Finca Kilimanjaro producer Aida Batlle (pronounced BAHT-lay) was a trailblazer for the experimental processing movement in coffee. After becoming the first female winner of El Salvador’s 2003 Cup of Excellence, she broke ground again in 2005 as the first farmer to submit three different processes – washed, pulped natural, and natural. These atypical Central American selections quickly became a favourite of barista competitors and the wider coffee world. It was a pivotal moment for speciality coffee, a precursor to the carnival of processing techniques (carbonic maceration, inoculation with specific yeast strains, co-fermentation with fruits like pineapple or orange) we see today.
In 2008, Square Mile purchased a multi-process selection from Kilimanjaro for the first time. Over thirteen years and two epidemics – Roya and Covid-19 – we’ve cemented this set as a Square Mile classic.
For our 2021 launch, we reflect with Aida on her journey and offer our best tips for enjoying her seminal processing set with the coffee-curious in your life.
Specifically, we’re talking about post-harvest processing: the steps that peel back the layers of coffee fruit that mask the green bean inside. How much and for how long the coffee fruit is left on after picking has a major impact on what you taste and defines the coffees’ “process”.
Today, it’s become fairly common to see a selection of different styles from the same farm in a speciality roaster’s offerings. But for most of coffee history, producers stuck with what was normal in their area to create the kind of product that they knew local agents would buy. Greater connectivity and innovators like Batlle have exposed farmers to speciality roasters around the world who seek wild and varied flavours.
Why does the speciality world love processing sets? In small doses, these selections are a gateway to helping drinkers taste any difference in their cup. It’s empowering (and fun) to taste the difference in coffees that were grown in the same place.
Here’s a run-down of the timeless trio we offer from Finca Kilimanjaro:
The cherries are skinned as in the pulped natural process, but the addition of tank fermentation and rinsing creates an utterly different flavour. Rather than going to the drying bed with the remaining fruit intact, the sticky parchment ferments in a pile as yeasts and other microorganisms eat the rich sugars and impart flavour precursors. After 18 hours, the loosened fruit is washed off as the parchment flows through a water channel leading out of the tank and is taken to dry looking squeaky clean.
This lot is a refined expression of the typical process found in El Salvador, creating a cup with crisp lemony-green apple acidity that transforms into a creamy finish.
Coffee cherries are stripped of their peel and some fruit using a depulper, leaving the beans in their protective parchment (hull) with a thin layer of gooey fruit, sometimes called miel or honey. They are taken to dry in this sticky state. The ensuing coffee is all about sugary sweetness and thick mouthfeel, with warm dessert notes like butterscotch, pastry, and brown sugar.
To create this lot, freshly harvested coffee cherries are immersed in water to remove less-dense beans, which float to the top and can taste of cereal if left in the mix. Workers move the whole cherries to a place where they can dry down to about 10% of their original moisture via light and air. The dry fruit and hull are stripped off to reveal the green bean inside.
Though seemingly straightforward, the natural process is the most difficult to execute because workers must laboriously monitor the cherries for weeks to avoid mould and off flavours. The rewards are clear: Batlle’s natural boasts tropical fruit and concord grape notes, with a velvety texture to give balance to such intense flavours.
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A side-by-side comparison is an easy way to exaggerate contrasting notes and is not part of the typical coffee experience. We recommend brewing two lots to taste next to one another or setting up a cupping of all three for a pro touch.
Learn from Your Community
After hearing her early clients rave about the flavours of East African coffees, Aida built her initial processing experiments around the methods found there: “Burundi,” “Kenya,” and “Ethiopia” are protocols that reflect the coffee traditions of their namesake.
Of course, Aida acknowledges that creating these processes has been a team effort. She credits these coffees’ success to Mario Mendoza and Douglas Chinchilla from milling and export partner J. Hill, Kilimanjaro farm manager Robins Martinez, and the farm’s team of pickers – many who have worked with Kilimanjaro since those initial Cup of Excellence lots.
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The Kilimanjaro coffees are conversation starters. Share them with your friends and family, and talk about what you’re tasting. Hearing their taste descriptors–however wacky– gives you a new insight into what they like, which professional tasters refer to as “calibrating.”
Aida always demos new processes in 5-Gallon buckets. This might seem simple, but it’s easy to forget that it’s a test, especially when trying an experimental process for the first time. Sometimes experiments don’t pan out.
When taking the leap to a full-size batch, it’s best to share the risk. Though her cornerstone is still a finely-honed traditional washed profile, Aida offers full processing customisation from fermentation hours to drying style – but only for roasters who are willing to pre-order.
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For coffee drinkers, starting small is also a good approach. Gifting a set of smaller quantities is a great way to help a friend find the processes they love (and the ones they don’t) before committing to a full bag. Plus, it’s easier to compare!
It All Comes Back to the Farm
Though wild post-harvest processing leaves its own mark on flavour, there’s still no way to fake the complexity of coffees from a healthy farm.
No exaggeration: a farm that takes great care of its soil, its plants, and its workers usually produces better quality coffee, no matter the process. Healthier plants often produce denser, well-developed beans, starting with more raw material for a great roast. A robust farm ecosystem makes the plants more resilient against diseases and changing weather patterns. Workers that are paid well and respected feel invested, which is critical in the detail-oriented work involved in non-traditional processing. Batlle has long paid her pickers and farm team a premium for the quality work that they do.
“For me, experimental processing is about enhancing flavours that are already in the coffee,” says Batlle. For the future, she’s focused on the root of the coffee lifecycle: the soil. Though Kilimanjaro already employs a strict “no herbicides” policy, among other practices, Aida is excited to iterate by exploring different types of agriculture and soil management.
We love experiencing the range of flavours Aida offers through her mastery of processing, but it’s just as important that the other elements of Finca Kilimanjaro are excellent.
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Flip the script and find the similarities between these coffees. For us, it’s about the persistent sweetness and lingering finish that carries through all three. We find that, despite their differences, the extra “oomph” in each speaks to the high quality of the raw coffee cherries going in.
We’re excited to commemorate this modern classic and show off Kilimanjaro’s work on all fronts. Celebrate with us with the Kilimanjaro Processing Pack while it lasts.
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