El Salvador Diaries: Part II

Cupping El Salvador Cup of Excellence coffees at home in Ozone Park.

Our coffee director, Byron Holcomb, is frequently called upon to visit coffee-producing countries and report in from the front lines. His current trip to El Salvador, for the annual Cup of Excellence juried competition, brings us his second report.

It is 6:30 pm. The sun set about 30 minutes ago. The birds have left the hotel quiet again; it seems they are solar-powered. When the sun is out they chatter and call full time. Now there are just bats. They fly by the outdoor lights like fighter jets. 

Today is really the final exam for all these coffees and the hopes of every farmer is that they pass today. There have been almost 3 full weeks of cuppings leading up to today. Pre-selection where every sample is cupped and evaluated. The national jury then steps in and judges every coffee that passes the pre-selection. The narrowed the field down to 50 coffees. On Monday we (the international jury) calibrated and got accustomed to the new table that we use to put in our scores. Tuesday and Wednesday we cup all the coffees that cupped over 85 according to the national jury. They did a really great job. I only remember one that I wrote “rough” and “no” in the description. All those that passed the three prior cuppings were cupped today. This is D-day. 

Today was 33 coffees divided into 4 tables. There were a few that could inspire a belief in god. There were a few that could be my “if I were a stranded on a desert island” coffees. The rest were between quite nice and ok. And several didn’t pass today. 

Some jurors hand out 90’s like business cards. Clearly they like the coffees being offered. One of my favorite parts of the entire CoE process is watching who likes what coffee on the table. After each session we reveal our scores and and see if the coffee will pass through (unofficially). To me a cupper’s interpretation of a coffee is fascinating, especially when we come from 8 different countries. 

I’ve given out two 90’s so far. There are a lot of great coffees. Lots of balanced sweet, acidic well-bodied coffees. Two coffees to me have stood out as inspiringly beautiful. Fragrant, floral, acidic, balanced, stable as cooled. 

I must admit that I had fallen out of love with Pacamara over the last couple years. They can be great, but they are really difficult to roast and the spicy clove and vegetal notes detract from my experience. Maybe I just hadn’t had a really great one in a while because now I’m head over heels (again) for Pacamara. They are just intense, loud, wild and when balanced they are just beautiful. 

There are two main profiles of Pacamara here: 1) the green bell pepper, spices, huge savory body, wild. 2) The other is crazy floral and sweet really balanced and round almost no hints of the green bell pepper. I prefer the number 2.    

What do people think about Pacamara lately? 

We had one that was so incredibly sweet and floral we thought it was a natural or something different in the process. All the national jurors said that is simply a beautiful Pacamara, then they would smile with pride. 

Tomorrow is much lighter. We cup the one table of the top ten (which should be utter cupping bliss). Then we meet the farmers. Then the award ceremony and the winner is announced. 

Yesterday we went to Finca Manzano and had a chance to see Emilio describe how he experiments on and processes his coffee. There was about a 20 minute break in the tour because the rain clouds moved in and dumped buckets and buckets of water on us next to his mechanical dryer. The sideways rain pushed rain onto all of our shoes and pants. The operation is inspiring. Beautiful farm. Inspired farmer. 

This place is special. I can’t play like I’ve seen it all before, and I’ve seen quite a bit in coffee. El Salvador is special.