February 2017 - El Salvador, re-engineered blends, measuring TDS

Date Posted:5 February 2017 

β€œTo improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” β€” Winston Churchill


El Salvador

In many respects El Salvador, like Bolivia, is often overlooked on the world coffee origin stage. A small country with a relative high population, El Salvador is within the Cent-Am group of coffee growing nations along with it's neighbors Guatemala and Honduras.

El Salvador has been challenged with a series of high impact problems - wars, natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes) and perhaps the most difficult of all challenges to overcome - chronic corruption, internal conflict, gang-related violence and at times bizarre economic policies of relying upon excessive financial subsidies.

The economy of El Salvador exists at a level barely above collapse with up to a quarter of the population living in extreme poverty. Coffee has historically been a major contributor to the El Salvadorian economy for more than a century - at times up to 40% of total export revenue, although those lofty heights from the 70's and 80's are substantially lower these days.

Over the last 30 years coffee production in El Salvador has declined from a variety of reasons - a general lack of investment and perhaps more profoundly, a greater level of competition from the Cent-Am origins able to produce higher volumes at great qualities and lower cost points. Recently, the coffee leaf rust (Roya) epidemic has significantly lowered harvest volumes.

The future of El Salvador coffee is now deemed at a critical crossroads.

Despite the many ongoing challenges, El Salvador remains a respected origin among specialty roasters around the world and continues to attract a loyal following of supporters within coffee companies. Most of us live in hope of finding a gem from El Salvador - because they really do exist.

Back in dawn of specialty coffee - 2007 to 2010, El Salvador became a popular origin for baristas aspiring to compete in the World Barista Championships. Our Australian representative in 2008 came incredibly close to winning the WBC claiming runner-up with a beautiful El Salvadorian coffee that was regarded at the time and being one of the best ever entered - complexity, texture, sweetness and balance.

Much of the quality coffee in El Salvador is high grown in shade. This suits the delicate bourbon varietal and when combined with rich volcanic soil and favorable climate, the results are stunning. El Salvador coffee tends to live in the shadows of Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. The coffees can be milder with a soft, citric acidity - comparable to Mexico and Brazil, often relegated as a good quality blender.

In our own 2010 - 2013 era, we absolutely loved a beautiful coffee called San Emilio and often featured this bean as both a great single origin and a showcase highlight in our premium blends. Other amazing lots from La Providencia were comparable to the best Guat's and Costas. It's fair to say that in the last 3 years we have been running a deliberate short strategy on El Salvador due to limited availability of lots.

During the end of Spring 2016 we picked up some delightful coffee from the El Borbollon estate, located in the Santa Ana Volcano region. When we first tried this lot we deemed it mediocre and lost interest. Another lot from the same farm was presented to us a few weeks later and in this sample we were able to enjoy delicious mandarin citric acidity fused with rich chocolate.

Now maybe it's just me, but mandarin and chocolate are a match made in heaven. There was just a hint of fruit and with a super-clean milk-tea body, thick cocoa coating, this fine coffee was indeed a more pleasant cup to it's predecessor, so we ranged this lot in our store.

The challenge we constantly face is to find something that appeals to our customers. Sometimes it is a point of difference to the rest of the market and at other times its just about having a stylish, rich, rewarding cup and this El Salvador fits nicely into the latter.

This month we are pleased to feature a superb, classic example of El Salvador fully washed bourbon grown between 1,300 and 1,500 masl.
Perfect for milk-based espresso (latte, cappuccino, flat white).

  • Acidity - mandarin, citric
  • Aroma - cocoa
  • Flavour - chocolate, milk tea smooth body
  • Finish - well balanced and clean
  • Score - officially 83 points (although we think it's closer to 85)

Grab it here - El Salvador


Free Shipping on Bulk Barista Beans - Restrictions Applied

From this month we have changed the 2kg and 6kg Barista Blend bundles to restrict the areas that qualify for FREE SHIPPING.
It's no secret that shipping is never free - it's just a marketing gimmick to overcome the barriers to purchase from those customers that believe shipping is a waste of money. You can't offer a highly discounted, top quality, constantly fresh roasted product and then also include shipping.

For the last 9 years we have been offering an Australia-wide deal on these bulk bundles and it's been a constant source of cost blowout for our business when remote customers buy this product.

We have removed WA, NT, North QLD and remote SA from the FREE SHIPPING matrix.

Customers from these locations can still purchase the Barista 500g and 1kg product in the same manner as all our other products.

Blends Re-engineered

Whilst it may not be apparent, we are constantly optimizing our blends to improve the cup profiles. This happens naturally throughout the year as new season lots arrive into the warehouse.

Using a superb, fresh new Brazil specialty natural and the exceptional Guatemala Huehuetenango, these two changes have resulted in a significant cup improvement. Blind testing demonstrated that Barista was picked more often as the #1 preferred sample by our QA team in tests across our blend portfolio. Barista

A recent arrival of an Ethiopian natural to our warehouse has enabled us to re-introduce Ethiopian origins into our eponymous Espresso blend. This coffee is a high seller in our store and cafe customers. The fruit note is now more apparent, it's sweeter, richer and more rounded. Espresso

Centre Way
Completely rebuilt from the ground up. Punchy, sweet and syrupy this high flavored classic just keeps getting better and better. All blend components are from our Grand Cruz range. Centre Way

8 Ounces
Another blend that has been rebuilt entirely from scratch. We have gone with a fruity selection exhibiting mind-blowing aromatics. This coffee continues to fly under the radar and in terms of value for money it's a great deal and a rewarding cup. 8 Ounces

Should I bother with measuring Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) ?

In previous articles we have looked at espresso channeling, cleaning your espresso machine, retained grinds and storing fresh roasted coffee.

Coffee has evolved from a daily necessity into an all consuming hobby or even obsession for some enthusiasts. One thing is for sure though, the process of preparing a beverage has become far more complex with tools and techniques that can help you diagnose and improve your consistency.

This month we take a look at Total Dissolved Solids, or TDS. Probably one of the most technical aspects to coffee measurement (aside from colour tracking) and not something that I'd suggest is suitable for the average coffee drinker.

This article is more directed to the high-end enthusiast that might be wondering if TDS can help elevate their coffee experience to the next level.

The quick answer is a definite NO. So if you want to save time just skip this article now.

A few years ago the concept of total dissolved solids (TDS) and it's related brew extraction yields became the "critical prerequisite" companion for quality coffee. All of a sudden we had specialty cafes demanding specific brew recipes for their coffee bean supply. When I tried to politely point out "how do you want it to taste, because it's largely in the hands of you the barista ?", the response was met with typical pretentious barista disdain.

For the wise owls amongst us, it seemed as if we had been doing it wrong since the dawn of espresso. TDS measurements became a must-have toolkit and without it you felt kind of naked. Anyone with a stake in quality coffee rushed out to spend $1,200+ for a digital refractometers and scales (yes, I'm guilty of being a sheep and following the TDS crowd).

Not only was it necessary to have a refractometer to generate TDS scores, but we also had to precisely weigh our dose and shot volumes which in the scheme of things was not entirely a bad idea as this technique pre-dated the recent TDS hysteria.

The irony of this new era in high-end, precision-measurement espresso (a.k.a. TDS hysteria) is that rarely was the coffee actually taste-tested because you see TDS scores were the only thing that was important or relevant. In other words, there was an implied truth that if you hit a magic TDS score the resultant cup was delicious.

I played this game for a far longer period than I wish to publicly admit.......part of this is my inherent stubbornness and persistence but it's more likely that as coffee roasters we must always remain open minded. A roaster's job is never done and the perfect coffee is yet to be roasted or so we must always believe.

However, the skeptic in me was lurking underneath. Australia's top barista at the time (who also happens to court and relish a messiah-like fame and does produce some worthy concepts from time to time) published target TDS "numbers" as the holy grail - and whether you liked it or not, those damn TDS targets were the new meaning of espresso and the ultimate stone-tablet-from-the-mountain gospel for the espresso faithful.

During this TDS hysteria period I often thought about TDS deeply......had I blindly missed something in the 1,000,000-odd espresso shots pulled over the last 35 years ?. Had my treacherous tongue been lying to me all this time.

There was also another reason I kept constantly questioning the merit of TDS. You see, the messiah was not so much wrong but not entirely right either. When TDS targets were hit it was disappointing as nothing exciting jumped out of the cup, there was no "wow" moment - more a feeling of being underwhelmed and in some instances, for particular coffees the optimal TDS was different to the target. After literally close to 1,000 tweaks either side of magic numbers over an 8 month period we kept on scratching our heads as sometimes, what we measured and what we tasted were not rational (in fact, they made no sense whatsoever) and hence the seeds of doubt and skepticism only grew stronger.

Of course there was another reason to be curious about TDS. It was fundamentally critical to understand if changing or optimizing roast profiles would in fact enable favorable or even desirable TDS results. In other words, was the TDS more heavily influenced by espresso extraction parameters or the roast profile - was it the bean or the barista ?

Not only had I taken the chainsaw to my previously reliable and proven roasting profiles, I also experimented with numerous grinders, espresso machines and dosing techniques because the TDS hysteria had gotten hold of our specialty cafe customers and in order to stay at the front it meant we must keep running ahead as fast as we possibly can, albeit blindly into the TDS void that was voraciously consuming the entire industry.

Finally, after 10 months of ball-breaking effort, I consumed an entire bottle of scotch one night and resolved to "stuff it" - this TDS-driven insanity must stop immediately.

The final nail in the TDS coffin for us was driven home when an ex-world barista champion from Europe gave a talk in Melbourne to industry folks about a new revolutionary cafe grinder and how it worked a treat in his busy European cafe when combined with regular 2-hourly TDS measurements. He projected a graph on the screen to show the detailed level of TDS measurements.......I guess it was an attempt to impress the crowd with the "surely more measurement = greater quality" theme and gain legitimacy given the industry was feeding like hungry sharks on anything related to TDS.

Sitting in the audience, I asked a simple question to this world barista champion........" so please tell me how do you reconcile the TDS changes with ambient temp variation because your results tables do not contain any ambient temps as reference data ? ". To his credit, this Barista champ acknowledged that ambient temps can greatly influence TDS scores and he answered honestly...."no we did not take that into account". The takeaway for me from that session was affirmation that TDS is likely to distract you from the reality of simple taste testing. A case of science overtaking the senses.

Despite the incredible investments we undertook to explore the nuances of TDS, I happily admit in hindsight there are some real benefits that emerged from the intense focus on TDS - yield measurement by weighing input and output volumes and developing more optimal profiles based on combinations of taste and measurement. Weighing volumes remains a relatively simple and useful method to understand espresso extraction and in a hospitality environment (such as a cafe) it can dramatically help achieve consistency from hour to hour and day to day.

The moral of the story is simple - when it comes to coffee there really is no substitute for taste.

TDS measurement is perhaps beyond the scope of the average coffee drinker and whilst the cost of refractometers has come down with more choice, it's not something I would recommend getting involved with because quite frankly it's a lot of effort for little to no benefit.