Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
Back from the Road: El Salvador, Why I Love You So
You might think that the car picking me up from San Salvador breaking down less than 2 miles from the airport would be bad sign of things to come on this trip, but I knew that I was going to see Aida Batlle and Finca Mauritania
so that was going to be impossible. After a quick 2 hour drive, well, and a little bit of waiting for alternate transportation, I arrived at Las Cruces – the mill where our Los Luchadores coffee comes from. Immediately upon arriving at Las Cruces, something caught my eye. Kenya drying beds. What? There is only one person that could have been responsible for this. And come to think of it, I believe the very first conversation that Peter had with Aida – over 5 years ago now – was actually about Kenya drying beds for coffee. It turns out Aida had them built to do some experiments with drying coffee and coffee pulp for the now very popular Cascara. But I will talk about that later.
Aida met me at Las Cruces, and we quickly caught up and talked about the coffee world and El Salvador politics. (If you haven't seen the papers, El Salvador had a presidential election right after I left, and it was in the minds of everyone when I was down there.) We also, of course, talked about her coffees and some of the exciting things she is working on. After a quick walk around the mill it was off to dinner, then bed so we could get a jump on the next day, when we would visit Aida's farms.
In 2007 I visited Finca Mauritania while Aida was in her third year of transitioning to organic production and, while everything looked really good, it didn't look like it does now. Everything now seems just a little bit lusher, a little bit greener, a little bit more shaded, and just a little bit happier. It was a great thing to see, and Aida talked about how the transition to organic was very hard but that was just the beginning. Now, the challenge is to make it really work and to breathe new life into everything through the many things she continues to learn.
After visiting Finca Mauritania, it was a quick little drive up the side of Santa Ana volcano to visit Finca Kilimanjaro. From first glance, it was apparent that Aida had been very busy. Finca Kilimanjaro also looked better, as well, much better. Aida said that Kilimanjaro and Los Alpes (another one of her farms) had been even more challenging than Mauritania because of the higher altitude, and that there is still a long way to go, but overall she was excited by the progress. Oh, and as a huge, awesome side note: this year Counter Culture is going to be able to purchase coffee from Finca Kilimanjaro!!! If you remember it from 2 years ago, I am sure your mouth is watering already.
With the all the excitement over the farms and the great things Aida has been working on, I almost forgot to ask about Pasa and Pulp Natural. Before I left for El Salvador, Peter warned me that 2 weeks prior there had been some unseasonable rains that could potentially make Pasa not happen this year. And, sadly that was true. Just like tomatoes, if rain comes at the wrong time, the fruit can split, and if you leave it on the tree (like Aida does for Pasa) the fruit can rot. However, being super-creative, Aida decided that while Pasa wasn't going to be possible, she could do a Sundried Natural more akin to the process in Ethiopia … so, this year, we will have Pulp Natural processed coffee and a natural sundried Finca Mauritania. After seeing and talking about all those coffees, I couldn't wait for the next day when I would actually get to taste them.
So, onward to the tasting. At Las Cruces the next day, the Sundried Natural Finca Mauritania was absolutely delicious – full of creamy fruit and chocolate which I don't think anyone will be disappointed in. I tasted this year's Pulp Natural, as well – and I see espresso in its future. I also got to taste this years washed Finca Mauritania and Finca Kilimanjaro, which were both mind-blowing. And, to my surprise I also got to taste some of this years Cascara. For those of you that didn't get to try it this past year, Aida took the skin from the coffee cherry and dried it out to make a tea. This has been done traditionally in Yemen and Kenya but never have I heard of in El Salvador. The best part about it is that because of Aida's exemplary picking of the coffee to begin with, the tea is so much sweeter and juicier than any of versions I have tasted in the past. This year in particular, she has improved the process, and we are expecting some great Cascara.
If all that weren't enough, after the Cascara, it was time to taste this year's Los Luchadores
. The last two years, we have bought our Los Luchadores Pacamara from a farm in Metapán, El Salvador, called Finca Buenos Aires. This year that particular farm wanted to submit their Pacamara into the Cup of Excellence, and while we were disappointed that we couldn't buy it for Los Luchadores we wish them luck in the competition. Anyway, from the cupping table of Pacamara coffees one stood out immediately. The coffee was floral, full of deep, dark plum, black cherry, prune, savory tomato, with a crisp brightness, and in the end turned out to have that signature syrupy body. After cupping, Aida asked which one I liked best, and I said without hesitation, “Finca Las Delicias.” To which she said “Oh! Perfect that is where we are going right now." I love instant gratification!! So, off we went. We started driving to Finca Las Delicias and I couldn't quite put my finger on it but everything seemed very familiar. It was driving me crazy and then Aida said, “This side of the volcano is really different.” So long story short and oddly enough, Finca Las Delicias is on the Santa Ana volcano … just on the other side than Finca Mauritania. I guess there is something about the microclimates around the volcano.
When we arrived at the farm – after some rough roads that had clearly been affected by the eruption 2 years ago – I couldn't believe the view from the farm.
The farm was great, I got to see the section where most of the Pacamara is planted and a lot of pre-mill cherry sorting. I can say is it was really all awe-inspiring, and I can't wait for the next lot of Los Luchadores. Wow, what a day. What a four days!
Next: I was off to Guatemala to meet up with Kim Elena and onto Finca Pashapa.
Back from the Road: Saludos, Guatemaltecos!
I arrived to warm, breezy weather in Guatemala City and had just enough time to eat a mango and some papaya on the street outside the airport before I was picked up by Javier Recinos – twin brother and farm-managing partner of
, who has been our main contact at the farm – and Javier's wife, Carla. I admit that I didn't immediately recognize that it wasn't Jorge, having not seen them in almost two years and, well, them being twins and all, but it didn't take me too long to figure it out and, thankfully, I didn't embarrass myself. Our first order of business was a big family dinner with Jorge, his wife Ana, and their kids, as well as Noemi and Antonio, the matriarch and patriarch of this warm, friendly family. As you may recall from Counter Culture's past trip reports, Finca Nueva Armenia
is pretty remote: an 8-hour trip from Guatemala City, in fact. Jorge and Javier each spend two weeks a month at the farm and two weeks in Guatemala City, and on our last visit Antonio kept us entertained during our journey by eating a gigantic bag of candy, pestering Jorge the whole way, and telling stories of his youthful adventures on the farm. Unfortunately, Antonio's health has deteriorated and his trips to the farm are more rare, and, in order to keep the whole family together for this relationship-building visit, we stayed in Guatemala City, where we would also be able to cup coffee together and visit the mill where the coffee is processed for export.
And, although Counter Culture's last trip to Finca Nueva Armenia was a short one (curtailed by a strike on the main highway that forced us to leave earlier than we had planned), it was easy to pick up conversation where we left off at the last visit and over our days together we discussed everything from coffee drying methods to politics to family. Since the last time we sat at a table together, Jorge and his wife Ana had a baby girl, Javier finished his graduate degree, and the farm has decided to submit coffee to the 2009 Cup of Excellence Competition in Guatemala
! Big news all around. We have really improved our communication with the Recinos family over the past year and the process has had its challenges: though Javier and Jorge are young (38), they were raised on Finca Nueva Armenia in a culture of roaster-grower relationships that didn't entail visits, e-mail conversation, and supply-chain transparency. Counter Culture has worked hard this year to bring the whole supply chain relationship into line with our Direct Trade
purchasing model and gain everyone's trust, and we have high expectations for this relationship and the coffee that comes out of it over the next few years. This year, we have doubled the amount of coffee that we buy from the farm, which is great news for the Recinoses and for all of our customers: this has been one of the most consistent, delicious coffees we have had from Central America and it comes from a farm with an incredible commitment to the environment. In addition to adopting organic certification early (the late 1990s), Finca Nueva Armenia completed the process of certifying the old-growth, diverse canopy of shade on their farm with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird-Friendly seal
last year and they have also recently joined a national association to designate their farm as a private natural reserve. I often say that organic farming is so much more of a commitment to the soil, water, and environment than most consumers realize when they hear "no synthetic chemicals," but the dedication that these guys have to conservation on their farm is like none I have ever seen.
This year's harvest has just ended at Finca Nueva Armenia, and I was lucky enough to cup a few samples from the farm, including their Cup of Excellence lot, with the brothers Recinos at the offices of CAMEC, the exporter. These guys have little experience with lot separation for cup quality, only for size and density of bean, so I did everything I could to get them excited about the cupping process and the potential for recognizing some amazing small lots of coffee if they separate their Typica variety coffee from their Bourbon variety, for example. Both Counter Culture's lot and the Cup of Excellence lot come from a part of the farm that is almost entirely Typica variety and both coffees were deliciously sweet with a juicy, orange-y acidity. We also visited the mill where the Recinoses process their coffee, and I got to see Counter Culture's lot waiting in the all-important reposo, or rest, phase before export in April. I can hardly wait!
After a great few days together, it was time for me to jump on a bus and head east to Esquipulas – home to a famous carving of Christ out of black wood and a major destination for Guatemalan religious tourism – where I would meet Tim Hill for visits to Finca Pashapa
and Finca El Puente
. More to come from Honduras!