EL SALVADOR, March 2013

Written and Photographed by Groundwork's Director of Coffee Quality and Education, Steven Lee

Every opportunity to go to a producing country is an amazing experience. It is a strong sense of community knowing that even though you come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, the bond of coffee and making coffee better is a common goal that each person you meet on your journey is striving for. - Steven Lee

Early in March 2013, I traveled to El Salvador with a group of coffee professionals in conjunction with the Roaster’s Guild and the SCAA.  The goal of the trip was to meet coffee farmers and learn a little bit more about coffee production; how things are done, what innovations are going on, what types of processing and what obstacles are being faced by the coffee farmer.  Each time one goes to a country of origin, it is fascinating to re-discover how similar the world of coffee is yet at the same time, how different.  Each country has its own idiosyncrasies on how they process, what the organizational structure of the farm/ mill(s) are, what variety of coffee they prefer to plant, and a general philosophy about coffee as their livelihood.

This year was a particularly trying one for farmers and their livelihood. A plague of Coffee Leaf Rust had besieged most of Central America and I was curious to see what effect it was having on production, as well as the impact it was having on the coffee industry as a whole.

A couple of other selling points to this trip was that it was being led by one of the great coffee luminaries of our time; Peter Giuliano, current director of Symposium for the SCAA and former head coffee buyer for Counter Culture coffee and Emilio Lopez Diaz, Executive Council Member of the Roaster’s Guild, owner of Finca El Manzano in El Salvador and a farmer with some pretty interesting ideas on how to grow and process coffee.  To top things off, there would also be a guest appearance by Aida Batlle, another El Salvadorian coffee farmer and processor with some pretty cutting edge techniques and ideas about coffee.  Since the early 2000‘s, Aida has been exploring indigenous African coffee varieties and processing methods and their effect on flavor as it pertains to the climate of El Salvador.  It was an opportunity not to be missed.

I arrived a day early and got a chance to see some sites around San Salvador, the capital City.  I met up with a few fellow roasters and we embarked on a long day’s bus journey to a local market, San Martin Plaza, Joya de Cerén (often referred to as the Pompeii of the Americas), and San Andreas an archeological site with only 5% of its ancient pyramids excavated.  The sense of history was amazing as was the beauty of the landscape and sites around us. Upon returning to the hotel, the day ended with an introduction to the rest of my travel companions over dinner.

San Martin Plaza, San Salvador         San Martin market, San Salvador         San Andres Pyramids, El Salvador

San Andres archeological site, El Salvador

Early the next morning, the beginning of the coffee farm tour that was to last the next 5 days would begin. These days would be filled with long bus rides, long hours hiking in rugged forested terrain, bumpy off road rides in the back of pick-up trucks, hot and humid days, chilly and windy nights, and coffee....lots of coffee. 

We travelled throughout the whole of the country visiting 5 farms (Los Alpes, Los Pirineos, Los Planes, El Manzano,&  Aguas Calliente), 3 mills (Viva Agua, J.Hill/ Las Tres Puertas, & El Bourbollon, and 1 cooperative (Santa Adelaida).  It was a well-curated trip as all of the places that we visited had something different and insightful to offer. Here is a breakdown of the farms and mills that we encountered.

Finca Los Alpes is the birthplace of the Pacamara variety (a hybrid of the Pacas and Maragogype varieties). The breeding of this hybrid was masterminded inside the Genetic Department of the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research (ISIC) back in 1958 when the institute began a coffee breeding improvement program using hybridization among many varieties. One of these experiments resulted in an outstanding hybrid by artificially crossing the Pacas and Red Maragogipe varietals at their fourth generation. The Pacamara seedlings were transplanted from the lab to a plot of land, referred to as “El Banco”  on Los Alpes.  In addition to Pacamara, Los Alpes also grows Bourbon and Typica varieties.

Finca Los Pirineos has the distinction of having the cleanest working mill that I have ever seen.  The farm was also very impressive for the work that they are doing. Farm owner Gilberto Baraona is running a beautiful operation growing mainly Pacamara and Bourbon elite varieties; he is processing them using a myriad of different techniques including raised african drying beds, de-pulping machines, extra/secondary wash in addition to fermentation, and shade drying, to coax every bit of nuance and flavor out of the coffee that he produces. In addition to the processing experiments that he is undertaking, Gilberto also has a nursery cultivating varieties from Kenya and Ethiopia, including Geisha for production on the farm. A 42 variety genetic seed bank including some pretty interesting varieties like: Rume Sudan, Ramon, Ipar 59 and Serpen Florens are also on the premises.

     Ethiopia varietals nursery at Los Planes coffee farm, El Salvador           Washed raw coffee bean

Solar driers raised coffee beds El Salvador

All in all, I think Gilberto’s hard work has payed off, since it was universally agreed that a Pacamara variety Los Pirineos was the highest scoring coffee of the trip...topping the scales at 94 points for me (and that doesn’t happen too often)...This farm has also won the Cup of Excellence (CoE) in El Salvador 5 times.

Finca Los Planes was yet another amazing farm, high up in the Northwest of the country reaching up to 1700m.  The amount of time and care put into lot separation at this farm was truly amazing.  Each lot was carefully sifted through before going through the wet mill, then de-pulped and set out on patios to dry. Some of the lots were placed in solar driers (raised beds covered with plastic clear plastic to insulate the heat, promote air circulation and keep down moisture.....this practice is effective, but not in wide use).

Pacamarra coffee forest, El Salvador  New coffee buds, Los Planes, El Salvador  Pre-sorting coffee by hand, Los Planes, El Salvador

Sergio Ticas Reyes, the farm owner inherited this farm from his grandfather and has continued pushing the quality forward with the cultivation of Pacamara and Bourbon varieties.  In 2006 a Pacamara from Los Planes took 2nd place in El Salvador’s CoE scoring and average of 93.52.  The farm is managed using fairly traditional techniques, but the attention to detail and focus on quality clearly sets this farm and its coffee apart.

    Putting pre-sorted coffee in to washing tank          Solar coffee dryers, Los Planes, El Salvador

    Drying coffee patio, Los Planes, El Salvador          Parchment coffee on drying patio, Los Planes, El Salvador

Finca Agua Caliente was a beautiful farm growing mainly Bourbon and San Pacho (a Colombian variety) varieties.  Situated 850-1450m above sea-level, this farm had a first rate mill and cupping lab, and was a good example of a fairly traditional coffee farm producing quality coffee.

El Salvador's Best Coffees

Finca El Manzano, owned and operated by Emilo Lopez Diaz is an interesting farm to say the least.  Raised in El Salvador and schooled in America, Emilio definitely has interesting ideas about cultivating coffee that are far from traditional.  His experiments with “Sun Grown” coffee (grown without the use of shade trees to speed development and produciton, and adding organic acids during the fermentation process are pretty radical ideas for such a traditional industry.  El Manzano is also a wet mill that buys cherries from neighboring farmers and is pioneering a method of grading the cherry that is purchased to give fair prices to the farmers and to promote quality (better quality cherry=better prices paid).

Sun Grown coffee, El Manzano, El Salvador

Santa Adelaida was the only cooperative that we visited on this trip. It was also the only Certified Organic farm that we encountered.  Founded in 1980 as part of the government land reformation, Santa Adelaida is comprised of 122 small farmers spanning 2400 acres of land.  The cooperative provides resources and stability to this group of farmers, while maintaining and upholding strict guidelines to maintain it’s Organic Certification status.  It seems a particularly troubling task given the state of coffee during this Coffee Leaf Rust crisis. On a positive note, the cooperative also helps to organize the care and maintenance of other self-sustainable crops and fields designated for livestock.  Over 600 acres of land is set aside for this use.

         Santa Adelaide Coffee Cooperative, El Salvador      Coffee color chart, Santa Adelaida Cooperative, El Salvador      Rainforest Alliance Certified Santa Adelaida coffee,  El Salvador

In El Salvador, not all farmers have wet mills.  Oftentimes farmers have to sell their cherries to centralized wet mills to be sold as a stock lot for the mill, or they can collaborate directly with the mill to have their lots separated and sold as an estate coffee.  We visited 3 centralized mills. 

Viva Agua, owned by the Pacas family, was a very clean and organized mill utilizing its resources to track every lot of coffee so that it is completely traceable, from farm to lot.  They also had a cupping lab, to monitor the quality of the coffee that they produce and create blends for a more stable profile to be sold to their customers. This was a fascinating concept...creating blends at the mill from a quality control perspective and marketing those blends as a brand unto themselves.

Drying patio in Viva Agua. El Salvador

    Hand sorting parchment coffee in Viva Agua, El Salvador     Parchment coffee, Vivagua

This would not be the only instance of this; J.Hill and El Borbollon also use this technique at their mills.  Viva Agua also partnered up with the National School of Agriculture in El Salvador in developing a certification and curriculum for coffee.

El Borbollon is another mill with a very good reputation. I had worked with them previously, but this being my first visit to El Salvador, it was nice to meet Eduardo Alverez (owner) and Chele Pacas (QC manager) in person. El Borbollon has been responsible for milling some of the best coffee coming out of El Salvador, including several top spots in the CoE. They produce many Single Estate coffees, but their main focus is on growing the El Borbollon profile. All of the coffees here are meticulously managed as Chele and a team of cuppers taste all of the individual lots that come in and from there decide how to blend the lots (and farms) to meet the exacting profile that El Borbollon is known for. 

       El Borbollon coffee mill, El Salvador

J.Hill/ Tres Puertas Beneficio mill is one of the oldest mills in El Salvador, being founded in 1896.  Aside from being a mill, it also has the first water treatment plant in the country, a nursery of over 100,000 coffee trees, a first rate cupping and training lab, and is home to the Aida Batlle Selection of coffee.

J. Hill coffee nursery, El Salvador     J. Hill Cupping, El Salvador

J. Hill Kenya coffee washing process, El Salvador     J.Hill coffee drying patio, El Salvador

Aida is a coffee giant. In the early 2000’s she started experimenting with indigenous African coffee varieties and processing methods in El Salvador.  Her three farms produce some of the best coffee in El Salvador and she personally oversees some of the milling for specific clients at J.Hill. She continues to work with the processing and variety experiments moving the shape and profile of coffee in El Salvador forward.  She is also a very grounded and thoughtful coffee professional explaining that in order to purchase some of the experimentally processed coffee, one must also purchase some of the “traditionally” processed coffee in order to understand the context from which the experiment is moving away from.  This quest to master technique, knowledge and craftsmanship, with an emphasis on both tradition and innovation make her a coffee pioneer.  During the visit we got a chance to taste and witness some of her processing experiments and the results were pretty cool to say the least.

One of the factors looming on this trip was the presence of the Coffee Leaf Rust outbreak. Coffee Leaf Rust, or La Roya, is caused by a fungus, Hemileia Vastatrix. This fungus causes coffee leaves to fall, starving out the plant and drastically reducing cherry production.

Coffee Leaf Rust, El Salvador

This is the same disease that wiped out all coffee production on the island of Sri Lanka in the 1860’s.  From Sri Lanka, it spread to Java. By the 1970’s Roya had spread to Brazil and by the ’80’s Central America.  Up until now, the disease has been manageable, but currently it is the worst outbreak seen. Several countries including Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador have declared a state of national emergency due to this outbreak. Some say that this outbreak came about because of climate change, some say it was the irregular rainy season, some say it is a timing issue (having a full outbreak during harvest time means that there is little one can do to combat the blight).  In any case, during the trip it was fairly present.  Some spoke about it as if it were a pest and didn’t have much affect on their production, while others spoke as if it were a fierce enemy. Throughout the visit, one could see skeletal coffee trees, especially at the lower altitudes, a harsh reminder of just how fragile the balance of the environment is. They are predicting about 30% loss of production this year and about the same if not more next year due to this outbreak.  It was the first time that I had been in an area devastated by disease and it left a lasting impression. In April, an organization called World Coffee Research hosted a summit to discuss Roya, its effects and next steps. This is an ongoing problem for an industry that I love and have spent a lot of time in, and I am glad that there are those who are looking forward to solutions to keep this plague in check.

Every opportunity to go to a producing country is an amazing experience. It is a strong sense of community knowing that even though you come from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, the bond of coffee and making coffee better is a common goal that each person you meet on your journey is striving for.  Each farmer you meet tells you that he has the best coffee, their sense of pride is ever-present. And if you can in some way help that farmer, through feedback, observation, or just friendship, get to the next level and improve their coffee, then the journey is worth it.  All of those long hours on cramped planes and busses, in the back of pick-up trucks breathing in dust and smog, trudging through unsteady ground and mosquito-infested forests....it all makes for a good trip.