finca santa elena
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Microlots are a pretty special thing in the coffee industry. They’re sort of like an exclusive nightclub – a long line can form all the way around the building, but the bouncer at the door is only going to let a few people past the velvet rope at a time; and if the nightclub closes before you get past that velvet rope – oh well.

Microlots, of course, are a small designated area of a large farm that has different different growing standards/conditions than the rest of the farm. A lot of experimenting happens in microlots – sometimes the experiments turn out so well that the producer decides to share them with the rest of us.

Some microlots have different soil, some are different elevations, some employ different processing standards, some receive more/less rainfall/sunlight/etc., some are situated on different terrains – any number of

The microlot at Finca Santa Elena, in Santa Ana, El Salvador, is the home of a different cultivar than the rest of the farm. While Santa Elena is populated by the Bourbon variety, the Santa Elena microlot is grown with Pacamara, a hybrid of El Salvador’s own Pacas variety and the big-bean Maragogype variety.

Welcome to my Table, here in the corner of this cafe. Today we’re sipping a cup of Finca Santa Elena Pacamara Microlot, from Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, North Carolina. Feel free to pull up a chair.

Leaf rust, insects, soil conditions, and inclement weather are not the only factors that can  devastate a coffee crop. On October 1, 2005, as Don Fernando Lima was gearing up for another coffee harvest, the Santa Ana Volcano erupted for the first time in 101 years, spewing ash and rock all over the eastern side of the Volcano, where his Finca Santa Elena is located.

Not only is Santa Elena situated on the side most affected by the eruption, it is one of the highest-elevation coffee farms in the region – which made matters worse. The location of Santa Elena, just a few hundred meters below the crater of the volcano, meant that it was devastated; one employee from the farm died, roads were destroyed, and a large number of coffee trees were lost. Santa Elena lost more than 97% of its harvest, and it took five years for the farm to fully recover.

However, Don Fernando, a constant optimist, faced with such a challenge, realized that the devastation also gave him an opportunity to regroup and make Santa Elena better.

Every year we have worked increasingly well with Don Fernando to keep perfecting the coffee. This year he built an impressive area for raised bed drying based on some feedback from us last year, and even implemented fermentation and processing techniques that we had seen successful at other farms. One lot using these techniques this year placed fifth in the El Salvador Cup of Excellence (Santa Elena has had good fortune with the Cup of Excellence since it started in 2003, placing in the years 2003, 2008, 2011, and 2013).

the basics:

origin: Santa Ana, El Salvador
farm: Finca Santa Elena
producer: Don Fernando Lima
elevation: 1450 – 1800 meters above sea level
cultivars: Pacamara
process: fully washed, raised bed dried
certifications: Organic, Direct Trade

the coffee:

The aroma of the Finca Santa Elena is… interesting. It has sort of a “big” aroma – the fumes coming out of the cup fill a lot air volume between the nose and the cup. It’s thick and “beefy” (if I can use that term) with scents of rose, stone fruit, honey, and bakers spices.

The flavor up front certainly speaks to the latter half of the aroma descriptors. It’s spicy with notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, but it also has flavors of wheat, honey, brown sugar, cherry pipe tobacco, and graham cracker.

As it starts to cool, the flavor completely shifts. An unpleasant and somewhat dominant papery flavor comes to the forefront, while equally potent tomato and black pepper notes engulf my entire palate. Each sip is like eating a napkin, then washing it down with a Bloody Mary. I’m sort of taken aback, because, in all honesty, I’ve never really noticed the paper flavor before – I’ve even cupped with other coffee professionals who tasted it while I didn’t/couldn’t and so I’ve always wondered what that tasted like. In this particular cup, though, I really noticed it and now I know what “papery” is – it ain’t great.

But then, it gets to about room temp and the flavors shift again. Now the cup is sort of bright and lively and a little tropical as fruity flavors of guava, pear, passion fruit, and cherry combine with a tart, sharp grapefruit acidity that streams down the middle of the tongue, biting the sides of it along the way.

The cup has a clean finish, but it also a lingering aftertaste and its high acidity – and this may be acid reflux talking – sits like a lump in my throat.

Full body; complex mouthfeel; tomato, grapefruit acidity; clean finish.

the bottom line:

The Finca Santa Elena Pacamara Microlot, from Counter Culture Coffee, is an exceptionally bizarre coffee. The cup is packed to the brim with all sorts of flavors – many of which compete for the spotlight, all of which are divergent. You can taste the savories, you can taste the sweets, you can taste the spice, you can taste the fruits, you can taste the vegetables, you can taste the highlights, and you can taste the flaws: ginger, cinnamon, and graham cracker up front, paper and tomato in the middle, pear, grapefruit, and caramel at the end. A lot of very distinct flavors that seemed to haphazardly merge together in this one cup.

This is a coffee that puts it all out there and forces your palate to reckon with it. With that in mind, I can’t say that it’s an enjoyable coffee so much as it is an interesting and complex coffee. I think it’s worth checking out, but not necessarily seeking out.

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