Jo Haywood and Andy Bulmer travel to El Salvador - Harrogate coffee company changes lives
PUBLISHED: 12:03 15 March 2011 | UPDATED: 22:08 19 January 2016
In the first of two exclusive reports, writer Jo Haywood and photographer Andy Bulmer travel the dusty roads of El Salvador to see how a Harrogate coffee company is helping<br/>to change lives...
In the first of two exclusive reports, writer Jo Haywood and photographer Andy Bulmer travel the dusty roads of El Salvador to see how a Harrogate coffee company is helping to change lives...
Joe Molina is a tall, hirsute Salvadorian farmer who spends his days rattling along bone-shaking, vertiginous roads with a machete on the passenger seat for emergencies. Mike Riley is a smaller, springy Yorkshireman who likes running up volcanoes and can be relied upon to have a harmonica about his person at all times. They make an unlikely pair, but their bond of friendship is strong and steadfast. And at its heart is a mutual passion for a small brown nugget of pure flavour: the coffee bean.
Their paths first crossed in 2004 when Joe’s coffee won his country’s prestigious Cup of Excellence, a hard-fought annual competition that pits the best beans in El Salvador against each other in a make or break taste-off. Mike, head coffee buyer at Taylors of Harrogate, bought the winning lot in a subsequent auction and was bowled over by the flavour of the beans and the progressive attitude of the grower.
But things could have been very different. Joe had never entered the Cup of Excellence before and, while he knew his coffee was special, he did not think it was special enough to beat 402 other entries.
‘I put my hands on the sacks and I knew we would win a prize, but Ididn’t think for a moment we would come first,’ he explained as we enjoyed a picnic lunch with his family in their clementine-coloured villa on the steep slope of their Bosque Lya plantation overlooking Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second city.
On the day of the life-changing announcement, in the presence of Salvadorian notables like the minister of agriculture and the country’s president, Joe and his mother-in-law Lya Castaneda, who owns the plantation that bears her name, waited breathlessly as the judges read out the 35 winners in reverse order. ‘It kept on advancing and our name was not called,’ said Joe in the soft Californian burr he picked up while studying for a bachelor of science degree in the US. He added: ‘It got to the top 20 and then the top 10.
‘When it got to number two I thought I had made a terrible mistake. Then they said our name. Number one, the winner, it was us.
‘It was not the most important day of my life, but it was the most exciting. I was so proud to shake the hand of the president when Lya and I collected the prize. I kept shaking it and shaking it. I just couldn’t stop.’
Historically, there is stiff competition for the Cup of Excellence-winning beans from buyers around the world and an online auction usually bags the grower somewhere in the region of $20 per pound – around 10 times the everyday market price.
Sitting in his Harrogate office, Mike thought his budget wouldn’t stretch and was surprised when his relatively modest bid of $870 dollars won the day. He knew he had landed Taylors a real bargain, but what he didn’t know then was that he had also opened up a whole new market for the company, which had previously bought mainly from Nicaragua, and found himself a friend for life.
Joe and his family visited Harrogate – staying at the Balmoral – to meet their buyer and discovered that their two companies were eerily alike. Both were independent family businesses dealing in coffee and running their own successful bakeries – Taylors has Bettys and the Molina- Castaneda clan has Sweet’s.
‘It felt like a good fit from the start,’ said Joe.
‘And it felt even better when we didn’t talk business straight away. We talked about our families.’
It was then Mike’s turn to make the 5,500-mile return trip to Santa Ana, which sits in the west of El Salvador, close to the border with Guatemala within a sky-puncturing circle of volcanoes and mountainous peaks. Virtually every slope he came across was covered with lush green coffee plants, their shiny red cherries each housing a duo of beans ready for picking.
Several trips later he is still astounded by the beauty of this tiny Central American country and still gets more of a buzz from the bumpy, dust-drenched journey from the flat plain of the city to the sheer glory of Bosque Lya than four double shots of espresso.
But part of his job is to see past the dramatic landscape to the everyday impact the coffee growing business has on the lives of the men and women who do the picking, often for long hours and little pay.
It’s fair to say that when Mike, who has worked for Taylors for 24 years, first visited Bosque Lya, living conditions for the workers were below par. The accommodation block was an open, shared space with no privacy and bedding, such as it was, consisted of a couple of burlap sacks.
All Taylors’ coffee suppliers have to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification, which rests on three solid pillars of sustainability: environmental protection, economic viability and social equity. At that stage, Bosque Lya just didn’t make the grade.
Mike was once chased off a Guatemalan farm by a shotgunwielding 80-year-old coffee grower for suggesting changes to his working practices, so he chose his words carefully when discussing what needed to be done with Joe and Lya. But he needn’t have worried.
‘When Mike first came here he said he was not just a buyer, he was our partner,’ said Lya, a graceful presence at any gathering. ‘That made all the difference.We knew he had our best interests at heart from the start.’
Mike returned a year after his first visit to find Joe had been very busy indeed. The accommodation block had been split into separate rooms with proper beds, a well-equipped cooking area had been installed, long wooden refectory tables had been used to create a dining area and there were flowers in the surrounding borders.
And, as if that was not enough to be going on with, a new hand-carved sign had been hung over the front door. The spruced-up pickers’ accommodation, once only fractionally more hospitable than a cattle shed, had been renamed ‘Posada Riley’, which loosely translates as Hotel Riley.
‘That was my favourite moment in all the 24 years I’ve worked in coffee,’ said Mike. ‘The sign was a wonderful gesture, but it was more the work that Joe and Lya had put in that really touched me. They hadn’t just ticked all the right boxes, they had gone much deeper and further than that. It made me realise that there was still some human kindness left in the world.’
Since then, Bosque Lya has been Rainforest Alliance certified and now provides many tonnes of coffee each year for Taylors’ popular Lazy Sunday brand.
But it’s not all business. Joe and Mike, two very different people from two very different continents, have developed a friendship so close you can barely squeeze a coffee bean between them.
‘This is a firm partnership between two businesses and two friends,’ said Joe, thoughtfully sipping a cup of Yorkshire Gold tea (he’s a recent convert and now barely drinks anything else). ‘But it is also much more than that. The work we have done together has changed lives.’
El Salvador at a glance
El Salvador, which literally means Republic of the Saviour, is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, with around six million people occupying 8,000 square miles of land (about the size of Wales).
It shares a border with Guatemala and Honduras, and is the only Central American country that doesn’t have a Caribbean coastline.
El Salvador has a tropical climate with pronounced wet and dry seasons.
Almost all the annual rainfall occurs from May to October. From November through to April, the north-east trade winds control the weather patterns and by the time the Caribbean air reaches the country over the mountains from Honduras it is dry, hot and hazy.
It lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire and is subject to significant tectonic activity with frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity. Two earthquakes hit the country within a month in early 2001, killing more than 1,000 people. Destruction hit the country again four years later, when the Santa Ana volcano erupted, causing hot mud and rocks to fall on nearby villages.
The tourism industry has grown dynamically in recent years. The most recent figures put it at 4.6 per cent of GDP.
Taylors of Harrogate
Taylors is an independent family business based in the heart of Yorkshire, dedicated to blending tea and roasting coffee since 1886.
It is now the most popularroast and ground coffee brand in the UK, having developed a lifestyle range to compliment the time of day or match a mood.Lazy Sunday, for instance, was created especially for a relaxing weekend and Rich Italian as the perfect coffee after dinner.
Every Taylors’ coffee is ‘four times tasted’ before it reaches the supermarket shelves. Each blend is a unique mix of specially sourced beans which are slow-roasted and ground straight into the bag to capture the freshest flavour.
The company has long-lasting, sustainable relationships with its coffee growers, working together to improve environmental standards and living conditions.
This includes helping them towards independent certification from either Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or Utz to make a difference on the ground much more quickly and effectively.
After planting three million trees around the world, Taylors is on a mission to save an area of rain forest the size of Yorkshire. Coffee drinkers can help by collecting tokens on the side of the Taylors’ packs –every four tokens contributes 50p to the appeal.
Click to visit www.taylorscoffee.co.ukTaylors of HarrogateTaylors is an independent familybusiness based in the heart ofYorkshire, dedicated to blending tea and roasting coffee since 1886.
It is now the most popularroast and ground coffee brand inthe UK, having developed alifestyle range to compliment thetime of day or match a mood.Lazy Sunday, for instance, wascreated especially for a relaxing weekend and Rich Italian as theperfect coffee after dinner.
Every Taylors’ coffee is ‘fourtimes tasted’ before it reachesthe supermarket shelves. Eachblend is a unique mix ofspecially sourced beans whichare slow-roasted and groundstraight into the bag to capture the freshest flavour.
The company has long-lasting,sustainable relationships with its coffee growers, working togetherto improve environmentalstandards and living conditions.This includes helping them towards independent certification from either Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade or Utz to make a difference on the ground much more quickly and effectively.
After planting three million trees around the world, Taylors is on a mission to save an area of rainforest the size of Yorkshire. Coffee drinkers can help by collecting tokens on the side of the Taylors’ packs –every four tokens contributes 50p to the appeal.