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From Honduras To Utah: Coffee's Journey To Your Cup Pt 2

Lenon Diaz tests farmers' coffee to determine quality
Emily Karol
Lenon Diaz (far end of table) and his assistant preparing cups of coffee to test at the COMSA co-op in Marcala, Honduras

This story is part two of a feature series about agriculture in Honduras. If you didn’t hear part one, we heard UPR’s agriculture reporter Bronson Teichert talk about how much money Honduran farmers make growing coffee and how they are becoming more efficient business owners. 

For part two of this story, Bronson tells us about the strict process that coffee beans go through after harvesting to even make it out of the country and how it impacts individuals in the coffee industry.

Doña Linda is heavily involved in the coffee industry in Honduras and serves as an important role model for women in her community
Credit Emily Karol / iDE
Doña Linda is an entrepreneur in Marcala, Honduras who started from almost nothing to having her own coffee brand.

I hear people talk about good cups of coffee and bad cups of coffee. Usually when you spend more money on anything, the quality is better. In coffee’s case, quality starts before you add the cream and sugar and even before the roasting process. It starts in countries like Honduras, in the soil where the coffee plant produces beans, how much water was available, elevation and when it was harvested. 

In order to get the best labels it has to be tested by someone like Lenon Diaz. 

“My job is to find the defects, find the quality and classify it according to the region,” Diaz said.

Yes, he has what some of you may consider the best job in the world. His job is to make coffee and test it, but we’ll get back to that later on. 

Once the harvested coffee makes it to farmer co-operations like COMSA in Marcala, Honduras the processing begins. 

As soon as the bright red coffee beans are brought to the co-op by farmers, the beans are dumped into massive de-pulping machines and then moved to large containers to be fermented for around two days.

After fermenting, the beans are dried and then sent through a series of selective machines. Rocks and sticks are removed, a thin layer is stripped from the bean that would affect the taste later on, then the beans are separated according to size and color. 

Back to Lenon Diaz and the best job in the world. Diaz was a coffee producer and he came from what he calls a “coffee family.” So in other words, not just anyone can get this job.

“The secret is to practice every day and living in the coffee world,” Diaz said.

The laboratory Diaz works in has a big window that overlooks lush green hills. It has a small kitchen with tools and supplies along with a long table with close to 40 cups - all with ground coffee grown by different farmers in the area of Marcala. These farmers are trying to get their coffee labeled with the highest quality so they can get a better price - and Diaz is the gatekeeper. 

“With the smell test they can find the flavor like chocolate, fruit, caramel,” Diaz said. 

After smelling the ground coffee beans, Diaz puts 90 degree water in the cups and does the smell test again. 

“I test the coffee without the foam because it contains parts of the coffee bean skin that made it through the process,” Diaz said. “That skin puts off a bitter taste.”

Yeah, I didn’t know what was going on either. That’s Diaz sipping coffee from a spoon for a taste test. I tried to understand why the noise was necessary. It’s something about the air and the way the coffee enters his mouth. I don’t know, but I trust him and his coffee testing expertise. 

“These ones are of superior quality, fruity, with a creamy body,” Diaz said.

Diaz gives a score out of 100 for each batch of coffee based on aroma, flavor, acidity, body, uniformity, clean cup and overall. He says this is an international standard so buyers from around the world know exactly what they’re getting. 

As a producer and the gate keeper to coffee success, Diaz knows that every detail matters in coffee’s journey to export markets.

Diaz said some people in Honduras are starting to roast coffee more often, but the companies that buy the coffee beans usually have their own roasting process, like Caffe Ibis here in Logan, Utah. Caffe Ibis buys coffee beans from the COMSA co-op I happened to visit in Honduras. 

Just to be clear, Caffe Ibis is a supporter of Utah Public Radio and we often give away their coffee during our pledge drive. I actually didn’t know about this Utah connection to the Honduran coffee industry before I booked the trip. I wanted to find a Utah connection for my stories so I Googled Utah coffee companies that sell Honduran coffee and boom! Café Ibis. 

Brandon Despain is the director of coffee for Caffe Ibis. 

“It’s kind of a funny title,” Diaz said. “It means that I do whatever needs to get done around here. It means that I am responsible for sourcing, quality control and things like that.”

Despain said most of his effort goes to the people on the other side of the economic spectrum, the co-ops and the growers.  

“We’ve started taking it further to develop personal relationships with co-ops and the folks on the ground,” Despain said. “It’s been a few years in the making and a few years more before I feel like we have our entire supply chain down to where we want it to be.”

Labels used by Caffe Ibis like organic, fair trade and bird friendly help consumers know they are buying a product where the people and the land were treated fairly. 

“I have this really strong belief that if you don’t start forming personal connections and start talking to the folks back at the origin, then those tools are unused and almost useless,” Despain said. “This isn’t just charity, this is economic empowerment. That’s the only way you’re going to produce lasting change.”

Lasting change for people like Joselina Manueles known by the locals of Marcala as Dona Linda. 

Dona Linda is on the administration council of COMSA, leads several women’s organizations like the women’s kitchen, peace in chain and a women’s motivation group. She even started using 20 percent of her harvest for her own coffee.

Dona Linda didn’t inherit any of what she has today. In fact, she started without any land of her own and was working in the fields harvesting coffee for other people. 

Now, Dona Linda reaches out to other women in her community.

“I look for women that are willing to work and who have self-confidence,” Linda said. “If they don’t have that I try to wake it up inside them and explain to them that they are also important in the family. When a woman doesn’t have self-confidence she is shy. A woman who has confidence is energetic and more willing to learn.”

In many countries throughout the world, it can be difficult for women to become business owners and Dona Linda said Honduras is no exception. Here was her response when asked about tension in the home when a woman wants to start her business.

"Depends. In Honduras there is the machismo aspect that can create conflict,” Linda said. “When I do trainings I don’t just focus on just women. I help the whole family understand that it is for everybody. It’s not only a question of producing, but also selling.”

Dona Linda said machismo doesn’t exist at COMSA anymore. The people are becoming better farmers and business owners and their lives are slowly improving – making lasting changes for future generations.