Jo Haywood and Andy Bulmer follow a batch of coffee beans on their 5,500-mile journey to Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 11:54 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:05 20 February 2013
In the second of their exclusive reports from El Salvador, Jo Haywood and Andy Bulmer follow a batch of coffee beans on their 5,500-mile journey to Yorkshire
The sound of slurping is intensifying, echoing round the rapidly darkening room as the sun goes down on another busy day at El Borbollon mill in El Salvador.
In any other situation, the sight and sound of grown men gurning and spitting their way round a table would elicit embarrassed titters, but this is no laughing matter. Coffee cupping is a serious business. It can make or break a blend, with one bad slurp leading to a bad day for an already hard-pressed producer.
Taylors of Harrogate head coffee buyer Mike Riley, a professional Q grade cupper accredited by the international Coffee Quality Institute, is bent double, passing quickly from cup to cup, sniffing, stirring and slurping as he talks in hushed tones to mill owner Eduardo Alvarez about the distinctive qualities of each brew.
He has cupped many thousands of coffees over the years, but even he can still be surprised by something new. As he reaches the end of the table and plunges into his 20th cup, he stops dead in his tracks. He straightens, looking quizzically at his Salvadorian host while continuing to swish the coffee round his mouth.
Now this is new; this is very, very new, he says appreciatively after spitting out the well-slurped liquid. Its got lots of fruit, an intense apricotiness, and the length of that flavour just goes on and on. What a treat. I want more of that. I really must have more of that.
Eduardo explains that the coffee has been blended from yellow bourbon cherries as opposed to the usual rich red, prompting Mike to ask Joe Molina, a plantation manager who supplies Taylors with tonnes of cherries every year, to source him some yellow even if its only a tiny amount for a special blend for Bettys tearooms.
This is what its all about, he says. This is why I still get excited about coffee. Cupping with people who are serious about coffee is a complete joy every time.
But were getting ahead of ourselves. Great coffee doesnt start at the cupping stage, it starts much earlier than that when the plants first sprout from the soil.
Ernesto Sol grows 9,000 new plants a year at his Salvadorian finca (farm), La Sabaneta, which has been in his family since 1880. It sits high on the side of a mountain beside El Chingo volcano overlooking Guatemala (you can cross from one country to the other on his plantation) and is home to as many as 250 workers during the picking season, giving it the
friendly, neighbourly atmosphere of a small village.
Things have changed in the 20 years since I took over the finca, he explained over lunch and several glasses of rum (he rarely drinks coffee, and if he does its instant with lots of sugar). We have better fertiliser, better checking of the plants, less shade and more sunshine. We also make sure our workers are well treated. I make sure they get all the benefits they need, and they love me like a father in return. They also extend that loving feeling to the coffee plants, which fruit after two years and can be productive for between 50 and 80 years.
Ernesto has been supplying coffee to Taylors since 2009 after being introduced to Mike by Joe, his friend and fellow farmer. And it was on Joes farm the Bosque Lya plantation owned by his mother-in-law Lya Castenada that we witnessed the next vital stage of the coffee-making process: the cherry picking.
On the day of our visit, the pickers weighed in 178 sacks each containing 150lbs of cherries. They are paid $1.20 per aroba (25lbs of cherries) and earn around $10 a day, which might not seem a lot in our terms but is a living wage in El Salvador and more than workers at other plantations take home.
All cherries for speciality coffees are picked by hand, which makes it an immensely labour-intensive process a fact that is reflected in the way the cherries are handled when they arrive at the mill.
El Borbollon, where Joes cherries make their way along with up to 40 other trucks a day in high season, prides itself on raking out its speciality beans to dry naturally in the sun (non-speciality beans are dried mechanically once removed from their cherry pulp) and turning them by hand 10 times a day for eight or nine days.
Before leaving the mill, Taylors beans are also individually sorted by a production line of eagle-eyed workers skilled at picking out the smallest of defects.
I have been producing coffee for 25 years and the process remains largely the same as that carried out by our ancestors, said Eduardo. That doesnt mean, however, that we are not constantly experimenting and looking for something special, that new wonderful blend.
We always strive to create coffees that have a lot of fruit in them, but we understand its not about our taste. We are not creating coffee for ourselves, we are creating it for export. Every country has different requirements. In the UK you like medium acidity, something very clean and not too fruitful.
After leaving El Borbollon, the milled beans still whole and in their papery parchment skins are transported to ports in Honduras, Guatemala or Costa Rica for shipping to Teesport on the most northerly edge of North Yorkshire, a journey that takes between 26 and 30 days.
Joe sends Mike a small sample around half a kilo before shipping, so he can have it roasted at about 220 degrees C for eight minutes and cupped to ensure there are no defects or insect damage and to check the quality on the Q grade scale (only coffees scoring over 80 points are classified as speciality Bosque Lya usually records a score in the late 80s).
Another sample is taken when the beans land at Teesport to make sure they have survived the journey intact, and yet another is taken when they are trucked into Harrogate.
These samples are key to what we do, said Mike. Consistency is everything in our business and we have to ensure the quality of our coffees is consistently high.
There are 19 tonnes of beans in a container and, based on the current market, each container costs us in the region of $125,000, so we have to make sure its right.
Taylors coffees go through a 20-step roasting process at its Harrogate factory, something that requires a deft touch in the control room.
Each blend has its own unique recipe that gives it its depth of flavour and complexity, said Mike. Its a very intricate process that requires a delicate balancing act.
Its like being a chef lovingly crafting the perfect dish.
Taylors, which was founded in 1886, is now the biggest producer of ground coffee in the UK, selling 16.5 million bags a year, which equates to around 4,000 tonnes of raw beans.
And each and every one of those beans begins its journey from soil to cup thousands of miles away under the watchful gaze of dedicated growers like Joe and Ernesto.
In the second of their exclusive reports from El Salvador, Jo Haywood and
Andy Bulmer follow a batch of coffee beans on their 5,500-mile journey to Yorkshire
Making the perfect cuppa
While all Taylors ground coffees are suitable for coffee makers,
its brewing experts advise using a cafetiere to achieve the best flavour.
They also offer the following guidelines:
Make sure all your equipment is clean as residue from a previous brew can mar a fresh pot.
Always draw fresh water, bring it to the boil and then leave it for a short while to cool before pouring it on the coffee grounds (boiling water can scald the grounds and produce a bitter taste).
Warm the pot and add one rounded dessert spoon per person.
Pour the slightly cooled water on the coffee, stir, then leave to brew for five minutes.
For more information about coffee, tea and Taylors ethical trading around the world, visit taylorsofharrogate.co.uk.