You just can't find this sort of thing any more. Over the last decade the barriers to direct trade have lowered. Thanks to many pioneers most importers have simple processes in place, and farmers have become accustomed to helping their clients navigate the details. Farms without their own infrastructure often partner with labs, and have become savvy to managing how the mills handle their coffees. Things have become much easier.
This is a good thing. It's fabulous. For us, things that elevate the quality of or public interest in specialty downside, it would be that some of the romance is gone for this for whine exclusivity are a huge motivator, and that we have come to a place where there are fewer hidden gems or farms in transition for those who enjoy partnering in a way where everyone's hands get dirty and problem solving is interactive and genuine.
Imaging me glee when in El Salvador of all places and not ten minutes from the capital I happen across one of those gems. Finca San Antonio spreads across 50 developed manzanas of land curving around the south to western slopes of the San Salvador volcano, at ranges from 1600 up to over 1800 meters in elevation.
The undulating landscape creates a continual series of protected inward pockets and more exposed extensions away from the center of the mountain.
Not everyone follows the "bolsa doctrine" but for those who do, this is nothing short of wonderland. The inward curves provide protection from wind, and deeper shade. Some believe the humidity is a bit higher, or that they collect organic matter and nutrients differently. Others just love that bolsas are cool and pretty.
Personally I'm a believer. I love me some bolsas. And the positioning of many of these allow for balanced sun exposure.
You know what doesn't? The sheer size of the trees. These are the biggest bourbon trees I have seen. Some easily 6 meters in height, working oh so very hard to compete for sunlight, by reaching higher than their neighbors, and having to move nutrients very far as a result. Bad sign? Not really. This is a formerly commercial farm in transition. They are working on improving everything as we speak.
The amiable owner Roberto Zelaya describes the challenges of transition with a double accent. Zelaya speaks in a rolling combination Salvadoran swoop and a Texas drawl. I must admit it sounds kinda badass. I still focused on what he was saying rather than trying to imitate that awesome combination.
With the clear potential of the farm, and the brutal status of the C market, Zelaya decided to invest in improvements and to consult with people who knew how to drive the quality of his coffees upward. Well he nailed it. He contacted Maria Pacas, one of the most respected voices in Central American Specialty Coffee and brought his coffees to her and her brother for milling. I jumped for joy hearing they were working with the Pacas. Things just kept getting better as we headed to the Mill to cup.
We cupped a table of coffees that included both some of the Pacas family farm coffees and samples from Finca San Antonio. The San Antonio coffees were surprisingly comparable. There were differences, but it was a great thing to have a solid base for comparison on the table, and to see that the coffees are already pretty solid.
San Antonio stands to go very very far if while still in transition it held its own on such a credible table. Wow. In speaking with Zelaya you can understand a few more of the challenges he faces in transition. That same down market that motivated him to transition upward in quality places downward price pressure even for better coffees. Specialty buyers can’t keep their focus on the coffee at hand, and start comparing it to the C price. The transition is expensive. Just look at those massive trees! They aren’t going to prune themselves.
Maintenance that reduces Leaf Rust, changes in how fertilizer is applied, multiple passes to pick only ripe coffee cherries and more. The costs add up, and all in advance of a payout that he may or may not receive. Its expensive, difficult and risky.
Our role in it is small. We buy the coffee. It is that simple. I look forward to serving some coffees from one of the newer members of the Specialty Coffee community. New converts if you will. Look for Finca San Antonio Natural on our shelf around August. You won't be disappointed.
Originally written by Nanelle Newbom in March 2016.