Inside the Mountain-Top Farms and Mill Producing El Salvador’s Premium Coffee
Monterrey-based photographer Alejandro Cartagena braves the steep slopes of the Salvadoran volcano Santa Ana to visit Aida Batlle’s hard-to-reach coffee fincas, Kilimanjaro and Los Alpes. A fifth generation coffee producer and renowned coffee aficionado, Batlle has been running the two farms—named by her mountain-obsessed father—for the past decade, producing some of the most flavorsome beans in the world, a fact Batlle puts down to the area's dense volcanic soil and startlingly high altitude. Three to four times a year Batlle and her dedicated team pick coffee cherries—the fruits of the coffee plant—when they're blood red or burgundy in color. Taken to a nearby mill overnight, the cherries are then washed and left to dry naturally on vast outdoor patios before being distributed to leading roasters around the world including Stumptown and Counter Culture in the US and Square Mile in the UK, whose customers seek the beans' rare and full-bodied sweetness. “The location is as beautiful as the fincas themselves,” says Cartagena, who was provided a tour of the local area in Batlle's hardened 4x4. “There is a feeling of pure nature when you're up there: mountains, fog, sunlight bleeding through the clouds. Everything is lush and alive.” Here Batlle reveals how to pick the right coffee cherries and the dangers of living on the side of a volcano.
What coffee do you farm?
My great, great grandfather introduced the Bourbon variety to El Salvador in the late 1800s, and, although people have since introduced different varieties, we mainly focus on producing Bourbon. At the Finca Kilimanjaro we have a mix of Bourbon and a Kenyan variety, although there's no way of knowing exactly which one it is.
What's it like working on a volcano?
The farms are about a kilometer and a half from the crater, and ours are the last two farms on this side of the volcano that produce coffee. The view from up here is just breathtaking, but it's not without some difficulties. In 2005 [the volcano] decided to erupt. Luckily for us the wind took the eruption in the other direction, to the other side, where many farms were completely ruined.
But the location is important?
Yes, exactly. The higher you are the slower the cherries ripen. And we have volcanic soil here, which means the soil is denser and the coffee is more concentrated.
Could you explain the picking process?
We make three or four picks a year, and look for what I like to call the blood and burgundy wood. Coffee is a cherry like any other fruit, so I approach it in the same way I would a plum. The bright, blood red cherry indicates it contains the citrusy acidity we need. And the burgundy cherry adds a sweetness—the darker the red the sweeter the cherry. When you combine the two you have the perfect balance for good coffee.