El Salvador Diaries: Part III

Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb

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

The top two coffees of the 2012 Cup of Excellence El Salvador were standout polar opposites. Number 1 was so fruity and big that we all suspected some type of special process. Number 2 was elegant, citric, balanced, and clean floral—it really defined floral.

The guy who won first from the farm, Ernesto Mendez from Las Brumas, was shaking so badly after he won he looked terrified. He has won before. I talked with the manager at JHill, Mario, (the guy who processes the coffee for Aida Batlle) about the winner. Mario called it before it happened. Apparently he had been testing the cherry sugar levels with a Brix meter—which can measure the sugar content of fruit—and was able to calibrate himself with the meter. He picked the coffee from 1650 meters. It was a red bourbon, de-pulped dry and dry fermented. After the awards ceremony I left with the manager from JHill to stay at JHill for the night so that I could cup our coffees there, and talk more specifics about how a special process lot that I had requested happened. I was pretty happy with the results and they followed my instructions to the letter.

Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb

Then I asked the owners Rafael and Carmen Silva of Finca Siberia to pick me up and take me to see some of their farms. I was pretty keen on seeing Finca Siberia, which won like 23rd this year. Several years ago they changed my life when I had their Pacamara at Batdorf and Bronson. But they had a newish farm that won 7th called Llano Grande, it was crazy delish on every table. We toured their farms on 4-wheelers. It was too much fun. We saw a bunch of the farm and the farm manager was there too. La Fany isn’t huge but it has everything going for it, aside from the name, which they don’t know where it comes from—has been in their family for generations. 100% Red Bourbon, diverse shade, high altitude, a great market all over the world, they keep every tablon separate and sell it that way.

There are some other farms that come from Rafael’s family that looked even better to me. Slightly lower elevation but not such a south-facing aspect, and the soil just looked better, the farms smelled better. This sounds crazy but when they told me they didn’t know the cup quality until recently and they were lamenting that it was submitted to CoE. Soil health = quality, usually.

At one point on our tour, we came a across seven guys all with M-16’s in full camo fatigues. They looked like they were packing for a camping trip. Apparently things are so bad here they are being dispatched to farms looking for gangs. They were packing clothes and a map. Every night they would sleep in a different farm. The sergeant had 4 clips on his chest and carried his M-16 like it was a wrist watch. He had that cool confidence you would expect from a movie star. I asked to take his picture and he looked to the right. I asked the question a second time to see if he understood me. He clearly did. “Now I know, thanks,” I responded as I lowered my camera. Rafael chimed in, and urged, “Let him take your picture!” He looked at Rafael and said, “es proibido”. No smile, no head nod, he shouldered his bag and lead his men off to a farm for the night.

Rafael pulled me aside and told me the real reason we didn’t go to Finca Siberia was because of the risk. Apparently there are a couple different gangs. One is involved in drugs. The other “just likes to kill people”. They will wait for people to leave a specific area and when they are on these terrible roads they stop them take everything you have. At the dry mill on Llano Grande there were 4 guard dogs and two armed guards. This isn’t Disneyland.

The next day I spent with Luis Rodriguez and Maria Jose. I visited two of their farms. Very different from the heavily fertilized and organized farms that I saw earlier in the week. I love how serious people are in El Salvador about coffee. They are total nerds. Note: most people use central wet mills to process coffee. Luis told me about a common practice to evaluate a sample: take 100 cherries before it is depulped. Weigh them, count defects, floaters, then put them in a press for 5 minutes and weigh the expressed juice, measure the Brix, and like 5 more things that I can’t remember. In one mill they did all this and then correlated it against cupping scores.

Apparently the Brix test had no correlation with cup quality. What did correlate is the amount of muscilage expressed out of the cherries. The more muscilage the higher cup score. Luis is excited because of this variety that he found on his farm Elefante produces up to 14 drops of muscilage from one cherry when Bourbon is like 9 drops. Rumor has it this is one of the early developments of the Tequisik variety that I saw in Guatemala this year.

Luis is one of those crazy honest awesome people. “Luis when are you going to sell us (Dallis) some coffee? We’d love to buy some?” “Byron, I think I might have a 10 bag lot to show you, but it isn’t our best, there is nothing wrong with it, it is actually quite nice, but not really what you want.” Wow, somebody who actually listens when I communicate our specs.

I’ve got more stories from Honduras. But that will have to wait for the plane ride tomorrow.