Origin Story: El Salvador & Guatemala

Written by Sam Mirto, Director of Coffee

During my second trip to coffee producing countries, I spent time in both El Salvador and Guatemala. This trip was every bit as impactful and memorable as my trip to Costa Rica, but for different reasons - as you’ll see. We started out flying into San Salvador in El Salvador, and that’s where I’ll begin.

El Salvador is nestled between Honduras and Guatemala in Central America. Before the trip, I was told that the country has some really serious issues with gang violence, which made me a bit apprehensive. As our plane emerged below the clouds during our decent into the country, in the distance I saw the endless ocean, and around me there were mountains, and a volcano as well, which I later found out was the Volcan de Santa Ana. I also noticed many plumes of smoke in vast fields of sugar cane. I learned that before the crop is harvested, part of the sugar cane plant itself is burned to make harvesting easier, and to enrich the soil. Our plane landed, and once we got through the airport, we got in a car and headed towards the Santa Ana region of El Salvador.

Looking out the window as we were driving, I saw the vast fields of burning sugar cane that I saw from the sky. At one point, we passed a large group of cows casually strolling down the road, mopeds weaving in and out of them like it was common place (which I’m sure it was). Every now and then we’d pass a roadside hut selling plantains, avocados, papayas, mangos, and fruit-like things that were completely unknown to me. It was reminiscent of Costa Rica, but at that same time it wasn’t. It seemed altogether more foreign and remote, and in my naïve understanding, hopelessly lost in time. Whenever I travel, I always try to picture myself living in wherever I am, and much unlike Costa Rica, I kept thinking to myself, “There’s no fricken way I’d last more than a week in this country."

Maybe it was unfair to me, or an unfair perception of reality in El Salvador, but I couldn’t get that thought out of my mind. That thought was driven into my mind permanently when we passed by a dead body on the side of the road that had been simply covered with a small blanket. People on the side of the road were walking around the body to continue on with their days. My unfair judgement of their actions was swift and harsh, my emotions were all over the place after what I had just seen, and I was searching for answers and someone to blame. This is often the usual cycle of events when I see or hear something that seems unforgivable, but with a little age under my belt now I’m usually able to skip that irrational first stage where I can’t put things in perspective or see the bigger picture, but I was not able to do that in this moment. I did eventually come to my senses, and was able to attain my usual homeostasis where I am thankful for where fate has led me, and I am able to understand that this is not a fate shared by all.

Time passed and the shock wore off, and we soon found ourselves looking for somewhere to eat, so we stopped at Subway. Yeah I know, needless to say this was another surprise, but when in Rome you know? So we stopped at the uber authentic El Salvadorian restaurant of Subway, and as we were walking in, the door was held for us by an armed guard carrying a big ass shotgun. The shotgun was seriously bigger than the dude, because he was kind of small I guess, but this was my first glimpse of the gang violence that is so prevalent in El Salvador. Merchants hire armed guards to protect from armed gang members I was told, and this made sense to me, and I was glad for this protection. We ate our Subway, which was pretty much identical to what we have here in the States, and then we headed into Santa Ana to reach our final destination of the J. Hill Mill.

The place we stayed was a diamond in the rough to say the least. Clean running water, two kitchens, a pool, barbed wire fence and tall concrete walls, fully stocked bar, and air conditioning. I felt guilty for what seemed like cheating in a country where all of these conveniences are rare, but I didn’t feel too bad about it after spending a night in air conditioning when it was in the mid 90’s and humid outside…That night myself and the people who I was traveling with relaxed with a local light lager (don’t judge me that’s all they had and it was free), and went to bed immediately after watching Friends, in English! We woke up the next morning to breakfast being prepared for us, it consisted of rice and beans, really thick tortillas, eggs, chicken, and cheese, it was heavy and so, so good.

After breakfast, we met up with Aida Batlle, a well-known producer of fantastic specialty coffee in El Salvador, probably most known for Finca Kilimanjaro, Finca Mauritania, and Finca Tanzania. It was an honor to spend a couple days with her in El Salvador, she is truly at the forefront of innovation in specialty coffee in El Salvador, but I digress.

To start off the day, Aida began showing us around the J. Hill Mill, a mill that has been around since 1896! The mill is very large, with the capability to do all different types of processing, even customizing processing according to customer requests. J. Hill practices some great environmentally conscious programs, such as an immense water treatment plant, and using coffee parchment to help supply power to the mill. Aside from the environmental programs, cleanliness, flexibility, and size of the mill, it’s nestled in underneath some beautiful mountainous terrain, adding to its spectacle.

After seeing the mill, we proceeded to visit a few of Aida’s farms, specifically La Florida, Sierra Nevada, and Finca El Majahual. I was there during harvest, so I got to see workers picking cherries, bringing them down from high slopes, laying the picked cherries out on a tarp, and then separating the ripe from unripe - a painstaking process that is so important, and a big reason why Aida’s coffees are always of such high quality. This level of execution really struck a chord with me, so I was excited to learn that we would get to cup Finca El Mahajual the next day.

After another life-giving breakfast the next day, we headed to the cupping lab at J. Hill. I neglected to mention earlier that anywhere we went, we were escorted by armed guards, and if we had to drive, we rode in a bulletproofed Mercedes G Wagon, a constant reminder of the gang violence that plagues the country. In fact, while we were there, Aida received a phone call that 12 hectares of one of her farms was set on fire by gangs to clear room for them to squat, something that she seemed all too used to.At the cupping lab were two cupping tables, sample roasters, and an espresso machine to pull shots. We cupped quite a few coffees, but Finca El Majahual stood out in my mind, specifically the Orange Bourbon variety. It had warming spices, a mellow citrusy acidity, and a deep lingering sweetness that was delightful. We pulled shots of it, and it exhibited all of these characteristics intensified but still in incredible balance. Needless to say, Aida’s coffee sell in a very short amount of time, but luckily I was able to get 12 sacks of this coffee to bring on as a limited offering at Ferris, and it will be arriving shortly. Cupping brought us to the time of our departure, and after a great dinner we packed and prepared for our long drive to Antigua, Guatemala.

The trip to Antigua was long, four to five hours if I remember correctly, and it turned dark fairly quickly on into our drive, so I didn’t get a chance to do much sight-seeing on the ride. I fell asleep for a little while, until I was pulled from my slumber by someone blasting Hunger Strike by Temple of the Dog over the speakers, to which I promptly began singing along. Shortly after, we arrived at the place we would be staying over the next couple of days. It was dark, but in the distance I could make out twinkling lights in mountain shaped voids framed by the fading light of the moon. Upon entering the lodge, I was surprised, delighted, and grateful to discover that again, this place had clean running water, multiple bedrooms with air conditioning, a fully stocked bar, huge TV, leather chairs, outdoor patio with lilies hanging down, a Jacuzzi, an outdoor bar, a pool, and a partridge in a pear tree. It was reminiscent of a log cabin lodge, with a lot of hand crafted wood and stone accents. By far the most beautiful place I’ve stayed at origin. After another light lager and late night talk with a man named Edgar (the place is owned by him and his family), we found our respective rooms and went to bed.

I woke up early the next morning right as the sun came up, rubbed my eyes and proceeded to walk outside because I wanted to see what this place actually looked like in the light. Hoe-lee-you know what, it was the most beautiful sight in the world. I’m definitely not a professional writer and struggle with trying to put my thoughts to text, but picture this; the brightest, bluest sky you’ve ever seen providing a canvas for the whitest, wispiest clouds you’ve ever seen, and through it all, four volcanos that stretched all the way through the clouds into the blue abyss, backlit by the brightest most golden orange sunrise you’ve ever seen.

I know you’re going to ask, and yes, I did poop my pants.

After cleaning up, I headed to breakfast, which was similar to what we had in El Salvador, but with a bunch of fresh fruit incorporated. We had coffee from a French press, which I typically don’t get into but that day it was particularly good, and then we proceeded with a tour from Edgar of the surrounding area via Rhino (an ATV thing, not the horned megafauna). That day, we drove through a farm that the lodge we were staying at was located on. 

This farm was called Tempixque, currently owned and operated by the Falla Castillo family (Edgar is part of this family), and managed by Estuardo Falla Castillo. I was impressed to learn that this farm utilizes proprietary software to draw correlations in rainfall, pruning, and other factors to cupping scores. This seems so useful to me, and I could tell the farm itself was kept with the utmost care and precision. The trails were lined with Macadamia trees for shade, rows of coffee trees were interwoven with rows of other crops for soil stabilization and nutrient retention, and there was even a building holding troughs full of coffee cherry skin and California Red Worms to reintroduce nutrients back into the soil of the farm. After discussing the characteristics of the coffee coming from this farm, and being just generally enamored with its beauty and meticulous tending, I decided we needed to share this coffee with our customers at Ferris.

It is now one of our Tier 3 offerings, and ill hopefully be around until the next crop is available.

After visiting Tempixque, we headed to the San Miguel Mill right next to where Tempixque is located. The mill was immaculately clean and well organized. This was encouraging, as Tempixque is milled at the San Miguel Mill, along with hundreds of containers of other coffee each year. As we walked through the drying patios, we saw some coffee drying out in the sun and a small tractor with a large rake behind it was raking the coffee. We then took a tour through a room that held several very large mechanical dryers, all heated by burning coffee parchment, which I thought was clever.

We eventually made our way into the cupping lab at San Miguel, where I was seeking to cup a replacement for our Tier 1 Fair Trade Guatemala, which at the time was coming from Huehuetenango. This coffee had been one of our best-selling Fair Trade offerings, and the customers purchasing this coffee were loyal to the perceived socially responsible benefits of the Fair Trade certification.

Seeing as how price fairness was important to many of our customers who purchased this coffee, I wanted to give them a coffee that accomplished the goal of price fairness and transparency much more efficiently than the Fair Trade certification, while also giving them a higher scoring coffee to boot, therein proving the merits of directly traded coffees.

I cupped through a few samples, talking about scores and pricing the entire time. I found a sample that had the body that I was looking for, as well as a pointed nuttiness with a lot of chocolate, but just lacked acidity. I spoke with Edgar about this, and the next day they had blended the farm I cupped with another farm from a different region in Guatemala, and the much needed acidity was there now, and we had our Huehuetenango replacement! I was floored that I had such a say in this custom blend that we came up with, it was a realization of how beneficial cupping coffee at origin really is. We hit our price point, and cupping score, and had enough coffee to supply us for our yearly needs.

We call this coffee Guatemala San Miguel, as it was cupped and blended at the San Miguel Mill near Antigua, Guatemala. The coffee actually consists of two farms, one from Villa Canales, and one from Acatenango. It ended up with notes of hazelnut and chocolate, with a mild red apple like acidity.

My flight left very early the next morning, I was taken to the airport by a man who didn’t speak any English, so the car ride was interesting, but we were able to acknowledge the beauty of the terrain together by pointing, nodding, and smiling. I remember wanting to stay in Guatemala much longer than I did, which was only two days total. The people were friendly, the food was fantastic, the land was beautiful, and the coffee was excellent. Both El Salvador and Guatemala are places I look forward to visiting year after year.