Alberto Méndez Custodio: An Example of Sustainable Coffee Growing

Alberto Méndez Custodio: An Example of Sustainable Coffee Growing

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Working with coffee is very sacrfice, since it is a product that is easily damaged. For Alberto Méndez, a young coffee producer from the coffee town of Utuado it is much more complicated, because he has to cover all the bases: processing, distribution and farm. The distribution focus of its coffee brand is in coffee shops, bakeries and restaurants. At the beginning they had another approach, but they changed their strategy, because the competition in supermarkets is unfair due to low price commercial brands. Places like supermarkets are not interested in the quality of the product. However, in the "coffee shops" the quality of the product is what sells, that is why they moved their distribution efforts towards them. The coffee they sell the most is the “premium” and the artisanal ones. The "premium" is the most sold because its price is reasonable, and the quality is excellent. Alberto reports that 50% of sales are generated by "premium" coffee. The mission and vision of its products is that people drink good coffee at an affordable price. That is why they specialize inpremium and specialty coffee, because the quality is good and the price is reasonable for the consumer. Its coffee is produce in the Caguanas sector, in Utuado. There is the roasting and processing.

Alberto has several labels of coffee: Café Aromas del Campo Gourmet , Café Aromas del Campo Premium , Café Aromas del Campo Natural Selection and Café Don Dionisio Reserva . He shared with us in detail the rigorous processes to make each product. First of all, the Aromas del Campo Premium Coffee is pulped and washed the same day. It dries in a guardiola or mechanical dryer with indirect heat for more than 40 hours. While the Café Aromas del Campo Gourmet is picked ripe, washed and pulped the same day, then dried in the sun for 6 to 8 days. On the other hand, for the Aromas del Campo Natural, its made with 100% ripe coffee cherries and sundried for 14 days. As the bean interacts more with the mucilage, the result is a coffee with sweet, fruity and honey flavors. Finally, the Café Don Dionisio Reserve, named in honor of his grandfather. For this unique selection, Alberto the selects the best ripe cherries from the family farm. The bean is pulped, placed in a tank for 24 hours to begin the fermentation process, washed and dried in the sun. This coffee has fruity and sweet notes, likes chocolate, dried fruits, nuts, molasses and cacao. Alberto tells us that this is the way in which coffee was processed more than 60 years ago, it is the true traditional process of the Puerto Rican cup of coffee. Before roasting, the coffee goes through a grading process. Each line has its roast profile to highlight its attributes and flavors. It should be noted that with its Café Don Dionisio Reserve it won third place in the Puerto Rico Gold Cup competition in 2019. Also this past September this coffee scored 83.25 In the first Virtual International Coffee tasting hosted by the coffee Gurú Kim Ossenblok

Alberto explains that, in order to develop a sustainable coffee industry, we have to be aware of the climate change. In the last three years, he has seen how the process of harvesting and flowering has been changing. The effects of climate change are evident, for example, the problems of drought. Therefore, he indicates that the way of planting coffee must be changed. After Hurricane María, they changed their way of growing coffee, now they only grow in a more sustainable way, in the shade. After the hurricane passed, they cleaned and prepared an area of the farm and began to plant shade-grown coffee. The result has been that they have hardly had to add fertilizers or manures. Less coffee is produced, however, the bean is very dense. The model they follow for planting coffee is Agroforestation. The coffee that is planted in the sun produces more, but generates more expenses, says Alberto. You have to invest more in labor, water, fertilizers, among other things. The maintenance of cultivation in the sun is about three times more expensive than cultivation in the shade. It produces more weeds for which you have to use fertilizers every three months.

To improve the coffee industry and agriculture in Puerto Rico, we need better technical assistance for farmers, Alberto said. It is necessary that viability studies of varieties be carried out for our island. It is necessary to know which are the most effective varieties for our soil. To be self-sustaining, local manufacturing of coffee production equipment and modern machinery is necessary, since at the moment it depends on imports. Government support is also needed in the industry. When the Department of Consumer Affairs (DACO), in 2015, revised the price of coffee produced in Puerto Rico, it represented losses for local producers. Alberto mentions that the costs of making coffee are very high. Due to this situation, it is more beneficial to stop producing commercial coffee and start producing specialty coffee.

Alberto buying ripe coffee cherries to neighbor farmers

Due to Hurricane María, their production was impacted and the harvest was lost. The coffee processing building suffered physical damage and half of the roof was destroyed. Unfortunately, Alberto received little help to make the repairs and had to take out a personal loan to repair the damage. On top of that, he was without power for about a month, so he had to dry the coffee beans in the sun. Similarly, now with the pandemic it has lost all established business with the United States. At the beginning of the pandemic, all the coffee shops and restaurants were closed, which generated losses for their business, since much of the coffee they distribute is to coffee establishments. Despite everything, there was a positive impact on their business. As the situation in the country improved, they managed to double local sales.

The most that Alberto enjoys about working in the coffee industry is that he is his own boss, that he lives surrounded by nature and that coffee never lacks in his house. He expresses that there is always something new to learn from coffee, he always has something new to teach. Coffee has a hundred secrets and you learn one a year. According to Alberto, the coffee behaves differently and it is that sensation of mystery that most attracts his attention. It's rewarding work for him and it feels like a hobby, not a job. He says that coffee is our tradition as Puerto Ricans. “The first thing they offer you when you visit a house is a cup of coffee.” Coffee is the number one industry and the engine of the economy in the mountainous area of Puerto Rico. There is a chain that benefits from the harvest, like the bakeries and gas stations on the mountain. On our island, coffee is drunk several times a day and you wont miss it in family activities. For Alberto, his ideal cup of coffee is a well-balanced cup, with a good silky body and with fruity and chocolaty notes. A coffee that does not need sugar to enjoy it. He likes to drink coffee without milk, black, "puya". In Alberto's words: “coffee is embedded in our veins, without coffee we cannot live”.

To learn more about Albertos Coffees access: Café Aromas del Campo

By: Gretchen Gonzalez Wheelings in collaboration with Enio A. Suasnávar Torres

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