Trip Report: El Salvador Part 1

Words and photos by Zack Burnett

It's been a few months since our trip to El Salvador.  Our coffees are landing in the states and you are seeing and will continue to see them released over the next couple of months.  This was our first year working in El Salvador and we were able to find a number of exciting lots from a few different producers.  We are thrilled to share with you what we have found.  

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El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America and the only one without a Caribbean coast.  There is a small coastal plain and two parallel mountain ranges bisecting the country creating a central plateau.  The central highlands make up 85 percent of the land area of El Salvador.  The proximity to the Pacific coast, volcanic soils and various mountain regions of the country make for great diversity in a prime coffee growing region.  The small size of the country allowed me to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.  

Upon arrival to the Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero airport, I was met by Luis Rodríguez of Stricta Altura.  Luis and Stricta Altura represent six small farms owned by his mother-in-law Gloria, who is in the fourth generation of a five generation coffee family. 

Luis and I drove an hour or so through the friday rush hour traffic on the outskirts of San Salvador passing busses, trucks and loads of motorcycles, to the Consejo Salvadoreño del Café (the Salvadoran Coffee Advisory) in Santa Tecla.  

The Consejo is basically an institution to support coffee producers in El Salvador.  Their mission is to guide El Salvador into being a competitive country in the global coffee industry while ensuring the sustainability of the national coffee sector.  They provide technical support to producers, processors and exporters as well as guidance on the sale and exportation of coffee.  Luis is connected with the Consejo and uses their quality control lab for sample roasting and cupping.  We cupped a number of coffees from various farms that Luis represents and I was excited to see some very nice offerings.        

After cupping, we headed to the small town of Apaneca arriving just after dark.  We met with Luis' mother-in-law, Gloria, who was extremely hospitable in allowing us to stay in their family home and have a dinner of pupusas de loroco, sliced green mango and Pilsener beer.  The nights are beautiful and cool in Apaneca, dropping into the 50's and like many small towns in Central America all the town's dogs seem to be nocturnal, barking all night.  

The morning revealed crisp air and blue skies and shortly after dawn we headed to visit the farms where the harvest was underway and pickers worked the trees.  

Sustainable agriculture is practiced on all of Gloria's farms.  Their practices include shade growing, composting, bio-diversity and also an old method of coffee management that is rare in other producing countries but used fairly commonly in El Salvador called agobiado.  Agobiado is an alternative to pruning and is used to increase the production of a single coffee plant.  Basically the limbs of the coffee shrub are bent at strategic areas and pinned down.  This will cause new growth on coffee branches and it allows for a more efficient use of soil amendments on coffee farms that use this practice.  More growth per tree allows for less fertilizer for the entire plantation.  And it seems to be working great.  The shrubs were loaded with cherries, all looked very happy and healthy and the coffees we cupped the previous day were proof that their methods are sound.  

There are many varietals of coffee being grown on the farms that Luis manages.  Caturra, Catuai, Typica, Pacas, Maragogype, Pacamara, Bourbon and also a few varietals that are not found anywhere other than on Gloria's farms.  

Heirloom varieties of pure arabica coffee are grown throughout El Salvador.  The Bourbon varietal being most commonly found of these cultivars.  When grown on quality focused farms the Bourbon varietal is known for its rich, sweetness and subtle complexities.  Skilled pickers harvest the coffee in El Salvador at the absolute peak of ripeness.  Picking ripe is an extremely important step and one that is emphasized at every origin but the emphasis put on proper sorting and ripeness in El Salvador was impressive to say the least.  Cherries are processed not just ripe, but perfectly ripe.  The supreme sweetness found in an exemplary Salvadoran coffee can be tied directly to this important detail.    

We were able to purchase a small lot, Finca San Jose, from Luis this year.  The coffee scored high with notes of cocoa, vanilla, almond butter and tamarind with some floral tones.  Look for it to hit the shelves by late summer.

After my time with Luis, I returned to San Salvador to meet with Maria Pacas of Café Pacas.

You have hopefully had the chance to try our first Salvadoran lot of the year.  Finca El Retiro.  This sweet and elegant coffee is brought to us by Café Pacas.  Pacas is a familiar name to many in the coffee industry.  They are well known in El Salvador and throughout the world as being progressive producers of high-quality, sought-after coffee.  The Pacas family has been producing coffee in El Salvador for 3 generations and owns and manages 11 farms mostly on and around the Santa Ana volcano.  

Their farms are inspiring examples of sustainable agriculture.  Shade growing, hands-on crop management, composting and bio-diversity are all keys to their success in managing healthy, productive farms.     

They pick ripe coffee, have very low tolerance in their sorting practices, process meticulously, experiment tirelessly and maintain overwhelmingly detailed records of data.  All of this care and attention to detail results in beautiful coffee and continued innovation.  We are excited to work with Café Pacas for the first time this year and absolutely can't wait to see this relationship grow in the future.  Find their Finca El Retiro here and look out for Finca San Joaquin, another Café Pacas coffee, to hit the shelves later this summer. 

El Salvador Part 2 coming soon!

Zack BurnettComment