The interview with Diego Guardìas from Hacienda Sonora about Coffee, Geishas and happy Customers

We have been connected with Hacienda Sonora for many years and it has been more than just a business relationship. We talked to Diego about the harvesting, different processing methods and his experience with the Geisha Coffees: finding the balance with the gap between customers’ expectation and the challenge to farm Geisha varietals.

19grams: Could you tell us about the two Hacienda Sonora Geisha coffees that you have provided us this year?
Diego: Geisha on its own, it’s a great varietal. The main attribute is when somebody thinks of geisha, they’re expecting a wild coffee, very complex and it can be complex in different ways, which for me as a producer is a challenge. There’s no point in having decent, good geisha because people get easily disappointed. Even if it’s a good coffee. It has to be outstanding.

People’s perception already throws you down that avenue. But we’re always up for the challenge! Those little tweaks in complexity are very small at the farm level and processing level because we can have geisha from the exact same plot, but one was picked, two weeks prior to the other pick and it can taste very different. Even if you do the same process, you might have different amounts of sun that day or perhaps the beans that got ripe a little later had a little more shade. You might cup both entries and they might be both good, but different. So, in a way you wouldn’t want to mix both of them, it’s tricky. Sometimes you mix two good coffees and the outcome is better, or sometimes you mix two good coffees and then one takes over the other.

19grams: How do you select your Geisha Coffee though?
Diego: So it’s a lot of work to determine with this very small amount of coffee, cupping them, analyzing them and say, OK, you can go with the other geisha we picked this day, this day and not that day, because that day tastes a little more like papaya or more strawberries. Let’s keep that one separate.

We don’t even call it microlots, we call them nanolots. It’s very, very special and it’s in very, very small quantities.

19grams: Do you have one lot for your geisha or do you have multiple lots throughout the farm?
Diego: We only have two separate plots of geisha, but in the same plot, we have all these different outcomes. So at the end, even though it’s only two plots, it’s a lot of work. The coffee can be good, but if it doesn’t reach that extra level, then we would have to put it somewhere else.

19grams: You’ve sent us two different processing methods – honey and natural processing. Can you tell us why you chose to process the same Geisha varietal two ways? And How many variables come into the geisha beans when you pick them?
Diego: Through the years, in Sonora we specialise in Honeys and Naturals. For geishas we tasted other geishas that were very nice in a fully washed version. We played a little bit with that, but it was not our thing. We then went for the honey geishas rather than the natural’s because the plant itself presents so many attributes.

19grams: Do you have a preference?
Diego: It will depend on the year, I guess. This year I really enjoy the honey. But last year, I really enjoyed the natural. So, even if we do everything exactly the same, we’re still working with Mother Nature’s process, and the way we dry is also made with sun and convection of the wind. So as much as we try to replicate everything exactly the same, it will always have differences.

19grams: What type of honey is the honey processed Geisha?
Diego: It’s the black honey. We keep one hundred percent of the mucilage and then we dry it in a thinner layer in the beginning. The color of the parchment wasn’t dark or more on the black side, the color of the parchment was more yellowish.

But it’s still considered a black honey by keeping one hundred percent of the mucilage. The reason why we like a thin layer, it’s because we lower the fermentation time. We didn’t want to go too wild on the honeys. And as I was saying before, I keep the natural attributes and start into the drying process a little faster rather than letting it ferment for too long. 

19grams: When you kept the whole mucilage on the honey processed coffee, did you find that that resulted in stronger flavor notes that you preferred?
Diego: I think the stronger notes come more from, either doing thicker layers or waiting to start more into the drying process. Some coffees turn out very interesting, very funky. I think, very interesting methods, but when you’re cupping those coffees, sometimes you are cupping more of the processing method rather than the actual varietal. Our goal is to enhance but to keep the raw attributes of the varietal.

That’s why in the beginning we were going for washed. Then we went to more evolved processes. The Geishas are still mild so that we don’t interfere with that beautiful natural essence.

19grams: Which steps does the drying process have? How does the Honey Process work?
Diego: We put thin, thin layer on the African beds or patios, depending on where you’re drying. So when we’re drying the coffee with all the mucilage, that’s all the honey. That’s why we call it a honey process. The beans are sticky and they are starting to ferment. So, if you do a very thick layer and you don’t move the coffee around and the day is a little cloudy, that’s not going to start drying. It’s actually going to get fermented in a nasty way. It’s going to start rotting. 

The other extreme would be you do an extremely thin layer and have it under very, very hard sun and moving it around a lot more than you should so that that coffee will dry, it won’t be damaged, but it’s going to dry too fast and then all the nice flavors of the beans are going to go away. Drying has different stages, which I like to divide into pre-drying and then drying.

Pre-drying is when coffee goes out onto the patio. It’s really not drying because it’s completely humid. I say pre-drying because it’s mostly losing its surface water and moisture. So I like to do that process a little faster because if I do it too thick, which is also, a technique, you get more wild flavors, which can be nice. But then I like to get off that stage a little faster. So not too much extra fermentation goes on. Once the texture is dry, you can pile it a little thicker and use a different strategy to dry real slow with coffee. You want to dry slow, you don’t want to speed up the process. 

19grams: What is the time it should take to dry coffee?
Diego: I like to keep it drying for at least 12 days. I like to start a little faster and then slow it down, because the coffee, it’s pre-drying and it’s actually not losing humidity then. It’s just losing all this excess water surface.
We even bring it in to our warehouse when the coffee’s like at 15/16% humidity. We keep it there, between three to five days so everything gets more uniform. We slowed the process as well and we found a better result. It’s an extra cost and we bring it back onto the patio to finish with the final dry.  

19grams: So the coffee moves around a lot?
Diego: Yes, the coffee moves around: It’s very, very expensive. But that’s what we do: it’s for people who appreciate those flavours. For someone who doesn’t know about coffee they may not realise the work that goes into it. It is funny, you have friends who don’t know about coffee and say, “I’m going to start a coffee brand”, they’ll put a nice, Koala or bird or something with a nice packaging. Then it’ll sell out of branding. But the consumer that looks for this coffee really knows and really has a deep appreciation for quality and that quality can only be done by doing everything great. And it’s very easy to do one tiny thing wrong and mess it up.

19grams: Quality wins out, especially when you provide people with the information on why it tastes so great. Why it takes this long. Why it’s this price. The final product becomes so much more valuable.

Diego: We are happy to provide the green coffee to you! Then you start the next part of the process, also with a lot of science and dedication, which is roasting and serving. The last step. Specialty coffee is a complete new world. 

19grams: I was talking to our roasters today, Anthony and Mars, and they were describing what it’s like when they roast a really important coffee, that means so much to them. They put the green beans in, they’ve started the roasting, the first roast of this batch and they feel their hearts pumping in their chest as they watch the curve go. The adrenaline, they say they get out of roasting a coffee that they value and see as super important, is immense. So I know that when the Geisha’s being roasted this week, their hearts are going to be pumping away. Really exciting!
Diego: Excellent! Thank you. 

When did you first farm the Geisha varietal?
Diego: I think it was like 2011, 2012. It’s very, very interesting because geishas get better in time: The first harvest we were so disappointed, not understanding why that varietal is like that. Some people have planted it and have been pretty good from the beginning. But I’ve heard a lot of other stories that are the same. It takes like seven years to start seeing improvements in the quality itself. It requires a special fertilisation as well. 

Could you tell us about that fertilisation from your experience at Hacienda Sonora: what goes into the ground for geisha coffees?
Diego: Well, for every coffee, we used to do 20 years ago, the different distributors will say this is the coffee formula. It has X amount of nitrogen, magnesium, potassium and minor elements. As a farmer you would call a few places and buy the best deal and just apply to the whole farm – that’s it. 

About 10 years ago, we started doing soil analysis for every plot and then we started seeing this guy is a little low on magnesium. Let’s complement and add more of what is lacking. Then about five years ago, we started planting a lot of different varietals. Well we had planted a lot of different varieties earlier, but five years ago we had a strong production of a lot of different materials. We started realizing the soil analysis says one thing but the varietal is saying another thing: They “eat” differently.

So we’ve started doing leaf analysis to the plants, because one thing is what’s available in the ground, the other thing is what is available in your leaves, right? It shows that’s what the plant really absorbed from the ground. We changed completely the way we fertilise now. Based on the absorption curve: that plant requires an amazing amount of potassium and phosphorus. So, complementing that with magnesium now it cups amazing and doesn’t have that specific disease anymore. Applying all this knowledge to the geisha, it’s getting more of what it needs and since it’s a premium varietal, we also fertilise more times.

Imagine I give you a massive plate of food and I say: here’s your food for the week. You’re going to get full and then the rest will be wasted. Using that mentality to fertilise coffee, we would do breakfast, lunch and dinner. So we are fertilising even 12 times the same plot, but small amounts over and over. That’s obviously more expensive because of the labor. But the result is amazing.

19grams: Why did you decide to plant geisha and were there any concerns when doing so?
Diego: Initially the concern was, that it’s not productive and people high expectations. So, I wasn’t too convinced and then on top of that, the first crop didn’t turn out very good.
The process is good now and we’re happy, but it’s nothing we are looking into growing or expanding too much. With the amount of work that has to go into it, low production, the price has to be almost too much for any consumer to be drinking that on the day to day basis. So, the Geisha is something very, very special for special consumers on special days.

19grams: What is the most difficult part from planting, harvesting to processing? What is the number one hardest thing to do?
Diego: Connecting the dots. All of the effort can be lost, but doing something well from beginning to end, it’s the hardest part. And aside from being farmers, we’re business owners. We’re entrepreneurs. We’ve got to invent, communicate with people from all over the world, deal with logistics, deal with employees making sure everything is according to the law and, paying taxes, doing your accounting well, if you have credit lines with the banks doing all that. Sometimes I wish it was more about the coffee itself. Sometimes you find yourself just doing too many things to keep the small business going. A small business, with all the challenges.

19grams: It has been the same with 19grams though.
Diego: It’s been very cool with 19grams to see the process of growth. When I met Sascha and visited for the first time in 2010. He would be doing everything – Sascha and Robert; they were cupping the coffees, buying the coffees, roasting the coffees, and now the company has grown.

We want to say a special thank you to Diego Guardìas and his family! We deeply appreciate his great work and we try to give the same passion every day to our customers. 

Check out Diegos great Coffees in our Webshop.