Coffee in Santa Ana – J Hill and Co. and COEX

I had to hunt around for some coffee visits while I was in Santa Ana. This area is rich in coffee fincas and Santa Ana is at the heart of the Salvadoran coffee industry. As Fair Trade findings were hard to find, I thought I’d explore some other options. Two of the ones I found were large-scale operations and quite different to what I’d seen before. Both facilities had armed security, a common sight in El Salvador.

My first visit was to the beneficio “Tres Puertas” (3 Doors) of J Hill & Co., a coffee exporter that has existed since the late 19th century (by James Hill, an Englishman no less). Another visit was to the El Trapiche beneficio of COEX, an international company that grow, process and roast coffee for national and international markets.

I heard about J Hill from a magazine article about one of its producers and I hoped I’d get the chance to meet this producer. Unfortunately I never did, and my time at J Hill was limited. Aldo, my ‘tour guide’, was fairly busy when I arrived. Sometimes it’s difficult to express why I show up at these places and I think because J Hill isn’t an organic/fair trade producer Aldo perhaps thought there wouldn’t be much of interest for me to see. He did give me a contact for another cooperative that I found later in the week though.

I managed a little look around and could see the scale of their operation. It’s a lot larger than what I’d seen before then and very professional-looking. Up-to-date offices, a manicured garden and clean and well-dressed staff. Producers with J Hill are typically fincas, which are larger-scale and typically ineligible for Fair Trade certification. I also got a quick glimpse of the ‘cupping lab’ where the catador (cupper) conducts daily quality checks on the coffee. This was new for me to see a setup like this, and really interesting. I didn’t see the cupping in action, but it’s an essential part of checking coffee quality (and not just something that coffee geeks do to make themselves feel superior).

The next day I visited COEX. They were very accommodating and I got to see their torrefaccion (roasting process). Warner was the chief guy here and he gave me the guided tour. Afterwards I also met David, who told me a little more about COEX itself. Again I had a novel experience, as this processing was on a scale I hadn’t seen before. From the number and size of roasters (four, roasting 100kg at a time), to the ‘control room’, to the huge grinders, packing facility, it was just big. In 2010 they exported close to 2m quintals (1 quintal is approx 100lbs) of green coffee. I knew there was no Fair Trade coffee here but I was interested to see what the alternative looks like. COEX have offices in the US, Guatemala & Honduras (and beyond). There is no organic certified coffee. David told me it is a very ‘complicated’ process for certification, so they export as conventional. A small number of COEX-owned fincas are Rainforest Alliance and “4C” certified (4C is a certification I know little about). Starbucks buy coffee from COEX. They also sell roasted, ground, coffee for Central American markets. I got to the cupping lab and this time got a chance to slurp and spit. Unfortunately, COEX makes two rather disgusting brands of coffee (as well as it’s ‘regular’ coffee). One is “Cafe Criollo”, which mixes coffee with corn (maiz); the other is instant coffee. Ronald, the cupper, has to check these every day. Poor bloke.

COEX are large enough that they control the supply chain of their coffee. Producers bring the coffee to COEX (COEX own some fincas too), the coffee is washed, dried and bagged by COEX, and exported by them or bought directly by their buyers, with whom they typically have long-term contracts. The supply chain is therefore relatively short. For the producers, they typically receive market rates, but COEX do offer credit facilities and some other benefits for producers (workers at J Hill also receive benefits such as access to medical facilities). Because of the large size of the fincas, hired help is a requirement at harvest time. The going rate (minimum) for a coffee-picker is about US$1 per 25lbs of coffee (the whole cherry). An average worker will pick 125lbs in a day. So roughly $5 for a day’s work. But I sense that this a good wage for many people. A typical finca can employ 300 workers during harvest time.

As I see repeatedly, for those at the sharp end of commodity production, life is hard.