El Salvador Diaries: Part 1

J. Hill Mill in El Salvador

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 this first report.

After leaving New York where the heat isn’t on in my building and the fake spring weather, stepping off the plane in San Salvador was nice. Kind of like a sauna after being in the cold for a very long time. The humidity in the air seemed to displace the oxygen. Everyone in the airport was sweating. Not just the gringos. There were a few of us CoE people on the same flight. I waited out front for them and could see the sweat stains on everyone’s back. There were birds, in the airport calling and screaming. There were kids crying. And everyone was either trying to ignore the heat or complain about it.

Then they took us to this place called “Could be anywhere really nice hotel”. The cuppings, hotel and awards ceremony are all being held here. Right here. I can see the cupping area from my room. This is like one of those mega nice and big hotels. It is actually really nice. Of course today we left as soon as we were free and went into the old local market in San Salvador to see how people buy their wares locally. There was a sweet woman who told us how this kind of flower is used as a meat replacement. Other people drank smoothies out of plastic bags with straws. I ate plums and this kind of banana plantain hybrid that I call Rulo.

The calibration was great. As usual a couple nice coffees, a couple ok and a rough one to spoil the party. We did the same coffees 3 times. The first table was really hard for me. Our table was sitting in the straight line of sight of the Air Conditioning. Actually only about half of the table was. So I got almost no Fragrance, zero Aroma and the break was like chasing a fart. Cupping them nearly gave me a headache because the two sides of the table were totally different. It was only on my 3rd pass I noticed one side that was much warmer than the other. So some coffees improved, some tanked. I struggled to know why they put all such meh coffees on the calibration round. I couldn’t score anything well, nor could I find major flaws. , So we moved the table and on the second and 3rd tables of the same coffees I saw why some people were giving marks above 82. Nothing brilliant but a couple that were very nice.

New this year is the 85 point cutoff for CoE. The coffees must cup over 85 to make it through. This should help decrease the number of coffees in the auction and increase the quality. In prior years it was 84 points. This is the 10th year of the CoE in El Salvador. They have used this program as well as any country (if not better) to promote speciality coffees. The competition is usually held up in a lodge in the mountains. This year in honor to all the jurors they are really stressing that they want the 10th year to be special. Hence the nice hotel.

Did you know in 1972 El Salvador was the 3rd largest exporter of coffee in the world? The jury is a righteous group of fun people. It should be a great time.

Last night we had an opening Welcoming Reception. El Salvador being so small there were a lot of growers there. One young guy really inspired me. He is super excited about coffee and his Pacamara lot made it into the first round. He was giddy excited. Another woman told she has about 8 farms and exports 5,000 containers a year, and she too glowed that her lot made it into the first round. The excitement was palpable. There was another character who showed up and would speak in Spanish to jury members. He understood a lot of english but chose to speak almost none. Only a couple of the jury members speak Spanish. I was an interpreter for most of the night. Some of his stories about values and morals I can tell. Other stories I won’t tell you all here. He was hilarious. His coffee is also in the first round.

Later, there are some farm visits planned and I have some of my own farm visits planned while I’m here.