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By: Holly Kragiopoulos 19 February 2017
As some of you might know, Krag and I embarked on a sourcing trip to Central America at the end of January to check out some new suppliers and to visit some existing ones – we set off from Leeds Bradford airport at an unimaginably early hour on the cold and drizzly morning of the 31st January and arrived in the beautifully warm San Salvador around 20 hours later!
This part of the trip had been meticulously planned as we had a very clear mission – we were looking to find a suitable farm to partner up with over the coming years for a component of our house blend, Dark Arches. We therefore chose to visit the Northern region of El Salvador, Chalatenango which borders Honduras. Previously we have worked in the very famous coffee producing region of Santa Ana in the West which is where many of the Cup of Excellence winning coffees have come from in recent years. There is no doubting the quality and consistency of the coffees from this region, but most of the coffee produced here is done so on larger estates and we wanted to explore the possibility of working with smaller producers with whom we might be able to forge a more engaged relationship with going forwards.
Chalate is totally unique in El Salvador as nearly all of the coffee is produced by smallholder farmers who have on average between 3 and 15 hectares of land. I was also astonished to find that these smallholders process their coffee to parchment level in this region using micro wet mills on their smallholding – this is similar to how things are done in Colombia but is very unusual in El Salvador due to the risk of coffee theft. The farms we have worked with in the past have always delivered cherry to heavily secured centralised wet mills who process their coffee for them. The main benefit of a producer holding onto their coffee for more of the supply chain is that they can access higher prices with a product of higher value. It also means we have more potential to work experimentally with individual producers as they are in control of the entire process up until the hulling stage.
Generally speaking, the altitude is also much higher in this region which has a really positive effect on the cup profile of the coffee – it also means that it harvests ever so slightly later than other parts of the country and we were able to observe much of the first stage of the picking and early deliveries to the micro wet mills. One thing however that became immensely clear to us during our time in this region was the insane impact of climate change in the coffee lands. Being ‘millennials’, this is a subject we are very familiar with but never have we been more aware of the potential impacts of global warming – as is always the way, these impacts are naturally felt first in the world’s most environmentally volatile areas which also happen to be coffee producing regions.
Rising temperatures mean that even farms growing coffee in these higher regions were dramatically hit by leaf rust in 2013-2014 obliterating up to half of the yields and devastating farming families across the world. Chalate also suffered from unexpected rains in December when the first coffee had been harvested and needed to dry – nearly all of it got wet which essentially means it can no longer be sold to specialty buyers and must be sold commercially for much lower prices. All of the people we spoke to during our time in El Salvador confirmed that climate change is the biggest challenge facing farmers in this country currently. Contributing even more uncertainty to an already volatile industry, this does seem to have the effect of encouraging more farmers to produce specialty grade coffee in an effort to safeguard themselves against the possible losses.
During our time in Chalate, we were introduced to two smallholder farmers – Alfonso Rodriguez and Leonecio Guillen. Both men had plots of a similar size and were in the early stages of revolutionising their harvesting and processing technique to bring about higher quality and therefore higher prices. We were blown away by their acceptance and willingness to adapt tradition in order to produce specialty grade coffee. In instances such as these, the impact that we can have on an individual’s quality of life becomes really tangible and we have since committed to purchasing both farms entire production of specialty grade coffee to communicate our intention of forging a long term relationship going forwards. In the years to come, we will also be investing in quality improvement methods such as raised drying beds in an effort to help improve the coffee produced and therefore the prices accessed. We look forward to returning on an annual basis to observe the development of each farm and we can’t wait to land our first coffee from Chalatenango, El Salvador.
The next stop was Guatemala City followed by a 7 hour drive to the highlands of Huehuetenango in the north-west. The journey was, as you might imagine, slightly arduous but we instantly knew when we were in coffee farming territory as we were able to observe families gathering up parchment coffee drying on the side of the road for the night. We will never quite be able to put into words the experience we had in the back of a pickup truck driving up the mountainside gradually gaining altitude, making our way up to Finca La Bolsa but the video below might give you an insight!
The beneficio was visible from the roadside and we were greeted by Renardo and Maria Vides who have owned the farm since the death of Maria’s father and the farm’s founder, Jorge Vides who established the farm in 1958. The hospitality we were given by these two was just overwhelming during our entire time on the farm. In their seventies, Renardo and Maria have been married for 52 years and had us in absolute stitches for the whole trip – after briefly showing us around the office and warehouse, the sun slowly disappeared and it was time for a beer and a steak before an early night spent listening to the sounds of La Bolsa…
The next morning started with a coffee – for me this is my absolute favourite part of any trip, drinking the coffee produced on the farm you are staying on whilst looking at the trees it is growing on!
We were treated to a breakfast of tortilla, eggs and frijoles before getting on our boots for a 3 hour trek around the 110 hectares of beautiful coffee growing land. Mercedes, the farm manager, proudly showed us the nursery growing around 15 different varietals which are both planted on the farm and also sold to local smallholders. We then visited the different tablóns including Ventanas which was the plot of coffee that we purchased last year. This is always a really good opportunity to gain an insight into the health of the trees and the farm practices. The thing that struck us during this experience was the genuine love that the farm owners hold for both the land and the people responsible for the production of their coffee.
The farm is Rainforest Alliance certified which is an essential for us when working with large estates in Central America – it is the only way to guarantee that the farm owner is looking after everyone working on the farm and is also being environmentally responsible with his/her production practices. Being RFA certified means the Vides family has had to adhere to certain guidelines such as placing signs around the farm which read ‘Protect the Trees’ or ‘Do not hunt the animals’, but what struck us was how much further this family go to look after the environment and community surrounding the farm. Our journey from Guatemala City was spent sat amongst bags of shoes that Maria had instructed to be collected for the farm workers as she had noticed that many of them were wearing shoes that were too old or damaged. She has also developed an extensive educational programme for the children of the farm workers who learn about health and nutrition alongside life skills such as baking and cooking – and of course maths, English and science. I have visited many farms in Central America and it really is incredibly rare to come across a family that so clearly lives and breathes everything they do. There was a general feeling of happiness and contentment on this farm which really was everything we could have wished for in a producing partner. We both refer to La Bolsa as a sort of Disney farm as it is the perfect example of a farm that is run both ethically and with quality in mind – two principles that do not always go hand in hand.
Following a tour of the farm and milling facilities, we made our way back to the lab in Guatemala City to cup some of the early samples that have been delivered. This is always so important so that we can check how calibrated we are and ensure we are all on the same page in terms of the profile of coffee we are looking for. Thankfully, this was a quick and easy task and we managed to secure some really exciting coffees which should be with us around early June.
All in all, Krag and I had a fantastically productive trip which allowed us some time out of the day to day running of the Roastery so that we can remind ourselves of why we do what we do. These experiences are always so enriching and we feel truly privileged to be able to visit some of the most beautiful parts of the world – regions that have no tourist attractions and that you would probably only get to because you work in coffee. Some of the existing challenges facing the industry are incredibly concerning and we really feel committed to looking after our producing partners who are bearing an incredible burden in the interest of producing specialty grade coffee. It is truly humbling to witness the incredible effort that goes into the production of the coffee we buy and can at times feel like an almost impossible feat – we really do feel the responsibility of communicating that to our customers so that we can continue growing a market and appreciation for this incredible product.