Chalate 2017 – The Project

Posted on November 14th, 2017

“Project” is a perfect homonym, because it not only captures the work and careful planning that goes into a task at hand, but it also expresses forward motion, forecasting, prediction—the future.

In 2008, when most of the specialty-coffee world was looking at the volcanic slopes of Santa Ana for El Salvadoran coffee, Jason Long, head of sourcing at Cafe Imports, turned instead to the smallholders of a tiny, remote community called Chalatenango, in search of relationships that would be long-lasting, developing over time not only to encourage higher yield and higher-quality production from the region. Chalate (as it’s sometimes called) had just earned some much-deserved attention from the 2007 Cup of Excellence competition, but the difficult—if not downright impossible, after heavy rain—road conditions, extremely small single-farm yields, and the fact that most producers sell in parchment here made Chalatenango a bit slow to light up the world, even though the coffees often lit up on the cupping table.

“Ah, the coffee,” Jason wrote in a blog post that year, after one of his trips to this tiny section of the tiniest country in Central America. He waxed downright poetic about Pacamara: “It was liquid peach juice, floral and fresh summer berries, with an acidity that is there the whole way, but not even a hint of being overpowering. It was not only the best El Salvadoran that I had cupped, but one of the best coffees that I have cupped.”

Jason didn’t know it at the time, but he was projecting—in both senses of the word.

Las Pilas, Chalatenango

Where Santa Ana is mostly famous for the predominance of butterscotch-sweet Bourbon variety, Chalatenango is rich with the more acidic, more complex, sweet-tart-savory Pacas and Pacamara, both of which are Salvadoran originals. “Pacamara is probably one of the top-cupping varieties globally,” wrote Cafe Imports senior green-coffee buyer Piero Cristiani last year, reflecting on a harvest that finally showed signs of recovery from El Salvador’s extended struggles with coffee-leaf rust in the mid-2000s. “These coffees are able to stand up to a Colombian or an African coffee—more complex, higher acidity, more sweetness,” Piero said.

Piero, who is based out of El Sal several months every year, not only shares Jason’s enthusiasm for Chalate’s brilliant coffees, but he’s also worked tirelessly since 2011 to pick up the Chalate microlot project—called Pequeños for the fact that the lots are so small that they are sold in 35-kilo bags—and to continue to push it forward.

Click map to zoom

Here’s how the Chalatenango Pequeños project works:

Beto Reyes – Cafe Imports cupping and sourcing associate

Piero works closely with Alberto “Beto” Reyes, a master cupper and on-the-ground “coffee scout” in Chalate who travels to meet farmers—often in their own homes, where their parchment coffee is stored—and collects a sample from each and every bag they produce. The coffee is then cupped and scored, and, depending on the quality of the lot, price and quantity will be agreed upon. Piero and Beto then arrange for the milling and transport of the parchment coffee, including sorting, bagging, and tagging.

The average farmer in Chalate might produce 5 – 100 quintales of parchment coffee annually, which is something of a blessing and a curse when it comes to sourcing microlots, especially in those early days: Many small chops from dozens of producers means lots of variety and the potential for matchmaking small roasters and smallholder farmers for mutual growth, but it also means a lot of paperwork, delicate negotiations, watertight scheduling and logistics management, and, occasionally, it means there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Mostly, however, it means that—with a little creativity and innovation—a project like Pequeños has the potential for huge propulsion, constantly improving in terms of quality and in the possibility to make real impact at the farm level.

Buying in parchment poses a greater risk to Cafe Imports, but it allows us to pay farmgate prices and ensure that the producers get their share directly. It’s also how most of these producers have historically sold their yield—except the buyers have typically been local exporters, who pay the going market price and use it for blending into their SHG lots for higher quality and yields, losing the traceability along with the qualities that make each farmer’s output special. By absorbing the practical, logistical, and financial burden of milling and sorting, we are able for the first time to offer a wide variety of small, specially selected lots from the community—some as little as just a few quintales, a few hundred pounds.

For the vast majority of the producers from whom we’re buying these Pequeños lots, the idea that their farm, their name, and their work is being recognized by roasters and coffee drinkers all over the world is a deeply moving and exciting prospect. When asked, many of the producers said their ultimate goal is to find a roaster who will buy all of their coffee in a year and become a true partner; many of them even hope to create collaborative, experimental lots for particular buyers.

Not only that, but we’re also organizing a Coffee Send-Back for the Chalatenango producers’ coffees this year: Any roaster who buys as little as one Pequeños bag from this year’s harvest is invited to send 1 pound of roasted coffee back to the farmer who produced it—closing the circle of supply, making that direct connection, offering tangible sensory feedback about their coffee (often for the very first time), and just saying thanks for the work.

Join us in this project, and help us project the small producers of Chalatenango into a delicious, prosperous, and future.

For more information about the Pequeños project and the coffees that we have available from this year’s harvest, e-mail sales@cafeimports.com.


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