Montecarlos Estate, located in the Apaneca municipality in the Ahuachapán department of El Salvador, is a truly breathtaking farm. Stunning landscapes and awe-inspiring vistas are in great abundance in coffee producing countries. One never tires of seeing lush vegetation adorn mountain tops while driving down bucolic roads and through small provincial towns. What the profusion of visual niceties often distract from, however, is the lack of continuity between the purported goal of specialty coffee preached in consuming countries, and the reality of coffee production in producing countries. The rhetoric surrounding the goal of specialty coffee often propagated by most third wave roasters and cafes is that the coffee costs more because the people who produced the coffee were paid a “fair” or “livable” wage - a term that I have come to detest in recent years, though its use, I believe, while belying its intended impact, sardonically represents the reality of most coffee production: that the actors involved in producing the coffee were able to, by biological definition, stay alive on this “livable” wage. I eagerly await the day we are paying producers thriving, and not just livable, wages.
There is no easy solution to this problem and while I have many thoughts on small steps that could be taken to begin chipping away at the colonial foundation (that has in turn festered into a neocolonial frame) upon which this specialty coffee house has been built, I sat down to write a blog post about an amazing farm, run by a wonderful couple, that produces delicious coffee, and that we are truly honored to partner with. My preamble about the disconnect between the ostensible goal and observed reality of specialty coffee production is so tightly linked, in my mind, to the impressive Montecarlos Estate because it is certainly one of the better examples that I have ever witnessed of a potential future for Specialty Coffee. Hopefully through reading this brief blog post you will understand why I feel this is true.
Montecarlos at a Glance
- El Salvador
- Farm Name
- Farm Owner(s)
- Carlos and Julie Batres
- Peak of Harvest
- Farm Size
- 500 Hectares: 400 Hectares in coffee, 100 in rainforest.
- Average Annual Rainfall
- 2 meters
- Conventional and Organic
- Average Dirunal Temperature Swing
- Is the Wet Mill on the Farm?
- Average Length of Fermentation
- Location of Dry Mill
- Santa Ana
- 1000-1800 masl
- Harvest Period
- Varieties grown on Farm
- Caturra, Catuaí, Bourbon, Pacamara, Gesha
- Coffee Trees per Hectare
- Soil Type
- Black Volcanic
- Average Age of Plants
- 25 years
- Processing Method
- Make of Pulper
- Marcus Mason (New York) and McKinnon (Scotland)
- Coffee Drying Surface
- Clay Patios
- Elevation of Dry Mill
- 700 masl
- Elevation of Lots Purchased
- 1500-1800 masl
- Harvest Period of Lots Purchased
- Percentage of Each Variety Planted
- ~25% Caturra, ~25% Catuaí, ~25% Bourbon, ~25% Pacamara with Gesha representing roughly 0.5%
- Orientation of Coffee
- All four Cardinal Directions
- Is Irrigation Employed?
- Age of Farm
- Founded in 1870 (148 years)
- Are Cherries Floated?
- Wet or Dry Fermentation?
- Average Drying Time
- 15 Days
- Number of Employees
- 250 Year-round, 250 Seasonal (500 total)
Carlos Batres owns and runs Montecarlos Estate with his wife, Julie. Carlos was born in El Salvador and Julie in Cuba. Both were educated in The States, have lived in major metropolitan areas within The States (Washington D.C., New York) and have lived in London. In the mid-1980’s Carlos was representing El Salvador in London at the International Coffee Organization. At this time the coffee market was regulated by the quota system. When the quota system temporarily broke down (due to the 1985 Brazil drought), Carlos and Julie moved to El Salvador, during which time Carlos inherited some land. The land he inherited represents a portion of the current Montecarlos Estate.
The farm has been in Carlos’ family since 1870, when his great, great grandfather, Rafael Moran started it.
As frequently happens in Latin America, the farm was handed down generation by generation, being split amongst siblings with each generation. By the time Carlos inherited land (five generations and any number of siblings/cousins later) the parcel he received was a fraction of the original total. Carlos, having already experienced great success in the coffee industry (though not as a producer), decided at that time to convince his wife Julie to take the farm on as a pet project. Thirty some years later and this pet project continues to unfold and expand as Carlos continues to acquire more and more land from neighbors (mostly relatives). In its current form, this impressive farm is 500 hectares in size (1,235 acres), 400 of which are planted in coffee and 100 of which is rainforest. In total the farm produces roughly one million pounds of coffee a year. The farm covers the entire circumference of a dormant volcano in a chain of volcanic cones, two of which have recently erupted.
Near the base of the volcano sulphuric steam spews from the earth, cooking the volcanic rock and bleaching it white. Further down the slopes pipes carry steam to a nearby government run power plant which uses the geothermal energy to supply a considerable amount of El Salvador’s power.
Around the time that Carlos had inherited the plot of land that was to become the large estate that it is today, he came across the Pacamara variety. The El Salvadorian government had been working on crossing the Pacas and Maragogype varieties since the 1960’s and in the early 1980’s had achieved its goal of getting the productivity of Pacas (a natural Bourbon mutation discovered in El Salvador in the 1940’s) with the large size of Maragogype (a natural Typica mutation discovered in Brazil in the 1870’s). Carlos foresaw its marketing potential and bought most of the Pacamara material that was available in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990 to plant on and develop Montecarlos. Montecarlos produced the world’s first commercial Pacamara crop in the 1992-1993 harvest year and started marketing it in Europe based on its size, and not the cup, since the specialty movement had not yet picked up. The coffee was sold primarily in France and Italy where they marketed it as a substitute for the Maragogype, which had practically disappeared from the market.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s the specialty movement was taking shape in the US and Pacamara had started to become a little known. However, it was not until Starbucks brought it into the market as a Montecarlos “Black Apron Exclusive” in 2004 that the variety became well known. At the same time, specialty coffee shined another spotlight on the variety in the 2004 El Salvador Cup of Excellence. Since then, Carlos has shared Pacamara trees with other farmers in El Salvador. He is rightfully very proud of his role as one of the variety’s main pioneers and at Montecarlos it continues to be the flagship variety.
In addition to Pacamara, Montecarlos cultivates Bourbon, Caturra and Catuaí. These four varieties each make up roughly 25% of the total land planted. Three years ago Carlos also planted roughly 0.5% of the farm in Gesha. Last year (2016-2017 harvest year) Passenger purchased Caturra and Catuaí to be used as the base of our Stowaway blend, Bourbon to be featured as a Foundational single origin and Pacamara to be featured as a Reserve Lot coffee. We very much look forward to tasting the Gesha this year, its first official harvest, the seeds of which came from none other than the Peterson family who own Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama. All of the coffee we purchase from Montecarlos is put directly into deep freeze storage upon arrival into The States. This keeps the coffees tasting fresh year-round and also allows us to focus on deepening relationships with producers such as Carlos, rather than having to spread buying throughout different relationships/origins during the year, which inevitably leads to significantly less consistent coffee month to month.
Amazingly it is not Carlos and Julie’s interesting story of how they acquired the land Montecarlos is on, or the fact that this is a fifth generation farm (the original farmhouse still stands, and is breathtaking), nor is it the fact that Montecarlos was the first farm in the world to commercially cultivate Pacamara that make this farm unique. Of course, these are parts of the complete story… but what makes the Montecarlos story unique and what makes Carlos and Julie such wonderful people is their ability to see the legitimate impact that specialty coffee can have and to execute effectively upon the principles it promises.
Montecarlos produces Specialty Coffee. So much coffee that is produced and that ends up in the hands of Specialty Coffee roasters and in third wave cafes goes on a journey of chance. Someone, in a cupping lab somewhere, decided that a coffee had a desirable flavor profile. Maybe the producer was paid a premium for this hypothetical lot, maybe she wasn’t. The better institutions in this industry help producers understand why and how to produce a coffee that is truly special. These are cooperatives, exporters, importers, etc. that put effort into helping coffee producers understand why a certain lot of coffee tasted better than another lot. That said, plenty of coffees are bought and sold without the producer having any idea of how the quality compared to other coffees in the world, other coffees in their country, other coffees in their region, or even other coffees they, themselves, produced. As an industry we compare ourselves to wine and beer… but imagine a brewmaster who has no idea how to manipulate the flavors of the finished product, or a winemaker who has no idea what her customer base is interested in tasting. This is a nascent industry and one that may be putting too much emphasis on the finishing touches and not focusing enough on the foundational elements.
Carlos Batres is an incredibly methodical producer. He knows how to manipulate his plants, the land, his processing to produce quality coffee. He is part of a global network of coffee people and is constantly learning. After thirty years of coffee farming and roughly forty working in the industry he is still excited to learn and grow, in a way that goes beyond the interest I see in many young people in this industry who have been working behind bar or roasting coffee for a handful of years.
The result of this approach goes beyond putting money into one couple’s pocket. Montecarlos is a community unto itself. It supports a network of 250 full-time, year-round employees and 250 more seasonal employees who are paid above minimum wage (in all likelihood Carlos is paying his farmworkers higher wages than any other farmer in El Salvador). For reasons beyond the scope of this blog post many farms currently have very little coffee to harvest in El Salvador. Montecarlos, on the other hand, is thriving and provides full day employment for 250 seasonal workers for five months of the year. These workers who would typically have to travel around the country looking for work are able to reliably work in one place for nearly half of the year, a remarkable thing. Montecarlos boasts a school, a church, roads that Carlos has opened to the public to make transportation between towns more convenient. The family has purchased vehicles for local police. Carlos and Julie are working to build something that goes beyond a coffee farm.
It is for these reasons that Passenger is so pleased to go as deep as possible with Carlos, Julie and the Montecarlos Estate. Last year Passenger purchased roughly 32,000 pounds of coffee from Montecarlos, this year we will be purchasing around 40,000 pounds. That represents approximately 35% of the coffee we will roast this year. It is our goal to go as deep as possible with relationships that resonate with our own goals and principles surrounding the coffee industry. We look forward to many more years working with this wonderful farm and family.