El Salvador – 6 amazing days

April 24th, 2006

(warning – long post!)
[UPDATED 03/05/06]

Arrived back from El Salvador this morning. Being the wrong size for planes I haven’t really slept so everything is a little bit dreamy.

No doubt I will come back to this report in time and update it, rewrite bits and add more photos as they come in from other people.

So….. I was invited to go to El Salvador as a guest of the Consejo (The El Salvadoran Coffee Council) due to the fact that two of their coffees featured very heavily in my blend that won the UKBC this year. For a variety of reasons the trip had to be the week after Easter and had to be relatively short (six days including travelling). Having picked us up from the airport and whisked us to the hotel, it became apparent that it was going to be a busy few days as the schedule was revealed. Starting early wasn’t a problem all week as my body never quite got the time right. This was my first visit to origin. I don’t think it could have been any better. Also waiting for us at the hotel was a box full of gifts from the Consejo with all sorts of everything coffee related in their. Their generosity throughout the week was amazing and very humbling.

I learnt a great deal about not only the current situation, the past problems within the country, but also about the varietals specific to El Salvador and how they came about – the Pacas and Pacamaras in particular. This is probably deserving of a seperate post…

Most of the time we were looked after by Luis Rodriguez, who works for the Consejo. He’s been working in coffee for about 5 years, was great company, acted as host, guide, translator (I really need to learn more Spanish, it drove me nuts to be so unable to communicate!) and was an all round solid bloke. You can hear Nick talking to him on the portafilter podcast from the SCAA show floor.

Day 1

After a quick breakfast briefing on the current state of specialty coffee (something I will write more about later) we headed off from San Salvador to the Santa Ana region. The first farm I would visit would be San Roberto, which produced the winning coffee at the Cup of Excellence 2005. We were met by not only Don Lito, who owned the farm, but Alfredo who owned the mill that produced the coffee. San Roberto is by no means a big farm – 4 or 5 hectares. It is part of a larger plot divided into six. Alfredo was a great guy, very funny and kept us entertained as we wandered around. The eruption last year had affected the farm, and many more around it, and there had been some overly heavy rains last year which had also caused a problem. Alfredo explained the effects of this as well as telling some stories about Duane from Stumptown who has recently visited the farm too.

San Salvador in the morning:

A coffee flower:

Alfredo smelling the soil:

It’s an unusual story behind the coffee. Lito had every intention of selling the farm but was convinced to harvest the crop this year and submit it anyway. The farm itself had not really been looked after and yet was able to produce a great coffee. I found this quite surprising – to see the extent that nature alone can produce a coffee like this one. With the proceeds from the auction he is now passionate and enthusiastic about his coffee, reinvesting in his farm and his future crops. I can only wonder what it is capable of producing in the futre.

Don Lito:

The group (I am the wrong size!):

After lunch, over which a variety of interesting things were discussed – it is always nice to hear what farmers have to think of things like Fair Trade and where their coffee ends up, we head to the Alfredo’s mill called Rio Zarco. Alfredo mills coffee for a hundreds of very small farms. Everything they do is washed, and I have to say I was staggered by the size of the drying patios for what is described as a mid-sized mill. It was fascinating to be guided through the process. Whilst I knew very well what step follows which it really is very different to see it – you understand so much more completely. Everybody says that it is different once you see it, and whilst I often put this down to the romance people find in coffee or down to general waxing lyrical (due to the fact that I hadn’t been to see it, and didn’t like that I was deprived of an understanding I suppose). The annoying thing is that they were all right. It is different.

Anyway – Rio Zarco was great, interesting to see such huge quantities of parchment coffee stored (I’ve never really been around any sort of coffee warehousing so this was quite mind boggling). I also tried my hand at working on the conveyor belt for hand screening the coffee. The constant motion of the belt gave me a bit of motion sickness and I looked horribly slow and malcoordinated compared to them women around me who made it look effortless.

Parchment coffee in storage:

On top of a mountain of parchment coffee:

At dinner that night – out of nowhere – materialised a tamper for me made from coffee wood, with my initials on the top. A lovely gift, and much appreciated!

Day 2

On paper the first and second days were very similar – a visit to a farm and then the mill they use. The second day proved to be entirely different in what I saw. We started at a mill called Los Ausoles. The mill is run by Ruben, who used to be in charge of the Consejo. We talked over some coffee about who they supply – Starbucks being one. I was interested to see how much Starbucks demanded for their premium – not only must the money be invested in the mill and its workers, but they demand complete financial transparency – to see exactly what you spend and where. They were very proud of their clinic, and rightly so.

The mill, like every other one, suffered at the hands of not only the global coffee crisis, but also from the troubles in El Salvador. In the country the production – in terms of weight of coffee per unit of area – has decreased a great deal. Los Ausoles decided the only way to work with reduced quantity was to increase quality and restructure their processes around that. Whilst almost halfing their output they still make the same money they did, if not maybe more.

Again the patios were just massive – 35,000 square metres can dry a lot of coffee. The mill has been geared a little more around milling coffee from each farm seperately. How the coffee arrives, or where it is stored, have all changed. What did amaze me though were the storage bins for the parchment coffee. Huge wooden boxes, which hold weights of coffee I can’t quite get my head around.

The mill and patios:

Emptying the silos of parchment coffee:

I think my favourite part of the mill was when we headed down to the water treatment ponds. They use processes in 4 seperate ponds to clean the water and that water is then used by workers in the mill to grow crops on the mills land, and I didn’t really want to stop walking amongst the vetiver grass and the lemon trees, down the hill away from the mill. It was very peaceful and calm there. We also cupped a few of their coffees that they are going to enter into Cup of Excellence.

A natural:

Luis photographs the cuppers:

After lunch – the food was so good, but I do like my meat so it was always going to go well – we headed up to the hills around Ahuachapan to La Fany. I’ve known this coffee for a couple of years now and I love it. I knew from Asa Petterson that the people were great, and nothing about it disappointed. Just as Los Ausoles seemed a more efficient and precise mill, La Fany was a carefully tended and well looked after farm. We watched the staff on the farm pruning, something about which we had learned at San Roberto – which bits to cut, what angle, how to manage the trees to get the to branch in the desired way. Walking along the narrow paths on the steep hillsides with the views was another very memorable experience.

View from La Fany:

Luis:

A friendly chicharra:

We retired to the house of Rafael and Carmen for some coffee and to talk about the role of the barista and the farmer, each at opposite ends of the same chain. They are hopefully coming over to visit London later this year, and I hope to see them again soon.

We stayed at a hotel up in the mountains in Apaneca. My only regret about it wasn’t the amount of rum consumed, more the lack of time to get properly aquianted with the hammocks littered around the gardens.

Day 3

We returned to San Salvador and headed to PROCAFE, an organisation retained by the Consejo to research and transfer coffee technology for farming coffee. We drove out to their varietal garden where I was able to have a look at a huge variety of different species, cultivars and hybrids. I only wish I coudl have seen them all heavy with fruit. It proved very hard to photograph each tree in a way that communicated what was interesting about it.

A soldier:

Huge C. Liberica leaf:

After wandering around we went back to their offices for a cupping. We did three short tables, and it was nice to cup with Luis and to chat about the coffees as we went, to see what he liked and what expectations are within El Salvador. Overall my favourite, and his, turned out to be a coffee from a little co-op from the San Salvador volcano region called El Boqueron. Frustratingly only one cup was exceptional, the other just not as good (though not defect). We also saw their genetics lab where they try and decrease the time to create a new varietal from 30 years to around12 years.

Cupping room:

Genetics lab:

In the afternoon I was expected to give a talk on being a barista, their role in the industry, competition in the UK, why I used El Salvadoran coffee and anything else I though appropriate. I hadn’t really known until I arrived that I would be doing this. The Consejo advertised it and expected around 50, maybe 70. Instead over 150 people turned up. I really enjoyed it, and very quickly the nerves go and you just start talking and hopefully say useful things! I think with questions it overran quite heavily, and due to their being a machine there I was in demand once it finished as people wanted to taste the coffee. It was a lot of fun. And there was another gift from the Consejo – a lovely box full of green coffee with a big wood bean in the middle as a thank you for using El Salvadoran coffee in my blend. Later there were even more gifts included 6 of their cupping bowls. As I said earlier – their generosity seems to know no bounds!

I talk (its all in the hands!):

Oddly, people listen:

Carolina, from the Consejo, was the MC:

My box of coffee:

Day 4

By a genuine coincidence the co-op we went to see turned out to be El Boqueron, whose coffee I had really enjoyed at PROCAFE. A relatively new co-op of 80 members, they are started to wake up the idea of quality and are trying to change their practises around it. They took us down to a farm that was divided into 8 different ownershpi parcels. It was interesting to see different management technqiues and varietals in each of the plots. The farm was on the side of the San Salvador volcano and the views were stunning. After this we headed up to the summit to have a little look – I’d never seen a volcano up close before and the scale is staggering.
In the next 40 minutes we dropped 2000 metres from the summit of the volcano to a lovely restaurant on the beach. I could have spent some serious time there, but duty called and we had to head back to San Salvador as I was due to be in a mall for a novel approach to barista jamming. On the way the weather switched from being immensely hot to really throwing rain down – much to the relief of the farmers who have been somewhat short of rain though a great deal was forecast.

Looking at the view:

The farmers:

The Volcano:

The beach:

The rain!:

The idea behind the barista jam was that I would work in 4 different coffee places, working with the staff and trying to improve what I could. This way they could stay open on a busy Saturday and hopefully gain something in the process. Latte art was much in demand and each place turned out to be very different – one turning into a little lecture for the interested public who had stopped by, another into trying to put into place simple and important routines and techniques to pick up the quality.

As many coffee shops are using the coffee from a family farm, roasted by a friend, there is a lack of a knowledge base that would usually be found in coffee suppliers. If the Consejo can get on top of this before espresso really takes off in El Salvador then perhaps they will have something very special as the potential is most definately there.

The jam was supposed to last from 4.30pm to around 7pm. I think we left the last place at 11.30pm! I really enjoyed it though I wanted more time in each place to try and cement ideas that we discussed. Baristi in particular had such a passionate staff and such a hunger for knowledge that it was hard to leave – though staying any later would have been somewhat unfair on Carolina who was looking after us and probably wanted to go home to bed!

Just talking to the baristas at the first place turned into an impromptu lecture for those passing by:

I spent a lot of time at a place called Baristi where they were so keen to learn more, lovely people too!

They were very interested in latte art:

Day 5

And so I had to catch a plane and head home (that being Saturday when I left and now it is Sunday afternoon and I am missing some sleep!)

I will add to this over time, update photos both here and in my Flickr gallery.

El Salvador was an amazing experience, I loved the place and the people who hosted us there. I look forward to going back.

Comment Policy

There are no longer comments on new posts. If you'd like to respond you can find me on twitter.