March 6, 2023

How can El Salvador leverage Pacamara coffee like Panama leveraged Gesha?


El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, spanning some 21,000km2. However, the country cultivates some of the most sought-after coffee varieties in the world. Among these is Pacamara – a variety with potential for excellent quality.

To add to this, El Salvador also boasts unique microclimates and terroir which contribute to the production of high-quality coffee. As a result, at the 2022 Cup of Excellence (CoE) El Salvador auction, four coffees received over 90 points – certainly an indication of growing quality.

However, while quality is clearly on the up, prices still haven’t caught up with it. But these scores at auctions naturally draw comparisons to other producing countries with a reputation for high-scoring coffees. Among these is Panama.

This begs an important question. The story of Panamanian Gesha is familiar to specialty coffee professionals all around the world. So, with a unique variety already associated with El Salvador that can clearly yield outstanding quality – could the country also leverage Pacamara to achieve similar results?

To find out more, I spoke with two Salvadoran coffee professionals. Read on to find out what they had to say about the future of the country’s coffee sector.

Interested in attending a world-leading coffee event in El Salvador? Learn more about PRF El Salvador here.

Salvadoran coffee workers harvest ripe coffee cherries.

A history of coffee in El Salvador

Before we discuss El Salvador’s potential and whether or not Pacamara can be leveraged like Gesha, we first need to look back at its history of coffee production.

It’s believed that coffee was introduced to El Salvador around 1740. In the years following, coffee quickly became one of the country’s biggest cash crops. 

By 1880, exports of coffee had significantly surpassed other commodities, especially indigo (a natural dye), which was also another major cash crop. In fact, between the late 1800s and mid-1900s, El Salvador was known as “the Coffee Republic”.

To encourage the continuing growth of the country’s coffee sector, the Salvadoran government offered farmers a number of benefits. These included a seven-year coffee tax exemption, as well as immunity from partaking in military service. 

However, following a civil war which began in 1980, the country underwent a period of significant political and economic turmoil. In turn, El Salvador’s coffee production dropped by an estimated 19%.

In 2014, the Salvadoran government began to focus on reviving production, but since then, annual production volumes have yet to reach historic highs. 

Between 1963 and 1989, the country produced an average of 2.5 million 60kg bags every year. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, El Salvador will produce some 619,000 60kg bags in the 2022/23 harvest season.

A man rakes drying coffee beans on a farm in El Salvador.

What makes Salvadoran coffee unique?

Although El Salvador currently produces significantly less coffee than in previous years, the country is renowned for its high-quality shade-grown varieties. The most popular are:

  • Pacamara – a variety which originated from a cross between Pacas and Maragogype.
  • Pacas – a natural mutation of Bourbon, similar to Caturra in Brazil and Villa Sarchi in Costa Rica.
  • Bourbon – a tall-growing plant characterised by its low yields and high cup quality.

Rodrigo Giammattei is the General Manager at Café Caté, an exporter and roaster in El Salvador and Canada.

Rodrigo explains that because high-yielding varieties were never introduced to farmers, and many farms aren’t located in areas which receive intense sunlight, more than 50% of the country’s farms plant high-quality varieties.

However, this wasn’t always the case. Rodrigo adds that in the early 1900s, Bourbon, Pacas, and Pacamara collectively only made up around 4% of the coffee plants on Salvadoran farms. Today, the International Coffee Organisation estimates that Bourbon alone accounts for 62% of the country’s coffee production. Pacas and Pacamara, meanwhile, account for around 31% and 2%, respectively.

Moreover, El Salvador’s fertile volcanic soil, high altitudes, and vast expanses of shade cover also help to produce high-quality coffee with unique and desirable sensory profiles.

Maria Pacas is a producer at Café Pacas in El Salvador. She explains that coffee is emblematic for Salvadoran people. This is because much of the country’s infrastructure was developed as a result of its booming coffee sector, which has led many producers to feel passionate about their work.

Unique varieties

At Café Pacas, Maria says there are 64 different varieties, one of which was first discovered on one of its farms. 

She explains that when Café Pacas first acquired Finca Los Boletos, farm manager Ruperto Bernardina Meche found five coffee plants which produced different kinds of cherries.

The producers then harvested and processed these cherries separately to others on the farm. Samples were sent to traders and roasters, who scored these coffees 90 points or more.

When tests were conducted, results came back inconclusive – their genetic lineage was effectively unknown. However, we now know the coffee as the Bernardina variety – named after the farmer who discovered it. 

“Many people believe that Bernadina is a natural mutation between Bourbon and Pacas, which were already growing in El Salvador,” Maria says.

In terms of its genetics, Bernadina is 70% identical to Gesha, while the remaining 30% of its genetic material has been linked to coffee from the Agaro region in Ethiopia. This results in a highly desirable flavour profile, with some coffee professionals describing notes of jasmine and stone fruit flavours.

Natural process coffee cherries dry on a patio.

Could varieties like Pacamara become more exclusive?

Given its association with high-quality shade-grown coffee and the point scores that their lots are capable of, there is clearly potential for Salvadoran coffee to become more sought-after.

As mentioned previously, there are comparisons emerging between El Salvador and Panama – another Central American country which is known for producing highly-prized coffee.

Despite the fact that Gesha originated from Ethiopia, it is mostly associated with Panama’s coffee sector. Gesha took the global coffee industry by storm in 2004 when it received US $21/lb at the 2004 Best of Panama (BoP) auction – a record high at the time.

In the years since, prices paid for Gesha have only continued to increase. In fact, at the 2022 BoP auction, the top-scoring coffee received the highest-ever bid of US $2,000.49/lb. Proud Mary Coffee recently sold the coffee – a natural processed Gesha – for US $150 per cup at its US locations.

However, although El Salvador is growing more and more 90+ point coffees, prices paid per pound are still an astronomical distance from those paid for record-breaking Panamanian coffees. So, is there scope for this to improve? And could Pacamara come to rival Gesha?

How important is marketing?

“We have the terroir, we have the varieties, we have the soil quality, and we have the farming best practices,” Rodrigo says. “We just need to improve our marketing skills.”#

Marketing is a key topic at every step of the coffee supply chain – and production is no exception. And there’s no doubt that it has been a key part of the journey of Panama Gesha; the Central American country is now arguably more associated with one of specialty coffee’s most well-known varieties than Ethiopia, where it originally comes from.

A huge part of this is BoP – clearly a platform which Panama leveraged to catapult Gesha to become a new darling of specialty coffee in the mid-2000s. This was a marketing push the likes of which specialty coffee hadn’t really seen before.

Maria agrees with Rodrigo, saying: “When you market your company, you need to highlight what makes your brand different and unique.

“Sadly, Salvadoran producers have not been able to highlight those differences as effectively as possible so that consumers notice and appreciate them more,” she adds.

If this were to change, producers could push Pacamara as an individual variety renowned for its quality and one that grows predominantly in El Salvador.

Exclusive boutique auctions for high-scoring lots, partnerships with third wave coffee roasters associated with innovation, and investment at trade shows in major consuming countries could all be ways to push this – but this would require a lot of funding.

Differentiation is key

Although comparisons to Panama are somewhat applicable, Maria emphasises that El Salvador still needs to retain its uniqueness.

“I don’t think the goal should be for El Salvador to become another Panama because our country’s coffee sector is very different to Panama’s,” she says. “Our farming practices, our varieties, and our producers all make our sector unique, so we need to highlight all of these characteristics.”

The question now is whether or not marketing efforts like BoP are replicable in other producing countries like El Salvador.

In reality, the investment required promises no results, especially when we consider that BoP holds most of the market share and almost all of the awareness for auctions of its kind.

Along with Gesha, the Pacamara variety consistently receives some of the highest scores at the CoE El Salvador competitions thanks to its exceptional cup quality. However, its beans are very large, which can pose challenges for roasters.

“From my own experience roasting Pacamara, you need to drop the temperature slightly before loading the roaster,” Rodrigo says. “Per batch, we also roast 20% less volume than we would with the Bourbon variety grown at a similar altitude.”

A farm worker holds Pacamara coffee cherries.

Looking to the future

As we’ve established, there is clearly plenty of potential for Salvadoran coffee. A big part of this includes hosting more groundbreaking coffee industry events, such as PRF El Salvador, which will take place on 16 and 17 March 2023 at the Salamanca Exhibition Centre in San Salvador.

However, both Maria and Rodrigo agree that the future of the country’s coffee sector ultimately depends on whether producers can market Pacamara and other varieties on the international stage.

Moreover, they say it’s also important that Salvadoran producers work together on these efforts. As part of this, there needs to be more encouragement for more women and younger people to join the coffee sector.

The role of women and young people

Maria explains that historically, there has been little collaboration between Salvadoran producers. She says this is largely because of differences in opinion. However, in recent months, we have seen the inclusion of women and younger people bolster co-operation in the sector.

“The inclusion of women in the Salvadoran coffee sector has been fundamental,” Maria tells me. “Producers are able to openly share farming practices, processing techniques, and how they market their coffee.”

Rodrigo says that some farmers are starting to focus more on producing higher yields, while others are looking to grow more pest and climate-resilient varieties. And given that rainfall is both increasing and becoming more unpredictable in El Salvador, adapting to the impact of climate change is an important consideration for many.

However, Rodrigo adds that these new varieties can sometimes produce lower-quality coffee. Ultimately, he says maintaining a balance between quality, quantity, and resiliency to pests, diseases, and climate change will be key to the future of the country’s coffee sector.

A farm workers holds yellow coffee cherries.

It’s clear that El Salvador is well on its way to becoming a “boutique” coffee origin – especially with industry-leading events like PRF set to take place in the country in the coming months. 

However, given that El Salvador can’t compete as a high-volume origin, the question for the years ahead lies in how well the country can compete against more exclusive origins, such as Panama. Marketing is one key component of this, but this is a complex challenge that has no overnight solution.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on speakers and panellists for PRF El Salvador.

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