Aida Batlle Reception and Cupping
The reception held for Aida Batlle last night at Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C. Was a small intimate affair with about 20 people in attendance. I knew that she was in town because I read that she had made a stop at Pheasant Creek
. Then, a few days ago, I received very short notice that would make a surprise visit to the shop where I work on Friday nights, but it was too short and I could not be there. I was delighted to find that a 12 oz bag of her Grand Reserve had been left behind, but more on that later. The relief I felt when I found out about the reception, and found out that I had a babysitter for the evening, was a great satisfaction.
My wife and I arrived to find a few people milling about the training and cupping room. This is wing of the CCC building that is roughly 700-900 square feet outfitted with a GB-5, FB-70, a towering Robur grinder, a Mahlkonig Guatemala grinder, an assortment of smaller Mazzers (I think that is the make) and their newest addition; the LaMarzzoco Swift
. There are several tables, glasses, spoons, scales, and of course, the cupping grease board
. Standing by the door was Peter Giuliano, pouring himself a cupping glass of red wine. I received bottled water, also in a cupping glass. That was all they had, cupping glasses.
There was a fantastic buffet of food (I don't know who catered) that included shrimp, crab cakes, sesame beef on a stick, and some crescent shaped stuffed and fried Indian things, the name of which I do not know. It seemed a little thin for the vegetarians, except for the Indian crescents, but I was told Gee was out of town, and he would be the only one to complain if he were present (I always imagined him eating ½ inch thick, red, runny, rare steak. You just never know). Every thing was delicious.
After everyone got their fill Peter Giuliano began to introduce Aida Batlle by prefacing that her humility and modesty prevented her from telling people about the CoE's that her coffees started winning immediately after she took over her father's coffee farms (her family has farmed coffee for 5 generations). The first year she entered samples, (around 2002, I forget the exact year) she broke a number of records: the first female farmer to win, the first to have two samples in the top 20, the first El Salvador to take first place. Peter listed some others that escape me.
After being praised for long enough, she began her slide show presentation. She spoke of how she went back to El Salvador, her country of origin (no pun), after having lived in the U.S.A., and having no coffee back ground herself. The farms were in bad shape as a result of pushing the trees to overproduce for so many years, only to fetch low mass market prices. In addition to the low monetary earnings, the shade grown trees had not been taken care of properly as all the efforts went into pushing the trees. Activities such as stumping (cutting trees back to 2 foot stumps to create new low growth), breeding, nursery growing, and proper pruning had not been done for a long time. Even though she had no direct knowledge of the coffee growing business, Aida said she understood very well that growing for quantity was sure to sacrifice quality, and she began to turn around the farming practices they used at the three farms she was now managing; Los Alpes, Finca Kilimanjaro, and Finca Mauritania. The farms are producing far less than they did in years past, but she now produces coffees
on par with some of the best coffees in the world. The peaberries that make up the Grand Reserve, which were selected from the best crops of each of the three farms, sold this year for 20 American dollars per pound, green. She admitted that she would have been perfectly happy (and only expected) to get $3.00 for it. She was going to auction a third of the micro lot among three American buyers, but then the buyers just offered her the $20 per lb. (under the suggestion of Peter Giuliano) and split the lot between them. She sold another third to buyer in Japan, and the last to a buyer in Norway. So you will have to go a long ways to find this coffee anywhere else in the world. And to think that just two years ago other coffee farmers were telling here she would not be able to give away peaberries, since there is no market for them (in El Salvador they are considered a defect, an aberration, a useless mutation) That is exactly what she did; she gave away her peaberries. I think she stated that her intention was to try to create a market where she perceived there was none.
When the presentation was over, there were a couple of Q & A's about some farming practices, and it turns out that changing over to organic practices has been an extremely expensive shift. The organic pesticides cost something in the neighborhood of 5 times more than the commercial products, and she started to buy organic chicken dung and manure, which is also very costly. The time spent on pruning and raising new saplings and taking care of the shade trees is much more exhaustive than the techniques of the late 20th century. But her inspection for her organic farming certification was just last month, in October of 2006, and she seemed confident about the results, which she will be getting back soon.
Then came the good stuff. Beans were weighed, water was boiled, spoons and spit cups were passed out to all who wished to partake in a traditional cupping. There were also several press pots plunged for those who wanted to sample the goods in a more “after dinner” style. Three of her coffees were presented in the cupping: Finca Mauritania, Grand Reserve, and a third which had no label or writing on the bag. I heard what it was called in passing but I don't remember now. They said they did not have a label made for it yet, but that Murky had made their own label for it. So if you are in the D.C. area, ask about Aida's “other” coffee. I got a whiff of Brandy fragrance, and it had a sweet flavor that made me think of raisins and dried figs. It also had a clear acidity and a marvelous velvety body.
I will let you find some Mauritania for yourself, but this entry would be incomplete without a run down of the Grand Reserve. The moment the hot water hit the grounds I caught a distinct fragrance of apricots. This happened on three different occasions (I have been drinking the stuff since Thanksgiving day). There was also and sweet brown sugar smell, and hint of lemon. I forgot to mention, the beans smell like candy in the bag. One CCC employee, Rich Futrell, described it to me as peanut butter cups before I mentioned the candy thing to him (a little validation goes a long way in such subjective efforts). I have had both medium and thick body sensations from different cuppings, and when it was thick it was fantastically rich. If you get a hold of some of this stuff try it with a long steep time, and despite the temptation to be stingy with such pricey coffee, make sure you are at the top of your ounces to water ratio. It will be well worth it.
The acidity of this coffee was astonishing to me in that it was unlike any I have previously experienced. It is no stretch to say I perceived a good deal of tart nectarine and sweet Mandarin orange. Like the sweet tart candies, it has that magical Yin Yang balance. This is an all around stellar coffee, and because of the extremely limited supply (I think 500 lbs in the whole world) it is wroth the $45 per 12 oz. bag.
The closeness I feel to this coffee, after meeting with the farmer and seeing photos of the people who pick and sort it by hand increased my appreciation for it all that much more. I'm really going to be working hard to increase the knowledge base of our customers to reel them into understanding these kinds of coffees, their scarcity and their value. Casual coffee drinkers could have their coffee drinking experience so much more enriched with the proper education. I have been talking to customers one at a time about these kinds of coffees, and even let one sample the Grand Reserve. I had him scared to spill a drop of it on the way to his table, and he loved it and appreciated it down to the dust at the bottom of his cup. Aida showed me how little I know and understand about the cultivation of coffee. There is so much work and sweat and manure and miles and lives and stainless steel between the farm and table, I doubt if anyone has more than a window of understanding into the whole journey of the bean from proverbial seed, to proverbial cup.