Benjamin Paz has grown up around coffee.
His family owns an export mill called San Vicente in Peña Blanca, around an hour inland from the capital, San Pedro Sula. The producers who use the mill for dry milling and export live and work, tucked into the mountains of the Santa Bárbara National Park. It’s gorgeous here, especially around 3-4 pm when the mists come rolling in, dynamically cooling the coffee down – It’s the relationship between Lake Yojoa and the mountains of the national park that create that effect.
There are around 273 farmers (though probably a few more folks by now) in this area that work with San Vicente, and Benjamin seems to know everyone by name – It’s effortless. Growing up here (he’s 34 now) and knowing your neighbours is part of the equation. The other part is that my dear friend is sharp and here for the community.
Benjamin’s too modest to admit this, but a part of the reason why Santa Bárbara is on the map as a region for top quality in Honduras is in part thanks to him. He shows the same kindness and devoted attention to growers and buyers alike, spanning decades now. I’d argue it’s facilitators like Benjamin that are driving coffee’s progression as a craft and something worth doing – both financially for growers, and because the results are delicious.
So how did the idea of selling to markets other than mass commodity come to be in Santa Bárbara? Not only that – How did Santa Bárbara effectively state its case that Honduran coffees are to be considered as some of the best on the planet?
Here’s the origin story:
Let’s start in the early 2000s, in the Santa Bárbara region of Honduras. Here, with winding dirt roads, and steep mountain-slopes are tight-knit communities, who (at that time) had a reputation for producing mainly commercial, low-grade coffee.
The closest dry mill (Beneficio San Vicente) regularly received wet parchment coffee from these families, and due to the state it was received in, not picked ripe or processed well, its fate was to be sold in the local market all blended together.
Then one day everything completely changed. In 2005, when a young Benjamin Paz began working more closely with his family at the dry mill, they decided together to try working with one of the producers up the mountain range, entering a specially prepared lot into the Cup of Excellence competition.
The day when that lot took an astonishing first place (!!), it was a paradigm shift for the people of Santa Barbara -That moment was the start of a new reputation as high-quality coffee producers. People were feeling supported in their work and the shift in the community, financially, was palpable.
Fast forward years later — Routinely, coffees from Santa Bárbara place in the top 10 and often win.
After what turned out to be a decade helping match committed buyers with growers, eventually, the itch had to be scratched – Benjamin threw his hat into the ring and started a farm of his own. La Leona is in Las Vegas, also in Santa Barbara, and he’s got a bit of everything – the lot he sold to us is Pacas – a dwarf Bourbon – that is popular to grow here and super delicious. Apart from the variety though, what you’re tasting has a lot to do with how he decided to process this small lot.
After sorting the freshly picked Pacas coffee fruit, the fully ripe ones are packed into impermeable bags and sealed off. After 48 hours, a bunch of Co2 is created and the bags become puffy from all that built-up gas.
Then, the fruit is depulped and the sticky seeds are placed on raised mesh drying beds and turned multiple times an hour during the day until they start to dry. We struggled with what to call this process, flip-flopping between Semi-Carbonic, Anaerobic, honey, experimental… we settled on Semi-Carbonic for a few reasons.
First up, this is whole coffee fruit, not crushed, just going in a bag. Its got some of the same hallmarks of what happens with whole cluster maceration like in Beaujolais. Secondly, from what we can tell, we’re starting to come to a consensus around anaerobic processing, where the coffee is depulped, leaving only the coffee seeds and sticky mucilage to go into the sealed environment.
The only thing we got stuck on (what do we call this lot!?), is Benjamin didn’t have a valve or any way for the pressure to be released without allowing oxygen into the environment. If he did, then it would be possible to continue the process without worrying about bags bursting or anything like that. In any case, the effect is there – This thing has lactic qualities!
Processing environments like these lend themselves to an increasingly carbon-rich environment as fermentation continues and lactic-acid bacteria take the driver’s seat rather than yeasts, which are the industrious mucilage eaters present in open-air fermentation where the coffee sits depulped in a tank.
This coffee is undeniably delicious. It’s because Benjamin wanted to take a calculated risk to make something lovely in a year when things were going from bad to worse. Heavy rains at off times meant 30% of his harvest hit the ground before it could be properly picked. Then in March, well, you know what happened all around the world. Despite the compounding issues that this harvest season brought, this coffee exists. We think it tastes like cream soda.
It’s awesome – If you were a subscriber with us for the August box or managed to grab a limited bag after the release, please enjoy it!