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El Salvador – March, 2009

We don’t buy much coffee from El Salvador. What we do purchase represents some of the finest coffee in all of Latin America and the coffee-producing world. This is due entirely to the efforts of Aida Batlle, owner of three farms located along the slopes of the Santa Ana volcano: Kilimanjaro, Los Alpes and Mauritania. Anyone with an interest in coffee quality knows who Aida is. She is famous throughout the coffee industry. The time I have spent with her in El Salvador and the Pacific Northwest has given me some insight into her approach and subsequent success.

Aida is unlike any other coffee farmer I’ve come across. She thinks about her craft with more depth and vision than anyone. She has kept all of the old growth varietals that have been on her farms for decades (and we’re not just talking bourbon). Los Alpes is just about 90% typica. Typica is one of the lowest yielding varietals around. When I ask Aida about replanting her farms with more bourbon and other varietals that would potentially increase those yields she responds by talking about the individual flavor profiles and personalities of her three farms. If she were to replant with bourbon and tekisik, a Salvadorian bourbon mutation of excellent quality, she believes that the coffees would taste different than they do now. With the track record the coffee industry has, particularly with Latin American farming practices, how many other farmers can we name whom have chosen absolute quality and maintaining focus on tradition over that of better resistance and higher yields? The answer is none.

As you’ve probably seen written in past trip reports, getting farmers to approach cherry selection diligently is the toughest obstacle in the road to quality. Having cherry arrive at 95% optimum ripeness is a grand victory. Aida blends levels of ripe cherry. She often speaks of her ‘blood red’ cherry and her ‘burgundy’ cherry. We coffee buying folks think of this blood red cherry as the quintessential level of ripeness. It gives us brilliant acidity and ripe fruit flavors. Many more of us think of the burgundy red cherry as being over ripe. Aida says that the burgundy red cherry adds sweetness and body to the high notes of the blood red. Who are we to disagree? Her coffee is clean and complex. Aida is also one of the few coffee farmers I know with a definite cupping ability. She is able to differentiate her own production batch by batch and blend lots to make a final product of outstanding quality. She is the only farmer we trust to do so. Images of the coffee industry approaching wine standards can only be conjured when thinking of Aida’s vision.

During this past visit Aida and I picked through several layers of experiments at Kilimanjaro. We separated blood red coffee cherry and burgundy coffee cherry. We took another sample of a blend of the two ripeness levels. We separated the Kenyan SL varietal from the bourbon varietal and again separated at the two levels of ripeness. After de-pulping these coffees by hand we left them to ferment overnight in small, plastic buckets. We washed the beans by hand the following morning and laid them to dry on raised beds. We’ll be cupping those small experiments in the coming weeks to analyze exactly what each ingredient brings to the equation. Ms. Batlle has an urge to experiment and constantly learn more about her farms. She is not satisfied with producing a good product. Aida won’t stop until she’s learned everything there is to learn about her coffee and it’s potential.

Walking Finca Kilimanjaro and Los Alpes with Aida is always an inspiring experience. She is constantly darting into a patch of trees to prune loose limbs with her machete or rolling up her sleeves and diving into the cherry sorting at the end of the afternoon to help her workers with the tedious task at hand. It’s rare to see that total commitment from a farmer. Aida calls her farms her babies. She walks them every day during the harvest and virtually every day in the off season. Aida is relentless and that fact is proven in every cup of Kilimanjaro and Grand Reserve we serve at Stumptown.