Striving for Coffee Excellence

This month we are focussing on a new relationship, with a revered producer in the Chalatenango region of El Salvador. Jorge Raul Rivera is a second generation coffee producer, based just outside the town of La Palma, in the far north-west of El Salvador, close to the border with Honduras. His farm, Finca Santa Rosa, is located not far from La Palma, around 1550 masl, on the slopes of El Pital, El Salvador’s highest point. The farm is planted mainly with the famed Salvadoran varietal Pacamara, and has produced some of the country’s highest quality and most innovative coffees in recent years.

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Civil War

Jorge Raul Rivera Sr. began growing coffee in the region around La Palma in 1979. This was the very beginning of El Salvador’s brutal civil war, so many were abandoning their land, selling cheap and fleeing into neighbouring Honduras. Jorge Raul capitalised on this and bought some plots cheaply and began to grow coffee. He was one of the first to grow coffee in the area, and one of the few that stayed during the war. The remoteness of the area, at high altitude, but still relatively close to the capital San Salvador, meant that it was a popular area for guerrilla fighters, bringing unrest to the area, and often demanding war taxes from small farmers. However, Jorge Raul and his brother Jose Roberto made if through the war with their farm intact. At this stage they were growing coffee purely as a low quality cash crop, coffee was a wildly popular commodity in El Salvador, making up a majority of the country’s exports. So as the country started to settle again in the late 1980’s, and the brothers had some extra income, they decided to invest in some new land, at high altitude near El Pital. At this stage the land that was to become Finca Santa Rosa consisted of just a few naturally growing pine trees, and the access road was in a state of severe disrepair. Once the access road was completed, the international commodity price hit a major crisis, and the brothers began to think again about what to do with their new farm. At the same time, the Salvadoran government was offering generous subsidies to grow pine and cypress trees to aid in post-war reconstruction, so it was decided that Finca Santa Rosa would be planted with pine, to capitalise on the subsidies. And so it continued, until 2003, when the Cup of Excellence began in El Salvador. The Cup of Excellence is a coffee competition, taking place in many producing countries around the world, where an international jury of judges cup and score coffees, and the top scoring lots are auctioned off to green coffee buyers for very high prices. The promise of higher prices for quality coffee meant that coffee could once again be a sustainable business opportunity for the Riveras. That year, they removed much of the pine from Finca Santa Rosa, and replanted with coffee, all of the Salvadoran variety Pacamara, known for it’s low yields but very high quality potential. Many of the previously planted pine trees were retained as shade for the coffee, vital for producing quality. The brothers had one goal - to produce a coffee worthy of winning the Cup of Excellence.

Cup of Excellence

The intervening years saw some success in the Cup of Excellence, but there was some inconsistency. The Riveras, as experienced commodity coffee producers, struggled with producing consistently high scoring specialty lots. However, in 2011, the farm made its first appearance in the CoE top 5, scoring 90.7 points. In 2013, Jorge Raul Sr. died, leaving the farm in the hands of his son, Jorge Raul Jr.. Young, intelligent, and forward thinking, Jorge had recently arrived back at the farm after finishing his Masters in Agricultural Economics at Louisiana State University. Utilising his father’s legacy, and a little ingenuity, Jorge Jr. decided to use the honey process on the next harvest of Pacamara, as he thought that this process would improve the characteristics he most valued in the coffee. Sure enough, in 2014 the Honey Pacamara won the El Salvador Cup of Excellence, scoring 91.4 points. After a small break, the Santa Rosa Honey Pacamara also won in 2017. It is this year’s harvest of the honey-processed Pacamara that you will be enjoying this month.

The Pacamara variety was the result of a cross between two varieties. The first, a Salvadoran varietal called Pacas, is a natural mutation of Bourbon, discovered by the Pacas family in the Santa Ana region, to the west of Santa Rosa. The second is Maragogype, also known as ‘the elephant bean’, from which the Pacamara varietal gains its distinctively large bean size. The first coffee in your pack, named for the nearby high point of El Salvador, El Pital, is of the Pacamara varietal. The honey process is enhancing the rich and sweet character of the coffee, showcasing notes of brown sugar, baked apple, and plum. The second coffee is also grown at Finca Santa Rosa. El Pino, named for the pine trees present around the farm, is of the Laurina varietal, a natural mutation of Bourbon, with a small bean size and pointed ends. Laurina also has approximately half the caffeine content of most other Arabica varietals, so also has a much lower bitterness, often showcasing a very high sweetness and layers of floral notes. The Santa Rosa Laurina offers just that, a rich honey sweetness with underlying white florals. The washed process brings out a soft malic acidity, and a long finish with the dryness of walnut.

We feel that these coffees showcase not only the diversity of taste profiles possible in El Salvador, but the hard work and dedication of the Rivera family over generations, striving for coffee excellence.

Stay bright and curious
John Gibson

El Pino and El Pital

Available from the 12th of November to the 4th of December

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