Anyone who’s ever attended the Specialty Coffee Association’s annual Expo knows all too well that there isn’t really a moment’s silence over the whole long weekend: Between the sounds of old friends happily reuniting, grinders clacking and whirring away all across the show floor, and the constant din of chatter about extraction percentages and new products, it can be hard to hear yourself think inside the convention center at times.
Thankfully, the Cafe Imports crew managed to find a quiet corner to hole up and host one of the most exciting—if not the most raucous—coffee-buying events we’ve experienced so far: the “Discovery” edition of the Chalatenango Best Cup coffee cupping competition and auction.
The idea of holding a microregion-focused cup-quality contest and auction event in and around the remote area of Chalatenango, El Salvador, has been a twinkle in senior green-coffee buyer Piero Cristiani’s eye for years now: Born, raised, and based in El Salvador, Piero has been working closely with the super-smallholder producers in the northwest there for several seasons, consistently finding himself blown away by the quality and the purity of the profiles he was tasting there. From these growers, he’s sourced some of the best single-variety lots of Pacas and Pacamara we’ve ever had, and this year’s harvest was no exception. However, the farmers’ very limited output from their tiny farms can cause logistical difficulties, and the region’s less-recognizable name compared to nearby Santa Ana threatened to leave the lots overlooked.
Piero was inspired by the incredible past success of several other micro-regional “Best Cup” competitions Cafe Imports has used in order to raise awareness of lesser-known terroir and exceptional quality in pockets of Colombia and Brazil, but it became unfeasible to bring a large group of roasters to Chalatenango for an in-country event at the peak time for the best coffees.
Along with Ari Fasanella on the U.S. sales team, these two never-say-never coffee dreamers devised a way to bring the auction to the roasters instead, and quickly arranged a “Best Cup Discovery” cupping and silent auction that could take place on-site at Expo.
“The idea here was finding a way to introduce new and even seasoned roasters to the lesser-known, higher-acid coffees of Chalatenango,” Ari says. “Many roasters have over a period of time come to settle on the idea that El Salvador coffees can only be the chocolate/butterscotch Bourbon-variety profile typical of Santa Ana coffees. We wanted to change their perception. So we struck up a wild idea to bring the cupping/auction directly to Expo roasters from the world over could have a chance to change their perceptions of what El Salvador coffee can be.”
Knowing how many things compete for attention at Expo, Ari and Piero knew they had to make the event special by being sure to bring some show-stopping coffees to the table, and to create a silent-auction protocol that would flow as smoothly as a perfectly extracted espresso. Quickly, Piero and Alberto “Beto” Reyes, Cafe Imports sourcing agent and cupper in El Salvador, began collecting samples from producers, examples of the best of their best, and explaining that the auction would likely net much higher prices for their lots than even the traditional specialty market.
“We saw over 200 samples for this event,” says Noah Namowicz, senior VP of sales for Cafe Imports—a huge number of coffees from a region so relatively small and tight-knit.
Fast forward to last week, after all the hard work on our end was done: Between Piero, Ari, Beto, and the Cafe Imports sensory analysis team, Noah explains, the samples were “narrowed down to a Top 20, that all scored over 88 points for us.” We were ready to invite thirsty roasters along for the ride.
Thankfully, if there’s one thing that’s true about coffee roasters at SCA Expo: If you build it, they will cup—more than 50 spoons hit those cups, and every lot went to the highest bidder, including a select few to Café Imports, who bought some back in order to offer them SPOT to roasters who couldn’t attend the contest or the show.
“We were blown away by the response from roasters to attend this event,” Noah says, showing photos of the fantastic turnout. “We believe that Chalatenango is an extremely special region in El Salvador that roasters are taking note of because of the unique cup profiles relative to the rest of the country.”
All in all, the bidding equated to a total premium of $22,334 USD above the standard microlot base pricing—money that’s headed directly to the producers as a reward for their quality work and an incentive to grow and continue producing this caliber of cup. “These premiums matter to producers and they matter to us,” Ari says. “The money changes lives for producers who would otherwise be selling for a fraction of what they received through the auction!”
Noah hopes that next year the Chalatenango Best Cup can hit the road all the way down to El Salvador, so that the auction and the potential for in-person feedback and relationship-building can happen in the producers’ backyard. “There is something that is certainly romantic and impactful about doing these types of events in the country in which the farmers live and work,” he says, even saying that he missed the excitement and fervor of having the producers in the room with the cuppers as bidding was taking place. (Though we all probably can agree that Expo itself is not lacking in fervor, and perhaps the relative calm was a welcome respite from the busy show floor.) “Our ultimate goal is to get some of the people that attended this event in Seattle down to El Salvador next year to truly experience what a Best Cup event looks like at origin.”
Hear that? Be sure to put a big circle around the weeks leading from March into April and “save the date” in 2019—you’re not going to want to miss the full-on Best Cup adventure in Chalatenango after the next harvest is done!