The farmer, Sebastian Solis, ambled into the goat pen. Taking a moment to adjust his straw hat against the bright El Salvadoran sun, he half-knelt next to the enormous brown and white speckled goat, tucked the goat’s right-hind leg into the crook of his tall knee, and braced his left shoulder against the animal's body. The goat’s rosy udder was engorged with milk, like an over-full balloon. Looking at it made me feel uncomfortable. Solis reached down, took hold of one of the goat's bloated teats, and firmly pulled down toward the plastic cup he held underneath. The milk rushed out in a forceful, frothing, yellowish torrent. Not exactly what danced through my brain when the farmer asked if I’d wanted a drink, but I forced myself not to waver. Solis offered me the cup, brimming as it was with thick warm goat-tit foam, his smile beaming toward us like light from a beacon. I accepted and beamed right back. Despite my reservations, the milk tasted delicious. The farmer’s wife, bless her, had taken it upon herself to scoop heaps of instant coffee crystals into the bottom of each cup, giving us the distinct sense of drinking a freshly steamed latte. The farmer repeated the process three more times and doled out steaming cups of body-temperature-warm goat’s milk to my traveling companions. He first handed one to Tal Mor, one of Four Barrel’s co-owners and, at the moment, the de facto leader of our traveling troupe. He passed another cup to Bobby Sanchez, one of Four Barrel’s most heavily tattooed, afro-coiffed, and longest-running employees. Bobby thankfully spoke fluent Spanish and would act as my interpreter throughout the trip while I linguistically fumbled my way through the country. The final cup went to Alejandro Valiente, the mustachioed, taller-than-average cofounder of Virmax Mesoamerica, whom we were presently employing as our sort of consultant-escort-chauffeur-hotelier. Before Bob’s and my arrival, Tal had warned Alejandro about us. “Ellos son Locos,” he’d said. After a few minutes, Tal turned toward me and noticed my glass was still nearly full. Leaning in, he motioned toward the farmer and quietly recommended, "You should finish it." The farmer had been looking at me. I nodded, made eye contact with the farmer––his eyes pinched at the corners from years of sunshine and smiling––and gulped down the chalky, sweet remains of the cup, the sunshine hot against my back. los Chelazos_goat_web It was the second week of February. Bob and I had arrived in El Salvador early the morning before, after a long if uneventful redeye from San Francisco. Neither of us saw this trip coming. The owners surprised us with the news, presumably as a goodwill gesture for our long and (if I may say so) generally upstanding employment, but we didn't know for sure. We felt honored but superfluous. Like the third and fifth wheels of a double date. We spent the first couple days acclimating ourselves to our new setting, choking down yellow goat’s milk and wending our way through rows of manicured pacarama plants, occasionally reaching up to eat ripe coffee cherries fresh off the branch. On the third day, we woke from our chilly mountain top abode and took the winding road to Finca la Montañita. The mountain roads in El Salvador are not pleasant. They’re heavily bestrewn with rocks, prone to steep grades, rarely paved, and often lined with emaciated stray dogs who don’t appear to realize that roads are for vehicles. The truck’s cab would bounce and jostle over each craggy turn, turning even the shortest trip into a broken carnival ride. Montañita is a small farm, located in the La Palma municipality of Chalatenango, roughly two hours east of Metapán. The farm’s proprietor, Rene Lemus, is one of Four Barrel’s longest-standing partners. He first sold his coffees to us back in the 2009, the year after we opened our doors for business and the year before the SF Giants won the World Series. We’ve carried his coffees every year since, but I hadn’t so much as seen the man. “To gain someone’s trust,” Tal told us as we made our way toward Montañita, The Roots’ Phrenology thumping through the car’s speakers, “you can’t just email or call them. You have to visit them. To truly win their trust, you have to visit them three or four times. Let them know you’ll come back.” In the case of Rene Lemus of Finca Montañita, this approach paid off. Shortly before we arrived in El Salvador, Renee was accosted by a wily competitor of ours who offered him slightly more money for the same coffee. He convinced Rene to sell to him instead, presumably while he was sneering, or laughing maniacally, or stroking an equally villainous cat.  Just like that, hundreds of pounds of coffee we had planned to purchase was siphoned away. This practice isn’t unheard-of in the coffee buying world, although it doesn’t exactly make you friends. We didn’t fault Rene for accepting the higher paycheck. The buyer, on the other hand… “That buyer knew what he was doing,” Tal said to us. “If we ever accidentally bought someone else’s coffee, you can be sure we’d do everything we could to get it back to them.” We arrived at Rene’s home in late morning and sat across from him on the crudely hewn stumps of wood that lined his modest outdoor patio. His hair was almost completely gray despite his youthful face––all the producers appeared so much younger than their actual years. His olive polo shirt hung loosely around his slight frame, like a son in his father’s clothing. He had asked us to come over to talk about the questionable coffee deal, worried that we might be upset, hoping to smooth things over with us. A dog sat at attention by Rene’s side, silently judging Bob and me in that knowing, soul-seeing way that animals sometimes have. Tal reassured Rene in Spanish. “If you are ever offered more money for your coffee, just let us know. We’re more interested in keeping our partnership than we are in saving a few dollars,” Tal said, offering his hand for Renee to shake. Rene nodded in agreement, grasped Tal’s hand, and smiled. After a few moments, as if something had just occurred to him, Rene bent in toward Tal, his voice changing from conciliatory to hopeful. Speaking rapidly in Spanish, he told us that he’d held on to the best of his harvest. He’d planned to submit the coffee to this year’s Cup of Excellence, a prestigious competition that identifies and awards some of the world’s finest coffees, often ending with the winning coffees pulling astronomical prices at final auction. Rene’s coffees had fared well in previous years, ranking as high as second place. He told us that, this year, as a sign of good faith, he would sell the coffee to us instead. Just then, a sugar cane truck roared into earshot along the highway behind us, and I almost mistook its approaching chain-rattle for the excitement rumbling in Tal’s stomach. los Chelazos 4 In all, we would visit 15 different farms and cooperatives over the six-day visit. We drove to the Capucas cooperative in Honduras and navigated the cacophonous maze of a state-of-the-art coffee processing mill operating at full tilt. We farm-hopped between the Diaz family’s estates and attempted handstands on the eldest son’s rooftop patio at sunset while roughly 1800 meters above sea level. We danced to Salvadoran pop music blaring from car speakers in front of a gas station while eating ice cream cones in the thick evening heat. One night, we cupped over 80 different coffees in an after-hours, knuckles-down marathon cupping, the whole time listening to Lady Gaga’s anthemic “Alejandro” on repeat, much to the chagrin of our own Alejandro. We continued to accidentally flush fistfuls of toilet paper down the plumbing of every toilet we encountered even after repeated warnings not to because we kept forgetting that not every country does that. We were treated to an unusual exhibit of roots and branches that vaguely resembled everyday objects and animals, collected through the years (and proudly displayed) by a kind but eccentric Guatemalan coffee producer. There remained one last task before we headed home. On our final night in El Salvador, we held a farewell tournament to determine the official Foosball Master of Buenos Aires. We’d been playing sporadically on Alejandro’s personal foosball table throughout the week, usually in the evening, just after dinner. The results had been mixed. After dominating those first few days, I watched helplessly as the others racked up game after game. I held the lead in victories only by a small margin. The first to be eliminated, cruelly, was Alejandro. He threw his hands up in the air and cursed us in Spanish, his height adding a sense of comedy to his upthrown arms. Bob was eliminated next, his match lost by a margin of only one or two goals. He cried trickery. Shots of tequila and rum were passed generously between us, the still-full bottles imparting a sense of responsibility to each of us to polish them off. Tal and I then squared up against one another for the final round. I couldn’t help but succumb to the usual pointed emotions that accompany the ends of journeys: the anticipation of arriving back home, the impending relief of sleeping in my own bed, and the deep sadness of an adventure drawing to a close. If the humble purpose of the trip had been to dimensionalize, for Bob’s and my benefit, these first and most important stages of the coffee production chain, then it soundly succeeded. The magnitude of the whole experience––the heat of the place, the hills we climbed, the miles we drove, all the smiling people we met––loomed large in my mind, many-headed, colossal. I wondered how many coffee drinkers back home would ever have the privilege of seeing what we saw. “This is it, Papi,” Tal said, holding up the battered foosball at eye level, smiling. “Por el rey de la montaña!” he yelled, slipping the foosball into play.   Written by: Nicholas Koch