The El Salvador and Honduras Adventure
For those coffee adventurers who take more pleasure in defining the unknown than in confirming the known, the coffees of El Salvador and Honduras offer intriguing opportunity. These two origins are the last of the six Spanish-speaking Central American countries to establish clear identities in the world of specialty coffee, yet both produce plenty of coffee, and, if this month's cupping is any indication, some very interesting and distinctive coffees.
Guatemala and Costa Rica are, of course, the best-known Central American specialty coffee origins, with Panama and Nicaragua the well-established contenders. That leaves El Salvador and Honduras, the former recovering from civil war and the latter from the horrendous damage Hurricane Mitch inflicted in 1998. Both have long histories as coffee origins (El Salvador was at one time the world's fifth largest coffee producer), but neither has established a clear and prestigious identity in the world of specialty coffee. However, both are doing their best to emerge from the shadows of their better known neighbors. El Salvador just conducted its first Cup of Excellence competition, in which coffee professionals from all over the world descend on an origin to cup the best of its coffees and the winners are offered to wholesale buyers via an Internet auction. For its part, Honduras recently completed a modest green coffee competition of its own.
As a run-up to this cupping, I sampled a range of the winning coffees from both competitions. The El Salvadors in particular were impressive, generally displaying a round, full mouthfeel, low-key but resonant acidity, and an impressive range of grace notes ranging from a deep-toned chocolate-leaning fruit to delicate shimmers of flowers and dry berry notes. The results of the Internet auction appeared to confirm the distinction of the El Salvador selections, with the highest ranking coffee attracting a record price for such auctions: $14.06 per pound green from the European roaster Solberg & Hansen, or about twenty times the current New York exchange benchmark "C contract" price.
If understated complexity and balance distinguished the El Salvadors, many of the Honduras competition coffees added a rather intense acidity - sometimes juicy and lush, sometimes dry and austere, occasionally approaching bitter and overbearing.
But clearly both sets of competition samples included many coffees more than worthy of the attention of both coffee professionals and aficionado coffee drinkers.
For now, however, coffee enthusiasts interested in sharing the emerging adventure of El Salvador and Honduras specialty coffees need both persistence and patience.
We did turn up some excellent El Salvador coffees offered to consumers by American specialty companies. We also identified some green El Salvador coffees that are on their way from warehouse to roaster and will be available as production roasts shortly. Additionally, we reviewed some coffees roasted by companies located in El Salvador but accessible to North American consumers via Internet or phone order.
With the Honduras coffees, things are a bit stickier. At this point, only one specialty roaster I contacted, Intelligentsia of Chicago, is definitely planning to offer a Honduras single origin for the coming year. Honduras coffees are offered over the Internet by companies with direct connections to Honduras, but those I cupped were a mixed bag, mostly last year's crop, and often not particularly skillfully roasted. (See this issue's related article: Coffee Growers and the Farm-to-Consumer Shortcut.) To boost the Honduras side of the review, I ended up reviewing a green coffee that hasn't even made to a roaster yet.
Nevertheless, those often passionate coffee aficionados who email me with their latest coffee discoveries would be well advised to experiment with both of these origins, and participate in the process of discovery and definition that is just beginning for these round, resonant El Salvadors and acidy Honduras.