Dispatch from El Salvador

We’ve been loving the Pacamara that we get from Las Delicias in El Salvador ever since we brought it in to Zingerman’s Coffee Company last fall. I know El Salvador isn’t probably the first country folks think of when they think of big coffee producers but a lot of specialty roasters are getting really excited about what’s coming out of there these days. So, in February I traveled to El Salvador and visited the four main coffee growing/farming regions in the country to see what we can look forward to in the coming months and years.

Steve in El SalvadorCoffee was actually introduced to El Salvador in 1740 and a lot of the farms I visited date back to the mid-1800s and are being worked by fifth and sixth generations of the founding families. One thing I didn’t realize is that up until the early 1970s, El Salvador was the third largest coffee producer in the world. Decades of civil war devastated the coffee industry (and almost everything else there) but coffee is making a strong comeback. That’s not to say the road back has been easy. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck in January of 2001 caused widespread destruction, dealing a severe blow to the nation’s fragile economy. Coffee farmers there have to deal with extremely high winds that, on occasion, cause extensive damage to their crops. Volcanic eruptions, especially from the massive Santa Ana volcano in the far western part of the country, have left large swaths of land covered in ash at various points in the decade.

Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the growers, led by the El Salvador Coffee Council, are staking their hopes for building a thriving coffee economy on establishing a reputation for growing superior beans. One thing they’ve definitely got going for them is the fact that El Salvador is known as a grower of heirloom varietals. Maybe more than anywhere else in this part of the coffee-growing world, El Salvador has been able to maintain the genetic distinctiveness of the beans they grow. Ironically, this was due, in part, to the civil war which effectively isolated the country economically for over a decade when growers in other coffee producing nations were reducing the diversity of their crops by switching to a limited set of higher-producing varietals.

By far, the dominant varietal in El Salvador is the Bourbon which makes up 68% of the crops. One of the most interesting beans (and one that’s getting a lot of attention, for good reason) in the specialty coffee world, is the Pacamara. This bean is a cross between the Pacas (native to El Salvador and one of the leading varietals after Bourbon) and the Maragogype which is distinguished by it’s HUGE size and full flavor. The resulting hybrid is a bit smaller than it’s mammoth cousin and is one of the most sought after beans on the market today.

My trip through El Salvador covered some of the major coffee growing regions beginning in the El Balsamo Mountain Range (not far from the capital San Salvador) where we visited the farm operated by the Aguilar family. Don Eugenia Aguilar is a fifth-generation coffee farmer who takes obvious pride in his coffee and in the fact the he provides education, housing and health care to the employees on his farm. Located on the northeast slope of the San Salvador volcano, his coffee grows at elevations between 3900 and 5200 feet. At his farm I took the opportunity to pick and eat fruit right off the tree. It was wonderfully sweet. Sweet you say? Yes, for those that may not be aware, the coffee bean is the seed of a cherry. The mucilage (or fruit) that surrounds the bean is not unlike a normal cherry. However, within the coffee cherry, the “pit” (or bean) is much larger so there is less fruit to “nosh on.” From the Aguilar’s, we visited farms in the Apaneca-Hamatepec mountain range and then moved on to the Alotepec Metapan region which, while not known for high yields, has produced more than it’s share of Cup of Excellence winners over the past few years (for more info see www.cupofexcellence.com).

One of the things that really struck me about these farmers was their dedication to traditional growing methods. Almost every farm we visited employed shade-growing (actually, 97% of coffee in the country is shade-grown), taking advantage of the frequent, strong winds that blow across the countryside. Shade growing favors the formation of microclimates, allowing beans to reach optimal ripeness and also helps to preserve wildlife and biodiversity. The strong winds allow the farmers to plant in shade knowing that the fruit will receive intermittent sunshine as the trees sway and let the light through. Farmers took this one step further, strategically pruning their trees to allow just the right amount of light through. Most harvesting in El Salvador is done between December and March. Typically, three passes through the farm are made (on a monthly basis) in order to pick the ripest fruit. Although it is hard to describe, the perfect ripeness of the cherry is achieved when it is maduro (Spanish for a dark burgundy red). It is very important for the color to be right as this will translate directly into the flavor of the cup. Interestingly, another technique used for determing whether the fruit was ready to pick was to take a cherry and squeeze it very carefully over the palm of the hand. If the fruit yielded 4-5 drops of juice, then it was ready for picking.

Another sign that things are looking up for El Salvador’s coffee is the fact that younger farmers are seeing an opportunity and staking their futures on coffee growing. In the past decade older farmers have been worried about the fact that the next generation didn’t seem to be interested in keeping the family farms going but I met a number of younger farmers on this visit who firmly believed that El Salvador has a bright future in coffee and selling really great tasting coffee has a lot to do with it.

We introduced our first Salvadoran coffee late last year and it was such a huge hit and we were so excited by the taste that we’re bringing it on as a regular bean in our lineup. To celebrate, we’re making the new crop Pacamara bean from the Las Delicias farm our Roaster’s Pick for March (see below) and carrying it regularly after that.

Keep on cupping!!
—Steve