Thoughts on El Salvador

In these pages, we’ve been proud to share occasional travel journals from Irving Farm family members like our Green Buyer Dan Streetman, or this wonderful Honduras reflection by longtime staffer and all-around-talent John Summerour. Now, we’re thrilled to share words from Liz Dean, manager of our Upper West Side Cafe, who we profiled here last fall. Earlier this year, Liz took a trip along with some other Irving Farmers to visit some of the farms we have relationships with in El Salvador. Here are her impressions, along with her photographs.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

One of the things that makes Irving Farm special is its commitment to truly investing in the professional development and education of its staff, and one of the ways in which we’re doing this is by selecting a few staff members every year to travel to one of the countries we get our coffee from. Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the people chosen to go on the trip of a lifetime to travel to El Salvador to visit some of the farms and mills we work with to supply our coffee.

The purpose of taking what is referred to as a “trip to origin”—a sort of rite of passage in which a coffee professional visits a country, like El Salvador, where coffee is grown—is to try and understand the place on its own terms. The word “origin” is deliberate—it implies something prehistoric, knowledge a priori, or things that exist outside of our own experience of them. For those of us who work in a cafe setting, we are required to surrender that we’re actually only the last step in a very long chain that begins somewhere far away. It’s because of this that taking a trip to origin is the dream of many serious coffee professionals—it’s the only way to fully understand our role and, ultimately, our responsibility, within our industry. I knew that this trip would likely be one of the most formative and defining parts of my career as a coffee professional.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

When I got back from El Salvador, I was asked to share some thoughts about my experience there. I discovered that I had a hard time figuring out what to write, which wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to say. It’s a well known and very bad habit of Americans like myself (of a certain education and income level) to travel to foreign countries—especially those seen as impoverished or lacking in resources—and then use our very Americanized lens to describe and dictate, in pictures and blog posts, the terms in which other people live. It can be a kind of gross exercise that usually says more about the person visiting than about the place visited. It was important to me that I give proper tribute to the country and people who had graciously shown me so much during my short time there. I wanted to try and present El Salvador as authentically as I could, and to seize moments of surprise as opportunities to examine the assumptions I came in with.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Nowhere was this more evident than when I spent several hours picking coffee at Talnamica. This farm was on relatively flat ground, which was unusual for a coffee farm—since coffee grows best at higher elevations, many pickers have to work on steep mountainsides. And even though we had it easy that day, it was still hard work!

After we’d picked for just a few hours, we hauled our bags to the patio to have our coffee weighed. While pickers are paid based on the weight of the coffee they picked, there are still incentives to pick properly and not just strip the trees bare in order to get the heaviest bags the fastest. After all, stripping the trees of everything on them would damage them, and picking cherries too soon would also mean fewer ripe cherries to be picked later on. I’d been pretty careful in my picking and while I didn’t pick as much as some of the others in my group, I’d picked well. I was told that the coffee I’d picked would have earned me $1.25 USD. On average, a coffee picker in El Salvador earns about $10/day.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Several American friends expressed disgust when I told them about this. “That’s appalling,” they said. And I’ll admit that my initial reaction was similar, until I realized how much more complicated this issue was, and that this was one of those moments in which I was going to have to step back from my own biases.

I spent my week in El Salvador expecting just to learn more about where coffee comes from and instead was given a crash course in the economic and social difficulty of evaluating and comparing quality of life across culture and country. It’s very easy for an American to feel bad for a Salvadoran coffee picker who lives off of $10/day because there’s a value we associate with that money, and what it can and cannot buy.


This attitude also suggests that the Salvadoran coffee workers are deserving of our pity,  that we should feel bad for their lot in life. Our Americanized lens allows us to chase the narrative of the downtrodden, exploited worker when the reality is more complicated. In fact, while I visited only a handful of farms and mills, the Salvadoran coffee workers  I met seemed to take an extraordinary amount of pride in their work and seemed to see their work as important and meaningful. Many of them also possessed skills that made them invaluable to the process of producing coffee. No one exemplified this more than Wencis Lao.

Wencis Lao has been working with coffee for almost his entire life. He has a huge, toothy grin and strong hands rough from work. His job is to oversee the turning of the harvested coffee as it dries, which has to be done at specific timed intervals to ensure that the coffee dries evenly. He told us that he sometimes skipped his lunch break because he was worried about making sure the coffee was being turned properly, on time. It was clear that he cared about and took pride in his work.

Coffee has to reach a certain percentage of moisture content before the drying process is considered finished (if the coffee is still too moist, it can spoil and rot). While a moisture meter could be used to scientifically and accurately measure the moisture content of the coffee, Wencis Lao can guess the percentage just with his hands alone. Most of the time, he is just as accurate as the meter. He can also predict how long it will take for coffee to reach the right moisture level, even down to the specific time of day.

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

Another problem with how we react to $10/day for Salvadoran coffee pickers is that we are, in fact, part of why they make so little. Coffee is a tremendously undervalued commodity, given how much work and time is required to produce it in the first place, right from when it is first planted to when it reaches its final destination, brewed into a cup. Knowing how much goes into producing, say, hand-brewed pour-over coffee, it’s surprising that it’s as cheap as it is at $4.50. And yet, even at the cafe I manage on the Upper West Side—one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan—people balk at this price. “$4.50 for just a cup of coffee?”.

But the reality is: it’s not just a cup of coffee. It’s nothing short of a miracle that happens as a result of a very long process involving a lot of labor and time and many different people across different countries. A process that requires painstaking attention to detail every step of the way. And that’s before it even gets to the barista!

Irving farm coffee new york city liz dean el salvador

For every moment you have shared with a friend over coffee, or for every morning you have woken up and felt grateful for the cup of coffee to help prepare you for the day, you owe thanks to an extraordinary number of people for making that possible. We owe it to every person whose hard work and long hours are part of the process that makes coffee what it is in the first place not just recognition, and gratitude, but also (perhaps more importantly)—fair wages, and a certain standard of living – for the meticulous care and effort that went into its production. Seeing this at work firsthand helped me shed the lens of my own American gaze, but one doesn’t have to travel to see the facts of our part of the process.


The Los Niños Experiments

los ninos experiments el salvador irving farm talnamica

Irving Farm’s relationship with El Salvador’s Finca Talnamica and the Ortiz Herrera family has developed into one of our most fruitful, beginning in 2012 when Nena Méndez walked into our 79th Street cafe and noticed a black-and-white mural on the back wall depicting Guadalupe, a coffee farm from her homeland. She inquired about the photographer—who happened to be our Green Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman—and invited him to visit her family farm on his next trip to El Salvador.

Nena’s mother, Bessita, came from a lineage of Salvadoran coffee farmers dating back to the 1880s, and her father, Alfredo Ortiz Mancia, purchased Talnamica in the 1950s. Today the farm is owned and operated by Nena and her three siblings along with her husband, Hermann, and farm manager Don Hector Vides.


The Los Niños Experiments came about when Nena & Hermann’s daughter, Mayita—a talented photographer who began working for Irving Farm in 2013 as a barista at our 79th Street cafe before transitioning to our wholesale team—suggested that we explore coffee processing by taking one harvest through four unique processing methods, representing the four Ortiz Herrera siblings: Nena, Freddie, Cecil & Carlos.

The coffee is 100% Bourbon variety, grown at an altitude between 1360–1400 meters, and handpicked by 150 workers on the same day from the same part of the farm. The ripe cherry is brought to Talnamica’s award-winning partners at the Cuatro M coffee mill and that is where the experiments begin…

EXPERIMENT #1: Natural Process
The harvested coffee is run through the first stage of the wet mill where it’s cleaned of all debris, and the floaters are separated from the sinkers. This fruit, fully encased in its skin, is then placed in a mechanical dryer at a very low temperature for 60–70 hours.

EXPERIMENT #2: Honey Process
The coffee is sorted and de-pulped, removing the skin but leaving some sweet, sticky mucilage on the seed. This coffee is then spread onto a patio and left to dry in the sun.

EXPERIMENT #3: Wild Honey Process
This is the wild card, so to speak, and a processing method that is new for us and Finca Talnamica. The coffee is de-pulped and placed into fermentation tanks without water until the pH reaches 4.5, which can take 12–16 hours. This allows the remaining mucilage to slowly break down. The coffee is then spread onto a patio to dry in the sun.

EXPERIMENT #4: Washed Process
The coffee is de-pulped and left in the fermentation tanks overnight without water. The next morning it’s sent through the mechanical washer to remove any remaining mucilage and then spread onto a patio to sun-dry. This is a standard processing method and one that we might expect with this particular coffee.

It’s a special privilege to work directly with farmers on innovative techniques from planting to harvesting to processing, and we’re very fortunate that the people behind Finca Talnamica (including Mayita, who’s now part of Talnamica’s fifth generation of coffee growers) are so passionate about exploring new ideas. Their collaborative spirit has even extended to the creation of a horchata chocolate bar with Brooklyn’s Raaka Chocolate, and the harvesting of cascara (coffee cherry) specifically for wastED, an experimental pop-up restaurant by Dan Barber at Blue Hill in Manhattan that addressed food waste by transforming scraps and compost into delectable meals.

los ninos experiments el salvador irving farm talnamica

Irving Farm’s Dan Streetman and Mayita Mendez

We look forward to sharing these experiments with you. Come visit us in one of our five cafes, sign up for an Intro to Cupping & Tasting class at our Loft, or purchase all four experiments and create your own tasting lab at home! Hopefully this will be a delicious and surprising journey for our customers as you brew beyond the lingo on a coffee label and develop firsthand knowledge of how process affects flavor.

Coffee Postcards From El Salvador: January 2015

Irving Farm Coffee Roasters

When not tasting coffees in our brand new 19th street training lab, and tracking shipments of beautiful coffees across the seas, Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, likes to check in on the farms with whom we have relationships. This January, he had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador, along with a few other Irving Farmers, like Liz Dean, our Upper West Side cafe manager, our technical wizard Bill McAllister, and El Salvador native Mayita Mendez, who works with us on our sales team.

As always, Dan wrote some letters home to his Irving Farm “farmily”, and also as always, we now share them with you.


Day 1:

Yesterday was basically a travel day. We got to the wet mill here at Beneficio Las Cruces around 4pm yesterday, and saw some coffee being unloaded and processed.

After dinner we came back to the mill and watched the guys unload all the cherry from the day’s picking. The farmers usually start around six in the morning and pick until 2-3pm. Afterwards everything gets sorted and weighed at the farm. Depending on the farm, the best quality will be sorted for microlots while the less ripe cherry will be separated and marked to go into the larger lots, or generic Strictly High Grade (SHG) lots. After the trucks are loaded they have to drive to the wet mill, which can be up to two hours of travel. Once at the wet mill all the trucks are weighed to verify that the same weights arrive at the mill that were picked in the farm. This process takes some time, and there is usually a line of trucks waiting to get their weight verified, and then be unloaded. Each truck takes about two hours to unload, especially as they have to move around to unload different lots into the designated bins so they can be processed separately.


We watched until midnight, as they unloaded five truckloads. It was crazy to watch, as they had just finished one microlot when we arrived and immediately started dumping cherry into the bins. Meanwhile they started processing the SHG coffee while they unloaded two more trucks into the tank. Each truck had some of each type, generic SHG, and microlots so it was a ballet of rearranging the trucks every 20 mins or so to get it in the right spot to sort the coffee into the right bin: six different microlots, an SHG and a commercial grade bin. At the end of the night they totaled 180,000 lbs of cherry, which will be processed into about 250 bags of exportable green coffee. (The equivalent of how much Guadalupe Irving Farm buy for a whole year.)

Next, we’ll head to Guadalupe and El Molino.


Day 2:

Yesterday morning we went over to visit the Guadalupe and El Molino farm sites. We did a rather extensive walk of Guadalupe and examined some different plots. Specifically, Andres and Jose Antonio showed me how they are continuing to convert Guadalupe to the agobio parras system. This method takes the vertical Bourbon trees and bends them sideways. They have found that this method is working to help the trees fight rust because it uses a more developed root system to support the tree. Also, it is very beneficial for another problem they have been having in the farms recently which is WIND.

Wind storms are very common to this part of El Salvador, but this year the wind has been especially bad. Usually the storms only last for the month of October but this year they have been seeing windstorms every other week from October until now. The Bourbon is especially susceptible to the wind because of its height, as it can grow up to 10-12 feet. By bending the tree you bring the height down to 6-7 feet, the wind can more easily pass over the trees. It was pretty incredible to watch the tall trees shaking profusely in the wind and the parras barely be touched. After we went and saw El Molino drying on the patios at the old abandoned mill on that farm.


We also examined a plot of Catuai variety coffee growing on Guadalupe.

Afterwards, Andres and Jose Antonio showed me the nursery and some of the varieties they are working with. This year they are working on a project to plant 8 different varieties in one farm, as a test for what types they will plant in the future. Specifically they are working to find the best variety for each plot on each farm, by understanding what characteristics each will have. They are planting SL-28, Geisha, Pink Bourbon, Yellow Caturra, Batian, and SL-32 along with Castillo and a few other Catimor types.

We had lunch with Jose Antonio Sr. (Andres and Jose Antonio’s father). It was great to see him, the first year that I was here was his last year managing the farms. This is my 5th trip.

After lunch we did some cupping. We cupped 30 coffees. I am very excited because both the Guadalupe and El Molino cupped well, even though they are extremely fresh from the patios.

We also cupped a lot of Catuai and Catimor from the same farm, neighboring plots. I was surprised how well the Catimor cupped. Jose Antonio explained to me that they are planning to plant more Catimor at lower elevations and for their more generic coffees. We also cupped some coffees with different processing methods, like some which were soaked after being washed, some pulp naturals, and some naturals. It is early in the harvest but across the board they are showing the consistency and quality I have come to expect.

Later we went to visit the Santa Rita farms, and Jose Antonio had me demonstrate two different types of parras. A parra is when you allow the tree to grow vertically for 5-10 years, and then you bend the tree so that the vertical trunk, becomes horizontal. Since you learn by doing, Jose Antonio had me demonstrate the techniques on a few trees so that I could practice.


One method is the traditional parras where the vertical tree is bent to become a horizontal branch, which will eventually sprout 4 more verticals. In this system it is very important to give adequate space to the verticals so that the branches don’t all grow into a tangle. It takes quite a bit of forethought to do this well, especially considering that this will be a 10-40 year project to complete. Thinking that far ahead is definitely a challenge.

We also walked through the parra de raiz, or root parra, where the tree is dug up and reburied at an angle. A different method of achieving the same result. Only in this system, the roots will not support 4 bent verticals like in the traditional parra. Afterwards, Bill, Liz and Mayita arrived and we gave them a tour of the wet and dry mills before leaving to stay at Talnamica, Mayita’s family farm. It was a memorable visit for all of us.


Stay tuned for our next round of Irving Farm letters home from coffee’s source, next stop, Nicaragua!

It’s been a busy fall for us at Irving Farm so far. We’ve already participated in a couple of big harvest festivals with our friends from the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and the Union Square Partnership. After four years participating in the Stone Barns Harvest Fest and more than a decade at the Harvest in the Square, the events just keep getting better! We’re looking forward to next year’s events already!

If you missed us at the Stone Barns Harvest Fest at the beginning of the month, you might not have heard the news: aside from serving up some delicious El Salvador Everest, we also gave a sneak peek of our new holiday gift boxes. Take a look at the goods for yourselves in the slideshow above, and look out for the November 01 release date at

We’ve also got an exciting lineup of new coffees that we’ve started releasing just this month! If you think the first coffee we introduced from Capucas was good, then you’d better stay tuned for more details on what else the town has to offer! These are choice coffees from the individuals producers in the cooperative who won top spots in the annual Capucas microlots competition. The first of five winning coffees is now available at and at our cafes in Manhattan. Try it, and let us know what you think!

We just got some goodies in the mail from our friends over @KnowHopeMission, and we want to share! Here’s the deal:

Purchase a bag of our new Cerro Las Ranas Peaberry or Kenya Gathambi and use coupon code KNOWHOPE at checkout to get free shipping and enter to win one of these bags.

The winner will be chosen at random from the pool of all entries. Enter as many times as you like! (Even if you don’t win a bag, you win free shipping!)

Contest ends at 11:59pm on Thursday 09/15/2011.

Craft Coffee

We’re super excited to be featured in this month’s @CraftCoffeeCo sampler. We also wish everything we’re a part of looked this nice.


Trying out Craft Coffee — coffee tasting boxes mailed to you once a month filled with 3 different yummy hand selected premium artisan roasters from around the country with sustainability focused coffee! I love it.

This month’s box of beans was from roasters in California, Michigan, and New York and is doing it’s job of waking me up!