Collab Series – San Jeronimo

Yes, we’ve released the second coffee in our Collab Series! These coffees are part of a project designed to give cafes the chance to take a closer look at the process of sourcing, profiling and releasing a coffee into the big wide world.

This time we’ve worked with the team at Prufrock Coffee to pick, test roast, taste and launch the San Jeronimo Miramar espresso from Guatemala. This espresso, which, as part of the Collab series is absolutely exclusive to Prufrock, packs in loads of cherry and dark chocolate flavours, with a pleasant gooseberry acidity for balance.

The farm is also one that we’ve visited a number of times, so here is Anette’s report from her latest visit to the San Jeronimo Miramar.

San Jeronimo Miramar

Finca San Jeronimo Miramar is located on the side of the Atitlan volcano and is the coffee producing branch of an old family estate which originally started out as a dairy farm called Finca La Parma. The story of the farm goes back to northern Italy in the late 1800’s, when Valentino (great great grandfather to current coffee chief Giorgio) made the tough decision to leave his home, his wife, two daughters and an unborn son, to search for work as a stonemason.

He was offered work in the USA constructing railway tunnels and slowly worked his way across the country from the east coast, all the way up to Colorado. As his contract was expiring he met a man who told him of an opportunity in the Guatemalan railways, and upon his arrival there he immediately fell in love with the country. Again he worked his way from the east to the west coast, and eventually saved up enough money to buy a small property.

Image courtesy of Finca San Jeronimo

While he was working in Guatemala, the distance became too much for Valentino’s marriage to bear. His wife, alone in Italy, met another man and eventually moved to San Francisco with him. Valentino, meanwhile, went back to Italy and found a place for his son Cesare – now 7 – in a reputable boarding school in an attempt to ensure he received a good education. Inheriting his father’s sense of adventure, however, Cesare fled the boarding school at age 16, and travelled to the UK, via Belgium, eventually finding himself in Stamford, England studying English.

After mastering the language he went on to America to find his father, finally joining him in Chipo, Guatemala. Reunited, and with a new excitement for their future opportunities together, they decided to sell Valentino’s property and start over on a new plot of land on the west coast. They bought a herd of cattle and joined forces with a Czech immigrant who knew how to make cheese, launching a gouda making business.

It was by now the 1940’s and as the war was breaking out back in Europe, the Guatemalan government decided to side with the allied countries, declare war on Germany and expropriate property from German landowners. This prompted many Germans to sell up and flee Guatemala, and one – Luis Steinberg – approached Valentino and Cesare about buying his coffee farm. Money being tight, Valentino and Cesare didn’t have the cash to close the deal there and then, but with Luis keen for a quick sale an arrangement was made; Valentino and Cesare would pay Luis 20% of the value of the farm upfront, and pay the remaining balance using future profits from coffee sales.

Since this meant all income from the coffee farm went to paying off the land, father and son relied on their cattle and cheese business to generate enough cash to maintain operations. In time, dairy production became the family saving grace as the coffee crisis hit. Had it not been for the steady dairy business they may have had to replace coffee as a crop entirely.

To this day the dairy production at Finca San Jeronimo is a vital part of the farm operation.

Nowadays, the coffee side of the business is looked after the by two of the six fourth generation Bressani brothers and sisters, Giorgio and Gina. They have taken the coffee, and the development of the speciality side of the coffee, as their own project for ensuring the future of their land and family heritage.

They have implemented new systems and invented new processes to explore the possibilities of their product, and are continuing to experiment with varieties, processing and drying methods. The family also make honey, grow Guadua bamboo, exotic fruits (a range of jams are in the pipeline) and manage a large section of their land as a natural reserve. Never content to stop innovating, they’re even starting up a cocoa plantation and will soon be growing vanilla, cinnamon and sugar cane as well.

Part of the reason why they are able to have such a diverse range of crops and products is not just their history but also their location on the southern slopes of the Atitlan volcano. On the other side of the peak is Lake Atitlan which, with no real exit rivers, drains under and through the mountains around it and creates several natural springs on the Bressani farm. The fertile, mineral-rich soil combined with a steady supply of rain throughout the year is a perfect recipe for abundance, and when you walk the farm you do have the feeling that you could throw anything on the ground and it would grow. But in the face of our changing climate, another important factor is their philosophy and approach to preservation of their unique ecosystem.

This was driven home very clearly as I hiked to the lush virgin forest at the top of the farm a couple of weeks ago. To get back down we crossed through a section of their neighbour’s farm, where the visible effects of the dry season were in stark contrast to the conditions at San Jeronimo.

Where San Jeronimo is full of shade trees that shield the coffee and the soil from the scorching sun, rainwater evaporation and strong winds, the neighbouring farm had little shade and consequently, the soil was dry and dusty with clouds of brown dust swirling up around our feet as we walked through. With no soil binding plants along pathways and steep slopes, erosion was crumbling away the earth around many coffee tree roots, exposing them and slowly taking away the very grounds for their survival. It was clear that this neighbour also used herbicides to keep weed growth at bay, further removing the protective layer of the earth and perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Image courtesy of Finca San Jeronimo

Shade is such a vital part of preserving the soil and the wildlife diversity, but even the shade trees themselves can be a secondary revenue stream if you plan carefully. Over the next few years, Giorgio plans to slowly replace many of the existing shade trees with hardwood trees such as oak and cedar, that in 30 years can be sold as timber for as much money as 30 years’ worth of coffee harvests would bring in. The hardwoods will be chosen carefully for the mulch they will provide as well as the root systems they will form, adding to the nutrients available to the coffee rather than depleting them.

A lot of the work that takes place at San Jeronimo is about finding ways to create healthy, low impact, closed-loop resource systems that allow nature to have a balance and sustain itself, helped by natural input from its human custodians. The use of herbicides is one element of this.

San Jeronimo stopped using them about a few years ago and have seen the return of both plants and wildlife that hadn’t been seen in years, such as wild boars, who help to maintain the natural balance of both flora and fauna. Instead, they cut the weeds back by machete, and while it takes four times as many people to clean the farm this way, the payoff in soil health and organic matter for mulching makes it worth it. An avid bird watcher, Giorgio and his fellow enthusiasts have spotted 213 bird species on the farm, and 9 new ones just last year.

Giorgio and Gina have also been doing groundbreaking work in their parasite lab by breeding a tiny wasp that exists naturally in the environment and is harmless to humans, but deadly to broca, one of the most common coffee pests there is. These micro wasps lay their eggs in the eggs and the larvae of the broca beetle, effectively killing them before they even reach adulthood. To combat adult bugs, the lab also cultivates a local fungus that is harmless to everything other than the broca to use as a diluted spray solution in problem areas

For those broca which evade the spray, there are simple plastic bottle traps filled with methanol and ethanol hanging from trees all over the farm. In the parasite lab, they collect and record the quantity of broca lured into these traps, measuring the effectiveness of their efforts to keep pests away without the use of harmful pesticides.

In every area, San Jeronimo focuses on addition and supplementation of the soil rather than resorting to removal and depletion. The ability to take this holistic approach is helped by the presence of the dairy cows, who both contribute to and benefit from all the moving parts of a farm. As an example their pastures are carefully planted with grasses and flowers for bees, grazing for the cattle, ingredients for custom recipe silage, and they contribute in turn with free manure for soil improvement. Even their compost piles have full traceability, kitted out as they are with temperature and humidity meters that make sure they reach the 160 Fahrenheit and above that they need to maintain for at least a week to kill the rust fungi and any weed seeds. This year they will produce a staggering 3.5 million lbs of their own compost, nearly doubling last year’s amount.

The farm has also invested in sophisticated soil analysis machines, and are able to look at both green coffee nutrient contents, soil microbiology and root structure development to best implement their fertilisation programs. There is a wonderful sense of traditional knowledge and cutting-edge science working in harmony to provide the best opportunity for growth on the farm.

The coffee trees themselves are obviously part of this equation. While the majority of the farm is planted with the more traditional Caturra and Bourbon trees, they have around 46 varieties in total on the farm. Not all produce significant volume but all are picked and collected separately, even if the complete harvest is less than 1kg. The experimental plantings are important for developing healthy, resilient, high yielding but also delicious tasting coffee, that will prepare the farm for the future

Giorgio and Gina are experimenting with varieties that include Catuai, Heirloom Bourbon, Bourbon Chocola, Pacas, Bourbon 300, Venecia, Anacafe14, San Juan, Pacamara, Maragogype, Heirloom Typica, Geisha, Java, Ethiopian heirlooms, Catimor , Colombia, Marsellesa, Pache Colis, Rasuna, SL28, Moka, Sarchimor and San Isidro, and the list goes on. At the nursery, they carry out the ‘injerto reina’ graft that they commonly use, splicing the soldier of an arabica onto a robusta cotyledon root. Or more experimentally, the ‘injerto tonales’, grafting the tip of a three-year-old arabica tree onto a liberica root. Even the way the delicate sprouts in the nursery are shaded is done with consideration. Instead of plastic nets, they grow sprawling beans as a cover, providing protection for the small plants as well as free food for the nursery staff.

Everything at San Jeronimo is picked separately with detailed day-lot traceability, and it is not uncommon for them to have upwards of 400 different day lots in store during the harvest. Throughout the farm, they have several small collection stations for cherry, so the pickers have less distance to cover in a day and the collection station at the main mill is relieved of some pressure.  All these lots are processed at San Jeronimo’s own wet and dry mills.

At the wet mill, which is supplied by water from natural springs, daily lots of cherry is sent through six pulpers, fourteen fermentation tanks and three soaking tanks, transformed into parchment and dried on patios or in guardiolas. Recently they commissioned a local carpenter to design and build a greenhouse that houses 396 individual small screens to manage their small and experimental lots. They have even repurposed some old cardamom pod drying beds to experiment with their small batch coffees, circulating fan assisted air through a layer of parchment coffee resting on a fine mesh.

The dry mill that strips the protective parchment layer off the coffee bean and prepares it for sale is also run on energy from the springs, via a water wheel that connects to a generator. Some of the pieces in the dry mill are the oldest working equipment I’ve seen, such as the wooden screen sorter from1928, and the four original Pepe Guardiola mechanical driers. Pepe was a farmer from the Chocola area in Suchitepéquez, who developed the technology and later sold it to the Germans and Brazilians who developed into the guardiaolas that are still very much in use today.

They even have an impressive range of coffee roasters in every size and shape, as they often used to get paid in machinery for work they’d carry out for their neighbours. They never used to roast and cup their own coffees, relying on the Guatemalan coffee organisation to give them feedback and guide them in their work. But, feeling unsatisfied with the resources made available to them, they recently fired up their sample roaster and built their own cupping lab. Giorgio has now been cupping coffees for about five years, and they have recruited a team of lab assistants and cuppers from their existing field and milling staff.

It takes a lot of people to manage a large and complex operation like this. At San Jeronimo, a whole community has grown on and around the farm, and they currently run three schools for the local kids, as well as provide healthcare, places of worship and financial services. In numbers, a brief summary of the farm would be 600 hectares of land, 200 hectares in coffee, 800,000 coffee trees, 60 hectares of pasture, 8 hectares of fruit and veg, the rest of it virgin forest, crisscrossed by wildlife corridors for deer, ocelot, puma and the aforementioned recently returned boar.

Add to this about 200 full-time employees, rising by anything from another 300 to 800 people during harvest, though there is currently a dramatic shortage of pickers in most coffee producing regions and countries I visit.

Giorgio has an extremely sophisticated system for tracking flowering and maturation rates and volumes across the various sections of the farm, which allows him to accurately forecast how many pickers he needs to employ at any given time, but he can’t always forecast how many will be available to hire. As people migrate to cities and leave the countryside behind, there needs to be a willingness throughout the industry to pay more for coffee so that the coffee will be produced at all.

San Jeronimo remains for me one of the most fascinating and exciting farms that I have the pleasure to buy from, even the way the coffee arrives at the roastery is exciting (read more about the New Demin Project here). It’s truly a pleasure to learn about the work that Giorgio and Gina do at their farm and to be inspired by their vision and dedication to the land and the coffee industry. It’s an honour to share their products with our customers, and we look forward to many more cups of coffee shared!

Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer is the co-founder and green coffee buyer of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. Since starting as a barista in Norway 18 years ago she has worked in imports, education, training, cupping and roasting. She is a World Cup Tasting Champion, an international coffee judge and the author of "Coffee Obsession”.

Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer

Anette Moldvaer is the co-founder and green coffee buyer of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. Since starting as a barista in Norway 18 years ago she has worked in imports, education, training, cupping and roasting. She is a World Cup Tasting Champion, an international coffee judge and the author of "Coffee Obsession”.