Ricardo Ariz

He could pick any cherry off a tree and hold five generations of knowledge, perseverance and agricultural expertise in his palm.

Ricardo Ariz was born into a world that smelled of coffee blossoms.

He came of age among rows and rows of dark glossy leaves and taut red cherries that held his livelihood within them. He could pick any cherry off a tree and hold five generations of knowledge, perseverance and agricultural expertise in his palm. He’d bring his son, Marco, into the world under the El Salvadoran sun and raise him to work the land and respect it like an elder. Together, they’d grow Finca El Aguila into an operation their forefathers only dreamed of, beginning with the spark of a serendipitous relationship.

Nearly a decade ago Oliver Stormshak embarked on a trip to El Salvador. He’s the president and green buyer at Olympia Coffee Roasters in Olympia, Washington and has over a decade’s worth of experience building relationships with coffee producers all over the globe. During this trip to Central America, he called upon an industry friend, who happens to be a coffee producer, to point him in the right direction of remarkable coffees. Out of all the coffees on the cupping table, one in particular stood out. It was a washed Pacamara from Finca El Aguila, a quintessential El Salvadoran coffee, at the same time complex and approachable.

Upon tasting his coffee, Oliver requested to meet Ricardo. 

Their meeting was the melding of two cultures, two backgrounds, two minds full of decades of expertise. They shared their experiences in the industry with each other, from the beginning of the supply chain to the end. As Oliver spoke of the American specialty coffee scene and his cafes back in Washington, a spark crackled into flame in Ricardo’s mind. For the first time, he began to realise that his coffee had immense untapped potential. Before partnering with Olympia, most coffee from El Aguila was shipped to Europe to be blended with other coffees. It wasn’t until connecting with Oliver that Ricardo’s coffee was ever sought out, purchased, roasted and sold with intention as a single origin offering. The beginning of Ricardo’s relationship with Olympia Coffee brought attention to Finca El Aguila’s previously undiscovered quality and allowed Olympia to proudly put a new El Salvador on its shelves.

As their business relationship grew, Ricardo became more and more enthralled with the inner workings of specialty coffee. He visited the folks at Olympia Coffee twice in the span of just a few years, attempting to absorb as much information about this new-to-him side of coffee as he could. At the beginning of this collaboration, Marco was in college earning a degree in business from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he would later put to use managing the farm. But during his undergrad, he connected further with the American specialty coffee scene, experiencing something dearly familiar from a different perspective, in a different part of the world. The things his father was learning back home about specialty coffee, Marco was learning by drinking espresso at cafes near campus. And, much like his father, Marco’s mind was opened to the seemingly uninhibited possibility of coffee.

Marco wasn’t able to shake the coffee bug once he caught it. 

His passion for coffee morphed into a desire to build on the foundation that his ancestors laid at Finca El Aguila five generations before him. In 2017, he moved to Washington and began working for Olympia Coffee. He hit the ground running working on the production floor, bagging freshly roasted beans, organising them into crates and preparing them for shipment and delivery. Up until this point, the vast majority of his life, as well as his patriarchs’, was spent surrounded by cherries, the mothers of coffee as we know it. And suddenly, he was experiencing a very different side of the coffee industry, one where the coffee is meticulously roasted and extracted in order to do justice to the farmers’ handiwork, to his ancestors’ handiwork.

Marco fully immersed himself in the late stages of the coffee supply chain. He took every education course Olympia had to offer. In his barista training, he became familiar with extraction science and the secret to perfect milk texture. He acquired the muscle memory needed to ensure an efficient production shift through repetition and lots of experience. He learned about the nuances of direct-trade relationship building, leveraging his bilingualism to bridge the gap between his team and the producers. He became an integral part of the sourcing department and eventually headed up some green buying efforts himself. His three years with Olympia equipped him with a wealth of knowledge that he could apply to El Aguila. When the pandemic landed in the states, it presented a natural ending to Marco’s time in Washington. He had been formulating a plan to build a mill so that he could have more control over the quality of his coffee after it left his farm, so he took his dream and executed it. Marco moved home to El Salvador, founded his mill and named it El Fénix, Spanish for “Phoenix.” It’s a nod to the coffee’s past form as it grew at El Aguila, Spanish for “The Eagle,” and the transformation it will endure over the rest of the production process. 

In previous years, Marco used a contractor to process all the coffee from El Aguila.

It wasn’t until he was working on the green sourcing team at Olympia that he tasted coffees from his farm and noticed the quality of the processing was undermining the quality of his coffee. This was particularly egregious to him not only because this was his coffee, but this coffee represented a long line of professionals who laboured over this product from seed to cup. At this point, Marco realised how important it was to have control over the processing of their coffees to ensure a top-shelf product, preserve its integrity and honour all the workers who laboured to bring this coffee into existence.

Before getting El Fénix off the ground, Marco had to dive headfirst into yet another area of the coffee supply chain and acquire as much know-how as he could. He enrolled in the Q Processing Program, a comprehensive three-course program spearheaded by the Coffee Quality Institute that offers certifications at each course level. Having a certificate to show for your knowledge only adds value to an operation, which is why Olympia sponsored Marco for this program. It’s designed to equip its students with the knowledge and skills they need to excel as producers. In his courses, Marco explored the deeply scientific principles of all types of coffee processing, including experimental methods of fermentation that he has since adopted at his own mill.

For now, El Fénix is solely a wet mill, which means it handles the coffees from the whole cherry to the dried seed. Then the coffee is sent to a dry mill, where it’s hulled, sorted and packaged for transport. All coffee from El Aguila that’s ready for dry milling is sent to a neighbouring mill that Marco trusts to uphold the same high quality standards he sets for his own mill. El Fénix leans heavily on fermentation as the backbone of flavour development, which involves stainless steel tanks that are temperature controlled, not unlike a microbrewery, an adjacent industry that also relies heavily on fermentation. This equipment combined with Marco’s expertise allows him and his team to manipulate the fermentation process as they see fit to develop flavour profiles in their coffee that are unique to them.

Of all El Aguila’s crops, Olympia Coffee purchases about 80 percent to roast and sell back in Washington, which is only a quarter of the total amount of coffee that is processed at El Fénix. 

It’s a large enough operation to be able to take on friends’ and neighbouring farms’ crops as well as El Aguila’s. Marco’s commitment to exceptional quality not only increases the value of his family’s coffee, it also promotes economic growth within his community.

With an immense amount of dedication to their craft, The Ariz family’s first crop processed through El Fénix landed on the shores of Washington in September of this year. Marco’s hard work paid off; his coffees are scoring as high as Ethiopians, an origin that’s extremely highly regarded in the specialty coffee industry as some of the best product on the market. Looking forward into the near future, the Ariz family plans to gain full control over their coffee from the seed until its arrival at a partnering roaster––farming, processing, exporting and importing, as well as a sales team in the US. Lofty as it may seem, Oliver believes they can achieve this goal within the next five years. This would allow the Ariz’ to represent themselves as authentically as possible, honouring their ancestors by improving upon the practise that sustained their family for six generations.

Related Articles

Ricardo Ariz