Coffee with a Personal Relationship

By Christina Reed, The Hired Pen

Eastern Sierra, CA—Not all coffee served up comes with an intimate quality assurance, or understanding of the exact farms, farmers, workers, staff, or roasting process involved in bringing a brand of coffee from land to cup. But, Peter Schultz, owner and barista at Black Sheep Coffee on Bishop’s Main Street, does “put quality ahead of everything else,” and he adds, he serves “coffee, with a personal relationship.”

For the past several years, Schultz has ventured to the farms in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala to see for himself, what coffees will be served up back in his homegrown coffee shop. Keeping it small in the Eastern Sierra, with his business model, and celebrating a decade of preserving his personalized take on coffee roasting (he started roasting with a corn popper above a bookstore on Bishop’s Main Street), Schultz sees the “direct trade” direction of his coffee products as a natural progression between land, farmers, workers, and the generational specialty coffees sold daily in the small town of Bishop.

With the “time in my life again,” Schultz set out to discover what makes the perfect cup of coffee on several multi-generational farms in Central America, and with a firm grasp of Spanish, he makes annual trips to high-altitude coffee farms. He enjoys his trips as much for the cultural experiences, geography lessons, and people watching, as he does for the satisfaction of knowing where his specialty coffees actually come from. “All coffee is grown in the highlands,” Schultz explains, and frequently near volcanoes. The higher coffee is grown, the more sugars the berries produce, he adds. The large El Salvador farm of the Dumont family, a fourth generation business, supplies a high quality coffee bean, with a “cherry” of “sweetness,” and color bordering on purple. Schultz notes, as the coffee cherry ripens, it goes from colors of green to yellow, and then to red, and deep purple.

The Handy Art of Growing Coffee

Coffee is produced from an evergreen shrub or tree (which can grow up to 20 feet in height, and live as long as 30 years), which creates oval-shaped berries (which have seeds or beans). Schultz describes a labor-intensive process of making coffee beans, and hand harvesting is a necessity for the excellent quality coffee brands. First, coffee berries ripen at different stages on a farm, so it’s almost a constant process of picking from February through April (in Central America). The berries take seven to nine months to ripen. Next, following picking and sorting of the quality berries, the outer pulpy layer of the cherry or berry is removed, by either a drying process in the sun, or a “wet mill” process, where “all of the fruit is taken off, and it leaves the seed behind.” The beans are placed in a type of water bath for fermentation, and the chemical changes loosen the pulp. Following the pulp removal, some farms use drying processes in the sun, where the beans are constantly turned over to even the drying. The dry milling procedure also involves “sorting” by hand, with “women, whose eyes [on the coffee] beat the lasers” at detecting flaws in the beans. The beans get sorted by weight, size, and color and then the last outer layer is removed. A textile mill can be nearby, to supply bags, which are 75 to 150 pounds each of coffee beans. Smaller, single-family owned farms, with an acre of coffee plants, like one Nicaraguan family Schultz visits, produce as little as 10 bags per year, and they use a central milling operation, with other tiny-sized coffee farmers.

Tasting of the coffee varietals takes place in the “Cupping Room,” where a “super scientific” grading of the coffee is done on a scale of one to 100, although most coffees don’t go below 85 points on the scale. “There is a lot of coffee in the Cupping Room,” Schultz explains, and coffee vendors allow buyers to smell, crack and try the coffee beans. “Every country is different” with its selling and trading, as is the money exchange process, and the set prices of coffee vary greatly. Then, Schultz must import the coffee beans into the US, store them properly, roast the beans, and package the final product. “You pay more for specialty coffees,” Schultz adds, so the “direct trade” business is “very important” to presenting the best in coffee flavors and values. “In direct trade” business transactions, “the land, farmers and workers are treated the best, and compensated better.” Schultz sees the great value in the prices people pay for the specialty coffees. “Coffee at $16 a pound is amazingly cheap.” And, when you consider that the coffee farms employ year-round workers, and seasonally, about 25 people, and the large amount of political unrest in some of the Central American countries, a worker, who picks 70 pounds of coffee, then sorts it, and is paid by the kilo, the true value of direct trading becomes apparent. Schultz notes, 50 cents of every sale of direct trade coffee his shop sells is “earmarked for clean water projects, education, and future social programs in Nicaragua.”