EL Salvador 2016 - travelling companions and our host:
Andrew, Maxwell, Fernando Lima and Martin
Two years ago I was lucky to travel to El Salvador on my first coffee ‘origin’ trip with two coffee folk that had a significant factor in my own beginnings in speciality coffee. Maxwell Colonna Dashwood and Andrew Tucker. Both of whom need no introduction if you’ve been around the UK speciality scene for a while. For these seasoned coffee professionals it was only their second trip to origin and yet their knowledge levels of agronomy, harvesting and processing terms and techniques already seemed very advanced to me. I learnt a lot from them as well as the farmers and growers that we met and were hosted by.
I saw Maxwell for the first time in 2012 at the south west heats of the UK Barista Championships held down in Exeter. I’d literally just arrived back in the UK from living in Australia and had witnessed some barista competitions over there as my interest in speciality coffee had begun. Max stole the show and I must admit being an outsider I didn’t feel comfortable introducing myself to someone who was clearly on his way to being something of a coffee superstar. But he inspired me.
Meeting Andrew took a different route. On our way back from Australia, my wife had landed a 3 month research contract in a small town about 2 hours north of Stockholm called Gavle. I killed time, riding my bike, going to the gym and working out what I was going to do once we finally arrived back in the UK. I’d googled coffee in the South West and came up with a few names to contact including Tom Sowby the owner of Origin Coffee from Cornwall and Andrew Tucker, then head of coffee for Boston Tea Party. I flicked him a quick introductory email and he suggested we have a chat over Skype. He gave me 40 minutes of his valuable time and we talked about barista work at BTP as well as the state of the speciality scene in the south west and the UK in general. I’m sure he had a busy schedule and I’ll always be grateful for those 40 mins.
That first day high up on the Santa Ana volcano overlooking the beautiful turquoise Lago de Coatepeque was the first of many WOW moments. Our host Fernando Lima had taken us to his most prestigious farm Finca Santa Elena and as we pulled up in the absolutely necessary 4WD we were greeted by piles of freshly picked red cherries that were being sorted and checked before being weighed and taken to the receiving tanks at his own micro-mill. We then walked through the coffee trees, picking the odd cherry as we went. Squeezing the seed out of the fruit and seeing that sticky covered ‘bean’ was the second WOW moment for sure. Interestingly we were told that most seeds grow as pairs and the occasional mutation is a single seed which is generally smaller and rounder know as a peaberry (PB), but I’d not heard about 3 seeds in a cherry. I think that might have been the 2nd or 3rd cherry that I’d picked and Fernando said that was pretty rare. Then it happened again on the 5th or 6th. Another WOW.
I’m not going back to El Salvador this year but Andrew is as part of his new role as Business Development Director (and coffee buyer) for PACED the parent company of Colonna Coffee. He’ll be cementing the strong relationships he established in his previous role as head of coffee for Clifton Coffee by visiting the same producers and mills. Luckily for me he’s got some space in his coffee container for some goodies for me, so I’m expecting some delicious El Salvador coffees from the Lima farms in Santa Ana as well as the Pacas facility farms from their mill Finca Tuxpal. Lucky me, lucky you.
I am however going to Costa Rica with one of my import partners Cafe Imports. Costa Rica has a reputation for it’s micro-mills rather than large cooperative based facilities. Small mills on farms where the processing is done immediately after harvesting on a small scale. This means small micro-lots, experimental processing and some delicious honey processed coffees which the country has become famous for. If you’ve been buying coffee from Crankhouse recently then you may have been lucky to have had the Las Lajas yellow honey. This was definitely one of my best coffees of 2017 and I had amazing feedback for it from both wholesale and retail customers.
This morning I received the itinerary for the trip and guess what: Las Lajas is on it. Yes, I’ll be visiting the farm that I had one of my standout coffees from last year and I’ll be able to tell the owner how much my customers loved his coffee. That’s exciting. I’m hoping to learn a bunch of stuff and taste some amazing coffee with a goal of having some of those coffees on the Crankhouse list when they arrive in the UK towards the middle of the year. It would be amazing to offer different honeys from the same farm as well as washed and naturals to showcase how much processing effects the flavour profile. When I first heard an explanation of Costa Rica honey types at an event hosted by Origin coffee some years ago, it seemed the honey colours were classified according to the percentage of mucilage remaining on the seed after being pulped. 10% mucilage being a black honey, 30% being a red, 50% being yellow, 70% being white (I may have these figures a little off to be honest but you get the idea). Having been to El Salvador and seeing how cherries are received, washed, de-pulped, graded etc I’m intrigued to see the Costa Rica way first hand. In El Salvador honeys are classified according to the amount of drying time with the mucilage left on before they’re sent to have it removed in whichever method is chosen. All cherries, except naturals go through the same machinery to remove the skin and therefore the amount of mucilage is the same. Yellow honeys are dried for 3 days, Red for 7, Black for 18 (again don't quote me on these figures but you get the idea). I’m confident I’ll have a clear explanation for you on my return.