Honduras coffee has become a fantastic source of income for our country. The geography is ideal for growing this crop, and the outstanding job of the IHCAFE – Instituto Hondureño del Café (or Honduran Institute of Coffee) has prompted a sustained growth in the production of coffee from Honduras during the past four decades.
There is no doubt that coffee production and exports saved the state of Honduras from a certain bankruptcy following the 2009 political crisis. The combination of a record crop and unusually high international coffee prices generated employment and hard currency, which allowed the Honduran economy to stay afloat and not collapse.
During 2011, Honduras surpassed Guatemala as the largest Central American coffee producer and exporter, and by 2012, Honduras had become the second world exporter of washed Arabica coffee! Today, Honduras is the seventh largest producer of coffee in the world, behind much bigger countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Colombia. Best of all, the high quality of Honduras coffee has allowed it to obtain world wide recognition, and specialty coffee brands are now actively seeking and purchasing high quality coffee from Honduras.
The Beginnings of Coffee from Honduras
Coffee found its way to the new world as early as the early 18th century, arriving first in the island of Martinique, from where it expanded throughout the Caribbean. The island of Hispaniola quickly became an important coffee production center with the French Colony at Haiti providing almost half of the world coffee supply at the time of their independence from France in 1788; however, the production of coffee never recovered after the independence war in this nation, the first Latin American country to be independent from its colonizers. By 1804, there are documents that state that coffee was beginning to be cultivated in the province of Honduras, then part of the vice-royalty of New Spain. Once Honduras achieved its independence from Spain, there were several different presidents that tried to promote the production of coffee in the new country, however the persistent coups and wars did not provide the proper conditions to allow the expansion of this crop. During the first half of the XXth century, bananas were the most important cash crop in Honduras, fueled by the large US owned banana companies that had established themselves in the north coast of Honduras. However, during the second half of that century, coffee slowly but steadily increased its share as a cash crop, and by the end of the twentieth century, coffee from Honduras was as important a gross internal product of Honduras as the banana industry. It was during the first decade of the XXIst century when the production of coffee really began to blossom, turning coffee into the first, and most important, cash crop for Honduras.
Honduras Coffee Production
Unlike the banana industry, where the production was dominated by a few (actually only two) big corporations, the production of coffee from Honduras has grown in such a way that there are 110,000 thousand coffee producers registered in the country, with 92% of them being considered small producers. In total, they generate over one million jobs during the coffee picking season, which happens between November and March every year, creating employment for over 12.5% of the total population of eight million people in Honduras. Many complete families work during the coffee picking season, with young kids being an important part of the workforce, providing an additional income to their families. Keep in mind that the Honduran schooling system has vacations from the end of November to the first week in February, which blends in perfectly with the peak of the coffee growing season.
For a good part of the last 20 years, many Honduran coffee producers, especially those in western departments of Copan and Ocotepeque, smuggled their coffee across the border to sell it in Guatemala. Why, would you ask? Because coffee from Guatemala had a better reputation than coffee from Honduras, and as a result, the buyers were willing to pay more for coffee from Guatemala than they were for Honduran coffee.
The Improvement of Coffee from Honduras
During the last 25 years, both the coffee producers and the Government of Honduras have made a quest to improve the quality of coffee from Honduras. Laws have been passed giving fiscal incentives to coffee producers, highways have been built to access remote coffee growing regions, and the production has been technified by conducting soil analysis and determining the correct fertilizers to ensure a greater production and better quality. The result has been astonishingly effective in helping Honduras get a great name for its coffee. The vast majority of coffee from Honduras is Arabica, with several different strains grown that have been identified as the best for the climate conditions and geographic characteristics of Honduras, the most common being the Bourbon, Catuari, Caturra, Typica and Pacas strains.
The Instituto Hondureño del Café (www.ihcafe.hn) is the entity in charge of promoting the quality of coffee in Honduras, as well as marketing the product. In 2005, the first Appellation of Origin brand in all of Central America was established in Honduras, designating “Café Marcala” (www.cafemarcala.com) as a brand that confirms the origin of coffee that has been cultivated and produced in an area that is comprised of 19 municipalities within three different departments of Honduras: La Paz, Intibuca and Comayagua.
A second Honduran Appellation of Origin brand for coffee from Honduras has been in process since 2007, the Honduran Western Coffee brand, which includes coffee from two distinct regions in Western Honduras: Copan and Opalaca, which includes communities in the departments of Copan, Lempira, Intibuca and Ocotepeque. This regional brand already has its own web page, and is in the process of becoming a full fledged coffee Appellation of Origin. www.honduranwesterncoffees.com
The IHCAFE has classified six distinct coffee growing regions where high quality altitude, shade grown Arabica coffee is produced. Each region specializes in coffee that has a different, very distinct coffee cup taste, and caters to different markets depending on specific tastes and preferences.
These brands are: Copan and Opalaca, both marketed under the Honduran Western Coffee regional brand; Montecillos, which is marketed under the Café Marcala Appelation of Origin brand, and includes coffee produced in the department of La Paz, Intibuca and parts of Comayagua; another marketing brand is the Comayagua Coffee, produced in the department of Comayagua; the Agalta, a region in the mountainous border area between the Olancho and Colon departments, and finally Paraiso, for the area around the department of El Paraiso in Eastern Honduras.
Coffee from Honduras Gains Recognition
During 2012, Honduras was invited to the 24th SCAA trade show (Special Coffees Association of America) as a Portrait Country, which means that it was featured as the coffee producer of the year by this important association. The event, that took place in Portland, Oregon, was inaugurated by President Lobo himself, who was there as the featured guest speaker on behalf of Honduras. During the event, Honduras won several awards, and gained much international recognition for the excellent quality of its coffee.
Unfortunately, climate change has taken an unprecedented toll in the production of coffee in Central America during this past year. Due to a rainy season that was unusually wet, many of the coffee plantations in the region have been hit by a fungus blight called coffee leaf rust. This blight attacks Arabica coffee plantations, and pretty much destroyed the coffee harvest in Brazil in 1970. Since then it has spread to most coffee producing countries in the world. Fortunately for Honduras, its plantations have not been as severely affected as those in its sister Central American countries. There are different speculations as to how much of the coffee crop will be lost due to the blight, with estimations varying between 20 and 50% of the total harvest. On the bright side, the organization, through the Ihcafe, is well prepared and already combating the blight. The downside, however, is that in the impoverished economy of Honduras today, the lower output of export grade coffee from Honduras will mean more hardships for the national economy.