Interview: Aida Batlle
Catching up with El Salvador’s most-renowned coffee producer
Aida Batlle got off to a legendary start when she started growing coffee on her family’s farm in 2002 and quickly won El Salvador’s Cup of Excellence prize. Today, Aida’s coffees continue to astound. As a certified barista, expert cupper, and innovative farmer persevering in a region that‘s politically fraught and susceptible to roya (coffee leaf rust), Aida’s combination of vision and grit never fails to inspire. We caught up with Aida in time for the release of her Grand Reserve Peaberry, a coffee she only shares with trusted roasters.
When you began farming, what was your approach to specialty coffee?
I have always considered coffee to be a fruit that requires attention every step of the way. When you treat the coffee cherry like a perishable fruit, you taste the difference in the cup. With this in mind, when I returned to my family’s farm in 2002, I wanted to see what would happen when we isolated harvests from our highest farm, Kilimanjaro. The coffee trees there are Kenya cultivars planted by the family who had previously owned the land. We created a separate coffee from just those cherry to see how distinct a single origin made from one microclimate could be.
This isn’t the first time your family has made history. Tell us how your family introduced Bourbon to El Salvador?*
Yes, my great-great-grandfather, who was the mayor of Santa Ana, a city not far from my family farm, introduced the Bourbon cultivar to El Salvador. His friend happened to be the President of Guatemala. On a trip to Brazil, the President was given a few Bourbon plants, which he shared with my great-great-grandfather upon his return. For about a decade, he was the only farmer growing Bourbon in El Salvador. The first person he shared it with, Mr. James Hill, was the owner of the very mill that still processes our coffee today.
*The Bourbon cultivar, one of the two original cultivars that left Yemen, was eventually transported around the world. Known to produce sweetness in the finished coffee, Bourbon’s dissemination in South and Central America defined their coffee economies centuries.
Despite such auspicious beginnings, would you agree that coffee’s still a hard business, even for a producer as successful as you?
Absolutely. I recently summed up coffee as a dirty, nasty, beautiful industry. As farmers and farm workers, we are always dirty. When I travel to visit clients, I’m not exactly glammed up—but the physical signs of being a farmer are temporarily washed away. At the farm, though, my hands are always stained with mucilage. We’re working physically all of the time.
You use the word “nasty.” What do you mean by that?
I mean it’s a tough business on many levels. Farmers in Central and South America, maybe with the exception of some working in Brazil, do not make a living just from coffee. They have to rely on other sources of income. Over the years, the cost of production has gone up exponentially, but profits have not kept pace. This is reflected in the C-Price this year, which is the lowest it’s been since 2006. Farmers literally sell their coffee at a loss far more often than you’d think.
Roya (coffee leaf rust) changes the equation, too. The disease doesn’t kill plants outright, it weakens their immune systems, so they become susceptible to other diseases. Farmers’ yields can suffer so much that some farmers are forced to abandon their farms altogether.
You’re known to track your coffee from seed to cup, frequently visiting the roasters who buy your coffee. What is it that people don’t get about specialty coffee?
I think people don’t get the value of coffee as being something that is essentially handmade. I did a coffee event once for Fashion Week. It’s funny, because here’s an industry, fashion, that understands the value of “handmade” and isn’t afraid to charge a steep price for their product, but has a hard time applying this thinking to coffee, abandoning the idea that coffee should always be cheap.
People are willing to pay $5 for a latte. But what they don’t understand is that the cheapest thing in that cup is the coffee itself—they’re paying for milk, labor, and rent. To get people to pay as much for a black coffee takes a lot of work. There are so many steps from farm to cafe, and each has to go well, or else the coffee’s potential and value is lost.
Speaking of fulfilling a coffee’s potential, tell us why your Grand Reserve Peaberry is so special.
For the Grand Reserve Peaberry, we’re pulling the peaberry from three different farms’ harvests. The naturally occurring mutation is truly rare. Something like fifty out of every thousand coffee beans are peaberry. Finding them requires skill and experience. Every seed is examined—first the peaberry are sorted out from the rest of the harvest, and then, like all of our other coffees, hands touch it every step of the way.
How has your experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry informed your work?
Honestly, while it hasn’t necessarily been easy, any haters that I’ve come up against have just served to motivate me. It was like, “You don’t think I can do this? Watch me.” And the strange thing is, it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re all dealing with the same big issues—climate change, roya, the C-Price. Those problems aren’t going away.
Who inspires you to continue doing this work?
Certainly, there are people in the industry who inspire me, like Rachel Peterson of Hacienda La Esmerelda. But really, I think it’s the fact that we’re fifth-generation farmers—I want to carry on my family’s legacy. And it’s the fact that so many people, from year-round employees to seasonal workers, literally depend on us for their livelihoods. Some workers have been with us longer than I have been working in coffee. One man, Don Julio, is in his nineties, and has worked with four generations of my family. We’ve gently suggested that he retire, but he refuses. I don’t take this responsibility lightly.
On the other end of the supply chain are baristas. Two in particular come to mind: Selina Viguera from Blue Bottle (who is now a Cafe Leader) and Katie Carguillo from Counter Culture (who is now their Green Coffee Buyer). They’re remarkable for their attention to detail. The care they show demonstrates that they know what they’re representing. They’ve been to my farm, and they realize they’re the last of the many hands—from the farmer, miller, exporter, importer to roaster—to touch the coffee.
Okay, we all want to know: What’s your coffee routine at home?
French press. Selina gives me a hard time, but what can I say? It’s what I like.