August 2015 - Juan Jose Ernesto Menéndez Argüello: La Ilusión
This is one of my all-time favourite farms coming back after having not been with us for the past two years. But we welcome it back with the widest of arms, it's so so special.
I often get asked what my favourite coffee of all time is. I will never say (although my friends know the true answer), but I give a list of three; this is one of them.
I went to El Salvador in 2008 on a buying trip, visiting some of the farms that we buy from. I actually arrived the evening of the Cup of Excellence awards. After the ceremony, I was walking around when this guy who seemed very popular came over to me and introduced himself.
He was Ernesto. He had just won the Cup of Excellence competition with his 'La Ilusión' farm, the sister farm of 'Alaska'. Alaska is a farm we had bought from in Cup of Excellence the year before. Ernesto invited me to visit La Ilusión the next day. It was so great to finally meet someone I had communicated with so many times via email.
Ernesto bought La Ilusión 8 years ago. The farm has coffee trees averaging 19 years of age and is growing 95% Bourbon (70% is red Bourbon and 25% is orange Bourbon). The remaining 5% is a combination of other varietals, and it is possible to spot some Typica and Kenya trees.
The farm is run using environmentally friendly practices. They are trying to maintain a balance with the surrounding ecosystem, which is part of a natural fauna corridor crucial to migratory and native birds. This is very important for Ernesto, since La Ilusión is neighbouring one of the most important national parks in El Salvador, known as 'Los Andes'. It is nestled on the Santa Ana volcano and delineates his farm with dense pine and cypress forest, which itself provides a special micro-climate for La Ilusión.
In 2011 we started working with a barista from El Salvador called Alejandro Mendez, I'd met him a few years before and had been in touch via email ever since. He wanted me to roast coffee from La Ilusión for his national barista competition, I was honoured and excited and of course said yes! Coffee was sent from El Salvador to Stafford, I roasted it then sent it back to El Salvador where he competed with it and won! He then went on to compete in the World Barista Championship where he caused a bit of a stir in the competition world by using the naturally processed lot in his milk drinks and sig drink then the washed as his espresso, such a stir that he won! There was a magical moment backstage where I was stood with Alejandro and Ernesto polishing glasses, the grower and roaster and barista all stood together preparing for the presentation, not too often you get such wonderful things happening!
After such success the coffee reached new heights of fame, it was already well known through the Cup of Excellence program but with Alejandro doing so well with it at the WBC a lot of people came knocking on Ernesto's door. Up to this point we'd managed to fight off the competition thanks to our friendship but when more and more people approached him that really really wanted the coffee and were offering great money he understandably wanted to spread his risk, instead of just selling to me he wanted to allow more people to have his coffee. Problem with this is that there really wasn't very much of the coffee around, the farm is only 3 hectares in size producing around 30 to 40 bags each year, the farm is also at very high altitude so the cherries mature later than others in El Salvador so the coffee only becomes available towards the end of the usual El Salvador season. Because of these and a few other factors we agreed with Ernesto that maybe the best thing to do was to sell the coffee to the other interested parties but he HAD to keep in touch, I was hoping that things would change with time and I'd be able to get my hands on this amazing coffee again in the future.
Over the years we've kept in touch, always speaking on birthdays and amazing Christmas prezzies too, he's someone I'm happy to call a close friend. On my visits to El Salvador I always wanted to visit La Ilusion but didn't seem right to visit a farm that I wasn't going to be buying from, with such hectic schedules when travelling it's hard to fit anything in for personal reasons so I've very much missed him and his family over the past few years.
So now we're going to fast forward to 2014 in Seattle at the USBC, I'd been invited over to emcee the competition so was on stage doing my thing, in the crowd I spot a face that I think I recognise but obviously have to carry on, don't think they'd have been very pleased if I did a bit of a stage dive mid-introductions! After the ceremony this person comes over and it's Ernesto! He says that he's got some coffee left this year and that he'd really like me to try it, would I be interested? Thanks to some logistical improvements since the last time we had coffee from him I was, lets just say more than interested! I got the samples and packed them carefully into my case so I could roast and cup them back home in Stafford.
I always only make buying decisions based on how coffees taste on my cupping table at the roastery in Stafford, if something can taste amazing on a grey drizzle-y morning in rural Staffordshire then it's definitely a winner! When I got the samples from La Ilusion back and tasted them I instantly remembered why I loved this coffee, I started talking to Ernesto about pricing and remembered why I didn't like paying for this coffee as it's super expensive but sod it, I want it so I got it!
Now things are back to where they should be with me and Ernesto I'm really hoping to get to visit La Ilusion on my next El Salvador trip, hopefully Las Brumas and Alaska too, I am super super excited!
It's fantastic that this relationship is back and I'm really pleased to be able to offer coffee from the farm again, hope you guys enjoy it!