After only a few hours sleep due to a late SCAA dinner in Atlanta, I was in need of some coffee.
Fortunately, as soon as Fernando Aguilar, owner from “Ama Cafe”, picked me up we went straight to the first Speciality coffee shop in El Salvador “Viva Espresso”, which belongs to the Pacas Family. I had a traditional Red Bourbon from “La Cordillera Llapamatec“ brewed with a V60. It was my first taste of sweetness of the day, but not the last
We followed our route to Café Cate where we met Rodrigo, a Q grader who is responsible for the quality of “Ama Café”. We cupped interesting coffee from their different farms, from different processes and some single varietals. Santa Maria and Las Mercedes, located in San Salvador Volcan, are the two mains estate of the Aguilar family, who have taken care of them for the last 150 years. Fernando took over the farm, and is pioneering new projects such as finding varietals that are resistant to diseases, and that also produce an excellent cup. He is also working on finding the best processes that add value to the complexity & flavor of the cup profile. We cupped a beautiful Sarchimor Natural and also Santa Maria which cupped very sweet and lemony as washed. All of their coffee is prepared at the Tuxpal Mill, which is perfect for specialty preparation and micro lots, given their vast experience. Right now some of the estates are under renovation with the following main varieties planted: Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, Orange bourbon and Pacamara. Once Fernando will get the full production and knowledge on the different processes everything will be done at Santa Maria Estate, the first farm of the family. I could not finish the day without having the traditional meals the “pupusas” which cheese and black bean…it wasn’t just the coffee that tasted good
The next day, I visited one of the highest farms in El Salvador, located at Santa Ana Volcano at an altitude range of 1,800 to 2,000 masl, surrounded by 3 national parks. I had the chance to see some ripe cherries being harvested, as they were recollecting the last pass. Interestingly the farm was certified as organic in 2006, when the volcano erupted and made the soil as asenisa (composed of sulfur) which made it incompatible with its then current fertilizer, so organic was the only option to save the farm. Fernando Lima is the owner of this farm and also of the mill where the majority of the organic coffee is processed. He is one of the great pioneers in the specialty industry, promoting and helping organize the cup of Excellence in El Salvador. He is also a great help to the Cooperative Cuzcachapa, founded in 1960 where there are 800 small producers (size farm 1-5ha), 100 medium producers ( 5-30ha), and 60 large producers ( 30ha +). 80 of these farms can be sold as specialty and micro lots which Fernando is mainly working with as he markets them per farm, SCAA Scoring and process such as Natural, honey (mainly Yellow) and washed (natural fermentation or mechanical demucilage), He has full control over quality control as they are cupping at each stage of production, from the cherries being delivered to 40 days after resting in wooden silo. As Fernando’s farms are organic certified, he is also focused on producing the best cascara he can. He is picking the cherries from the wet mill when the skin is removed and adds the mucilage to them. Then, he dries them on African beds and cleans them for export.
It was then time to spend some time at Jasal with our friends Andres and Jose Antonio at the Beneficio Las Cruces, where they are preparing our container which was leaving the next day. All the specialty/gourmet is hand selected to make sure that there are no more than 3 secondary defects in 300g. Next day the container was loaded and I was cupping more than 30 different coffees which were all tremendous with distinctive cup profiles such as Buena Vista Natural which has plummy raspberry flavours, and Monteleoon, which is sweet as candy with hints of lemon.
After that, it was time to go to one of the main farms of the Jasal Family, named Sao Francisco, where Cerro Las Ranas comes from. The main variety planted is still the bourbon which is managed using the “agobio and parras” system. This system allows renovating the trees that have been ageing and are not producing economically. They use about 900 plants per hectare with 3 to 4 vertical branches. This way old bourbon trees, even of 80 years old can continue producing sustainably. 40 to 60 qq per sqm is expected as a good yield if everything goes well. They also have a new varietal they call Sao Francisco which comes from a natural mutation between Bourbon and Pacamaras, the tree will be much bigger than a Bourbon and more productive. They have a new experimental farm where they work on testing new varietals such as Catimor, Sarchimor & Batian, as the Bourbon system relies on the shade provided by native and exotic trees, about 40 percent of it with a low density capacity. A typical manzana (0.75ha) with Bourbon can carry about 700 to 1000 coffee trees compared with at least 3000 trees per manzana with Caturra and Catuai. Adding to the above that two of the biggest threat that coffee farmers have is the climate change and the disease expansion in this case the leaf rust. Some of the new varietals have also been developed in order to get a different cup profile such as Geisha, Laurinas, Sudan Rume etc…
Farms in El Salvador have lost around 30% of their crop over the past two years
Renovation and experimentation is routine for the next farm I went to. El Ingenio farm, a total area of 150 hectares, at an altitude ranging from 1200 to 1600 masl, is next to a the “frog lagune”, where you can also find sulfur secreted from the ground and deep red soil produced from iron deposits from historic volcanic activity. All the varieties and natural diversity offered from nature makes this farm a paradise. The majority of the varietals are bourbon, but they also have a Pacamara plot at one the highest points of the farm, and as I said above, they have also invested in new varietals such as La Marsallesa (from Nicaragua) and Cuscatleco (similar to Lempira).
All these decisions are made by the three Urrutias brothers who are at the head of their own farms. However, as a 5th generation a family farm, their father Gustavo is still giving them the best advice. They harvested their first cherries in 1875 at “El Ingenio estate” in Llapametec Mountain range, and then they bought San Enresto and Sao Fransisco that I visited the next day. Both of the latter farms mentioned are in the region of El Balsamo Mountain Range at a lower altitude of 900- 1,200 masl.
Sao Fransisco Estate
At Sao Fransisco estate, I cupped a delicious Pacamara tasting as sweet as a Peach. This varietal has been naturally muted since 1992, and I also admired the blossoming of the 0.5ha of Laurinas trees. Interestingly, i could see much more flowering on the coffee plants that were under shade trees. They explained the reason is that the “chicharra”” (a species of flying insect) moves from tree to tree in the shade urinating on them all which provokes the flowering ….They were very impressive and well managed. Urrutias is constantly looking at ways of improving the yields and quality of coffee. All the farms are shade-grown with a system of 40% shade with many native and exotic trees. All the cherries are harvested during the same day and preselected in the afternoon by the pickers before they make it to the Beneficio San Antonio which runs 24h nonstop. Last but not least I had the pleasure to have lunch with Gustavo who told me all the stories of his time cultivating coffee during the Civil War, a big challenge that endured for many years.
One of the other 5th generation family members I met was Lilliana who has 3 main farms Sholom, Monte Sion and Shekinah, all located in Llamatepec Mountain Range. She has been a valued partner with DRW for more than10 years. They have been facing difficulties with leaf rust leading to Antragnesis that kills coffee trees. From 2007, there has been an ongoing project of renovation for every farm with new plants. As of today, they have planted 100,000 coffee trees which means that 75% of the farm will be renovated for 2016.Their main varietals are Bourbon and their own natural mutation called Shekinah (bourbon and pacas) that looks like a Christmas tree. Expert management as well as good farm practices and innovation are needed if you want to survive as a coffee farmer.I spent five days visiting some of the best producers in the country, mainly travelling the whole Apeneca Illamatepec mountain range. It was very interesting to see producers thinking long term and investing in improving the quality of their coffees as a way of facing the uncertainties of the market and dealing with the climate changes. The main point I highlighted is how producers have to diversify and think differently to survive. Innovation had to be adopted by all of them to make the difference
They have to find their own balance between producing enough volume of a commercial quality and finding the gourmet/specialty coffee thanks to their expertise on new varietal management, and processing methods .I have seen and cupped the same varietals processed in different ways from Double washed, Washed through pulped natural, honey to natural that were made with a unique technique by each farmer. As DR Wakefield, our role has always been working closely with our suppliers acting as a catalyst between them and our customers. Our goal is to keep long term business relationships by experimenting with them these new changing and also by finding new markets for them. Sustainability and Quality are keys to succeed and reach their goals in the coffee world.
We will cup the majority of these El Salvadorian Coffees at SCAE, Dublin. Please join us to our stand to taste them and have the chance to talk to some of the producers!