Friday, June 26, 2015

Living in a Coffee Growing Land

In my two decades in El Salvador, I have always been on the hunt for great coffee. I should clarify ... great coffee at a great price. You can go to any high end coffee shop and pay $12/lb for their good stuff. But I am not fond of paying retail! I have been given bags of coffee from family and their friends. I have gotten coffee at various co-ops such as the one in Ahuachapan and bought coffee directly from small fincas. I have even traded cigars for coffee from a finca owner.

Fatima guarding the Chaparra.
Most of the coffee here for local consumption is lightly roasted “clara” and a favoured bean is the Pacamara which produces a mild coffee with low acid.
I generally prefer a stronger coffee so I lean towards the Bourbon Arabica bean, first developed by the French on the Island of Bourbon. I like a cerezo process where the ripe red beans are dried in the sun as opposed to being run through machines with lots of water which strips the fruit from the green beans. Cerezo is more time consuming but oddly cheaper and produces a more intense flavour.
Bags of washed and cerezo beans.
The best coffee I have had have been from friends who own fincas at a high altitude – 1,800 m above sea level. One of the big coffee companies here, Quality Grains, owns a chain of cafes and they sell an excellent gourmet dark roast at $7/lb wholesale.
The mechanical stripper.
I am heading to Canada soon and wanted to bring about 35 lbs of coffee with me. My friend’s stock is a bit low due to the low yield from last year so I decided to try my luck with the beans at the Santa Tecla Roastery. My friend uses this place to process, roast and bag his coffee and I know they always have Bourbon Arabica and Pacamara coffee for sale.
The machine to separate the chaff.
I went in shortly after 9 am and spoke with the owner and made a deal to get 40 lbs of Bourbon Arabica roasted extra dark (but short of Italian roast). This required 50 lbs of beans and they had some from San Vicente grown at around 1,500 m.  This would normally produce 42 lbs of roasted beans (weight is loss as moisture comes out) but with a dark roast, it would be closer to 40 lbs. Their normal price for clara cerezo is $2.80 a pound but they gave me that same price for my volume purchase even though they would get less weight due to the darker roast.

Before being run through the hand screen. You can see some of the dried cherries.
The cerezo dried coffee cherries were run through a mechanical stripper and then a couple of cleaners to remove the chaff – one mechanical and one a hand screen. This isn’t always 100% so a few dried husks got into the roaster.
The Roaster
The gas furnace was turned on and the 200 year old German roaster started to warm up. They ran another load first and the beans came out light brown with very little smoke and I think a “pop” as the beans cracked only once.
Starting to smoke
My load went in and Roberto, the master roaster who has been there for about 20 years, said it should take about 25 minutes. It starts off slow but near the end, the beans get dark very fast. He kept pulling out samples as the machine started smoking and I kept telling him to hold off for a bit longer. We started seeing some almost burnt beans coming out and some large clouds of smoke so he dumped the load into the cooling well. At this point, you could hear a lot of secondary cracks as the coffee was turned in the hopper. I think it came out close to a Vienna roast – dark brown and some shine on the beans.
Cooling in the spin hopper
When the beans had cooled down, I had my choice of grinders and bags. The main grinder they have was converted from a corn grinder. It works very quickly but the final product is fairly course and not very uniform. I elected to have them put through a finer grounder and the 25 lbs took about 20 minutes to grind. I also chose to have the coffee packed into gold mylar plastic which cost 20 cents more a bag so the coffee worked out to be $3/lb or $120 for 40 lbs. I also asked for a big burlap sack which they gave me at the discounted price of $3. 
Roberto, the master roaster, bagging my coffee.
I shared fresh Cuban cigars with the owner and a guy named Ricardo who was helping out. Ricardo helped move coffee around and also tried to sell me a coffee finca – I think his main line of business. A coffee farmer came in and gave him some home distilled Chaparro (aguardiente?) in a 600 ml water bottle. He offered me a taste and when I said I liked it, he gave it to me to say thanks for the cigar.
Coffee running through the fine grinders
When I got home, I took a small bit of coffee that was left over from the bagging process and ran it through my burr grinder to an espresso powder. I put it into my Aeropress and added the water. Very fresh coffee as it bloomed up very high. I pressed the coffee into a mug and had a sip. Very deep strong flavours with a balanced bitterness and acid. Delicious. Then I added some water to make an Americano and that was delicious too.
A rustic and charming spot in Santa Tecla
  The whole process took about 90 minutes and it was a lot of fun. They gave us coffee to drink and a couple of chairs under the shade of an enormous tree beside their roasting shed. I had the run of the place and they didn’t mind me taking pictures and poking around everywhere. 40 lbs of Bourbon Arabica, single origin, high altitude dark roast coffee and a free bottle of Chaparra.  A very pleasant way of spending a morning in Santa Tecla, 15 minutes from my house.
What 40 lbs of coffee look like