TRIP REPORT: EL SALVADOR – JAN 21-28, 2013
Some of my favorite coffees year after year come from the tiny, but very diverse country of El Salvador. The cup quality is outstanding from the farms we work with, but perhaps even more, the relationships we have built as a company over the years with them are perhaps the strongest Direct Trade relationships.
So needless to say I was excited, and honored when I was sent to represent PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. on our annual harvest season farm visits. Going with me were Ezra Anderson, our long-time delivery driver and barista at the Flying Monkey, and Evan Inatome, owner of Elixr Coffee in Philadelphia. I think they were every bit as excited as I to get there, and delve into our jam packed itinerary.
I will be issuing my report in several segments, because otherwise it’d take all day to read.
J. Hill Beneficio
Fincas La Illusion, Los Andes, and Las Brumas: Ernesto Menendez
Fincas Kilimanjaro, and Los Andes: Aida Battle
We woke up early on Wednesday morning and headed back to San Salvador where we were set to meet our next producer at Viva Espresso in La Gran Villa. By the way, if you’re ever in San Salvador, they’re pretty awesome, being the home of the last 6 El Salvador national barista champions, and the home of 2011 World Barista Champion, Alejandro Mendez.
We had a bit of coffee, and soon enough we were met by Ernesto Menendez, owner of Finca Las Brumas, Finca La Ilusion, and Finca Los Andes. Switching our bags to his vehicle, and bidding farewell to Lucia, we shot off to the west/northwest toward Santa Ana.
This was my first time to meet Ernesto, and I must say I really enjoyed our drive and getting to hear his story.
Ernesto comes from a coffee background. His father, brother, and lots of family have been tied to coffee for some time. His story is very interesting though. Rather than just shooting straight into having or running a farm, he took a tack through the beneficios in El Salvador. While working there he ended up being a big part of Quality Control process and really learning to recognize outstanding coffees. Thus, when he DID buy a farm, he knew exactly what he wanted to try, with the goal being outstanding coffee.
He has succeeded wonderfully, as evidenced by his Cup of Excellence track record and wins.
We didn’t have enough daylight to get up to La Ilusion, so he took us to Las Brumas. It was a long a bumpy journey, but what we were met with was very interesting to see.
We got there in mid-afternoon, when the pickers are done, and beginning to sort their pick before the pay scales are brought up. Now, everyone knows the idea of sorting out for just red. But there is a lot of difference between reds. Bright red? Blood red? Burgundy?
Ernesto holds his pickers out until what is on the tree is almost PURPLE! Some of the fruit has begun the raisining process on the branch! What his workers were pulling out as reject, or his seconds lot, would be considered the best harvest ever seen on some farms. I have never seen such a thing. But the proof is in the performance of the cups. Coffees from his farms are often lauded as being some of the juiciest, and heaviest sweet character El Salvadorans; almost hinting toward a bit of natural character, even though they are full washed primarily.
I was definitely intrigued, and excited that we were going to go back to Santa Ana to cup some samples at his house.
This was a pretty sweet cupping set up. We were behind his house, outside in a covered patio next to the pool, and the evening was beautiful. I was clearly not in Kansas anymore. (sorry, I had to work that one in once).
He lined up several samples for us. Bourbon from Las Brumas, a blend of Bourbon and Pacamara from Las Brumas (the COE winning lot from the year before), a honey process of the same, Bourbon from finca Alaska, and Bourbon from Los Andes.
While the samples were clearly very fresh and needed a lot of rest still, I was very pleased at what I tasted. The La Ilusion was quite nice! I had notes of Raspberry, vanilla, and soft caramel and a very round body. But since it was fresh, there was of course an element of “greenish-ness” that was to be expected. I would imagine that by the time we receive real samples, this will be an outstanding cup.
To be honest, my favorite cup was the Las Brumas blend which we didn’t carry last year. I could definitely see how it was a COE#1. Even fresh, it was balanced, nuanced, and killer sweet.
Ernesto’s farms and selection practices were really quite educational to see and vastly different from other farms I have been exposed to.
We rolled out, and headed to the guest house at the J. Hill Beneficio, where we were officially hosted by Aida. Bidding farewell to our friend Ernesto, we dropped our bags and followed Aida onto the property.
There were a few other coffee adventurers staying at the mill while we were as well. First we went to say hi to a friend of mine from the competition circuit, Rita Kaminski. She was down there training a nice young lady, Iris, for the El Salvador Barista Championship. I was asked to put my judging hat on at some point in our visit to give another perspective to help Iris grow. Gladly, I did that the next night.
Further on we ran into Tim and Jeff from Counter Culture Coffee. They were here working with Aida at J. Hill’s Micro wet-mill. This is a seperate, very small wet mill designed to handle extremely small lots of coffee, and experimental processes.
The CCC crew was spending a week down here to just explore the fermentation processes in coffee. Admittedly, some of the things they were trying would be absolutely impossible at this point to justify doing on any sort of scale, but the idea of exploration and constant learning is great! Its through trials like this that we all grow as an industry and how we discover new techniques and gems that eventually we all celebrate.
It wasn’t until just 5-7 years ago that Central America really began to do much of anything with Natural or Honey processed coffees, and those are crazy celebrated now-a-days.
Introductions done, we convened back at the house, killed some pupusas, and headed to bed.
In the morning we met up with one of the managers of J. Hill for a tour of the facilities. This is a pretty large scale beneficio. Each night, all night, big trucks full of cherry from the lands around Santa Ana roll in to have the coffee wet milled and processed. It not all micro lots and top end stuff either. There’s a lot of C-Market and big Mermaid style coffees rolling out here as well. Very educational to watch and compare the difference between a large operation like this, and a smaller operation like Las Mercedes.
Also, J. Hill has a big dry milling operation. This is where the coffee, having been dried on the patios, and rested in the parchment, is finally hulled, leaving us with what we know as green coffee. The process of the sorting is quite impressive. Screen size sorting, the going through a photo sensor to detect deformities and odd coloration, and then through the conveyor belt of hand sorting. It is A LOT of effort to make sure that the best coffees, are only comprised of the best coffees. I think it was pretty mind blowing for the guys who hadn’t seen the operation before, and personally I was reminded again of how many hard working hands go into each and every cup of great coffee.
After our tour, we loaded up with Aida and her dog Chief to go check out her neck of the woods. If you don’t know about Aida and the quality of her farms, I don’t know where you’ve been. She’s amazing and her farms are very highly celebrated, and with good reason. She only competed in the COE one year, won it, and has stayed out since. But the quality of the coffee definitely hasn’t been stagnant. It gets better and better every year through her careful stewardship.
Driving up toward Fince Kilimanjaro, we saw the tell-tale signs of Roya again. And in some places, it was absolute devastation. Clearly this plague was not isolated. More concerning was the elevation it was entering. The rust has always existed, but generally has been a lower elevation problem. What we are beginning to see is its hand creeping up and up and up the mountainside. I’m no environmental scientist, but it looks to be some pretty compelling evidence of changes in our world climate that are hard to ignore.
Finca Kilimanjaro looked great from where we were. Aida admitted that there are a few spots that were hit, but by and large this farm was in good shape. A couple of her others though were blasted, which is terrible news.
Aida has always taken great pride in having a completely certified organic operation. She is going to lose that after this year however.
The organic treatments for the rust are nowhere near as strong, or as effective as she needs. And thus she was faced with a choice: lose the organic certification, take decisive action, and only lose about 2 years of production; or stay organic, do everything she could which would probably require a complete stumping of a couple of her farms, and lose about 5 years.
It’s a hard choice. She has devoted so much effort into her organic practices, and really created an amazing example of doing coffee the right way. But eventually reality has to kick in, that this is a business. If her farm is not producing, neither she, nor anyone who works the farms for her, has income. It’s not just the trees that wither, it’s the people.
This is a prime example of one of the points of our Direct Trade principles:
“We know that great coffee can be produced through sustainable methods. We only work with farmers who think long and hard about economic, social, and environmental conditions of their farms and their communities. Sustainable does not have to mean organic, but it certainly could. “
Often I am questioned why we don’t demand organic certifications for our coffee partners. This is why. We look for people who want to do things the cleanest, greenest, and most sustainable way. But if the only road left is to take drastic measures, they MUST be allowed to do so without being punished by us as a roaster. Sometimes sustainability has to mean the sustainability of the farm’s operation, the viability of its production for years to come, and its people who care for it. Life is full of gray areas.
Enough on my soap box though.
What we did see at Kilimanjaro was a tremendous pick, absolutely gorgeous. Aida’s strategy on selection was another new one to me, but it too made a lot of sense. She doesn’t go as Purple as Ernesto, but hits the two shades below it. Blood red, and burgundy. Once again, beautiful bright reds that other farms would celebrate are being shot off as seconds, and just not good enough. Awesome!
Her thought is simple on focusing on the two colors, and it is evident in the cups. Blood Red coffee = acidity/citrus. Burgundy = sweetness. Its amazing how sometimes things just do make sense. Duh.
We returned to the mill in the afternoon. That night we watched Iris do 4 or so run-throughs of her performance, and I provided some Tech Judging feedback. The language barrier was tough, but with the help of Aida and Mario (the manager of J Hill) we got the messages across. Rita had clearly been working the heck out of her and she was showing some real skill. As always though, there is always room for improvement and I gave her my feedback and encouragement. I wish Iris the very best!
The next morning it was time to pile in and head back to San Salvador and wait for our next hosts.
And this crew, I was REALLY excited to see again!
-to be continued…