebrating each other's hard work. Julio really takes care of all his workers and it’s a real community. It’s all positive vibes while you are there.
Ryan: So true. We were driving around and all of the people we would see when we drove by were genuinely happy to see him.
Nick: Chepe is also such a generous guy. He has a ton of farm experience and is very knowledgeable as well. They call him "The Governor” because he knows how to get stuff done and maybe knows everyone in Guatemala. (laughs) He’s extremely hospitable. Without him, I don’t know how these trips would work. Speaking of hospitality, the first year I was there, Chepe gifted me his old childhood baseball bat. It was a Lousiville Slugger George Brett bat. George Brett is a sort of Kansas City hero, for anyone who doesn't know. It was a really thoughtful gesture.
Ryan: Speaking of baseball, we also were invited to a softball game.
Nick: Yeah. Julio and his brother-in-law are a part of a softball team with their sons. They're really competitive and great players. It was a blast to see them in a completely different light, doing something else that they love with their family.
Ryan: Were there any coffees that surprised you on this trip?
Nick: Well, I’m always impressed with the bourbon that comes from Joel at Finca Palestina. His coffee has this interesting floral characteristic, almost like Yirgacheffe, that stands out amongst the other farms. The other thing that really stands out to me is Julio’s geisha. Even though he has been doing this for years and years, he is improving it every year. I think the geisha just keeps getting better and better with time.
Ryan: Describe Julio’s geisha a bit. What makes it stand out to you?
Nick: Out of the different varieties, geisha is the most delicate and complex. The flavor profile is very tea-like, very citrusy, sweet and floral. It really pops on the cupping table. It usually fetches a pretty good price for a lot of farmers. It's a coffee that's light bodied and not for everyone. It’s definitely a coffee taster’s coffee.
Ryan: What are Messenger’s future plans with Finca El Zapote?
Nick: Probably the biggest thing on the horizon is the experimenting that we're doing with processing. We are also going try to help build out their quality control lab so they can do more on the farm instead of having to bring samples back to Guatemala City. Also, they are wanting to start using more of Chepe’s land that is higher up on the mountain, which we visited on this recent trip. So we don’t know what our involvement looks like at this point but we know that we want to support him and get that going. We think that higher up that mountain is the future of the coffee farm.
Nick: So you keep asking me a bunch of questions but I’m actually curious what stuck out to you, being that this was your first origin trip.
Ryan: Yeah, totally. Well, I’ve been working in coffee for years and this trip was super eye-opening for me just to be able to see the process that coffee goes through, from being picked to becoming a beverage. The experience of picking a ripe cherry off of the tree and putting the seeds into your mouth is something that not a lot of regular coffee drinkers get to experience. The other surprise had to do with the volcano that is located very close to the farm. This thing erupted pretty much every hour and it felt like a thunderstorm. It just shook the house and we would all get up and run outside to see if we could see the lava. All day long it would be erupting but we never got a good sight at the volcano because of the clouds. So one night we decided to just post up with some Zacapa (Guatemalan rum) and see if we could catch a glimpse. We were lucky enough to be there when Volcano Fuego erupted! It was just amazing.
Nick: Of the 3 or 4 times I’ve been to Acatenango, I’ve heard occasional eruptions with the clouds covering the volcano. Even just seeing a faint lava glow in the clouds really stirred me. It felt really special to me, as a midwesterner, to have seen an active volcano. So the fact that we saw a full-blown eruption with lava flying through the night sky and running like a river that was miles long down the side of the mountain was really wild!
Ryan: Final thoughts. How do origin trips affect the way you approach your job when you come back?
Nick: I think it's easy to become burned out when you work in a roasting or cafe environment for long periods of time. Sometimes it's hard to find the same motivation that got you into it in the first place. Visiting origin is important to me because it shines light on how big the supply chain really is. It's easy to think small when you're stuck in the same place day after day. It's refreshing to see the kindness and integrity of the people who fuel this industry. For many who work in coffee growing regions, coffee is a part of their heritage. It inspires me to try to bring a piece of that back. When you get home from these farms, you feel like you are a part of something bigger. More than just cafe culture and more than just roaster culture. You realize we're all a part of something giant and global. Arguably one of the biggest things happening in the world. If you ask me anyway...