The world’s cleanest cup of coffee
How 44,000 pounds of java crossed the Atlantic by wind power
The bustling port in northern Honduras has all the trappings of our daily lives. Colorful box containers are stacked like Lego pieces, brimming with inexpensive T-shirts, palm oil, and car parts. White boxes bearing the blue Chiquita logo contain a bounty of bananas. Trucks and forklifts belch fumes and kick up dust as giant freighters fill up with cargo bound for the United States and Mexico.
Sergio Romero isn’t here for any of this.
On a scorching morning in early February, he climbs into a van and slips on an orange mesh vest and blue hard hat. The vehicle winds its way through the port, past towering cranes and containers, until it reaches the place where the concrete lot ends, giving way to the flat blue bay.
That’s where he finds the Avontuur, a vessel built long before cargo ships and steel boxes came to dominate the global economy, and many decades before Romero was born. This ship is unlike any other in Puerto Cortés.
With its two masts and canvas sails, the Avontuur reached Honduras by harnessing the wind, not burning the sludgy bunker fuel that is the mainstay of most cargo ships. A sparse crew of sunbaked sailors guided the 97-year-old schooner from Europe through the Caribbean Sea, collecting and delivering small cargo along the way.
Romero, a coffee farmer in southwestern Honduras, hops out of the van and strides toward the Avontuur, where stevedores and port officials are looking on with curiosity. What was once a common way to move cargo is now a strange blast from the past. Everyone snaps a selfie.
Romero sighs with relief. After days of delays, the ship has finally arrived.
Workers swing open the doors of a red container, revealing 290 bags of coffee piled from floor to ceiling. The coffee hails from Romero’s cooperative in the mountain town of Corquín. Soon these bags will sit in the belly of the Avontuur on their way to roasters in Bremen, Germany, more than 5,000 nautical miles away.
Romero has come to bid his beans farewell.
This 44,000-pound load of coffee already has the hallmarks of a top-notch crop: certified organic and fair trade. Now it can boast one of the lowest carbon footprints of any java on the planet.
“Joining this project was like contributing our own little grain of sand to help mitigate climate change,” Romero says. “Man can’t live without nature. So we can’t keep destroying it.”
Timbercoast, which owns and operates the Avontuur, is one of a tiny but growing group of sail cargo companies aspiring to transform shipping by bringing old technologies into the modern era.
Cornelius Bockermann, a German captain who has worked for maritime companies in Nigeria and Australia, bought the aging vessel in 2014. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, he transformed the Avontuur — whose name means “adventure” in Dutch — into a modern commercial ship.
He drew his inspiration in part from Fair Transport, a Dutch company that helped pioneer the sustainable shipping movement some 15 years ago. That company’s Tres Hombres schooner is making a coffee run of its own this spring from Colombia to the Netherlands. Similar, smaller projects are cropping up in Costa Rica, Greece, the U.S., and beyond.
“There has to be a new way of shipping,” explains Klaus Kriening, a member of the Avontuur’s crew and a master blacksmith, on the sweltering February morning in Honduras.
The German sailor, rumpled and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, watches from the deck as a crane lowers palettes of coffee bags into the vessel’s cargo hold. A new group of sailors climbs aboard, mingling with the permanent crew and exploring their new home. It feels a bit like the first day of summer camp.
IMAGE COURTESY OF TIMBERCOAST
Nanna Loumand, who hails from Denmark and is a certified merchant seaman, effortlessly navigates around ropes and tarps on the ship’s narrow deck. Loumand had seen the Avontuur only a few weeks earlier in Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe, where she was working as a flight attendant for Norwegian Airlines. That’s when she decided to quit her job and join the team in Puerto Cortés.
“You know that feeling you get in your stomach, like butterflies, when you’re really excited as a kid? I had that when I saw the ship,” she says the previous afternoon on Playa Coca-Cola, the brown-sand beach near the port. She and a few other sailors sat in flimsy plastic chairs and sipped cold beers — their last drops of alcohol until arriving in Germany at the end of April.
“I can go on those ships out there,” Loumand says, pointing to a towering Maersk container ship on the horizon. “But the passion is not for container ships. The passion is for sailing.”
Proponents of sailing vessels as cargo ships know their relatively tiny, infrequent deliveries will do little to erase the shipping industry’s growing carbon footprint. Compared to conventional shipping, sailing is substantially more expensive, takes much longer, and is rife with unpredictable twists.
But replacing cargo ships isn’t entirely the point, according to Lucy Gilliam of Fair Transport.
The bigger goal is to draw consumers’ attention to shipping’s growing yet largely hidden environmental impact. Land dwellers see plenty of power plants and vehicles, but few interact with the fuel-guzzling freighters that carry our goods.
“We really have to think about what we’re shipping and why, and how. That’s not an everyday conversation,” Gilliam says by phone.
About 90 percent of global trade moves by cargo ship each year, amounting to roughly $4 trillion in goods — from the food in your fridge and the car in your driveway to the clothes in your closet and the phone in your hand.
A big part of cargo shipping’s environmental toll comes from burning bunker fuel. The thick, tar-like fuel is a soup of harmful pollutants: carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and soot.
While the world’s ocean-going vessels emit a relatively small slice of total global carbon emissions — about 3 percent — that share is likely to soar in coming decades, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated in 2014.
Unlike power plants and automobiles, cargo ships don’t face any restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions or mandates for clean energy, at least for now. And more fuel-burning ships are expected to make more deliveries as global demand for consumer goods grows.
Shipping and aviation officials have argued that their industries are too complex to comply with carbon regulations. That rationale helped exclude ships and planes from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which commits nearly 200 nations to limiting global warming.
This argument is wearing thin.
If the industry doesn’t drastically shake things up, its carbon footprint could rise by between 50 and 250 percent by 2050 from today’s levels, the IMO estimated.
That’s not to say shipping companies aren’t making real environmental progress. Mainstream cargo companies, technology startups, and engineering giants alike are busy developing new tools and designs that help ships reduce fuel use, cut idling times, and shorten their routes.
Still, sail cargo supporters like Thomas Riedel-Fricke say they’re not waiting for shipping to turn itself around.
Riedel-Fricke, who spent four decades working with conventional cargo companies, joined Timbercoast as a logistics advisor in 2016.
“Having seen quite a lot of aspects of this business, this is what I now find the most appealing,” he says by phone from Bremen, a prominent port town in Germany.
For all its virtue, however, Timbercoast initially struggled to find companies willing to ship cargo via the Avontuur. In late July 2016, when the ship embarked on its maiden voyage from Elsfleth, Germany, it wasn’t clear if the cargo hold would return full. So Riedel-Fricke and his business partner Maik Hembluck decided to step in.
Coffee was an obvious choice for their first cargo purchase. Bremen is Europe’s main import hub for the beans, and local experts soon connected the men with Molinos de Honduras, an exporter in Central America. Soon Riedel-Fricke found himself in southwestern Honduras, searching for coffee that could reflect Timbercoast’s environmental and social standards.
He found his beans in the town of Corquín, where Sergio Romero and his brother Walter grow coffee. They also run Cafés Finos de Corquín, or CAFICO, a cooperative of more than 800 local producers.
Here, hundreds of families own small plantations, while thousands of others work in the picking, processing, and packing of coffee beans. “Coffee is part of our culture here. It’s part of our life,” Sergio Romero says one morning in late January, steering his SUV up a steep, muddy path on his coffee farm.
A thick white fog blankets the undulating rows of deep-green coffee trees, planted as high as 5,400 feet above sea level. Red and green cherries, which contain the beans, hide beneath the leaves. Sprinkled throughout the 300 acres are fruit trees — oranges, limes, avocados — that give the coffee a citric aroma. Discarded husks of coffee cherries serve as organic fertilizer.
In one field, three men in tall rubber boots deftly grasp dark red coffee cherries and tug the fruit off the thin tree branches. They swiftly toss handfuls of cherries into wicker baskets strapped to their waists. The trio is among the 140 seasonal workers who comb the Romeros’ fields from November to February during the harvest.
The cherries will next travel in the back of a pick-up through the narrow streets of Corquín to CAFICO’s processing plant, where they will be washed, sorted, de-pulped, dried in the sunlight, and poured into woven plastic bags. A small array of rooftop solar panels supplies electricity to the main office building.
Beyond providing a place to process coffee, CAFICO also offers agricultural training to producers and sets fair labor standards for its participants. Farmers learn to work around — not chop down — the surrounding forests, to protect natural water sources, and to avoid using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
In his fog-covered fields, Romero pushes through dense rows of head-high trees and marvels at the branches sagging with heavy clusters of cherries.
Just four years ago, more than half of his trees were killed by rust fungus, known in Spanish as roya. The disease has spread across Central America due to rising temperatures and infrequent rainfall, two effects of human-driven climate change. This year, however, the rains have returned and the harvest is so bountiful that farmers can’t find enough workers to pick the cherries.
Romero worked with Thomas Riedel-Fricke in December 2016 to assemble a blend of gourmet beans for the Avontuur. A month later, a semi-truck picked up the 44,000 pounds of coffee from CAFICO’s facility and drove four hours north to a warehouse in San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial center.
Outside the Molinos de Honduras warehouse, security guards roam the grounds holding rifles. Inside, the dust of dried coffee shells swirls in the air. Men in sweat-soaked T-shirts stack bags of coffee into piles, like bricks in the wall of a fortress.
Beans are dried again and stripped of their husks so all that remains is a green pebble-sized core. These are further sorted and weighed, then poured into 152-pound jute fiber bags. For bulk shipments, a bazooka-like machine blasts the coffee into enormous plastic bags that hold nearly 46,000 pounds of beans.
On an afternoon in late January, Carlos Umanzor, who handles specialty coffee orders at Molinos de Honduras, watches as workers pour the Germany-bound beans into green plastic sacks. These are then slipped inside jute bags and vacuum-sealed to preserve the beans during their long journey.
It’s a bit of an experiment, Umanzor explains. Normally, his company sends coffee bags on container ships, which can reach Europe in just a few weeks. The Avontuur’s trip will last nearly three months, leaving the beans more exposed to the elements.
The long travel time isn’t the only detail separating this low-carbon coffee from conventional cargo.
The coffee also costs substantially more to ship: A larger vessel brimming with box containers might charge around $3,700 to move 44,000 pounds of coffee from Honduras to Germany. Timbercoast, by contrast, charges a premium to fill its limited space: about $43,000 for the same amount, Riedel-Fricke estimates.
Roasting companies and coffee drinkers in Europe will bear those higher costs. Riedel-Fricke expects to charge roasters about $11.70 for every kilogram of green CAFICO coffee, or twice the price of run-of-the-mill beans.
But Riedel-Fricke says it’s worth the expense. As he sees it, this coffee is significantly cheaper when it comes to environmental costs. “All the shipping we are doing today has another price,” he says from Bremen. “It’s not a monetary price, but a price that’s paid by the people and by the environment.”
The Avontuur differs from other freighters in a third way: Punctuality. Just ask Frank Reese, the general manager of Molinos de Honduras.
The morning of Feb. 1, Reese is working the phones from his small office in the back of the San Pedro Sula facility. Switching effortlessly between Spanish, English, and German, he’s trying to figure out when the Avontuur will finally arrive in Puerto Cortés.
The schooner was supposed to reach Honduras on Jan. 28, but its gaff broke. (The pole is used to extend the upper edge of a sailing ridge, which is needed to harness the wind.) The ship’s crew managed a makeshift repair. But then the winds turned against them, pushing the vessel back out of the bay when it desperately needed to get in.
Plans kept shifting. The Avontuur was eventually due to arrive the night of Jan. 31 and load the coffee the next morning.
But Reese was hearing conflicting reports: Either the ship gets in today, or it arrives sometime tomorrow. Romero, who drove up from Corquín, clutches a cup of freshly brewed coffee and waits with the rest of the groggy team in the San Pedro Sula office.
Everyone is nervous about running out of time. The Avontuur has to get the coffee and leave by 2 p.m. on Feb. 2; after that, another vessel will take its parking spot in the port. Finally, with the deadline approaching, the sailors make a painful last-minute call to drop the small diesel motor used for emergencies to speed their passage. The kick of fossil fuel gets them to port just in time.
At dawn on Feb. 2, the last possible day, Reese and Romero climb into a pick-up truck and drive the hour north to Puerto Cortés. As the black sky slowly gives way to pink clouds, a semi-truck hauls the 290 bags of coffee through the port’s security gates.
By morning, the men await anxiously at a separate security checkpoint, the sun already baking the black pavement. On the other side of the chain-link fences, past the towers of Lego-like box containers, sailors on the Avontuur begin peeling back the wooden planks covering the ship’s cargo hold.
A passenger van finally pulls up, whisking the group to the vessel. Fatigue and frustration quickly give way to relief and excitement as the coffee drops into the ship’s hold. After only a few hours of loading, the ship is ready to sail back into the bay, bound for the Bahamas.
Once in Germany, the coffee will continue along the low-carbon supply chain. Bicycle couriers in Bremen will ferry the bags to a nearby warehouse. Next, trains running on German electricity — about one-third of which comes from renewable energy — will take the bags to roasters in other parts of Germany and the U.K.
Riedel-Fricke, the coffee’s buyer, acknowledged that hiring the Avontuur was not a particularly easy or cost-effective choice. Still, he said he’ll probably buy more coffee on the vessel’s next trans-Atlantic journey.
“With the Avontuur, we are not standing up and saying this is a solution for the entire transport industry,” he says. “It’s about sending a signal, which hopefully will result in more people thinking about carbon-neutral ways of ocean transport.”
At the Honduran port, as the crew covers up the cargo hold, Reese and Romero hop back into the air-conditioned van, which feels like an oasis in an industrial desert.
“Misión cumplida,” Reese sighs, plunking down on the seat. “Mission accomplished.”