We often talk about struggling farmers or underappreciated coffee workers in our blogs. As much as we’d like it to just be a trope, it’s an issue in many of the places that produce coffee around the world. And, today, we get to talk about El Salvador, a country that was once a darling of specialty coffee and progress. Now, it is a country struggling to deal with issues from gang violence to lack of government support to poverty. Like we said, we wish it was just a trope, but when you visit farms and are picked up in bulletproof cars (this happened to me twice), and citizens are afraid of going into certain areas/towns due to criminal activity, you get a real sense for the difficult situation that’s going on here.
Coffee pickers weigh the cherries they've picked throughout the day @ Los Pirineos.
So, El Salvador. It’s a country that just 40 years ago, saw about 50% of its gross domestic product come from coffee exports. Now, it’s a fraction of that. Civil war fractured the infrastructure. Other countries (primarily Brazil and Vietnam) grew exponentially in volume, forcing the national price of coffee downward. In the last decade or so, that price continued to drop, and struggles with both disease (coffee rust, just to name one), climate change (there’s been drought for five of the six last years), and political unrest. It has led to up to 30% of coffee farmers literally abandoning and walking away from their farms.
A view of the drying beds and patios at Los Pirineos.
With all this tumult, it’s awe-inspiring to see a coffee producer in this climate making a go of it. And, it’s never easy for these folks. Such is the case with Gilberto Baraona, owner of Los Pirineos Farm and Mill in Usulatán, El Salvador. Baraona, a 4th generation coffee farmer, has lived through the civil war and what the country has endured since. His family farm is in the east of the country, beyond the civil war line. In fact, during the civil war, Gilberto had to abandon the farm and found refuge in Guatemala.
Gilberto, in front of a lot of honey process coffee resting on a raised bed.
What inspires me most about Gilberto is his optimism and focus on growth and new relationships. He’s spent years looking for the right opportunity to re-invest in his farm. When coffee rust hit El Salvador, he took the blow in stride, slowly replacing his plants with newer ones that were healthier and more resistant to the disease. When rainfall was at an all-time low (due to climate change), he constructed a rain reservoir to conserve water throughout the year. When coffee prices fell, he invested in new types of processing (honey, natural, shaded raised beds, etc.) and looked for other new ways to innovate. Not to mention, he has a coveted variety garden on his farm, with near 100 different varieties of coffee growing there.
A nursery of new plants ready to head out to the fields @ Los Pirineos
For this lot, we chose a fully washed Pacamara from one of the newly renovated areas of the farm. The Pacamara variety is more resistant to rust but is cultivated for its characteristic bright and citrusy flavor. When you look at the beans, you’ll see that they’re noticeably larger than other coffee beans. In the cup, you’ll get a full palate of flavor. Up front, you’ll notice a bright, citrusy, cherry-like and caramel mouthfeel. As it rests on your palate, you’ll start to notice a unique herbal characteristic that is slightly reminiscent of hops.
We love this new offering from Los Pirineos. We hope you will as well.
To consumers, coffee can seem foreign and exotic. It’s a bean that’s cultivated thousands of miles away by some coffee farmer before it’s roasted to perfection. Then, an expert barista gets her hands on it and extracts the best flavors. The taste offers a pure sense of enjoyment from the crisp aromatics and flavor compounds in your cup.
But, for some of us, we experience a bit more than just the flavor in the cup. We renew our relationship with our producer who put their year’s work into the beans. It’s not just “grapefruit and caramel,” it’s Deyner’s family’s coffee.
Deyner Fallas-Mora, our friend and part of the amazing family at Cerro Verde Micromill.
That’s how I feel about coffees from the friends I’ve made while sourcing over the years. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about how I met the family that owns Cerro Verde, and why this relationship is so important to me. This is one of my all-time favorite coffees—it’s consistently delicious, and you can really taste the hard work that goes into it. When I taste it, I can see the people behind it and the memories from the time I’ve spent there.
My first coffee sourcing trip ever was to Costa Rica back in early 2013. When you visit one of THE places that grows coffee—the thing you’re so passionate about—you feel like a kid in a candy store. We met up with an amazing exporter who served as the platform for over 80+ micromills showcasing their coffee. I spent three days visiting over 25 different micromills and was awed by the complexity, consistency, and sustainability these producers had built.
Sidebar: A micromill is literally a small mill—a machine used to remove coffee cherry and fruit off the parchment/beans). It’s not in a regional facility. This is on their own farm and allows them to fine tune smaller batches of cherry into specific “microlots.” So, a day of picking—or even a day’s harvest from part of the farm—may be considered its own “micro” lot. Micromills are expensive to set up, so you either need a way to finance it, or you need to have earlier investment capital. If coffee farmers could all own their own micromill, they probably would.
This is the Fallas-Mora family micromill at Cerro Verde.
Back to our trip. On our third day, we drove through the mountainous area of Tarrazu. Late in the day, we stopped and met with a new micromill looking for more exposure, since they were new to selling coffee in the specialty market. This mill was Cerro Verde. Their mill was exquisite, as was the view from the top of the farm. Knowing what I knew at the time (and admittedly, it wasn’t much) I wanted to partner with them. I knew there were some risks, but I also wanted to observe the growth of a new mill (I was a new roaster, and it seemed like a cool symbiotic relationship).
It's a jaw dropping view from the Cerro Verde Micromill.
Cerro Verde is owned by the Fallas-Mora family who also owns a few small plantations. This is a family farm through and through, especially during the heart of harvest season. Their mill is cleverly tucked into the hillside around their house, and family members take up stations during the picking and milling process (from skimming “floaters” to picking out defects by hand in the drying beds).
I worked with this family for four years, buying a handful of different lots from both of their farms at the time (Concepcion and San Francisco) and learning about their improvements in picking and processing. Each time I went back, they had something new they were working on. And, every time I visited, I was welcomed to a meal like I was family. I remember brewing their coffee using a Chemex they had purchased. I could brew their coffee for them. It was special.
I left my position at the company that I was with, and, unfortunately, I don't think that relationship stuck. But Cerro Verde was still important to me. So, I reached out to Deyner on Facebook (because that’s how we communicate these days) and asked if he was interested in working together on a coffee again. I can’t buy the volume that I used to (Mission is much smaller), but having that relationship back is something important. And, when we cupped their coffee, it was like catching up with an old friend—and we were able to pick up right where we left off.
Honey process coffee drying on beds overlooking Finca San Francisco @ Cerro Verde.
The lot that we chose is a yellow honey process from Finca Concepcion. This coffee is a mix of older and newer trees and mixed varieties (Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchi). Yellow honey means that they leave a portion of the fruit on the outside of the coffee during the milling process. Not only does it save on water, but, if dried appropriately, it will impart a lingering sweetness. (We call it “honey” because it looks like someone dumped sticky, goopy stuff all over it). This coffee is dried on raised beds for 14–21 days to ideal moisture.
In the cup, you get a sweet, caramel-flavored, and dried-fruit mouth feel from the honey process. You’ll get notes of white grape and lush caramel. The Villa Sarchi adds just a smidge of grapefruit-like acidity, but this coffee is really balanced towards the sweet and lush body.
This is one of my favorite coffees ever. I hope you’ll take the time and enjoy it, and taste the hard work of the Fallas-Mora family.
In specialty coffee, we are seeing the emergence of two schools of thought around the future of coffee. One school focuses only on sustainable logos (FT, Organic, etc.) They believe if this product has a label, it does good. The other school focuses on exotic varieties and processing methods.
The truth is, in many cases, farmers and producers often don’t have the ability or quality to meet certification standards. Sometimes, because they are not the right type of organization. Others…well…they just don’t have the money yet, and they’re busy working on making their farm actually sustainable.
On the other side, we often see coffee nerds demanding crazy processing and boutique varieties. “Are you growing geisha? SL-28? How are you fermenting? Malolactic Anaerobic fermentation?!?!”
Fuego (left) and Acatenango (right) - two volcanoes that have contributed to the fertile volcanic soil of the Antigua Valley
A lot of coffee is not sexy or hip. But, often, it can be sustainably delicious. True sustainability happens only when you’re able to build something repeatable, invest in your farm, invest in your workers, and make something genuinely great! That is the case with our coffee from Finca Retana in Antigua, Guatemala.
We found this coffee with the help of our friends at San Miguel Coffee, a large mill found in Antigua. They’ve been the pinnacle of sustainability for years and now are helping other farms around Guatemala get exposure and teaching them this same sustainable model. San Miguel embraces many of the same values as Retana: they provide housing for workers, have a school on-premise for children of pickers and anyone else in the region who can’t afford school, and provides free clinics to all pickers/workers of the mill.
The drying patio at San Miguel Coffees. The Volcano Agua is in the background.
Let’s pause for a quick primer on why we love Antigua coffees. First, if you know a little about geography in Central America and Guatemala in particular, you’ll know that volcanoes are all over the place. In the region of Antigua, there are three that surround the entire valley: Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. The later of the three is still active and has caused some crazy scary damage to the surrounding community (lava flows and random ash falls…). But, while there is some risk, the reward of volcanic soil marries perfectly with coffee varieties.
Second, the Antigua Regional Association (APCA) is one of the more progressive guiding associations in specialty coffee. Why? They’ve set up a regional price floor for specialty coffee in this region that is high enough to pay for the cost of production + cost of living + reinvestment. This price is often at or above USD 3.00 and doesn’t fluctuate with the specialty coffee market. As I write today (7/29/2019) the commodity coffee market is USD 1.00 per lb. That’s a significant difference.
Does that mean that the Antigua valley is perfect? No. But, producers there can thrive, grow, and build a coffee-growing community.
In the fields of Finca Retana. Photo credit:San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
Let’s take a closer look at Finca Retana. The land where Retana currently lives has gone through a handful of owners, originally owned by an order of friars who were led by Father Retana (the namesake of the farm). At different points, it has been home to sugar cane farms (used in making the traditional Antigua candy (rapadura), milk cattle, avocados, macadamia, and finally coffee.
Retana currently is about 125 acres of land planted with two varieties (yellow bourbon and Caturra). At the end of the harvest, they can produce around 1500 bags of green coffee every year.
Drying patios at Finca Retana. Also, #coffeedog. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana.
With this success, they were able to give back and support their picking families. There is a small settlement on the farm for its workers, where about 20 families live there. They pay for the education of children and supplies electricity, drinking water, and 3.46 acres of land for those families to plant and cultivate their own food.
The lot that we selected from Finca Retana is a 100% Bourbon variety that has been fully washed and dried on patios. In the cup, you’ll taste the rich volcanic soil express itself as a rich cocoa nib and lush body texture. The acidity in this cup is balanced and floral.
Ripe Yellow Bourbon ready for processing. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
So, if you support sustainable coffee, buy a bag of Finca Retana. Or, if you want an accessible and all-day drinking coffee, this one will be your jam.
Blends are one of the most undefined and unrefined practices in the coffee world today. I would argue that a coffee company often spends a good amount of time fine-tuning their espresso blend, and then leaves the rest to chance.
Have a coffee that is turning old? Throw it in a blend. Have a coffee that didn’t sell well? Throw it in a blend. Need a cheap coffee to spread out the cost of an expensive lot? Throw it in a blend. Arguably, I’ve seen many coffee blends in the past that have performed one or many of these functions: pair a decent coffee with a not so decent one, and you have the lesser of two evils that still tastes pretty good. In this era of single origin and crazy processing styles (carbonic maceration, what is that?!) I think we under-appreciate the complexity offered from a well thought-out blend of coffee.
Taking a step back, I like to draw inspiration from the wine industry. When I search for a bottle of wine, I’m enamored with single varietals—grapes that I’ve never tasted before to expand my palate. Some are floral. Some are heavy-bodied. None are terribly balanced. They’re great for one or two applications, or for sipping at a tasting, but they’re often not dynamic nor complex in flavor and overall profile.
Enter: blends. Some of the most prestigious wines in the world (Burgundy, Bordeaux, California Reds) are all blends of a variety of grapes. Each by themselves is delicious, but in layering several together, you get a complexity that is not possible by itself.
The whole of a blend should be greater than its parts.
That was the inspiration behind this year’s Sun Summer Blend. We wanted to use coffees that would be delicious enough to serve as a single source coffee, yet becomes something more unique and special when blended together. Even before we knew which specific coffees we wanted to feature, we knew our game plan. We wanted to recreate the sensation of an “Arnold Palmer in coffee format.” We quickly thought of two regions of coffees that strongly exemplified these characteristics: the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia and the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala.
What we ended up choosing was a rad combo of coffee. First, let’s introduce you to the two players in this blend.
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Reko: This was, by far, our favorite Ethiopia Yirgacheffe we’ve cupped this year. Reko comes from a washing station of the same name, found in the Kochere region of Ethiopia. Reko translates to “challenge,” as this hill is steep and treacherous. That said, the coffee brought here by 850+ small coffee farmers have a phenomenal profile year after year. Their meticulous attention to detail and ability to educate their producer partners sets this coffee apart. In processing, it’s floated, separated by stages of harvest, and meticulously watched every step of the way. This coffee is a floral bomb, with notes of black tea, jasmine, and citrus.
A handful of producers that deliver coffee to the Reko Washing Station in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Trabocca
Washing channels and density sorting at Reko Washing Station. Photo credit: Trabocca
Guatemala COMYPE S A: We found this one off a blind sample table of Guatemalan coffees from our friends at San Miguel Coffees. The brightness and cleanliness of this cup, along with its crisp acidity, made us want to learn more. When we revealed the lot, we learned it was from a small cooperative in Huehuetenango called COMYPE. This group is composed of small producers, 70% which are women owned. This lot features a washed coffee that is a blend of Pache, Caturra, Catuai, Bourbon, and Typica varieties. The terroir and variety give this coffee an extremely punchy acidity, along with strong notes of citrus and brown sugar.
Meticulously pulped and washed coffee at COMPYE in Huehuetenango. Photo credit: ACODIHUE
A picture of just a few of the women farmers who work with COMPYE in Huehuetenango. Photo Credit: ACORDIHUE
So, when you put these two together, you get some magical sparks. Again, the goal was to create a blend that was reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer. In our Sun Blend, you’ll get a dynamic mouthfeel created by both coffees playing off of each other. You’ll get the black tea and jasmine texture of the along with the sweet juiciness of the COMYPE. The acidities layer nicely to give you the feeling of a bright squeeze of citrus fruit. The finish of both coffees, layered together, is sweet and floral.
We get excited when we source coffees from remote or widely unknown countries or regions. Yes, coffees from Sidamo, Nyeri, and Antigua are certainly delicious. But, when you’re able to focus on new and lesser-known frontiers, you can find amazing producers that aren’t as well represented in the coffee market. In fact, many of them don’t have the same access to sell their coffee as other well-known regions. Because we’re a small team, we can’t travel to all these places (yet). So, it’s up to us to align with importers who want to explore these frontiers as well, and, more importantly, do it in a way that’s sustainable to the coffee farmers with whom they work.
This is what happened when we tasted a set of Peruvian coffees from Red Fox Importers a few months ago. I knew they were working in Peru, and I knew I wanted to highlight a coffee from this country. Peru has made immense strides in quality over the past five years. And Peru is less well known than coffee giants like Colombia, Brazil, and Ethiopia. That said, they have some amazing terroir for growing coffee. One thing that has kept them out of the spotlight is their accessibility; particularly their road infrastructure, especially in the most remote regions. The Andes are not the friendliest places to drive— and it takes a staggering 24 hours to drive from the capitol of Lima all the way to the southeastern remote Sandia Province, the area where our favorite coffee was from.
One of the small farm producers who deliver to the Inambari Cooperative. This is a typical solar (greenhouse) style dryer. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers
Thinking back on a few of the other coffees that we’ve recently released, you might remember us talking about market accessibility. If a coffee farmer doesn’t personally have the relationship or resources to get their coffee exposed to the specialty world, they’re often dependent on local cooperatives or exporters to do that work for them. These cooperatives often comingle coffee from many small farmers and group it together into similar profile lots. This gives the cooperative larger lots of coffee, which tend to be more appealing to higher-volume buyers. These cooperatives also yield a bit more support in getting certifications like Fair Trade or Organic, which do add on small, yet significant, premiums to small-holder farmers.
Washed parchment coffee drying on platforms inside of a solar drier. Notice how the ends are open...this allows for excellent ventilation. It takes longer for this coffee to dry, but slow drying = better tasting coffee. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
But farmers lose a bit of autonomy when they do this. The coffee is no longer “their coffee.” It’s a blend, either of a neighborhood, town, region, or state. This has often been the case with remote Peruvian farmers. It’s also been fair to say that folks aren’t pounding down Peru’s door when it comes to their coffee offerings. They’re often overlooked, and their coffee goes into blends that are less special (and fetch lower premiums) on the market.
Enter the team from Red Fox, who has been personally invested in Peru since 2007. Back then, they had the opportunity to cup coffees from the Sandia Valley, and realized that this flavor profile was unique. These coffees drank with beautiful florals and sweetness. After cupping, they were driven to figure out why. That led them to several small cooperatives in the region, one of which this coffee comes from.
Enter: the Inambari Cooperative, a small cooperative that represents farmers that have an average of 2.5 hectares of coffee land. In terms that I think we can more easily grasp, that’s equal to about 4.75 football fields worth of land. And with regard to farming, that’s not really a lot. Plus, when you’re talking farming in the mountains, that’s even crazier. A farmer that remote, and that small, is dependent on a cooperative to make connections happen.
So, what makes the coffee of the Sandia Valley so special? Back in the 1980’s, the UN led a replanting of the region, which brought many desirable/boutique varieties into the region—particularly the Bourbon (which we know well from both Africa and other Central America countries). While not the easiest plant to cultivate, the quality from the Bourbon typically yields chocolate, cherry, and floral-like coffees. And that’s exactly what we tasted in this lot.
Once their coffee is dried to the proper moisture, producers deliver their finished parchment coffee dry mill used by the Inambari Cooperative. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
This lot from the Inambari Cooperative is a fully washed Caturra and Bourbon mix. The coffee is fully washed (a process where the coffee pulped, fermented, and then remnant fruit washed off) and dried on patios and parabolic (greenhouse-style) solar driers. In the brew, we taste a sweet and fruity body that’s suggestive of a vibrant cocoa and sweet grape jelly. The acidity on this coffee is clean, bright, and malic. It will finish with sweet fruit and florals, reminiscent of chamomile.
If you’ve never had a coffee from Peru before, this is a good place to start. Or even if you’re familiar with Peruvian coffees, we suggest you try this one out. It’ll change the way you think about coffees from this country.