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January 2011

We like Bourbon.   Actually, we like the Bourbon varietal a lot. Sweet, clean, balanced and complex–it offers no more or less than it promises, and it rarely disappoints. Not loud or quiet, but firm and to the point, with lingering florals and nuance. It’s no secret that Bourbon is the favorite of the Stumptown Green Coffee Department, and it’s no secret that El Salvador is growing a lot of it. As the country commenced their annual harvest, I flew down to meet with a potential new producer.

Beneficio San Miguel Ingenio is a wet mill outside of Metapan, a small town in the northwestern corner of El Salvador, close to both the Guatemalan and Honduran borders. Roughly 70 producing neighbors bring their coffee to the mill, and each owns about 1-10 hectares–small by Salvadoran standards, where it’s not uncommon for producers to own 100-hectare estates. The mill is owned and operated by the Valiente family, and I had the pleasure of making my first visit to the mill and many of the surrounding farms, and meeting mill manager Alejandro Valiente, who also manages a supplying farm himself: Finca Buenos Aires.

The farms begin at 1500 meters and climb to above 1600 meters, where a fortuitous plateau provides ease of production and harvest, not to mention unspeakably gorgeous views that extend into Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north, as well as much of western El Salvador to the south and east. The trees looked healthy, the layout intelligent, including some terracing, a practice that Aleco loves to see as it helps to protect from soil erosion. Alejandro has divided the producers into four groups based on their micro-climate and region within Metapan, though he was receptive to keeping day-lots separate so that we can cup individual harvests from individual producers to find and reward the exceptional coffees.

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The energy was good with the producers I met, not least of them Alejandro. I have spent a fair amount of time in El Salvador, and a large majority of the producers that I have met hire managers to run their farms while they live in San Salvador, a city two hours drive away. Alejandro, on the other hand, lives in Metapan and runs his own farm, a strong indication that he is closely linked with the quality of his farm and mill. He seems more familiar with the farms, more aware of the trees and more focused in general than other producers I have met. All of this makes me quite excited about the possibilities going forward.

And did I mention they’re growing a bunch of Bourbon? The beautiful trees are easy to pick out by their internodal spacing–the distance between the clusters of coffee cherries–and the 45 degree upward angle of the branches. There was so much Bourbon, in fact, that I found myself picking out the Pacas trees instead. Pacas is a dwarf mutation of Bourbon that was discovered in El Salvador and is probably most famous for its role in the Pacamara hybrid. All of the trees were well-taken care of, fertile and productive, well-shaded and pruned to promote new growth. All signs point to high quality.

I’ll be returning to cup some of the first samples in January, and I don’t even need to cross my fingers for this one–it’s going to be good.