July’s featured microlot is “Blue Moon” Pacamara, aka Lot #11 from this year’s Santa Felisa Reserve Especial auction. Long-time friend and partner Anabella Meneses runs the farming operations at Santa Felisa, and through her extensive work with plant genetics and post-harvest processing, she has developed a reputation as one of the world’s top coffee producers. Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Anabella about her history in coffee, her passion for fermentation, this year’s auction, and most importantly, her deepest loves—family and community.
(Note: Anabella’s answers in this interview were transcribed, condensed, and paraphrased from a series of lengthy Whatsapp voice messages.)
Litty City: Tell us about your history with coffee and how you came to take over farming operations at Santa Felisa?
Anabella Meneses: When I was a little girl I would come to Santa Felisa for vacation from the city with my mother. My grandmother and her two sisters lived here. I admired one aunt in particular who was very involved with the animals, the coffee, and the community. Every day I played outside with my friends from the community and every evening we all watched TV together. I had the opportunity to see two realities, the city and the farm, and I loved being at the farm. At university I studied agronomy and was one of three women in my class. I did my thesis work at the farm, converting it to organic in 1998, then continued my studies in Costa Rica and eventually went to work for the Neumann Group, where I specialized in tropical farm management and worked in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. My dad took over the farm as my grandmother and her sisters got older and eventually passed. In 2008 he asked me to take over the farm, and that’s when I became a coffee producer.
LC: How many properties/parcelas currently make up Santa Felisa and what are the differences in the terroirs?
AM: There are five farms: Santa Felisa, Chualax, Paraxaj, New Orleans, and Los Jutes. The wet milling and all processing take place at Santa Felisa. In total there are about 70 hectares of coffee and 10 hectares of preserved forest.
LC: How many cultivars are currently grown at Santa Felisa?
AM: Panama Gesha, African Gesha, Dwarf Gesha, Pacamara, Sudan Rume, Sidra, Bourbon, Typica, Catuai, Starmaya, SL-28, and Mocha are all grown in volume, plus there are a few exclusive, small-volume varieties.
LC: The auction this year was predominantly composed of Geshas and Pacamaras. Can you tell us what makes those coffees so special and what are some of the other varieties that perform well at Santa Felisa?
AM: These coffee have the most potential and are very distinct. Compared with cocktails, African Gesha is like a margarita while Pacamara is like a strong whiskey. SL-28 is another that performed incredibly well this year as a natural. I really love yellow Catuai but it doesn’t command as high a price at auction compared with the other genetics.
LC: When did you first become interested in post-harvest processing as a way to manipulate flavor?
AM: In 2010 I began to play with our washed coffees. I’d gone to Germany and visited a friend who was producing flavor using microorganisms. Using a process called de novo synthesis, they were able to produce vanilla flavor from bacteria and that was really fascinating to me. In 2012 we did some naturals for the first time and clients complained about the amount of unripes. So we began floating and the results were great. Then I built some African beds and the results were even better. The program grew bigger and better each year and it became my passion. How different processes, fermentations and varieties produce different flavors is a beautiful world full of surprises.
LC: How many processes are currently employed at Santa Felisa?
AM: We do a double-soaked fully washed. I find the double soak creates a more interesting cup profile than the standard washed process. We do orange honey with fermentation before pulping and lots of different naturals–aseptic fermentation, lactic fermentation, heap fermentation, inoculated with yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae), and anaerobic. We do anaerobic fermentation in a few different stages, each adding more complexity to the coffee. We also do a fruit maceration process where the cherries self-macerate after 24-48 hours in a sealed, pressurized vessel.
LC: Do you have standard “recipes” for each process, or do you manipulate each batch based on environmental or other factors?
AM; Yes, I have standard recipes but will adjust fermentation times based on environment, water activity, and temperature.
LC: The theme of this year’s Reserva Especial Auction was “Coffeemorphosis.” Can you explain what that means?
AM: My niece is in charge of marketing. We were talking about how the process begins in the field with good nutrition and plant management and how during the drying process you can really transform the flavor of the coffee bean. Like polishing a stone, it can improve. The status quo of coffee is coffee and the status quo of a stone is a stone, but through transformation, or processing, you can create a much different and more unique experience.
LC: In addition to the amazing coffees, each year you seem to raise the bar for branding and marketing around the auction. Can you talk a little about the process of naming the coffees, coming up with the yearly theme, and designing the promotional materials?
AM: It’s family work. Each year begins with a blank slate. We sit around and brainstorm by talking about our love for the farm and the coffees, and we have everyone participate. Last year the market was more open so we had the opportunity to improve the materials and the box. There is also a lot of competition, so we need to stand out. The names of many of the coffees date back to the farm’s organic and biodynamic days and are based on the stars, sun, and moon. “Milky Way,” for example, is explosive, like the stars. “Sunrise” is soft and bright. “Sunset” is also soft but with darker flavors. The names are always the same and the coffees are chosen to fit them.
LC: It is clear how much your community means to you and during my last visit you mentioned some social programs that you were working on to help with education and childcare for the families of Acatenango. Can you talk a little about that? And besides drinking your amazing coffees, is there anything our readers can do to help support these initiatives?
AM: I’ve known these people of this community since I was young and came to the farm for vacation. They have been my friends since I was little and now I get to work with my friends. There is no reason for me to do what we do, produce these amazing coffees, if it doesn’t have a positive impact on the community. I have seen my friends grow over the years and I have seen the lack of opportunities the Mayan people have compared to the people in the city. During the pandemic we had to close our daycare and the idea is to reopen it at the end of this year in partnership with the local school. We’ve already started construction on a soccer field and playground for the kids and will work with the national school to create an after school program. As soon as we finalize all the plans and open the fundraising we will share more information.