Rodolfo is a green specialty coffee importer from El Salvador working directly with farms and supporting them in cultivating coffee. He buys coffee from local farmers and sells it to roasteries in Europe. His family has been cultivating coffee for more than a hundred years, which basically means Rodolfo has coffee in his DNA. After making Berlin his home for 10 years he recently moved to Barcelona. For 4-5 months per year he goes home to El Salvador for the harvest season.
I met Rodolfo at a cupping session lead by Assembly Coffee from the UK and had the pleasure to try one of his coffee. Since I had never spoken to a coffee importer directly, I jumped on the opportunity to pick his brain about living the dream of working both at origin and in Europe.
Rodolfo, you’re in El Salvador 3-4 months per year. How does your routine look like during this period?
It changed a lot over the years. Before, I was working at my family’s mill, buying fresh cherries, picking them up and bringing them to our mill. When I separated from the family company, I started buying parchment or dry cherry as well. I still do the processing for some coffees, like my dad's coffees or some friends'. We have raised beds at our farms and are renting a mill to do our own processing.
For detailed examinations I have a lab in the city where we can do analysis of coffee, like checking sensorial and water activity, humidity and density. We go out and teach farmers how to dry their own coffee and empower them to be the flavor creators. This adds value to their coffee and decentralizes production. El Salvador used to produce much more coffee than it does now. It’s not enough to be profitable anymore, as big mills, because of all their costs, need a lot of volume to be profitable, and the volume is hard to find in a country with decreased production . Lots of mills went broke.
How come coffee production has decreased so drastically in El Salvador?
Production went down for many reasons. During the civil war, one strategy of guerilla fighters was to destroy agricultural production so people would get desperate and join the communist revolution. When the center left won the elections in the 80's, they wanted to do all things the guerilla were fighting for so they don’t have a reason to keep on killing people. They took away peoples farms, nationalized the banks so money wouldn't be concentrated in a few hands and nationalized export companies so they could no longer sell to international clients. Being forced to sell your coffee to the government provided no incentive to produce great coffees.
You’ve worked in coffee most of your life. Have you experienced any changes in climate that have significantly influenced the harvest? What are some of the biggest challenges farmers are facing?
We’ve seen cupping scores go down due to climate change. 5-6 years ago some of the highest farms around Santa Ana volcano were cupping at 89 points. The same farms we see cupping at 86.5 points max. these days. Last year a heavy drought affected the harvest and most farms were cupping two points lower than normal.
Other challenges farmers are facing in terms of diseases are leaf rust outbreaks and the Anthracnose fungus, which affects leaves, twigs and berries.
Also, commodity prices are low and farmers lack access to finance as private banks don’t lend money to farmers. Government loans have high interest rates. Basically, the coffee mill becomes like the bank and finances the production, then the cherry pays for the mill. It’s a downward cycle and farmers end up loosing their farm. Lots actually switch to other crops, like avocado, as they are more profitable.
Can you give support to farmers and help dealing with this?
We send specialists that give tips on farming and we're teaching farmers processing, as honey and naturals can improve their cup. Sometimes I provide loans to some farmers.
Do you always work with the same farmers?
Yes. I’ve also been working with some farms in Colombia and am starting to do so in Ethiopia as well. Just to give you an idea, the last container I’ve shipped had 23 micro lots in it.
That sounds like a lot of work! Can you do all this alone?
I have a team set up in El Salvador and am setting one up in Colombia as well.
How do you decide which coffee to feature?
First, I was trying to bring in only coffees that cupped 86 and above. But then I realized there is a wider market for lower cupping coffees. I started doing processing consulting to help farmers get the most out of their coffee. I noticed big importers work with a farmer one year and drop him the next if the cupping score lowered. That made me decide to find a home for people’s coffees.
What is the highest rated coffee you sell?
I don’t like the whole scoring thing. But the Kenya variety we have in El Salvador is really appreciated. Rubens Gardelli scored second place in the Brewers Cup with it.
To how many European countries do you sell your coffee and how do you choose your business partners?
I am selling in most of Europe. When it comes to business partners, I work with people I like and focus on those that know what they are doing. But I also like to support new roasters if they are nice. Anyhow, I am trying not to be a big supermarket for coffee, so it’s a lot of word of mouth.
What do you think are important qualities one should have when doing your job?
It sounds a bit cheesy but you need to have the courage. When I started my business, a big company told me not to do it. I mean, I think if you are smart about it any coffee producer could do what I do.
It was easy to learn about the logistic side of things and how to work with shipping companies. It is easy information to access if you really want to but putting it all together is hard. Financing it is a limiting factor as most farmers need to be paid immediately. I don’t work with banks, so covering the costs is a challenge.
More info about Rodolfo's company at: http://www.ruffattibatlle.de