CaféNor is a dry mill located near Santa Ana, El Salvador, run by local producers under the leadership of Alejandro, whose family has been involved in coffee production for four generations since the 1800s. The dry mill has only been in operation for a short period and producers visit the mill every day to hand over their coffee to Alejandro. Alejandro’s work has received high praise from roasters on the West coast of the United States, including Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Four Barrel Coffee, and Verve Coffee Roasters.
We drove about three hours from the capital city of San Salvador to reach the dry mill of CaféNor. The dry mill is located on a hill surrounded by pine trees and the view from the cupping lab which looked like a small hut was fantastic with very good vibe flowing through it. We spent a night at Alejandro’s second house near the dry mill surrounded by a coffee farm. The location of the house, where he stays during the harvest and processing season, was also exceptional; it was located on a small hill and overlooked the Trifinio biosphere reserve, the point where the borders of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala meet. The coffee flowers were in full bloom and the air was filled with a creamy and jasmine-like scent. “It’s safe here surrounded by my friends’ farms,” Alejandro said.
I first heard about Alejandro on the blog of Four Barrel Coffee, a roaster in San Francisco. I remembered the delicious El Salvador coffee I had at Four Barrel Coffee, so I checked it out. The blog mentioned his name and included a few episodes about him, so I intuitively knew I wanted to meet him. When I come to think of it, I may have sensed something of what he calls “honest friendship” in every sentence. I found an Instagram account that looked like it belonged to him and immediately contacted him. He replied right away, and we decided to head to El Salvador to meet him the following month.
Alejandro is tall with a trademark mustache that gives him the air of an English gentleman. He is simple yet dignified and the more time I spent with him, the more I felt I could trust him. His wife is an intelligent woman who has been working at the U.S. Embassy. She speaks fluent English supporting Alejandro’s English and export work. They were very kind to us even though we had never met them before. After we returned to the Netherlands and settled back in, we interviewed Alejandro online.
The beginning of the community
“My family has been involved in coffee production for four generations beginning around 1800; it’s like coffee is in our genes. I inherited and now operate a coffee farm growing commercial coffee. We sold or gave away my grandfather’s land to local people who also started producing coffee on the land in the 1980s. At that time various roasters came from overseas in search of specialty coffee and they introduced me to specialty coffee. I decided to leave my hometown and work for Caravela Coffee, a Central American coffee exporting company. I worked for Caravela Coffee for five years, mainly in Nicaragua, and established its branch in El Salvador. Working for Caravela Coffee gave me the knowledge and experience to work with specialty coffees and allowed me to connect with roasters on the West coast in the United States such as Four Barrel Coffee through a colleague who originally worked in Stumptown Coffee Roasters. I moved back to my hometown in 2017 and started my own business, CaféNor.”
The land owned by Alejandro’s grandfather wasn’t originally a coffee farm. It was rough and uncultivated at the time, but they were able to restore it by steadily and patiently cultivating the land. Then the local people could start producing coffee. This became the prototype for the current community. Alejandro was connected with the forefront of specialty coffee later and became convinced that this was the way to make the local people happy.
Quality and traceability
“I wanted to build a local mill specializing in specialty coffees independent of the market price that contributes to the producers in the community. Some producers produce only a very small amount of coffee like 100 kg per year. Even if they produced excellent quality coffee, they had to sell it mixed with normal quality lots before. Now we classify these small lots by quality and sell them as group lots. The group lots can be traced back to any producer’s coffee. In this way, coffees from producers who can only produce 100 kg per year can reach roasters while traceability are maintained.”
Some producers have increased the selling price of their coffee tenfold as a result of this initiative. They deliver the fruits of producers’ efforts directly to roasters so that they can pay producers a fair price for quality. This makes the local people happy both mentally and financially.
We are in the same boat
“The dry mill was built using local building materials by people who were hired locally. Also, the dry mill and cupping lab are powered by electricity from solar panels on the roof. The roasters and buyers who come here say it’s great and the community is very proud of it.”
When we asked, “Where does your sense of mission come from that you are so committed to the community?” Alejandro waited in thought a bit and then laughed and said, “I think it’s natural to think we all want to be better together.”
“The community is all of us riding in the same boat. You can’t be wealthy while others aren’t wealthy and it’s not possible to be wealthy with your efforts only either. I want to be a good leader, but I can’t be a leader if there is nobody around. The key to nurturing a community is to help someone else first. If you do that, the people around you will do the same for you and we can help each other. For example, when my car broke down the other day, the first person who came to help me and stayed with me until the problem was solved was someone from the community. In terms of coffee production, there is healthy competition among the producers, and they are able to put their love and passion into their coffee. This community is really an open-minded and peaceful community. Of course, patience is required and in order to make new things happen, you have to explain things carefully to each person, think on their behalf, and negotiate.”
During our visit to CaféNor’s dry mill, I had a very memorable moment. Alejandro said, “I want to introduce you to the producers,” and invited us to meet some of the producers nearby. Even though it was a Sunday, a lot of people came and listened to what we wanted to say and they actively asked us questions like ‘What kind of varieties do you want?’ Alejandro said, “This is a great opportunity for us and these opportunities are really important because the producers will want to make good coffee for you since you came all the way here.” When I saw this scene, I deeply felt the special relationship between Alejandro and the producers. There was trust and appreciation for each other that came naturally. There was a man with a dynamic character, a quiet old man, a young man who looked young enough to be a teenager, a mother with a child, and a variety of other producers. Alejandro must have spent a lot of time talking with each of them and nurturing the community.
About the future
“The production of CaféNor is gradually increasing; 250 bags in 2018, 500 bags in 2019, and 1,000 bags this year. We expect the maximum production volume of the mill to be 2,000 bags, but we would like to continue increasing the production gradually. We are also working on traceability and sustainability for our future, such as investing in M Cultivo, a platform that delivers fair purchase prices for coffee cherries to producers via SMS, and obtaining carbon neutral certification.”
“This community is expanding to other areas. A producer from Chalatenango whom I saw at the coffee competition asked me, ‘Are you Alejandro? I would love to work with you’ and that’s when I started dealing with coffees from Chalatenango. Through his friends and relatives, the circle has been expanding and I just go about my business on the basis of honest and straightforward friendship.”
Alejandro works hard just to make the people around him happy and his attitude earns someone’s trust which leads to the next someone. In El Salvador, where coffee production continues to decline, the expansion of his community will certainly have a strong influence. It’s the same for us. From now on, roasters from all over the world will get on the same boat with Alejandro and will open the future of El Salvador.
Written by Ayane Yamada