By Nanelle Newbom
You just don’t find this sort of thing any more. Over the last decade the barriers to direct trade have lowered. Thanks to many pioneers from all sectors of the green coffee business, most importers have simple processes in place to facilitate, and many farmers have become accustomed to helping their clients navigate the details of direct coffee purchases. Farms without their own infrastructure often partner with labs, and have become savvy to managing how the mills handle their coffees. Things (in direct trade coffee) have become much easier. This means that most any roaster can jump on a plane, find, and buy her own coffee without much trouble. Whether all roasters have good reason too jump on a plane, or know what the bigger reasoning behind those trade relationships is, is another question for a different article.
This lowered barrier to Direct Trade is a good thing. It’s fabulous. Things that elevate either the quality of, or public interest in Specialty Coffee are good for everyone involved. If there is a downside, it would be that some of the romance is gone for those who want a feeling of exclusivity (intrepid coffee hunters), 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. I would be in the later category. I love good coffee, but I enjoy either participating in or at lease seeing a project come together.
So when in El Salvador of all places, and not ten minutes from the capital, I happened across one of those gems I nearly broke my face from smiling. 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. In some regions the inward curves are called “bolsas”.
Not everyone follows the “bolsa doctrine” but for those who do, Finca San Antonio is nothing short of fabulous. Some say the inward curves provide protection from wind, and balanced shade, the humidity is a bit higher, and that bolsas collect organic matter and nutrients which yields better fruit. Others just love that bolsas are cool and pretty. Personally I’m a believer in both aspects. I love me some bolsas. The south facing position of many of the bolsas here 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 of the trees are easily 6 meters in height, all of them working oh so very hard to compete for sunlight, by reaching higher than their neighbors. These trees are working really hard!!
Bad sign? Not really. This is a formerly commercial farm in transition. Several aspects of how the farm is run and maintained are changing, even 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. For those not familiar with the commodities market and how it affects coffee, let me just say that it is volatile, has nothing to do with demand vs supply, and that its swings harm both farmers and roasters in certain cycles. The last couple year the market has been extremely low, low enough that farmers are either getting out of coffee, or transitioning to directly traded, higher quality coffees that circumvent much of the influence of the C market. Zelaya 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 organization. Things just kept getting better as we headed to the Mill to cup.
At the mill 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 solid. This was darned good coffee. I viewed it as criminal that the farm had been going to commercial buyers until recently.
In speaking with Zelaya, he related 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 seem to keep their focus on the coffee at hand, and are seduced by the C price. Further the transitions on the farm are 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 as coffee buyers and roasters is small. We buy the coffee. We present the coffee to the public. Some of us get very enthusiastic and go farther by trying to tell the story of the coffee. At Finca San Antonio there is a story to tell, and it has too many layers for one article. I look forward to serving some coffees from one of the newer members of the Specialty Coffee community, and to trying tell some parts of how it came to your cup. Look for Finca San Antonio Natural on our shelf around August. Im sure you will hear me shouting about it before then.