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By: James Fairweather 23 March 2020
As the anniversary of my virgin adventure to the coffee lands of Central America has just passed, I felt it only fitting to complete my epic tale of coffee based discovery. Some of you may also be aware of an exciting Skype call that took place a couple of months ago between us, the lovely legends at Caravela and Maria Zoila Pineda – one of our amazing Chalatenango based producers and contributor to our Chelazos coffee. Maria is the focus of our first ever North Star Project and it was great to catch up with her and Caravela and learn of exciting details surrounding progress and activity taking place on her little farm just outside La Palma. I left the conversation feeling incredibly gratified and inspired, and felt the need to revisit last years journey and fill you guys in on what myself and Senor Sears got up to on the second leg of our trip. Here we go…
Next stop El Salvador! Where we were on a mission to meet and learn more about our producing partners in and around La Palma, Chalatenango. And yes… we did manage to make it to our second destination without any further self inflicted flight issues! We touched down in San Salvador where we were greeted by Ana Sofia, our second host from Caravela (our main exporter for Central/South American green coffee). Yet another unfortunate soul who had to look after two sleep deprived, now burned Englishmen for a few days. We began the second leg of our journey with a visit to the Caravela cupping lab. Pulling up after a 2 and a half hour journey by car to find a flat bed truck being loaded with sacks of green coffee. Worker’s from the bodega were scaling a wobbly scaffolding plank with all the balance and grace of a gymnast, before slinging 60KG sacks into the back of the truck like they were feather pillows. All in 27 degree heat! The unsung heroes of Caravela!
We passed through the warehouse where perforated sacks lined the walls and entered the cupping lab with a greeting of traditional latin music that echoed off the walls. Here we were introduced to Miguel and Hugo who are part of Caravela’s PECA team (PECA – short for ‘Grower Education Program’ in Spanish). Miguel is a trained agronomist and is tasked with supporting and working directly with producers in and around Chalatenango. Having access to the knowledge Miguel possesses is invaluable to producers, allowing them to maintain profitable farm operations as well as being shown how to get the best out of their crop on both quality and yield, whilst doing so in a sustainable manner. Whilst here we got the opportunity to cup new crop samples from some of the producers that contribute to our Chelazos coffee. An incredible table of taste bud tinglers that showcased the great work being achieved thanks to the relationship between PECA and producer.
After slurping our way around the cupping table we jumped back into the pick-up with Ana Sofia and Miguel and headed to Finca El Talquezalar to meet Alfonso Rodriguez, the first of our Chelazos producers. As we gained altitude and got ever closer to the farm, the roads began to snake and there was a noticeable change in steepness. We had reached 1300 MASL and were within touching distance when the Nissan we were travelling in ground to a halt. Wheels spun, loose rocks flew and dust clouded our view. Where’s an ever-reliable Toyota Hi-Lux when you need one?! We bundled out of the inadequate vehicle and made the last leg of the journey on foot, up the steep driveway. As we approached the farm, we were greeted by Alfonso, his daughter and farm manager. Alfonso is an imposing yet incredibly friendly character. A proud “Grandfather” who is in way better shape than little old me. (I made an effort not to stand too close to him in order to avoid highlighting my spaghetti arms) What struck me was how incredibly driven he was. He is extremely proud of his farm and was clearly excited to share details and potential plans he had for the future. He began by showing us his home built washing station, complete with 2 fermentation tanks and de-pulper before leading us down a path just off from his patio. Here he explained that he plans to level the land and build more raised beds and a greenhouse so he can maximize space. All of the wood used to build his raised beds will be sourced from the farm as 67 hectares of his land is reserved for native trees such as pine and sweet gum. Alfonso was unfortunately the victim of his own success during last year’s harvest and produced way more coffee than initially expected. Therefore, the introduction of these additional raised beds is really important and should prevent him from having to rent more patio space and avoid losing any of his precious harvest.
We were met by a cacophony of birdsong as we passed through Alfonso’s patios and headed up into the coffee fields. Finca El Talquezalar is impressive in scale and full of a healthy number of Pacas plants. We climbed, weaved and listened as he talked about problems he has faced as a coffee farmer. We briefly stopped so he could air his frustrations over the reliability of some pickers in the past and informed us that he has since constructed 7 buildings in order to make the farm more attractive to potential workers. A safe haven for his employees to live in throughout the harvest period that includes lodgings as well as cooking and cleaning facilities throughout.
Whilst en route to one of his favourite spots on the farm we passed through a clearing that housed a number of banana trees. His farm manager Jaime whipped out a knife from his belt and proceeded to gather us a massive bunch of bendy yellow fruit straight from the tree. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about my banana phobia and graciously accepted the gift. As we stood at the highest most point of the farm overlooking the valley below it was impossible, however short, not to reflect on the time spent with Alfonso. He is a character and a real problem solver. A doer. Eager to learn as much as possible from Caravela and his peers in order to get the most out of his land and produce the best coffee possible. You could sense his passion as well as the immense pride in what he has achieved so far. Going from growing commodity grade coffee to speciality in less than 4 years, scoring upwards of 86/87. It was also great to see that he is passing on all of his knowledge and expertise to his daughter, an aspiring female producer of the future. After speaking with her you could tell Alfonso’s infectious outlook and work ethic has been passed down a generation.
Having had issues with the terrain driving up to Finca El Talquezalar, Alfonso called in the cavalry in the form of his hermanos (brother in-law) Efrain and his reliable workhorse, the one the only, coffee farmer vehicle of choice, the Toyota Hi-Lux. Although not one of our Chelazos producers per say, it was clear that Efrain was very much a big part of the farming community here in La Palma. We bundled into the back of his pick-up and visited a harder to reach part of Alfonso’s farm before bidding him farewell and having a quick look at Efrain’s crops. After stopping in for a well-earned brew at Efrain’s we were collected by our driver and back in the Nissan for a short ride over to see Maria Zoila Pineda, our last scheduled visit for the day.
Maria is the widow of a coffee farmer and former maths teacher who decided to hang up her abacus and take the reigns of her late husband’s coffee farm. It’s been a real learning curve for her as she was not involved in the cultivation of the crop when her husband was alive and she has had to learn everything from scratch. Luckily for her she has her ever-reliable farm manager Humberto to support her, who she treats like her own son. I was looking forward to meeting Maria because we had slurped some of her coffee in the lab earlier in the day and it was truly exquisite. A super sweet and sticky honey Pacamara that was delightfully tropical in profile. A syrupy mango, pineapple and passionfruit smoothie of a coffee that sent my receptors into overdrive! Ana informed us that this mouth watering Pacamara has reached scores of up to 90 in the past, only problem being that the quality of her crop has been so volatile due to inadequate processing equipment and disease. Which are both issues that can be rectified with help from investment and advice from Caravela.
Upon arrival Maria was quick to lead us onto her farm. She is super spritely for someone of her age and it was hard to keep up as she wriggled through coffee trees at a pace. With just her and Humberto managing the farm it was not as well groomed as some of the other Chelazos producers we had visited although there were still a vast number of plants, many with branches heavily laden with ripe fruit. We passed Pacamara after Pacamara with big deep red juicy berries hanging from them. It was also noticeable how much natural shade was present which helps to create perfect growing conditions for coffee, protecting the plants from too much direct sunlight. Banana, avocado, melon, orange and papaya trees were everywhere, shooting up randomly and towering above the coffee trees. The air was thick with the smell of sweet citrus and upon looking above me I was confronted with the biggest orange tree I ever did see, branches bursting with big fat dimpled balls of orange. Such diversity and so impressive! Maria was relentless in pushing forwards through the undergrowth and disappeared from view for the umpteenth time. I stumbled out from between a tight grouping of Pacamara into a large clearing of banana trees, an area that isn’t farmed due to its tendency to flood. After passing through the clearing we found ourselves on the outskirts of Finca Margarita where there was considerably less shade. An area where pruning and shade management is a priority. Because it is all so open and not as well covered some of the trees showed visible signs of stress due to excessive sun exposure which can ultimately damage the plant and have a negative impact on both quality and yield. It’s great to see that both Maria and Humberto have an understanding of the strengths and limitations of their own land and are aware of areas that need attention. We finished our tour by having a look in her little bodega, where Maria stores her coffee post processing. A cool, bare room with perforated sacks full of green Pacas and Pacamara stacked high against the far wall and lifted off the floor with logs to allow adequate airflow and prevent damage from any potential pests. We found out that one of these sacks contained some of the mouth wateringly tropical Pacamara that we had tasted earlier on in the day at the cupping lab. After various attempts to pinch said sack using Ol’s devilishly good looks as a diversion we said cheerio to Humberto and clambered back into the truck for the final time of the day. Maria was heading back to La Palma too so we offered her a lift to save her the hour walk she usually makes to get home after a hard day at the farm. Once we had reached Maria’s destination she refused to let us leave until she had bought us the biggest bunch of green bananas as a thank you for the ride. We said our goodbyes, added the fruit to our ever-growing banana stash and headed on back into the centre of La Palma.
After a quick pit stop at our accommodation we were keen to explore the municipality we were staying in. Vibrant street art adorned many of the walls we passed and bright colourful buildings lined the streets. I was surprised at how busy this bustling little village was but Ana informed us that we had arrived right in the middle of an annual religious celebration. An important festival in the local calendar that honoured the Virgin Mary. It was just beginning to get dark as we entered the central park and we were confronted by various fairground rides and a big stage packed with women, each sporting a traditional dress of a different colour. We briefly paused to catch a bit of what appeared to be a beauty pageant before politely pushing our way through the crowds to find somewhere to eat. Many of the streets were closed and a huge market surrounded the park. We passed table after table of various local hand-made arts and crafts and couldn’t resist making a purchase of the local sweets. It was here that we discovered a super sweet block of brown confectionary made from Panelan- which is unrefined whole cane sugar derived from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. A rich, smoky caramel sweetness that made me smile with every bite. Conscious as to not spoil our dinner we pocketed the rest of the sweets and entered one of the many Pupuserias that were dotted around the centre. Funnily enough, when in a Pupuseria there is really only one choice to make on the menu… and that is Pupusa. A traditional flatbread made with cornmeal flour and stuffed with a filling of your choice. As we dined on one too many of these tasty pillowy pancakes of corn, five teenagers dressed in black and carrying crude instruments announced themselves by breaking into jolly traditional song. The perfect accompaniment to our food and an enjoyable end to a whirlwind of a day.
We still had two of our four producers left to visit and started the next day bright and early. Miguel, officially La Palma’s coolest agronomist, rocked up at our lodgings shades on, straddling his shiny motorbike. He then dismounted and jumped into the van with the three of us to begin our journey to Finca Buena Vista to meet Orlando Aguilar. On arrival, Orlando emerged from his house, large straw hat in hand and eager to show us his handy work. He was incredibly laid back and humble. A coffee producer from the age of 14, Orlando has almost 30 years of coffee growing experience. He explained that his brothers had encouraged him to start planting coffee and as the years have passed he has created a network of coffee buddies in the region who have helped him learn and grow as a producer.
First port of call at Buena Vista was a trip up to the patio, cockerels crowed and the surrounding views were simply stunning. His award winning honey processed lot was spread thinly across the patio. He encouraged us to study the drying beans and continued to tell us how he likes to process his crop. How selective he is during harvest, only picking the ripest bright red cherries. He washes the coffee four times before floating to sort. Then onto fermentation where Orlando has a strict schedule – pulping starts around 5 and finishes at 7pm and fermentation varies according to the temperature at the time. He uses an old school method to tell when the coffee is ready to be washed by touch, dipping his hand into the tank. He joked that he’s earned the nickname El Puntero (The Pointer) because of this “hands on” method. We moved over to his fermentation tank where pulped coffee was currently sitting in the tank mid-fermentation. Orlando chooses to ferment without water because he believes that it ferments faster due to the increase mucilage on the bean aiding the reaction. Once on the patio or raised drying bed, the coffee is raked every 20 minutes. Quite a labour intensive strategy but important to aid successful drying and prevent any potential defects created by pests or mold.
Buena Vista by name, bloody good view by nature! Orlando was keen to show us his award winning plants as well as the stunning views that gave the name to his farm. We climbed and climbed, following a windy path up to the highest point on the farm. No mean feat in the incredible energy sapping heat! Healthy coffee trees that were close to flowering lined the track. In amongst the trees Agave plants dotted the fields and coffee pulp was littered at the base of many of the coffee plants, painstakingly applied as natural fertilizer. He’s part of a group of ten producers who produce their own organic fertilizer and is passionate about continuing to do so due to his awareness of the benefits to both crop and the environment. We stopped briefly at a clearing where a little scorched patch remained on the ground. A clearing where Orlando’s workers break to have lunch during a hard day of picking. After a brief breather, Orlando led us through the crops to an amazing look out point where we could appreciate the stunning view in all its glory. Whilst here, Orlando explained that at 43 he has no plans to stop planting coffee. He’s currently using his extensive knowledge and is experimenting by planting Geisha and an unknown Kenyan variety on his brother’s farm. He is a prime example of a forward thinking coffee producer who strives to improve the quality of his crop year on year and is not afraid to take advice from outside and trial new things to better his harvest.
We thanked Orlando before climbing back into the Nissan for our final visit. Last but certainly not least was a short trip to Finca El Izote, the home and coffee farm of Alberto Ochoa and his family. We pulled up at the house, which could only be described as a mini assault course. After having to limbo under the many washing lines that stretched across the driveway, we then had to carefully shimmy around a sea of green coffee that lead all the way to the front door, all whilst making sure that we didn’t stand on any of the chickens that pecked by our feet. We were warmly greeted by Alberto’s wife and daughters before being lead into the living room/part-time bodega where we sat on a sofa that was propped up against a wall of perforated coffee sacks jammed full of the good stuff. After introducing ourselves and having a quick chat, Alberto’s son showed us their fermentation tanks, which were still being used to process the last of the season’s harvest. Coffee which, although didn’t quite make speciality grade, was being prepared to be sold commercially on the local market. Nothing is wasted, everything is used!
Alberto then lead us through a gate into a well organized area full of raised drying beds, similar to those utilised on Orlando’s farm at Finca Buena Vista. Long wooden frames covered in chicken wire and lined with a fine mesh to prevent the unnecessary loss of any drying beans. We then took a short stroll to where the perimeter of the house ended and the crops began. The landscape behind Alberto’s house is incredibly dramatic with a valley running the length of his land. There is a steep drop and the coffee trees line the slope leading down into the valley. He has had issues in the past with wind damage to crops due to the nature of the landscape but has wisely countered this by planting more shade trees to help break up the airflow thus protecting his plants. The terrain also creates issues for workers and he is therefore reliant on familiar pickers who are aware of the difficulty of harvesting the land and who he subsequently has to pay more. Luckily the farm isn’t as vast as Finca El Talquezalar and at only around 5-6 hectares he only really needs around 12 pickers to help throughout harvest. The coffee we had seen on the beds before entering the fields looked super clean and ripe though so the current system he has in place, however frustrating, is obviously working a treat.
After checking out the general good health of Alberto’s plants, Ol shared a tender moment with Alberto’s son, helping him to pick defective beans and foreign matter off the raised beds in the garden. Something that is carried out regularly by the Ochoa’s, highlighting the due care and attention operated throughout processing. Unlike Alfonso and Orlando, there didn’t seem to be a patio exclusively used for drying and it appeared by the number of raised beds that these were their preferred method for drying. Which actually has its many benefits. They are incredibly quick to cover if it rains. There is increased airflow around the bean, especially when combined with raking which the Ochoa’s carry out every half an hour. And when raking, the bed is much more forgiving than a hard patio resulting in less chance of damage to the bean. Therefore the drying carried out at Finca El Izote is incredibly effective and less risky as a whole. These guys clearly know what they’re doing. Before leaving we were invited back into the house where we were treated to a tasty brew of Alberto’s finest, expertly prepared by his wife and even offered a biccy for that all important dunk. Now that was some mighty fine hospitality, which was muchos appreciated by two hungry Englishmen.
My trip has left me with a new found understanding and appreciation of the agricultural workings that go on everyday at Origin. From the devoted farmers and the crucial work of agronomists to the science of varying processing methods and the dedicated workers who tirelessly harvest this precious cargo. I was lucky enough to experience two different types of farm on my journey. Finca La Bolsa, the Disneyland of coffee plantations. Owned by a 3rd generation coffee farmer and now successful businessman who has turned this beautiful Finca into a well oiled coffee producing theme park with incredible facilities, innovative methods of processing and swathes of committed and incredibly knowledgable staff. At the heart of this larger scale operation there is a monumental emphasis on sustainable farming practice and social responsibility, which can be observed in the commitment to conserving the ecosystem they work in and incredible levels of social support offered to their working community.
Then on the other hand we have the less developed but equally well-tended Chelazos co-operative Fincas. Each farm occupying far less space and usually on the grounds of family homes. They may be smaller scale but are run by farmers who are just as driven and strive to increase quality and better their harvest year on year. Chelazos is not just a co-operative, it’s a coffee community where ideas for best practice are shared and support is available in abundance. La Bolsa and the various Chelazos Fincas may be different in size and by the amount of financial support available but both are identical in their insatiable quest for quality and love for the ecosystem they reside in.
It was also amazing to get to spend time with Caravela whilst in El Salvador. To experience first-hand the tireless work of Hugo and Miguel and the PECA team. To hear each Chelazos farmer speak so highly and animatedly of the advice and support they provide. Alfonso is a prime example and gave a glowing account of the benefits Caravela have had on his harvest. Yes he had to make significant financial investment, spend a lot of time making alterations to his farm and learn new practices that would ultimately make jobs easier… But it was clearly worth it! Since working shoulder to shoulder with Caravela Alfonso has gone from producing 110 bags to 300 bags of coffee with volumes from each hectare of land rising from 13 bags to 27. Benefits cannot only be seen from yield either, with cupping scores now reaching a solid and consistent 86/87 highlighting a marked increase in quality and resulting in a more profitable crop. And he’s not stopping there! Alfonso has huge plans for the farm, which should not only continue to increase yield and overall volume over time but also help to increase and further stabilize quality.
Seeing this with our own eyes really proved the powerful opportunity that specialty coffee can be and we left feeling determined to do all we can to help the other producers of the Chelazos collective to attain the same results – keep your eyes peeled and ears open in the coming months for news surrounding our first ever North Star Project with Maria and our friends at Caravela!
Adiós for now.