Seal of approval: grading coffee in Sicchezpampa

For the last six months, Hillary Rodriguez has volunteered in Sicchezpampa learning all about harvesting and processing coffee. Sicchezpampa can be reached via a 6-hour coach to Piura, followed by 6.5 hours on another bus and finally an hour by donkey! Hillary lived and worked with a local family labouring on the land, picking coffee, testing quality (cupping) and also processing sugar cane. Below you can get a little sneak peak of what life was like for Hillary, and how she helped farmers sell their product by grading (cupping) their crop.

The difficulty of assessing the quality of coffee

Coffee farmers are rarely able to accurately assess the quality of their product on their own – even wealthier farmers often don’t have the equipment or expertise to do this and small farmers definitely don’t. And of course the smaller you are, the harder it is. El Grupo de Mujeres (EGM) found out mid-summer that their first crop was too small to enter in the national competition and auction. That means EGM was trying to sell their coffee on the world market but they didn’t yet have a way to find out what kind of quality they are selling. I roasted some coffees very light and made my own tasting notes in Chaucha, but it really can’t substitute for a real lab with a proper roaster, regulated water, a commercial grinder, and (most important) a trained and calibrated team.

A helping hand

Thanks to some amazing people in the US and in Peru, I was able to help get a score for EGM’s first selective lot of coffee which is mainly from Don Teodoro’s farm – I want to take a moment to congratulate them on their score and explain a little about what it means. (For a primer on coffee cupping and grading check out this link to the Specialty Coffee Association’s website.) First I want to extend sincere thanks to the teams who donated time and resources to get these coffees to the US and to cup and score these coffees: Rodolfo in QC at Coop Norandino; and the QC and Purchasing teams at Equal Exchange, particularly Mike who assembled the report. And what were the results?

The results are in

Unofficial results from Martha’s kitchen: When I first tasted this coffee light roasted in an olla I was excited – it was absolutely high quality specialty coffee. (Specialty coffee must be clean, sweet, and uniform, and exhibit some other kinds of characteristics as well. If a coffee meets these criteria then it will be scored above 80 points. This coffee definitely went far above those standards.) I found notes of red and green grape, honey, and pecan along with a very bright and sparkling sweet orange acidity, and was excited to find out what other cuppers would find in this coffee.

Official results from Equal Exchange’a lab: EE had some trouble roasting this sample – Mike suspects inconsistency in drying the coffee which led to high moisture content. (Yet another reason why climate changes directly affect quality!) The roasting issue made it difficult to assign a score – not a usual situation but not unheard of. He tentatively has confidence that this could be a very good coffee around 85.25 points, and noted black tea, apricot, lemon, and strawberry and great acidity and complexity. Astounding results for a brand new group in their very first year – a first year of very challenging weather! With the construction of their processing center and careful management of drying I am hopeful that EGM’s selective lot could surpass even this level of quality next year.

A sign of quality – empowering farmers

When small farmers have access to information about their own product, it empowers them and gives them a chance to impress buyers in a way they never could before. I was thrilled to hear that thanks to Martha’s efforts a renowned roaster in Cuenca offered to purchase EGM’s first selective lot of coffee – he was impressed with the sample EGM sent and the cupping report from the US, which helped him see the potential of this coffee. Wish I was there to taste the first batch of this special coffee!

This post was written by Hillary Rodriguez. You can read the rest of her blog at You can also get another volunteer’s overview of life at Sicchezpampa here:


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