These are answers Elba gave for a Women Who Roast profile.
What was your introduction to roasting coffee?
My connection to coffee goes further than just roasting. Being a child growing up on a small coffee farm, I was exposed to the whole process, from the time the tree is planted, to the picking, to the drying and all the way to the roasting. I like to say that coffee runs in my blood. I have been picking coffee in El Salvador since I was able to walk. Even as children, my cousins and I would be working on the coffee fields, and we were excited just to be in the bushes and running around helping the adults. We didn’t get any pay for the work we did. Only when I turned 10 or 11 years old, did I first get paid to pick coffee. At this time, they paid us a few quarters for our work.
The first time I remember seeing coffee roasted, I must have been 4 years old. I saw my cousin. She was much older than me, probably 15 years old. She was roasting over a fire pit. A comal (which was made of earth) was lying over the fire pit and she was turning the coffee beans with a wooden spoon. A ‘comal’ is an indigenous word for a traditional version of a griddle. After my cousin Sabina finished roasting, she would grind the beans, and she would make coffee for the whole family. Even the little kids would get a small cup of coffee back in those days!
I moved to Canada in my 20s, just before the outbreak of the civil war in El Salvador. I started a family in Montreal. 20 years passed by and I decided to travel back home with my younger daughter. I wanted to show her the place where I grew up. After all that time, I found my village the same way as I left it, with everyone living in poverty. It was like nothing had changed. And it was then that a lightbulb went on in my head. I made up my mind that I had to try to help people in the area where I grew up. Most of the people in the area were working as coffee pickers. So that’s when I decided I would sell coffee to try to help in some small way.
At first, my idea was to buy pre-roasted coffee in El Salvador, and sell it in Canada. And I did this. To my surprise, people were not interested in that coffee. I found that people here were interested in freshly roasted coffee. They didn’t want coffee roasted a few months back. I knew that my country produces excellent coffee. So that’s why I wanted to bring Salvadoran coffee to Montreal.
I realized that I had to do the roasting myself, here in Canada, if I wanted to offer my clients the freshest coffee possible. At first, I wanted to only sell Salvadoran coffee exclusively, but I quickly realized that people need choices. So I started experimenting with coffees from the neighboring countries of El Salvador. Now, my company specialize in Central American coffees...with coffees from each of the Central American countries (except Belize).
What inspires you most about the coffee industry?
What inspires me the most are the coffee pickers. I was once in their shoes...knowing how hard they work, day in and day out, and how little they receive in return. This inspires me to find some way to help them. I feel that they deserve better pay than I do for roasting coffee, because of the hard work they do. Being in the fields is definitely harder than roasting coffee. Picking coffee in the fields entails hauling the heavy coffee bag (as it fills up with cherries) all throughout the field, and at the end of the day, you have to bring it out of the fields to the coffee station, where we empty our jute bag, and begin to sort out all the cherries. This means picking out all the unripe coffee cherries, and sorting out the leaves and twigs. This takes time and is back-breaking work, even though we are sitting down or on our knees while we sift. After we do this, our coffee can be weighed (by filling and weighing buckets, called ‘latas’) and then we can be paid. When all is said and done, we walk home around 5 or 5:30pm. Coffee pickers do all this work, not for a love of coffee, but because they have to. The daily struggle of the coffee pickers is what inspires me to work hard here, so that when I go back to Central America on my yearly trips, I can help families in need.
Do you have any criticisms or concerns about the coffee industry?
Throughout my travels in Central America, I saw the same thing over and over. The people who arguably do the most hard work, the coffee pickers, get paid the least amount. They live in poverty. And I knew what it was like to get up at the crack of dawn, walk at least half an hour to get to the plantation. Coffee pickers arrive at the plantation around 6:30 am because the earlier they arrive, the better chance they have to pick more coffee. A coffee picker told me that sometimes they didn’t even eat lunch, just so they can pick more coffee and get paid more. They work all day on steep hills, rain or shine.
One of the things I have noticed while looking at Instagram pictures is that whenever I see a picture of coffee pickers, they are smiling and there is a nice caption underneath the picture. I hardly ever hear about the hard life they experience. Because their struggle is more than just one of hard work, it's a daily struggle of poverty. When I see these pictures of smiling coffee pickers, I know that behind that smile there is a father or a mother struggling to feed a family.
I also see a problem with the specialty coffee industry’s reliance on certifications that do little for the people that need the most help. I went to Costa Rica last year and was able to go pick coffee with a family. I was at a farm that was certified (I won’t mention which certification), and I worked all day, from 6:30 until 3pm, picking coffee in the pouring rain. At the end of the day I was exhausted. My knees and finger tips were hurting and my feet were sore. And on top of that, I was soaking wet. So was everyone else. I stopped picking at 3pm, but others continued picking, because they needed the money. For all my troubles I was paid about $4.15 Canadian dollars (paid in the local currency)! And this was on a farm that was certified! All throughout my travels, whenever I speak to coffee pickers, most of them never even heard of coffee certifications, let alone seen any benefits.
I think it is important to remember that most certifications aim to help the coffee land owner. But most of the workers are not landowners. They are impoverished laborers. This is what I think needs more attention in the coffee industry.
What advice would you share with other women interested in roasting coffee?
I think any woman interested in roasting coffee should meet roasters and learn as much as they can. They should also read books and watch videos online. Learn from the pros, and the rest will come with time. We were roasting coffee back in El Salvador with almost no equipment. The important thing to remember is that if you have passion and commitment in what you do, you can produce a great cup of coffee.
Do you have a favorite coffee shop? What is your usual order?
The only coffee I drink now is my own, but I still get a diverse range of flavors, because I roast coffees from all countries of Central America. Sometimes I like my blends, sometimes I like my single origin coffees, whether it be from Huehuetenango or Tarrazu. But I can’t say that I enjoy coffee from other coffee chains, because I don’t usually go there. I love the coffee that I roast. I am used to my Central American coffees and am almost always disappointed when I drink coffee at other places, because they are often bitter or lacking in flavor. I guess at my age, I’m a creature of habit, and so I stick with my own coffee. My uncle in El Salvador was the same way. He only wanted coffee from one particular farm, and I’ve heard other people in El Salvador saying the same thing. As for my favorite coffee drink, I usually have filtered drip coffee of my Melange de Trois blend, black. I also love my Espresso blend. Double-shot with a little bit of milk. And whenever I’m in the mood for a floral, smooth cup of coffee, I take my Salvadoran Diamante roast.