On the one hand, I camped out the other night next to a lake in the crater of a volcano in Southern Guatemala, the road to get there was a bit daunting, I had to do some bitching / bartering to get what I wanted, and in the end the view was magical and I was completely alone. On the other hand I went to a Guatemalan night club in a small port town a few days prior with another road junkie, we we’re the only two non nationals at the small yet very happening club and had a sweaty rockin time. This would not have been as fun on my own and the aid of another foreigner who danced something other then various forms of salsa was great so I didn’t look quite as ridicules jumping about like a headless chicken.
Today we blew some fairy dust off another special moment that was not to be dulled by plans, organization or tourists, today I was taken to the Bourbon Jungle.
I’m in the first bits of my time in El Salvador, actually Juayua is my first stop in the country and like many stops I planned on one night and I might be here for weeks. Here I met Sala , a local El Salvadorian who was in town for the yearly coffee expo up the road in the exquisite volcano valley region we are in . Once a year after the bean harvest a number of farmers bring the best of their beans to auction, where a number of buyers from across the planet come to see what the season has bestowed on the area. The cupping process is completely blind and you bid strictly on desire of flavor so you know you are buying on preference and quality not stories and marketing. Sala is presenting a number of samples and one hundred pounds of premium green beans from his small, organic, boutique farm for auction in the hopes of impressing and finding a long term buyer. He explains not every bean up for auction is purchased and he will be lucky to sell his for market rate, $2.50USD/ pound, or at all. I meet him for beers in our hotels garden patio along with some Dutch girls after the event where he explains the beans had found a home with a Swiss buyer who happily paid $3.50, or one dollar more per pound then the regular rate, seems there is reason to celebrate.
The next day Sala is meant to be heading back to the farm to help his father with the relentless demands of a needed coffee crop, noting a small window of opportunity to see my first coffee farm from the farmers perspective rather then a rehearsed tour guides perspective I ask if I can come along. I’m not sure if he’s as excited as I am, thou thirty minutes later my bikes following his jeep to the farm. A twisting mountainside road overlooking a lush valley that cradles various coffee entrepreneurs, then up a short steep dirt road and we arrive at The Bourbon Jungle. Emerging from the bushes comes his smiling father dawning the representing white flat brimmed hat style I seem to see atop many of the local farmers along side his right hand man. The right hand man, his head farmer has dedicated most of his life to this hillside crop of premium beans, living in a shack near the entrance for roughly thirty years. He spends the days in this slower season walking the rows with his machete trimming back weed, in efficient coffee brush and tending to the happiness of the crop.
I’m delighted as the father immediately greets me in English and rolls right into an explanation about the organic crop, the buds and some of the challenges they have faced since turning from a typical fertilized chemical crop to a fully organic crop. We sit perched for lunch about halfway up a dormant volcano in the middle of their forty hectors; he had originally bought one hundred and sixty hectors back in the eighties during the El Salvador civil war from some successful farmers who needed to flee the country. Since then he had sold off one hundred and ten hectors in the valley to pursue the best forty at the top of the volcano, a section that would produce a denser more premium bean. As the story goes about fifteen years earlier they had been farming away like most others fertilizing with chemicals and churning out an impressive crop of up to 300,000 pounds of beans each year. The coffee was good and a businessman from Oslo Norway was in South America buying beans to export home when someone had told him about the beans of this little El Salvadorian farm, the cup of black gold was supreme and he came to see the farm for himself. Sadly his was disappointed with the fertilizer and chemicals and disapproved of the for profit not for quality methods and was discussing the organic process with Salas father en route to the farm. Upon arrival the Norwegian was so amazed with the size and age of the coffee trees as well as the impressive layout of the farm that he began to hug the lush coffee bushes of Bourbon style coffee bushes like a long lost lover, coining the name “The Bourbon Jungle”. The name stuck, the farming method was completely swapped to 100% organic and a steady buyer had made a deal with a happy grower.
The quality would rise as would the price of the bean however the same crop that used to pump out 300,000 pounds of chemically enhanced crop quickly drop to 160,000lbs of beans. Other challenges would arise such as mold and rust within the crop that could once be fought off with chemicals now had to be fought expensively with a mixture of copper or sulfur sprays that could effectively do the job when they could be afforded the mixes. Such is the life of many farmers you don’t always get a good harvest and in El Salvador the harvest is annual unlike multi harvest crops of other regions in the world. In 2011 the crops started to drop off significantly from what was once a booming business of 300,000lbs and the worst year they suffered only managed to turn out 1400lbs of use able beans, a mere fraction of what it once did and in 2013 they were considering scrapping the entire crop to start again. While some of these trees were upwards of one hundred years old, it was comparable to killing off part of your family to feed the rest. Their neighbors we able to bounce back faster with chemical enhancements however the humble organic boutique farmer would need to focus on crop attention and smartly organizing the fields to ensure a healthy future, slowly the beans have been making a promising comeback.
The El Salvador harvest is roughly from November to March where they hire out local pickers to scale the steep volcanic landscape and harvest the flowering bounty. Sala explains that a typical picker would receive about $1.50USD per twenty five pound basket of picked crop, however they pay $2/ basket and regularly supply free lunch to ensure a good supply of returning help each season. On an average day a picker might bring in fifty to one hundred pounds of beans and that he feels for the labours work they are still underpaid as are most of the people of the country.
During the dissention from near the peak of the volcano his father continues to divulge the details of the love for his farm and the intricate details of what to look for in a bean, the leaf and the nutrient rich volcanic soil that blesses them on this farm. To see a man who’s hands have handcrafted his future through times of war, fruitless harvest and the promise of enough good fortune to keep his dream sputtering along explain his love of the bean, you would think as thou there is no place on earth a magical as this forty hectors and sharing that love slow roasted and freshly brewed with the world was the greatest gift one could offer.