March 18, 2016

Producer Perspective: Why Coffee Auctions Should Be About More Than Coffee


Coffee auctions must be about more than just the year’s best coffees; they must also be about building relationships. Don’t believe us? Well, let’s ask the producers…

We sat down with Gilberto Baraona, coffee producer at Finca Los Pirineos in El Salvador, to discover what coffee auctions such as Project Origin and Cup of Excellence meant to him.

Spanish Version: Perspectiva del Productor: Por qué las Subastas deberían ser Más Que Café

Meet Gilberto Baraona

With a passion that makes my heart skip a beat, Gilberto Baraona, coffee producer at Finca Los Pirineos, begins by saying, “I’m 50 years old and I’ve been in coffee for 50 years. I was born… and the next day, taken to the farm.”

It’s 9 am here in El Salvador and I’ve met Gilberto on a Salvadoran volcano – because that’s where his family have farmed coffee since the 1800s. Finca Los Pirineos is a beautiful farm and micro-mill located some 1400-1480 meters above sea level, on the slopes of the Tecapa Volcano in Usulután.

Gilberto’s influence extends far beyond Finca Los Pirineos, however. He told me, “I worked in coffee from the age of twenty-one, operating the largest wet mill in the world. By the age of thirty, I was in charge of six mills here and two in Guatemala, over 1,000 people and milling 800,000 bags of coffee a year.”

honey processing in El Salvador

Honey processing coffee at Los Pirineos, El Salvador.

He also represents a company in Colombia that builds wet mills and has been a part of the building of some 75 mills in El Salvador. And he’s been integral in making sure that new technology and milling transform the country’s coffee culture. El Salvador has gone from producing coffee cherries as a yield crop to producing parchment coffee, thereby allowing for quality control by the individual farm – and this is partly thanks to him.

In this respect, Gilberto Baraona really is the father of specialty coffee production in El Salvador.  

CoE to Project Origin: El Salvador’s Coffee Auctions

For Gilberto, competing in coffee auctions is vital: it provides much needed global exposure and income. Speaking of the Cup of Excellence (CoE), in which he has ranked in the top ten for five consecutive years, he said: “For El Salvador, a lot of coffees were undiscovered. Cup of Excellence changed all that. It helped change the world’s notion of Salvadoran coffee… to [create] the realisation that El Salvador was a country of quality.”

Gilberto gave some examples of the ways in which Cup of Excellence has shaped the perception of Salvadoran coffee. Some now call El Salvador “the Bourbon jungle”, because the country’s become known for growing some of the best Bourbon coffee.

It’s also helped the country to attract buyers, despite La Roya, a.k.a. coffee leaf rust. The disease, which has devastated coffee production across Central America, can scare buyers away. With a 50% drop in production in El Salvador, the country can’t afford for that to happen.

This is why, when the Alliance for Coffee Excellence decided to pull the El Salvador Cup of Excellence program, El Salvador’s producers knew they had to do something. And from that, Project Origin was born.

coffee seedlings growing in boxes

El Salvador may be the ‘Bourbon jungle’ but Gilberto is experimenting with over 90 coffee varieties.

“It was really thanks to the relationships and friendships we had,” Gilberto said, beaming. “With the help of Sasa Sestic, we got together to look for different options to help keep El Salvador in the buyer’s mind. With… people like John Gordon (2012 UK Barista Champion), Alejandro Mendez (2011 World Barista Champion), and Sasa (2015 World Barista Champion), we have big hitters that will help us remain attractive. Plus, there are three top Cup of Excellence award-winning producers from the country, from different regions, involved. There’s a lot of enthusiasm, great coffee, and passion.”

And Project Origin will, as Gilberto says, show consumers “that we’re working on real gems here and there’s still quality coffee to discover – and that makes El Salvador a great spot to visit.”

So is Project Origin merely a replacement for Cup of Excellence? Or does it have something new to offer El Salvador?

Honey processing up close

Honey processing up close.

Coffee Relationships: The Many Roles of Coffee Auctions

One of the ways in which Project Origin is different is its precise focus on building relationships. I asked Gilberto what this means for specialty coffee in El Salvador – and how he, his farm, and his farmers were going to accomplish this.

Gilberto paused and thought for a moment, before very deliberately answering, “From the producer, to the roaster, to the barista, it’s a very important thing to make sure that we all work together to make the final experience.”

Discussing coffee processing methods

Gilberto discussing processing techniques with Ted Stachura, the Director of Equator Coffees & Teas.

“The final emotional experience is a great thing for the consumer; we want buyers to come to El Salvador to see the whole emotional package, and how we do what we do, and how we have evolved.”

“We don’t want to send samples just blindfolded; we want to grow relationships and friendships and in that way we can get feedback – and that, in turn, helps us grow and process coffee that the world wants… As an example of this, we now produce a natural processed coffee because of feedback.”

SEE ALSO: Relationship Coffee: What Makes Sasa Sestic’s “Best Of” Auctions Special?

How Consumers Benefit from Coffee Relationships

Yet it’s not just the specialty coffee producers like Gilberto who will benefit from this relationship. With a zeal for specialty coffee that gave me goosebumps, he went on to explain: “I cannot take my farm to Europe or Asia; I need people to come here, and I need a good excuse for people to come here, and the event is just the thing.”

“I’m selling an experience: my mills are an experience, my farm is an experience, my people are an experience. We’re just not selling coffee, we’re selling specialty coffee. So in order to be really involved in specialty coffee, you really have to see all that is involved – the farms, the people involved, the process, how we store it. You can’t see that from cupping coffee samples in an office.”

Finca Los Pirineos selling their coffee

There are many, many hands involved from seed to cup.

It’s clear that, for Gilberto and Finca Los Pirineos, selling specialty coffee is so much more than a mere business transaction – and his passion is infectious.

He continues to explain that “Baristas tell me that their guests are very interested in what they’re drinking, where it comes from, how it’s processed, etc. I know a few in Europe who own three to four coffee shops – and yet have never been to origin.”

“Origin needs to be experienced, to be touched, and felt, and smelled. Coffee auctions like Cup of Excellence, and now Project Origin, are a good excuse to bring people here to do just that. If you want to be specialty you have to see all of this… Why?  Because we do all of this to make your coffee.”

Project Origin best of el salvador

Want to be a judge at Project Origin: Best of El Salvador? Email and click here to learn more.

Photo Credit: J. Mijango.

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