TRIP REPORT: EL SALVADOR – JAN 21-28, 2013

Some of my favorite coffees year after year come from the tiny, but very diverse country of El Salvador. The cup quality is outstanding from the farms we work with, but perhaps even more, the relationships we have built as a company over the years with them are perhaps the strongest Direct Trade relationships.

So needless to say I was excited, and honored when I was sent to represent PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. on our annual harvest season farm visits. Going with me were Ezra Anderson, our long-time delivery driver and barista at the Flying Monkey, and Evan Inatome, owner of Elixr Coffee in Philadelphia. I think they were every bit as excited as I to get there, and delve into our jam packed itinerary.

I have been issuing my report in several segments, this is the final chapter.

Cheers!
Robin Seitz

 

PART 3

Finca Los Planes: Sergio and Isabel Ticas

We loaded up early, after a super quick breakfast to head back to San Salvador and Viva Espresso. It had been an amazing trip already and I know we were all beginning to get a bit tired. It can be exhausting going non-stop from coffee place to coffee place. The coffee buyers who run these adventures 6-9 months a year are seriously working. Its fun, yes. Its exciting, yes. You spend a lot of time amongst and making friends. But it is real work.

Still, our final destination was one I couldn’t have been more excited for!

Picking us up were Isabel and Sergio Ticas of Finca Los Planes, our longest Direct Trade partners and truly, friends. I could go on for days and days about how wonderful they are as people, how Isabel is like having a mother to take care of you at origin, how emotionally moving the experience of being with them can be, and just how meaningful it is to have this relationship. But, that would be me waxing poetically, and not writing about coffee. Let me just say though, that the overriding experience with them is one of love. For each other, for the land, for their people, and with us.

Robin, Sergio, Ezra, Isabel, and Evan at Finca Los Planes

Robin, Sergio, Ezra, Isabel, and Evan at Finca Los Planes

Finca Los Planes is located in the northern extremities of El Salvador, along the border with Honduras, near Citala. The drive is about 3 hours across Chelatenango, which is quite a different landscape than the other areas we saw on this trip. Due to the effect of rainshadow from the front range of mountains, it is quite a bit drier through most of the district. The vegetation and trees are quite a bit thinner, and you see the heartier varieties we are familiar with here in the states: pine, cyprus, and cedar. It reminds me a bit of the front range of the Rockies in Wyoming, or New Mexico.

The farm is located high up on the mountain away from the community of Citala, where Sergio grew up. As we drove through the town he pointed out his parent’s old house, the church he attended, and several other memories. Then it was up, up, up, to the farm itself, and the community that developed around it.
Finca Los Planes has been active for a long time in the family, and many of the people who work on the farm are generational, following their parents, and grandparents foot steps. As a result, an actual town developed right outside the farm gate, Canton Los Planes. We have worked with Sergio and Isabel on several projects benefiting the folks of the community, including buying medicinal supplies for the clinic, purchasing books and basic supplies for the school, and supplying soccer balls and uniforms for the youth and farm team.

There has been so much good to come from this partnership on the human side, that it could be an article and a half on its own. But to me, the best part has always been the coffee quality, and watching the farm evolve and improve as each year goes by.

There is a long track record of greatness at this farm. In the farm house, Sergio has a wall dedicated to plaques and certificates from the multiple COE and Presidents Awards that have been won by their pacamara and bourbon varietals. There have been a lot, and its pretty impressive when you think about all of the variables that effect cup quality year in and year out. To have such consistent and regular excellence is a testament to the excellent management by Manuelito (the mandador), and the care of the individual pickers for proper selection, and the good work done at the wet mill on the farm.

We arrived in late afternoon and unloaded the truck. After a long cramped drive, we all were ready for a little break. Ezra, Evan, and myself all just sat out on the patio and soaked up the view and the atmosphere. It is incredible. It is pretty much straight down to Honduras and looking across the mountain valley to an impressively high ridge. Clouds slide along through the swale, and it is a view right off of a postcard. In silence, we just drank it in. In some sort of odd coffee-fueled way I can’t quite explain, I could feel my soul filling up. Nearly religious in its feel. Again, off track…

We started our coffee experience with a cupping of some of this year’s harvest. Again, I knew going in that it was very fresh, and that we might taste some odd things. That’s just the way it is. However, it was definitely exciting to see what we could expect. And honestly, I was pleasantly surprised.

The three samples were the pacamara from Cerro Los Tamales, the bourbon from La Lagunita, and the caturra from Jardin Secreto de el Jeffe.

The Los Tamales was excellent! It was only slightly greenish due to freshness, and actually showed really well. I experienced a nice acidity like orange, creamy vanilla, and a nice delicate floral note like lavender or hibiscus flower. I was excited! If this is an indicator of where this lot of coffee is going, this is going to be a showcase lot in not too long a time. Last year was only the first harvest of this section, and we know its going to get better with maturity. From what I tasted on the table fresh, we’re off and running and this year may already be outstanding!

The Bourbon from La Lagunita was actually probably my favorite of the three samples that day. I found it to be the most rested tasting, and thus, the smoothest. It was fully milk chocolate, with a very mild hazelnut character, and just the softest bit of juicy clementine. Super round and balanced, it was a tremendous example of a quality bourbon coffee.

Jardin Secreto was another new lot last year, and we’re excited to see where it goes as well. The sample we had was most definitely the freshest on the table though, so it is a bit difficult to tell. What I could pick up though was very nice. I had notes of tropical fruit, lots of vanilla, and some sweet almond. While the greenish fresh flavor was dominant, I come away very excited to see it this year.

We loaded up and took the quick drive down to the mill. For a small farm and mill, this is an impressive operation. There is not only the traditional tiled tanks and washing channels, and a nice concrete patio, but a lot of African beds that were just put in last year. The newest additions to the operation are more raised beds that are enclosed.

Robin, Evan, Ezra, and Sergio observing coffee drying on the enclosed raised beds at Finca Los Planes.

Robin, Evan, Ezra, and Sergio observing coffee drying on the enclosed raised beds at Finca Los Planes.

Los Planes is very high, and as such it stays pretty mild, leading to very long drying times. This used to cause a sort of log jam on the patio during the peak of harvest, when there was just too much coffee to spread out properly. Now the approach is to start the drying on the patio, and finish on the beds. The top quality lots finish on the enclosed beds.

It gets hot in there! We walked through to check it out, and saw some pacamara from El Matazano laying out in parchment. I love the look of pacamara. Big beautiful beans!

Sergio Ticas (photo by Ezra Anderson)

Sergio Ticas (photo by Ezra Anderson)

After only being there for a short bit, Sergio got a call from Manuelito who was over at the Cerro Los Tamales with the day’s pick, hoping we could come over and pick it up in the truck to take it all back to the mill. Anxious to get out in the farm itself, we all went along.

We met Manuelito at the bottom of the hill as he and one other were finishing the bagging of the days harvest to take to mill. It was a great looking pick. Vibrant rich red predominantly. The big pacamara cherries were just bursting with juice. While the bags were being loaded on the truck, we all milled about looking at the super healthy section. The pacamara trees are growing quickly and looked very hearty. The area we were in was well protected with wind screen and on the side of the hill that gets the morning sun, and less wind exposure. It is a quiet place, and it just feels like a special place for coffee. It was early in the harvest for this section and the trees were just loaded with beautiful cherry. I think we were all more than a little excited for the crop coming in. I was also excited to get a chance to hike the section the next day. For now though, we needed to get to the coffee to mill.

Robin hauling coffee cherry at Finca Los Planes.

Robin hauling coffee cherry at Finca Los Planes.

Being a small operation, the mill is more artisanal and a lot more hands on. This allowed us to get a lot closer in to the operation, and eventually we all just sort of slid into doing a few things to help out. I’m sure in the end, we weren’t any help at all, but I know for all three of us, it was meaningful and special. We threw in a bit of “help” both the first and second nights at the mill. Helping to load the coffee into the washing basin, pushing it along, helping rake up the patio at night, scooping up the pulp, and even hauling a bag or two of cherry. We all came away from our mini experiences at the mill on Los Planes understanding just how hard the work is, and truly appreciating all the work they do. I know the crew was laughing at us, but in a good natured way.

Evan, Robin, and Ezra lending a hand at the Finca Los Planes wet mill.

Evan, Robin, and Ezra lending a hand at the Finca Los Planes wet mill.

Day two on the farm began with one of the best sunrises you can imagine. We had a nice breakfast and prepared for a full day of hiking. Sergio was planning on taking us all over the farm, and we were stoked!

We began by walking through Jardin Secreto, which is right next to the house and extends down the mountain. This is a relatively young section of farm; only in its second year of harvest as well. Here Sergio has planted Yellow Caturra. Last year’s lot was extremely small, and it will continue to be so. It is not a big area (interspersed and peach trees!). The effects of Roya were evident, but you could also see that they have put in a lot of effort to combat it. They have an advantage of not being in super close proximity to many other coffee farms. And those they are close to are very diligent in their efforts to fight it as well. While they haven’t been able to completely fend off the onslaught of the rust, it was better here than in many of the places we had seen so far. There wasn’t really anything to see but empty trees and look at leaves, as Jardin’s harvest had already been completed. It was a beautiful area though, and well plotted in straight rows, in even squares surrounded by high wind breaks.

After that, we headed back to Cerro Los Tamales to actually hike the whole section, not just the little micro area we saw the night before.

The lot named Cerro Los Tamales extends all the way to the top of the hill, under the cover of evergreen, and all around the hill. Most of the harvest and viable trees are on the sheltered side where we visited the evening before. The ones on the exposed side haven’t fared well, and most haven’t grown at all. The wind can be very strong, and it also seems much drier as a result. Sergio estimates that at least 10,000 young trees were lost on that side.

On the good side, things look awesome! The trees are growing tall and full, and as I already mentioned, they are bursting with great looking coffee! Having seen how everything looks, I am excited for this year’s arrivals, probably around June. Tamales is going to be killer!

We then went back towards the mill area to go to one of the older areas of the farm, where the macro-lot pacamara is produced, as well as a good portion of the Red Bourbon.

One could easily see the line where bourbon ended and pacamara began. Most years it is due to the size of the beans and trees. This year, it was simply coloration. The bourbon trees are the primary targets of the rust. Even if they haven’t been decimated, I would estimate about 85-90% were showing some signs, and spotting on the leaves. Pacamara trees are much heartier, and a lot less of a target. The Maragogype which is one of the parent strains, is fairly disease resistant, and that applies to the rust as well.

Traipsing along the trail, we ended up going through several other sections of the farm, which may be available as micro lots in the coming years as well, or may continue to be part of the overall lots of Los Planes.

There was El Matazano higher up the hill, named for the large Matazano tree that grows in the middle of the section. Pacamara, and doing very nicely.

There was El Cyprical, one of the more magical seeming areas of coffee farm. Completely shaded under toweringly tall Cyprus trees.

And then there is a special section that Sergio had given to his mother-in-law. They call it El
Pemiento. She always wanted to have a coffee farm of her own, and Sergio donated this area of Los Planes to allow it to become a reality. And what she is doing with it is really cool. Here, she only wants women to do the work. From planting, to harvesting, to managing. Everything completely woman run. And, you can see that in a lot of things in this section, which Isabel described to us.

The trees are all bourbon. The decision was made in her words, because women love chocolate and bourbon coffee tastes like chocolate. She also pointed out how you could tell a woman laid it out because it is spaced out to be easy to get through, as opposed to the overgrown man farms! Also, they are employing the practice of tying down the branches to encourage more lateral growth, as opposed to vertical, to make the harvesting easier.

This section hasn’t gone to market yet, but will in a year or two. It was definitely beautiful, and I could see the woman’s touch on it. As a guy who lives with 4 women, I could appreciate it.

We were at the mill that night, and as we worked I was thinking back over everywhere we had been, and what we had seen during our week in El Salvador. It had been amazing, and what a great way to end it out! Los Planes was awesome, and Sergio and Isabel are simply the best.

Leaving the next morning, we stopped by the field where a soccer tournament was being hosted that day. Several of the folks wanted us to stay for lunch (Sopa Indio, and Pupusas) but we had to get on the road back to San Salvador. In our few minutes there, I did have the pleasure of seeing our old friend Muncho (the cover photo on many a Los Planes page). He had been very sick this year, and many thought he wasn’t going to make it. When they had to take him to the hospital in San Salvador he thought for sure he’d never see his beloved Los Planes, or any of us from PT’s again, who he has loved knowing. Fortunately, he did get better! And when he saw me (an enormous gringo hard to miss), he was overcome and had to come say hi! Speaking through Isabel he let me know how much it has meant to him to know us.

Muncho, farm hand, at Los Planes - 80 yrs old

A long car ride later and we were dropped off at the hotel in San Salvador and were leaving the next day. It was exhausting, and it was certainly time to get back home to real life, and my family.

I am touched to have had this experience, and the chance to get to reconnect with all of our friends in El Salvador. It’s great to see that the things we talk about in our pie-in-the-sky way, can actually be true, and that the message we try to share about coffee is real. The coffee is great, but the relationships are every bit as valuable. It’s right there in our mission statement. Exceptional Coffee, Lifelong Friendships, and the Wisdom to Appreciate Both.