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WMF series ‘Coffee culture international’ focuses on history and present in Honduras

WMF Honduras
(picture credits: WMF Professional Coffee Machines)

GEISLINGEN/STEIGE, Germany – Honduras is a small Central American country with an eventful history. Although it did indeed undergo various political upheavals, for a long time it was mostly the nation’s economic dependence on banana growing that made it so unstable. From around the 1960s, however, coffee started to become a more and more crucial part of the economy and it is now one of the country’s key exports. Honduras quite deliberately puts quality before quantity: what was once the quintessential “banana republic” is today one of the most important coffee producers in the world, but it is in the high-quality speciality coffee sector that it is really making a stir.

For a long time now, coffee fans have simply not been able to do without its outstanding Arabica varieties, with their well-balanced acidity and delicate aromas. But it is not only in Europe and the USA where Honduran beans have a great reputation: cafés across the country now serve up domestic coffee to their patrons – either as a modern, on-trend beverage or in a very traditional style.

Honduras: From banana republic to land of coffee

Strictly speaking, the history of coffee growing in Honduras starts way back around 1800.[1] But this crop, which was imported from Africa, played only a very minor role in the agriculture of this small nation until the second half of the twentieth century. It was the bananas grown on the country’s plantations, sandwiched between Guatemala and El Salvador to the west and Nicaragua to the east, which dominated the entire economy for many decades. This extreme dependence on one single agricultural product quickly garnered Honduras a reputation as a literal “banana republic”. The 1950s eventually saw radical political change, which made it possible to fully restructure the country’s agriculture as well.[2]

Farmers from El Salvador were among the first to really make use of the perfect coffee-growing conditions on a large scale. The farms they set up illegally on Honduran soil gave rise to a conflict that has gone down in history as a “coffee war”, which was only brought to an end following US intervention. After various legislative and land reforms, by the mid-1970s the political and social foundations were finally laid for the success currently enjoyed by the country’s coffee industry. The prevailing natural conditions, that is, the climate and the quality of the cultivated land, had been perfect all along. The industry was even able to recover remarkably quickly from the devastation left behind by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. And as a result, Honduras has never been out of the world’s top 10 biggest coffee producers in recent years.[3]

Sustainable growing on small farms

Looking at the coffee industry in Honduras, the large proportion of specialist smallholders sticks out right away. These farmers often organise in cooperatives such as the Cooperativa Cafetalera Capucas Limitada (COCAFAL), which have an important role to play in improving living standards in the country.[4] The entire yield is therefore produced by about 102,000 farms, 90 per cent of which are smallholdings. Nevertheless, taking all the labour involved into account – from planting, to picking and processing, and on to transport – a good million jobs depend on this industry.[5]

Coffee is mainly grown in the west of Honduras, in regions including Copan, Agalta and El Paraiso. The conditions inland, at elevations of between 1100 and 1650 metres above sea level, are perfect for Arabica varieties such as Bourbon, Catuai or Caturra.[6] The fertile soils and optimum micro-climate in these regions mean farmers can harvest exceptionally good coffees here – as became apparent when the Cup of Excellence awards were handed out in 2019, with six Honduran coffees achieving over 90 points out of a possible 100.[7] This high quality goes hand in hand with the traditionally sustainable growing methods employed by the farmers, who largely shun the use of chemicals and plant their coffee in the shade of other trees.[8] During the harvesting season, which runs from November to April, and the subsequent processing season (using dry or wet methods), it is incredibly important to handle the raw coffee carefully and in a way that is environmentally sound. This approach makes sure that the pleasant vanilla, hazelnut and chocolate aromas, for which Honduran beans are so famed, really come through.[9]

Climate change and the conservation of species

With their strong focus on environmentally friendly and sustainable growing, Honduran coffee farmers can look to the future with confidence. Nevertheless, the shifts being triggered by climate change mean that they, too, are faced with huge challenges. If it came to pass, the predicted rise in average temperatures of 1.9 degrees Celsius by 2050 would have a direct impact on the amount of precipitation and the frequency of extreme weather phenomena such as droughts or floods. What this means for the farmers in practice is that suitable coffee-growing areas will be about 200 metres higher than they are today, whereas at locations under 1000 metres above sea level, coffee farmers will have to transition to different crops. And the less precipitation that ultimately falls, the more artificial watering solutions become unavoidable.[10]

As well as dealing with the direct impacts of climate change, it is also expected that farmers will see an increase in disease and pests on their plants. Many farms have already been affected by “coffee leaf rust”, an aggressive fungal disease, back in 2012 to 2014. Lots of farmers in Honduras have switched to rust-resistant varieties in response.[11] Finally, biodiversity is another factor directly linked to climatic conditions. Honduras is home to one of the most diverse collections of species on the planet, including 24,000 different plants and almost 3000 species of vertebrate. But since coffee is often grown in exactly their habitats, farmers have a particular responsibility here. By utilising environmentally sound methods of planting under shade trees, for example, they can effectively prevent soil erosion and supply the forest with nutrients.[12]

A growing coffee culture

The strong focus on environmentally friendly growing and high quality really does pay off, as one can see from the extremely positive feedback given by foreign consumers and coffee experts. Not only do speciality coffees from Honduras regularly achieve top rankings, but large chains of coffee shops have also been marketing these beans specifically in the USA and Europe for several years now. However, just like in many other Central American countries, for a long time coffee played something of a minor role in Honduras itself. It was up against stiff competition, primarily from sweet, nourishing drinks based on maize, such as pinol and atol de elote, which are still an unshakeable part of Honduran culture today.[13] Despite the high quality of the beans, coffee was only the second or third choice for many Honduran natives – although the simple method of preparation was without doubt a big plus point.

Traditionally, coffee is served very simply in Honduras – black and with lots of sugar.[14] In recent years, however, international café culture has been breaking through more and more here too. In larger cities in particular, a burgeoning scene of ambitious coffee enthusiasts has been around for some time. The capital city of Tegucigalpa, for example, is now home to a number of “third wave” cafés based on the US blueprint. This is also the place where you can visit one of the first barista academies in Honduras.[15] From cosy cafés serving naturally processed espresso alongside traditional Honduran dishes, to modern coffee shops offering all the latest on-trend beverages, there really is something to suit everyone’s taste nowadays.[16]

Fully automatic machines gain a foothold

This increased awareness of ways of preparing coffee professionally has certainly not escaped the notice of manufacturers of coffee machines, grinders, etc. WMF Professional Coffee Machines is just one of the players successfully operating, through its trading partner Grupo Capresso, on this market. It has already been able to supply various well-known companies in Honduras with high-performance fully automatic machines – which, considering the dominance of portafilter machines in the country, is no mean feat. The Tiendas Pronto chain of convenience stores is one of the big players, alongside Denny’s and Chilli’s restaurants, but smaller catering businesses and the office sector also have an important part to play.

This success is a clear indicator of just how well the Honduran coffee market has been developing. This small Caribbean country already has plenty to offer coffee lovers. And with its clear focus on sustainable growing and high-quality speciality coffees, the coffee industry in Honduras is well prepared to tackle whatever the future holds.

Footnotes

[1] Barista Royal, Honduras – Kaffee und Espresso in Reinform (https://baristaroyal.de/blogs/anbaugebiete/honduras-kaffee-und-espresso-in-reinform#:~:text=Die%20Kaffee%2DGeschichte%20Honduras,Prozent%20des%20gesamten%20Exports%20ausmachten)
[2] https://www.laender-lexikon.de/Honduras_Geschichte
[3] Barista Royal, Honduras – Kaffee und Espresso in Reinform
[4] Barista Royal, Honduras – Kaffee und Espresso in Reinform
[5] Perfect Daily Grind, Exploring The History of Honduran Coffee Production (https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/03/exploring-the-history-of-honduran-coffee-production/)
[6] Espresso & Coffee Guide, Honduran Coffee Beans (https://espressocoffeeguide.com/gourmet-coffee/coffees-of-the-americas/honduras-coffee/#growing-regions)
[7] Perfect Daily Grind, Exploring The History of Honduran Coffee Production
[8] Barista Royal, Honduras – Kaffee und Espresso in Reinform
[9] Espresso & Coffee Guide, Honduran Coffee Beans
[10] Coffee Production in the Face of Climate Change: Honduras (https://www.sustaincoffee.org/assets/resources/Honduras_CountryProfile_Climate_Coffee_6-11.pdf)
[11] Barista Royal, Honduras – Kaffee und Espresso in Reinform
[12] The Evolution of Coffee Markets for Sustainable Development: A Honduran Cooperative’s Experience with Fair Trade, Erin Sue Smith, p. 140 (https://www.csuchico.edu/anth/_assets/documents/smith-thesis.pdf)
[13] Bacon is Magic, 17 Honduran Drinks you must try (https://www.baconismagic.ca/honduras/honduran-drinks/)
[14] Bacon is Magic, 17 Honduran Drinks you must try
[15] Perfect Daily Grind, Micro Mills & Third Wave Cafés: Exploring Honduras’ Specialty Coffee (https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/10/micro-mills-third-wave-cafes-exploring-honduras-specialty-coffee/)
[16] Perfect Daily Grind, A Specialty Coffee Shop Tour of Copán, Honduras (https://perfectdailygrind.com/2017/05/a-specialty-coffee-shop-tour-of-copan-honduras/)