November 12, 2020

A Guide To Coffee Production In El Salvador

El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. It is also a renowned global coffee origin. Coffee has been a significant contributor to the Salvadoran economy for over 100 years, ever since a period of rapid growth that took place in the mid to late 19th century.

However, Salvadoran coffee production has declined since the 1980s, and today it makes up less than 2% of total exports. Despite this, it is now a renowned specialty coffee origin and the home of some of the world’s most sought-after varieties. 

So, to understand more about Salvadoran coffee, I spoke with Carlos Morales of Caravela Coffee and Santos Arnulfo Diaz of Finca La Trilla.

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Understanding Salvadoran Coffee

Carlos Morales is Caravela Coffee’s Country Manager for El Salvador. He tells me that the country produces approximately 850,000 quintals (or 85,000 tonnes) of coffee a year, grown by approximately 20,000 producers across the country. Carlos tells me that the average size of coffee farms that Caravela works with in El Salvador is 1.5ha.

During the 2019/20 financial year, Salvadoran coffee drinkers consumed 18 million kilograms of coffee. This means that average coffee consumption in El Salvador per capita is around 2.8kg, which is medium to high among Latin American producing countries.

While coffee was the principal driver of the Salvadoran economy in the 1920s and 1930s, accounting for a staggering 90% of exports, things changed in the late 20th century. A civil war that lasted from 1979 to 1992 caused coffee production across the country to suffer. From 1979 to 1986, a period of just seven years, coffee production fell by a staggering 19%.

Furthermore, after the war ended in 1992, El Salvador found it increasingly hard to break into the international market amid competition from other origins. In 2018, the OEC reported that coffee made up just 1.86% of all Salvadoran exports, of which 42% was exported to the US.

Quality, Flavour, Varieties & Processing In El Salvador

Despite this, in 2015, the Salvadoran Coffee Council set out a five-year development plan to revitalise the country’s coffee sector. This focused on improving the position of Salvadoran coffee on the global market, promoting internal consumption, and increasing the production of high-quality coffee.

Today, almost all Salvadoran coffee is shade-grown. Figures released by the ICO estimate that over 60% of all arabica grown in the country is of the Bourbon variety, with Pacas and Pacamara being the second and third-most popular varieties, respectively.

World Coffee Research estimates that roughly 25% of all coffee grown in El Salvador is of the Pacas variety, which originates in the country. It was discovered in 1956 by the Pacas family (hence the name) and is a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety. 

Pacas plants, sought after for their high yields and small size (meaning more can be grown in less space on a farm) were later crossed with the Maragogipe variety to create Pacamara.

Pacamara is one of the most sought-after varieties in the world, boasting elegant acidity, a medium to heavy body, and an almost creamy mouthfeel. While it is now also grown in Honduras, Salvadoran Pacamara often has notes of butterscotch, chocolate, red berries, and citrus fruits

As part of a renewed focus on quality coffee production in El Salvador, some producers have started to experiment with their processing methods. Santos Arnulfo Diaz grows the Pacas and Pacamara varieties at Finca La Trilla in Chalatenango in the northwestern reaches of the country. 

Santos says that producers in El Salvador often process coffees differently throughout the harvest season, which runs from December through to March. “We sell about 10% of our coffees as washed in pergamino (parchment), with the rest as honeys and naturals.”

Carlos tells me that producers will generally experiment until they find something that works. This will then often set a trend with others throughout the country.

“Producers are always focused on leveraging the best of what they have to gain access to better prices,” he tells me. “For example, if a producer has gained attention with the honey process, then some other producers will transition to a honey process, even for their entire production for the next harvest.”

This, along with a new focus on quality in recent years, has shaped a renowned flavour profile for Salvadoran coffees, which are often sweet and complex, with notes of fruit, dark sugar, chocolate, and caramel. 

Carlos tells me that Caravela’s Salvadoran farmers usually produce coffees that are graded at AA and above. He says that for the honey and natural processed coffees, this translates into a noticeably higher quality cup. Finally, he adds that those who are starting to build long-term relationships and focus on PECA support are those who produce mostly RTB and A graded coffees.

Producing Regions In El Salvador

Despite the fact that it is the smallest country in Central America, El Salvador has a number of different recognised producing regions, including Ahuachapan, Chalatenango, La Libertad, Santa Ana, San Salvador, and Morazan. Although the harvest season runs from December to March, it reaches its peak in January and February.

In many of these regions, producers can join co-operatives and local coffee growers’ associations. Carlos says: “These are ways for producers to have access to supplies and tools needed to improve their farm production.”

Santos’ farm is based in Chalatenango, one of the smaller producing regions in El Salvador. He tells me that because of this region’s size, support from other organisations isn’t as easy to find. “Because my region has a small number of producers, there aren’t co-operatives for producers that are easily accessible and nearby.”

As such, Carlos says that for producers who require further support, Caravela offers its PECA (“Grower Education Program”) program. “[This program] helps to continuously educate producers and their families on best practices,” Carlos tells me. “This allows them to increase productivity and quality to ultimately be more profitable.”

To assist producers, Carlos tells me that Caravela is also implementing a loyalty program with producers. He says: “We are beginning by lending GrainPro bags to producers so that they can be more efficient. This also [helps to alleviate the pressure] of having to move coffee immediately to preserve quality.” 

Some farms in El Salvador are located in remote or mountainous areas, delaying the transport of their crop. Good-quality packaging effectively extends the shelf life of their coffee, namely against adverse weather conditions that would otherwise cause quality to deteriorate.

Sustainability & Quality 

As with many producing countries, El Salvador does have some issues with traceability and transparency, which further affect sustainability across the supply chain. Access to information for producers can be difficult to come by, and without it, they often struggle to optimise the quality of their crop.

Carlos tells me that issues with quality often manifest during processing. As such, he says: “Agronomists on the PECA program are able to ‘close the loop’ on feedback, and provide producers with timely, actionable responses, allowing them to make ‘quick fixes’. This means producers can [fix any issues] and get paid as quickly as possible for good-quality coffee.”

Carlos adds that there are also cash flow difficulties for many producers in El Salvador. Many producers don’t have a lot of financial alternatives and rely entirely on being paid in good time for their coffee. Long payment terms can make life even more difficult.

“We’re trying to change this model by taking the risk away for producers, paying them fairly and almost immediately,” he says.

To improve cash flow, producers often differentiate between the quality of different lots and sell those that don’t meet certain quality standards. Some lots may be too old, for instance, while others (such as the first pick in a harvest) might not deliver the required quality.

“Often, we cup coffees, and if they are conventional rather than high-quality, we let them know right away,” Carlos says. “We then recommend they sell it immediately to speed up their cash flow.” This allows producers to invest in their farm and improve the quality of their crop in the long term.

“[To improve their financial stability], we often encourage Salvadoran producers not to wait until they’ve harvested all of their coffees to sell,” Carlos adds. “We can buy anywhere from a minimum of just one bag, and often buy as they are harvesting and processing.”

This, he says, ensures a consistent cash flow throughout the harvest season, rather than one “lump sum” at the end. By buying directly, Carlos says Caravela helps to improve the traceability of the producer’s coffee. 

Finally, Carlos adds that they can provide direct feedback as there are fewer actors involved in buying the coffee. The producer is then able to act on any recommendations more quickly, and make improvements in a much shorter timeframe. 

Buyers looking at Salvadoran coffee should keep these points in mind, but Santos says that it’s the human element that often makes a difference.

“What we enjoy the most from buyers is when they make the effort to visit us,” he says. “We want to have a relationship and show buyers from around the world our work. But it’s also important that these relationships are fair and fair prices are being paid to [Salvadoran] producers.”

Carlos also advises buyers to keep in mind that there are a lot of rare varieties and unique processing methods across El Salvador. “El Salvador has a lot of Pacas and Pacamaras, which are expensive varieties, and a lot of honey and natural coffees.

“It’s important to consider the risk and work that producers put into these coffees; we recommend that producers consider this in their pricing as well.” 

He also recommends that buyers remember that these varieties are highly desirable. By using forward contracts, he says security and stability can be increased for both parties. 

El Salvador is an origin like no other. From its rich history and the prevalence of varieties like Pacas and Pacamara to the processing methods that producers are experimenting with, it has plenty to offer the specialty coffee sector.

Next time you visit your roaster or a local coffee shop, considering picking up some Salvadoran coffee, if it’s available. The complex flavours you encounter could mean you find a new favourite.

Enjoyed this? Then watch VIDEO: From Planting To Roasting in El Salvador

Photo credits: Caravela Coffee

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Caravela Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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