Carlos "Charlie" Pola; our closest producer relationship. The most organized and deliberate producer we know, yet at the same time, relaxed and playful.
Carlos always gives off a very welcoming and jovial vibe cracking jokes from dawn to dusk. He is tightly integrated into his community in Juayua along the Ruta De Las Flores, and well liked among his neighbors and peers. That is a palpable feeling you experience when roaming around town with Carlos. You feel like a part of the community.
And his wife Patty is not only the most kind and hospitable person you'll meet, you get the feeling that she holds the whole coffee operation together. Patty is a lawyer in the capital San Salvador, but outside of her professional life, her charisma is responsible for forming many friendships including ours. The Pola's strong relationship creates a wonderful foundation for all of their endeavors.
The Pola's have two farms in the vicinity of Juayua; Finca San Antonio and Finca Las Brisas. Both farms do their own wet-milling and have ample raised beds for carefully drying coffees after harvest. Las Brisas has a slightly more substantial wet-mill, yet both facilities are fully operational during harvest. It is extremely beneficial for specialty coffee producers to take control of their own wet milling. This gives them the ability to better oversee and influence the final product after their coffees have been picked. Many smaller producers will rely on a third-party to process their coffees. Pola decided recently to invest in his wet mill at Las Brisas in order to maintain the most control over his high quality specialty coffees.
Both of Pola's farms have a mix of Pacamara, Bourbon, Pacas, and Hybrid coffee trees. The first three varieties mentioned are prized in El Salvador and often fetch high cup scores and top dollar. Pola has been putting a lot of energy into his hybrids as well in the last couple of years. We are very fond of those hybrids. In the face of climate fluctuations, they are a little more resilient, especially when it comes to "coffee rust disease" which heavily afflicts Bourbon, Pacas, and Pacamara.
Historically, hybrids don't perform as well in the cup, but Carlos has been been working diligently leveraging permaculture techniques and his knowledge of mycelial networks to improve their quality organically. Other producers are often shocked to see the cup scores that his hybrids are fetching. Carlos is not afraid to experiment and push against traditional agricultural techniques and this partly explains his success with hybrids.
Most of Pola's coffees are processed as naturals or honeys. Carlos has mentioned that prefers to minimize the use of water in processing, but water that he does use goes through a rigorous series of treatments in order to protect the local environment. His system relies on both aerobic and anaerobic processes and many tanks and tubes fed by gravity. Eventually his "waste-water" is recycled right back into the earth with zero negative impacts.
Ok. Where do we start? Carlos Pola is undoubtedly our strongest producer relationship. After making his acquaintance about 4 years ago things have just continued to progress fluidly. We first tasted his coffees roasted by Origin Coffee Roasters from the UK. Being familiar with his growing region along the Ruta De Las Flores in Apaneca-Ilamatepec in El Salvador, we were especially curious to meet him. It seemed like forces outside our control nudged us into a nice little breakfast at his residence in Juayua. Since meeting, we've been endlessly inspired by Carlos Pola's growing practices, environmental awareness, and appreciation for the expertise of his farm managers.
Nicole facilitated the import of a few coffees from Pola in 2019, successfully creating a new client base in the Denver area and quite a few Pola coffee fans. This was Pola's first time exporting coffee to the United States, previously working exclusively with the UK, Europe, and Asia. In 2020, Nicole moved even more coffee from Carlos as well as another Salvadorian producer group Los Naranjos Cafe. Our goal is to continue growing volumes and seeing the Pola Family name as a familiar one among coffee drinkers stateside. Why are we so inspired to achieve this? Let's get more into his growing practices and what attracts us about his approach to coffee.
Innovative Growing Techniques
The first conversations we had with Carlos made it very clear that he is an innovator. When it comes to traditional growing practices, he tends to push against the norm. He asks a lot of questions about why people adopt certain agricultural practices. When he doesn't receive adequate explanations, he often does his own thing.
Let's share one example.
There is a tendency to plant coffee trees down a slope in rows. These slopes at high elevations are often very steep. This presents a challenge when it comes to picking coffee cherries, and it also occurred to Carlos that it might promote the run-off of rain water. The explanation for this widely-used planting practice has to do with optimal sun exposure. When Carlos asked multiple agronomists about this topic, he never found a thorough explanation, however. He felt that a generic answer was being blindly repeated.
To him it seemed like a place where he could make improvements. On areas of his farm where he needed to renovate (especially after the devastation of Coffee Rust or "Roya"), he decided to plant with a new method. By creating tiers in which rows of coffee trees are planted horizontally, he was able to create a safer space for his pickers to traverse. He notes that it limits the physical stress of picking and enables more elderly coffee pickers to maintain their employment.
Not only that but Carlos argues that these plots retain more moisture rather than flooding down to lower elevations. In this way his innovative practices encourage the protection of the local watershed. This is a long-winded example of Pola's tendency to ask a lot of questions, push the boundaries, and not only improve his practices but benefit his community as well.
Every single time we visit or talk with Carlos, he gives us new ideas. A few years ago he introduced the concept of mycelial networks sharing nutrients under the soil. Now a lot more research on the subject has come to our attention, but no other farmers had brought it up to us before.
He is always looking deeper. He selects shade trees that not only provide shade but also introduce specific nutrients into the soil which are then shared by mycorrhizae. Sometimes it feels like Carlos focuses more on soil health and shade trees than the coffee trees themselves, but the amazing thing is that it pays off in coffee quality. The flavor of the coffee is a direct result of the health of the entire system.