Ten years ago, a group of grocers from the West Coast visited Cepicafe co-op in Piura and coffee farms in the mountain town of Cayona in northern Peru. I’ve heard about that trip for years. When an anniversary trip was announced, I was ecstatic to be given the wonderful opportunity to partake in a similar trip. The objective was to learn firsthand how the co-op works and, for those who went on the previous trip, how things have advanced.
Cepicafe co-op began 18 years ago with 14 farms producing coffee, chocolate and brown sugar. They have since joined forces with other co-ops under the new name Norandino. They now work with about 7,000 organic farms in the co-op, some of which produce cotton, fresh fruit and marmalade. We visited some coffee farms in the small mountain town of Cayona, Norandino’s coffee milling facility, as well as their quality control, or “QC,” lab for chocolate and coffee, and the packaging plant for brown sugar.
Our trip into the mountains
The van ride up into the Chulucanas mountains started with pavement but mostly followed a gravel road cluttered with small boulders. In the summer (a.k.a. the rainy season) the road is impassible. We drove through several riverbeds and about a dozen small streams and creeks that make the drive unmanageable many months out of the year. The road on the other side of the mountains goes through Canchaque and adds a couple hours to the trip.
We were lucky to miss the rainy season and be there in time for the harvest. Our van, packed full of weary travelers, wasn’t what you’d call a four-wheel-drive vehicle. After exiting the van several times to pass some tough terrain, we were happy to reach our destination.
Welcomes changes – power and roads
When we arrived in Cayona, we were welcomed warmly by many of the farmers. Some of traveled several hours to see us, arriving by donkey. I was so honored by the villagers’ innate hospitality and kindness; they do not get visitors often.
One of the major upgrades the villagers got in recent years was electricity. The government came through and added power throughout the village, and grated a road up through Canchaque using bulldozers. Parts of this new road were previously footpaths.
Harvesting coffee is hard work
These farmers are living and working at 5,000 feet with steep inclines in their fields. I was having a tough time not falling down the mountain while picking. But not to worry, we all made it through a few hours of harvest, with only slight wear and tear.
One of the farmers, Luciana, took me under her wing and helped me pick. She showed me how to pick the red coffee cherries and the ones starting to turn color. She then went through all the trees and picked the ones I missed!
Processing the beans
After the beans were harvested, we walked alongside the donkeys hauling the bags of beans headed to the de-pulping and washing station. The coffee cherries are gravity- and water-fed through the de-pulper. Once the cherries have been sliced open they continue down the washing station, where they pass through a large screen.
They are soaked overnight in water to ferment, then continue down the washing station the following day on their way to be dried in the sun. In previous harvests, they hauled the beans in wheelbarrows down to be dried. With modernization the last couple of years, they are now piped under the road, then hauled a short distance to be raked out into a thin layer.
Once the beans are dried, they are placed in their new storage facility, awaiting their long trek to the city. The cherry pulp is then composted and used in a fertilizer mix later in the year that is spread over the coffee plants.
Challenges in the field decrease yield
The farmers are working with Luis, Cepicafe’s agronomist, to cultivate the soil to increase production to combat the problems they are having with disease. In Cayona, they’re fighting two problems: rooster eye and rust. Four years ago, the farmers were yelding about 225,000 to 250,000 pounds of good-quality, exportable coffee. This year, they are hoping for 100,000 pounds.
Milling, cupping and tasting
We drove the smoother but longer drive up through Canchaque (the proclaimed organic coffee capital of Piura) and back down to the town of Piura. When we visited the co-op’s coffee-milling facility, the plant manager showed us how they process the coffee coming from the farms. This is where they remove the parchment from the beans, sort them and bag them into 60-kilo burlap bags. Upstairs was the QC lab with small roasters and a variety of brewing methods used to check the quality of the crop coming in from the farms.
Along with coffee cupping, we were lucky enough to taste some chocolate. Coffee and chocolate – yes, please! The cacao farmers have discovered they have been farming a rare heirloom varietal thought to be extinct. This white cacao is fetching top prizes and top dollar in the world market.
In the lab, we tasted the roasted beans, pure chocolate liquor and sampled chocolate. I was quite intrigued to find the characteristics of the beans were prominent in the flavor of the finished product. The liquor was intensely flavored and salty, with notes of sesame seeds, almonds and vanilla with underlying acidity throughout and a slight bitterness and smokiness on the finish. The finished chocolate bar had notes of coconut on the nose, with a tangy-tart tamarind fruit on the palate, followed with black currants and finished with an almost malted barley creaminess.
This was such a wonderful, truly incredible trip! I’ve learned in talking with our local coffee roasters that several of them have been buying beans from Cepicafe over the years; it was great to make the trip and have that local connection. If you would like to hear more stories of my travels or see more pictures, please stop by the Corvallis Market and ask me about it. I am happy to share them with you!