El Salvador Day 1- January 13, 2015
Bienvenidos to the El Salvador blog! I am back here, reporting live from Ahuachapán on Farmer Brother’s annual trip to visit our direct trade partners. I have the pleasure of being accompanied by our Houston plant Roastmaster, Christian Rotsko, who has proven to be a great travel companion (so far!) We got an early morning start, running on El Salvador time, to make the trek from San Salvador to Ahuachapán this morning. Christian enjoyed the drive while I napped peacefully in the back. Before I knew it we were arriving at Lisette and Miguel Sr.’s house.
We immediately set off up the road to El Rosario farm, home of Public Domain’s Pacamara as well as some very tasty microlots that we have cupped over the years. El Rosario is located outside of Ataco, El Salvador, nestled in a high valley. The farm sits at 1,400 meters, and is surrounded by high volcanic peaks. Because of its position, there are gusting winds through the valley, an environment that can be really hard on coffee trees if they are not well protected. Miguel Sr. has managed this problem well by planting many rows of Cyprus trees that serve as wind barriers. As a result, the farm is very neatly parsed out into small, manageable square lots that are in different stages of experimentation and development. Even with the wind barriers, tall slender coffee trees, like Bourbon, take a rough beating during the year. Miguel is in the process of transitioning this whole farm to Pacamara and Caturra varietals, which are shorter and sturdier. Christian, Miguel, Lisette, Miguel Jr., Guillermo and I set off on the walking tour of El Rosario to see what changes he has made this year. The most interesting thing that I get to see is the progress year after year on each of the Menendez’s farms. This is the 6th time that I have come to visit, and each year a new plot of land is renovated, and the young trees grow bigger and bigger. 70% of El Rosario farm is now Pacamara trees, and there are over 17 kilometers of cypress shade trees zigzagging their way through the 40 manzanas of land.
It was great having Christian here to ask some questions about the farm that I have not asked in years. We talked about plotmanagement, pickers pay, lot separation, and fungicides used against Coffee Leaf Rust. El Rosario was never very badly affected by Rust, but the little that was there still has to be strictly monitored. Miguel uses 3 kinds of fungicides at different points throughout the year to keep the Rust at bay. Even though it is working, this kind of treatment is very expensive. Many farms in this region are switching to rust resistant varietals of coffee, but Miguel is hesitant because he is very committed to the quality of his coffee, especially from the special El Rosario farm. This kind of commitment comes at a cost, and Miguel has been able to manage it the best that he can. We are lucky to have such a committed farmer who is willing to make investments such as these into coffee quality.
After a great visit we had a quick lunch (my favorite…refried beans and plantains!) before heading to the Piedra Grande mill for a tour and a first round of cupping. Cupping coffee this early in the harvest is always a fun challenge for roasters like us. We are so used to receiving samples and shipments that have had a lot of time to rest in parchment after the harvest before we ever taste them. At origin, coffees are cupped right away to assess quality, see the progress of the harvest, and identify special lots of coffee. Because the coffees are so fresh, the differences between them are more subtle, and some of the great intense flavors that we have come to expect have not yet had time to develop. Nevertheless, I have become used to early harvest cupping, to a degree, and today we got to try some really special lots. One of the coolest comparisons was of two pickings from Buena Vista farm, where most of our direct trade coffee from this region comes from. One had been pulped only a few days before, while the other had about three weeks of rest time in parchment. The difference in flavors was astounding. The coffee with more rest was much more complex in its flavors, the chocolate sweetness had time to develop and there was a nice, crisp, citric acidity. Quality this year seems to have made big strides over last year. Because Rust is more in control, the coffee plants are less stressed, and have more leaves on the trees to help photosynthesize and develop complex sugars in the coffee cherries. The harvest is still not back at 100%, but the coffee that is being produced is back to normal levels of quality. The early picking lots that we cupped were very impressive, and I am excited to see what is in store for us tomorrow!
We finished off our evening with a delicious dinner of tamales at the Menendez’s house in Ahuachapán. Lisette knows me so well! We sat around for a while, cooling down after a long day of farm visits, and Miguel Sr. regaled us with stories about growing up in El Salvador. We had some good times, some laughs, and now are ready to crash!