Aida Batlle: Riding Coffee's Wave

One woman's El Salvador coffee plantations are fueling a new trend

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In the beginning was the coffee bean, the seed of an Ethiopian fruit. The Arabs and the Turks took it and brewed it to provide mental and spiritual clarity. Then the West learned to make money from it. This culminated in the early 20th century with huge production on giant plantations and freeze-dried coffee in every home, instant in every pantry. That would be the first wave. The second was a counterrevolution fueled by espresso drinks and lattes and the megabucks made by Starbucks.

Aida Batlle is a star of what may be the third wave--the rediscovery of the properties of the bean and the terroir in which each variety is grown, preserving distinct flavors from the overroasting that yields what most consumers wrongly assume is just how coffee is meant to taste. On her plantations in El Salvador, Batlle grows some of the world's most acclaimed coffee cherries, picking each by hand, separating the ruby red from the maroon in order to isolate flavors. Commercial harvesters often indiscriminately pluck unripe fruit. "A ripe cherry tastes sweet, a partially ripe cherry tastes bland," says Stephen Vick, who buys beans for Blue Bottle, one of the many small roasters spreading the gospel of the third wave across the U.S. The slow hand pouring of a cup has become a new kind of tea ceremony--much admired and much parodied. The fashion belies its share of the market: roughly 0.5% of producers in the world do what Batlle (pronounced Bat-lee) does. But Vick expects global demand for "single-origin" coffee to increase dramatically in the next two decades, raising the challenge for organic and sustainable farmers like Batlle to "produce impeccable quality on a larger scale." If her painstaking philosophy becomes a market winner, the third wave could well be a tsunami.