Coffee review: Counter Culture Finca Mauritania Microlots

by on January 7, 2008

Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #32

In our background post on El Salvador, one of the coffees we reviewed was Counter Culture’s Finca Mauritania, from the slopes of the Ilamantepec (Santa Ana) volcano. The Santa Ana region (shaded on map) is a premier coffee-growing area in El Salvador. The Apaneca-Ilamatepec Mountain Range where Finca Mauritania is located is in close proximity to one of the country’s most important parks, El Imposible.

Counter Culture still offers the straight Bourbon varietal from Finca Mauritania. They’ve also had a limited offering of Aida’s Grand Reserve, a peaberry selection from all three of owner Aida Batlle’s neighboring farms: Finca Mauritania, Finca Kilimanjaro, and Finca Los Alpes. For this review, we chose another special set of microlots, Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca Mauritania Microlot Gift Pack. This unique set consists of three microlots, all from Finca Mauritania, but each set of beans underwent a different type of processing.

Nearly all coffee from Central America is “washed” or wet processed. After the coffee cherries are picked and sorted, the cherries are sent through a depulping mechanism that removes the skin and flesh. Some amount of sticky mucilage or flesh may remain, and so the beans are soaked in water for one or two days to break down this matter, which is washed away by more fresh water. Beans are then dried, often in the sun on large patios.

Pulped natural is a process by which the cherries are only skinned or partially depulped before they are dried. The climate in Central America, especially the humidity, is such that this drying process must tended to vigilantly, with a lot of raking and turning, not only so the gooey beans don’t stick together, but also to prevent molds or fungi from developing. Nearly non-existent five years ago, this process is becoming more popular in El Salvador because the country grows so much Bourbon variety coffee, according to Counter Culture buyer Peter Giuliano. The pulp natural process and Bourbon beans are great for espresso blends. In Latin America, Brazil dominates the espresso-component market, where the drier climate is more appropriate for pulp natural processing. Conquering this technique opens up new frontiers for El Salvador.

If done with finesse, the enzymes in the pulp transfer flavors to the beans — the intensity will vary depending on the amount of pulp left on, drying time, and other factors. This method lowers acidity and increases body, and introduces an often fruity sweetness.

We indeed found this to be a medium-bodied coffee with a syrupy mouthfeel. Nearly all tasters found some curiously unique flavors in a French press preparation: pepper, salt, garlic (which was not as bad as it sounds), basil, spice, a complicated enzymatic astringency (this from a student who had just taken his chemistry final). As a drip coffee, it struck a couple of us as vaguely Sumatran, with muted woodsy and leather tones. One taster adequately summed up what we all experienced, “There’s a lot going on on my tongue right now.”

I was reminded of the pulped naturals we’d tried from Brazil’s Daterra Estate, although this selection was clearly more complex. I think it had the characteristics that would in fact make it terrific in an espresso blend. It was interesting and valuable to taste beside the other lots, but we were sort of confused by it and agreed that on its own, it was the least compelling of the three to drink straight. It garnered 3 motmots.

The more typical wet processed selection in this gift pack was the peaberry microlot. Peaberries are those coffee cherries which only develop a single, round seed rather than the pair of flat-sided seeds usually produced. About 5 to 10% of coffee cherries produce peaberries. These small, round beans roast more evenly than typical flat beans, but also more quickly because of their size so they must be roasted with care.

Although there isn’t any scientific proof that I know of that each peaberry gets “twice the flavor,” they are commonly thought of as being more intensely sweet and acid. Nor can I say that this peaberry microlot was twice as sweet as the rest of the FM crop, but we all agreed — bright, clean, sweet, deep, and lovely! Various tasters got some malt, baker’s chocolate, nuts, cherry, and honey. I picked up a bit of a floral aroma and tasted sweet apple in the cooling cup (I’m always pretty pleased with myself when I can pick up some sort of unique flavor, and nearly pulled a muscle patting myself on the back when I read later that some of Counter Culture’s cuppers also tasted apple). The finish was super smooth and syrupy when prepared in a French press.

This is a superior example of an exceptional classic Central American coffee. I could drink this every day and not get tired of it, and when I think of great coffee, this is the profile that I hold standard. When we cast our votes on this one, something happened that hasn’t occurred in a long time: it got 4 motmots across the board.

“Pasa” means “raisin” in Spanish, which is what coffee cherries look like when completely dried with their flesh intact. Dry process coffees are dried without removing any of the coffee cherry; the beans are removed, or hulled, after drying. The drying may take up to a month, and as with pulped naturals must be done very carefully — especially in humid climates — to prevent any molds, fungi, or bacteria from tainting the cherries. This process, common in more arid African nations, creates bold flavors, often berry-centric fruitness with heavy body.

Dry process is essentially unheard of in Central America, but it captured the imagination of Aida Batlle. I’ll let Peter Giuliano relay the story:

“Aida has completely innovated the Pasa process, based on things she has heard (but never seen firsthand) about Ethiopian and Brazilian natural processes. Aida has a strong experimental streak, and jumped into the process with her trademark enthusiasm and quality focus. Aida is always innovating, and she decided to experiment with tree-dried coffees. Just leaving them on the tree to dry was a challenge, she had to post a security guard so that people would not sneak onto the farm and pick the coffee while it dried on the tree!  Milling was another challenge — since nobody does dried-in-the-fruit coffee in El Salvador there was no equipment to do the milling, so they had to improvise with a small mill intended to husk samples in a cupping lab. As a result, it was incredibly labor intensive to produce this coffee.”

We were blown away when we opened the bag of Pasa — it was boldly fruity, mostly the familar blueberry aroma of an Ethiopian coffee. There was also a bit of a woodsy/earthy smell. The blueberry translated into the cup, although perhaps not as forcefully as an African. I’d recently tried Counter Culture’s Ethiopian Biloya and the Pasa was its more restrained and modest sister. Other than the berries, tasters commented on hints of apricot, the balance, smoothness, creamy mouthfeel, and overall sweet richness. We would have certainly thought this was a dry-process Ethiopian, but I believe we also would have wondered about the quiet differences. 3.5 motmots.

Post-script: I don’t know what Aida’s future plans are for the Pasa, but I think this a perfect substitute for an Ethiopian coffee. It has the added advantage of having less distance to travel — less fuel for shipping. Whereas Ethiopian coffees come from many small shareholders, we know exactly where the Finca Mauritania comes from, and that it is grown in a shade polyculture that benefits biodiversity. Aida is also in the process of converting all of her farms to certified organic. I know if I had the choice between a dry process African and this coffee, I’d pick the Pasa. Same great flavor, more sustainable.

Tasting these three selections, from the same farm with different preparations, was fun and enlightening…and tasty, of course. Bravo to Counter Culture for putting this package together, at a bargain price.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Coffee reviews,Latin America

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