Origin. Few words are as evocative in any context, but within the context of coffee, the word almost echoes, as if all the many hands that cause coffee to come our way formed a long tunnel to our ear as if the word itself must travel too. Even if you have not yet been to a coffee-growing region, the word “origin” has about it the sense of reminiscence, remembering. The word “origin” reminds us that coffee—for most roasters—journeys from elsewhere and over a distance that has never been rightly measured in miles alone.
The answer to the question, “Where does coffee come from?” is not an uncomplicated one. For a long time, the facts of the matter mostly remained the same and it was our point of view that changed. But in recent years, under the upstream influence of specialty coffee, the facts on the ground have changed. This is really what the work of Beneficio San Vicente in the Santa Barbara region of Honduras has been about, changing the answer to the question, “Where does coffee come from?”
Trees. Tropics. Terra firma. These are the easy and alliterative answers to where coffee comes from, and answers only recently added to the coffee-splaining of your average coffee drinker. Once upon a time, in the early days of coffeehouses appearing in Europe, coffee simply came from Arabia as far as most people knew. Even when that region lost its grip on a commercial coffee growing monopoly, the idea that coffee came from Arabia remained fixed in the popular imagination. Thus, Austin and R.W. Hills named their first coffeehouse in San Francisco “Arabian Coffee & Spice Company” in 1882. Twenty-Five years later their iconic, if somewhat ambiguous, trademark, The Coffee Taster, reflected Arabian inspiration, though by that time the port of Mocha had replaced Arabia as the origin of coffee, along with Java, in the minds of most people. So pervasive was the belief that most coffee—or most good coffee—came from Mocha or Java (and ideally, both combined), that coffee sellers would label coffee Mocha, Java, or Mocha Java no matter where it came from.
The same year Hills Brothers started using their Arabian coffee taster on packaging (1906) The Pure Food and Drug Act went into effect. This didn’t eliminate mislabeling, but the Act did curb enthusiasm for the practice. At the same time, things like the emergence of a national trade association for coffee roasters (1911) and the founding of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal (1901) signaled a maturing of the industry, standardization of practices, and industry-wide cooperation in educating not only consumers, but the trade as well. The origin of coffee was no longer confined to Mocha or Java. Coffee was understood to come from many different countries.
Through the early part of the 20th century, each coffee country had generally accepted, though arguable, flavor characteristics assigned to the entire country. When variations on cup characteristics were provided, it was usually related to altitude or plant type. Guatemalan coffees were “mild or mellow … the mountain-grown coffees make a handsome roast, are of full heavy body and excellent cup quality. The lower-altitude coffees are light in cup, but flavory.” Kenyan coffees were simply described as having “Mysore characteristics with a touch of Mocha flavor.” In the 1922 edition of All About Coffee , from which these examples are taken, some larger producing countries started to receive regional taste descriptions, but regional variations were often limited to a description of bean density and appearance. There were exceptions, regions and/or other geographic designations that had become well-known for quality, at least within the coffee trade, like Antigua, or if not exceptional quality then their value in volume and consistency as neutral blend components, such as Santos.
In 1922, Honduras had only been producing coffee commercially for two decades and received minor if positive mention. Honduran coffees were “of a hard flinty character; make a fair roast and are neutral in flavor … the upland grades are of good quality.”
So, for most of the 20th century, as far as the majority of coffee drinkers were concerned, coffee came from countries (probably Brazil, and later Colombia, in the minds of most) and maybe, if they were connoisseurs, a few well-known regions within countries. The emergence of specialty coffee as a distinct industry segment was analogous in this regard, perhaps, to the zoom function in Google maps. Specialty coffee buyers, whether importers or roasters, wanted to “zoom in” past regions within countries down to districts and towns and then large estates and then cooperative within a certain valley, then hills, then individual farms, then parts of farms and, eventually, even the smallest of farms.
As the green side of the coffee industry sought to answer this impulse with ever increasing specificity, coffee producers responded, at first and most often through national organizations that designated coffee regions and created language and stories around these regions. But the hunger for more information and more opportunities to differentiate product among coffee roasters could not be satiated. Behind national organizations came large estates and cooperatives with production facilities that understood roasters wanted map-pin geographic indicators on their coffee bags.
It may be too great a generalization to say the option of being a “map-pin” on a roasters coffee package did not exist for very small coffee farmers (i.e. most coffee farmers on the planet), but fair to say opportunities were rare. Imagine (and not so many years ago), a farmer growing coffee on just one or two hectares arriving at the mill nearest their land and requesting that their coffee be kept completely separated from other coffee from other during the entire production process, “because the hillside on which my coffee grows is not like any other hillside.” And also, “could you give me the name of a few coffee roasters who might be interested in my coffee?”
Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, but if you want to understand who Beneficio San Vicente is and what they do, they are a production facility that says yes to our hypothetical smallholder coffee farmer.
Where does coffee come from? Coffee comes from farmers and not even the smallest of them need be anonymous anymore or see the potential distinctiveness of their coffee vanish at the mill due to business models like that at San Vicente developed by the Paz family and their team.
Benjamin and Fidel Paz, with their cousin Arturo, did not invent the idea of single farmer micro-lots, to be sure. But the economic “ecosystem” that exists within and around San Vicente and the town of Pena Blanca, and the persistent “drill-down” to sub-separations, even from the same farm, was unique and a truly pioneering effort in Honduran coffee.