Editor’s Note: The following is an entry from Dora Callahan, Summit’s Director of Retail Operations. She and Evan Pollitt, our Director of Coffee, came home from a week in El Salvador with its best coffee (literally), a small hangover and having changed lives forever. Here’s the story.
Photo credit: Victor Pagán / Cafe Imports
We’re headed home, and I’m writing this from the plane from San Salvador to Orlando. This trip to El Salvador was the most incredible thing I have ever experienced. Let’s start at the beginning:
Evan and I left from the Charlotte airport at 6 am on Monday morning. I had no idea what I was in for, the only thing I knew was that I needed my passport and to bring pants to wear on coffee farms. After we almost missed our flight to San Salvador, I sat on the plane and it hit me: this trip is going to be life-changing. We arrived in San Salvador to many friendly faces, some of the folks who would accompany us on this six-day trip. We introduced ourselves: Omar, Sam, Eric, Victor, Hayden, Greg, David, Matt, then finally, Evan and Dora. It looked like I was the only woman. And that was going to be okay. But it was a quick snap back into reality, that women are supremely underrepresented in so many industries. And as progressive as coffee is, this disparity still exists. But that’s just it – as coffee is growing, as more and more women enter competitions and open cafés, women are excelling. The first woman to win the world barista champion title, Agnieszka Rojewska, did so in 2018 – 19 years after the competition began. At the U.S. Coffee Championships a few weeks ago, women earned first place in almost every competition. Barista, brewers, cup tasters, roaster. When women win, they show other women that it’s possible. And they keep winning.
The next morning in the hotel lobby, I met Natalie, Belle, and Kristin, the three other women on this twenty person trip, and let out a sigh of relief. (Between the four of us, we cover almost all areas on this side of the coffee industry. Business owner, roaster, barista & manager-in-training, and Director of Retail Operations.) We drove in a bus on Tuesday morning from San Salvador to Chalatenango, a region to the Northeast. We were headed to the inaugural Chalatenango Best Cup with Cafe Imports, and were about to try the best coffees in El Salvador and some of the best coffees in the world.
We arrived to Entre Pinos – a weird and wonderful resort in a town called San Ignacio, in Chalatenango. There were peacocks everywhere. Beautiful and vibrant and loud. There were horses and turkeys and goats and cows and rabbits, and this would be our home for the next four days. We had lunch and then we were off to our first farm visit. We hopped into the back of pickup trucks and rode up a mountain, holding on for our lives as we were pressed against the tailgate. But we made it up the mountain, and I saw a coffee farm for the first time in my life. pictures can never do justice to the reality. We visited two farms: Finca Los Positos, and Finca Don Jaime. The mountains in El Salvador are so steep that you can see roots of the trees as you pass them. Coffee farms are no different. You’re just way higher up. After we toured farms, we visited Jaime’s home. We met his wife and daughter at the door, and they quickly and warmly welcomed us inside and gave us coffee, and homemade snacks. Jaime submitted a lot of his coffee to this competition, but he knew we would be cupping the coffees blindly. He knew his family’s gestures of hospitality didn’t mean a higher score, they just wanted us to feel welcome in their home and in their country.
We began cupping that afternoon – tasting and scoring the top 24 coffees in the country to decide which would continue to the auction. These coffees were unlike anything I had tasted before – they tasted like blueberry pie, vanilla, molasses, berries, mangos, orange peels, peach rings, dark chocolate. As we narrowed down the final 10, we realized how special the coffees were that were in front of us. Before we moved on to the next round – where we would cup the top 10 again, we were given this charge: “Cup these coffees well. How we score these coffees today will impact people’s lives.”
It’s so easy to forget that – when we’re drinking coffee it can feel so disconnected from farmers and families and countries and origins. We can buy coffee, brew it at home, visit our favorite coffee shops. Maybe we go so far as to think about the barista preparing our coffee, who smiled as they poured our drip coffee or steamed milk for our lattes. Maybe we think about the roaster – spending hours on a machine to turn green coffee into something we can drink and enjoy at home. But it’s so easy to forget how many people are a part of the supply chain. There are real people. Real women and men who produce coffee, spend days and weeks and months picking cherries on the sides of steeper hills than you can imagine just to get it to you to drink each and every morning. If you forget about these people, people who grow, harvest, and sort, you can forget how big of an impact purchasing coffee can have on people. Coffee producers are not so far removed from us. They are people with families, homes, dogs, children. Sick family members, debt, hardship. And you, drinking coffee each day from Summit, can have an impact on these people’s lives.
We met so many coffee producers, so many families, saw so many farms and varieties and processing stations. We heard about women producers, but never saw them until the auction. The night before the auction, Evan and I sat with Ian, the Director of Sensory Analysis at Cafe Imports. We talked about women producing coffee and again, it dawned on me. We have to support women who are producing coffee. There are so few women in the game – and they lack so many resources because of different cultural and historical factors that hold them back. It may seem unnecessary to some, to single out women and support them. But I wholeheartedly disagree. If we don’t take a stand and support women, especially women of color, we’re perpetuating all of the systems of power that hold them back. Without paying more for their coffees, without telling their stories, without visiting these women and learning their names, we can’t change that.
Flash forward to the next afternoon: we’re at the Chalatenango Best Cup. Evan and I decided we were going for one of the silent auction coffees, a geisha produced by a woman named Martha. We saw her farm. This coffee tasted like oranges, flowers, coconut. That was our plan – bid low on a coffee in the auction, split a small lot, and win our geisha the next day. Our bidding began with number 9 – an intensely clean natural processed coffee that we were splitting with the other women on this trip. Everything was going according to plan.
As the bidding continued though, something changed. We found out the two women who submitted coffees in the top 24 were also in the top 10: #6 and #1 were produced by women. We thought, there’s no chance we get number one. We may as well bid, but we know it’s not coming home with us. We started bidding for the 6th place coffee produced by a Maria Isabel Hernandez – her farm: Finca La Esperanza. She was sweet and kind, and this incredible coffee went to L.A. after a small bidding war. (Sidenote: in this auction, producers would have been happy to earn $5/lb for their coffee. That’s way above market price, and is life changing even at that price point.)
The bidding continued. 5….4…3…2….…and….1. Maria Julia Pleitez walked up to the front. Slowly and nervously through the crowd. This woman produced the best coffee in El Salvador. It consistently cupped at 92 points, which is unheard of. There are only a handful of coffees in the world that hit that score each year. In. The. World. Maria Isabel, from Finca La Esperanza, walked up beside her and stood there through the entire auction to throw her support behind her fellow woman coffee producer, who was set to sell the top coffee in the country.
The bidding began – and the crowd roared. Doña Maria held onto her purse and lifted her arms in the air, silently begging us to bid higher. We did – the coffee rose quickly to $10, $12, $16, $18…and then $18.40. This coffee was set to go to DCS Green, a Japanese coffee buyer. To a market where high-end coffees fly off the shelves. But I looked up and saw Maria. She was in shock – totally straight-faced but her eyes were wide. Standing in front of this crowd and her life had already been changed. I looked over at Evan, nervously. We nodded together. The paddle was in my hand, in the air before I knew it. $18.60. Everyone was screaming, I was so nervous. I dropped my head to my hands instantly. We thought we would get outbid – then the next highest bidder shook his head. We were screaming and yelling, the auction countdown went three full times before we heard “Sold. To Summit Coffee.” Evan and I stood up in total shock. We just purchased the #1 coffee in El Salvador.
That’s a huge deal. That’s a ton of money. But Summit deserves the best coffee in El Salvador, the best coffee in the world. We chose this coffee because we believe in Summit. In our ability to sell an amazing coffee. In our ability to make change in people’s lives, to make a real impact in our communities – near and far. To be agents of change, no matter how hard you have to work or how scary it can be.
After pictures were taken, video interviews, and unanimous congratulations to Summit, Evan and I met Maria. Maria speaks only Spanish. Neither of us speaks good enough Spanish to hold a conversation fully, and we were both so full of adrenaline that we wouldn’t have been able to focus enough to try. We grabbed Victor and Omar, who translated for us. And we learned all of this:
Maria is straight-faced, sweet, strong, and humble. She has been in coffee for 8 years. She started producing because she had nothing. Her farm is 2 hectares – roughly 5 acres of land. She started as a coffee picker, on the sides of steep mountains working long days for minimal wages. Maria cares for her farm, produces, and organizes pickers and help, alone. Her children live in New Jersey and send her money to hire pickers. She processes the coffee at her house. She brings her coffee down the mountain on horses. She pays for everything in credit. Producing has been hard.
There are not many women producing coffee in Chalatenango. I asked what it was like to be a woman producing coffee and she said it feels heavy. It’s easy for men. Hard for women. She said, you have to work harder. Women share knowledge with each other. Everything they know, they share. It’s a small community, but it’s there.
Maria almost missed the auction, because she had to walk 6km to be picked up to make it to the event. She walked alone, from her house at the top of the mountain, to be there with us that night. She only knew her coffee made it to the top 24, but she said she prayed to God to be number one. She knew God had something prepared for her, but she had no idea this is what it would be. Then she touched our arms and thanked us. And asked Victor to translate this: “The one who lends to the poor, God repays.”
The next hours blended together – there was excitement, laughter, tears, rum, nerves. It was the wildest thing I have ever experienced. That auction changed so many lives. El Salvador is emerging as a specialty coffee producer in the world, and we got to help put Chalatenango on the map and completely change Maria’s life.
Looking back on this week, it felt like fate. Evan and I were there for a reason. We were some of the first people to RSVP for this trip. And in January, I submitted an essay to earn a spot on this trip and wrote this.
“We’re a company of change agents. People who thrive on giving in big and small ways. Empathetic, humble, and bright people. Each day, I’m searching for ways to be a better ambassador of Summit to the world around me. I’m searching for ways to uplift women, uplift strangers, uplift coworkers.
I also have immense privilege. I have a kickass job, I’m safe and well-fed. But one of my greatest privileges is my community. I want to share a portion of that. I want to witness a community apart from my own. Learn how, why, who coffee comes from first hand. I want to share our story, return and share stories big and small, learn a lot of new things, grow in empathy, love, and understanding, invite people to our table and become a better agent of change.”
In El Salvador, we got to share our community. To show the world that we are a company determined to make an impact, a difference in people’s lives. To uplift and support people, to provide equal opportunities. and we are here now, to share Maria’s story.
As I write this, I cannot help but think about my role here. I am a woman, yes. but I am white. I was born in the U.S., and my country of origin has a complex history with El Salvador and the 12-year civil war that tore the country apart. This is complicated. Power is always complicated. But we have the opportunity to make change and disrupt systems that make it harder for women and people of color to succeed. We have the opportunity to be more intentional. To support women of color. To throw our resources behind them. To bid on their products in auctions.
Help us share her coffee with the world. Tell this story to everyone you know. The story of Doña Maria, who almost missed the auction because she had to walk for an hour and a half to be there. The story of a woman who runs her farm alone. The story of a woman who worked so hard year after year, who built a community of women, who grew to produce the best coffee in El Salvador against all odds. Whose coffee we will get to drink together. And every time you drink this coffee, know your impact. Use this coffee as an opportunity to make change. To grow, invite people to your table, and love people better. Throw your paddle in the air with us. We can’t wait to share this coffee with you.