El Salvador is mostly planted in old Bourbon variety coffee or its relatives. The Bourbon cup from El Salvador is not exotic in flavor, but it’s the coffee you want to drink. It can be on par with neighboring Guatemala in every measure, but is not as well-known to the public. Why is that?
I’ll theorize on that a bit later but let’s look at the highlights of El Salvador. Incredible standards for picking coffee; I don’t believe I have seen the quality of picking, selecting just ripe coffee cherry, anywhere in the world. It’s almost a given at the best El Salvadorian farms to see pure red coffee fruit in the baskets. The other feature here is Bourbon variety coffees, the old cultivar that came from the island of Bourbon (now reunion), and the related Pacas variety, produce a balanced clean flavor that defines wet-processed Central American coffee.
The balanced flavor profile we find in El Salvador coffees defines the region for me. Balance means a form of harmony between aromatics, acidity / brightness, flavor and body.
A balanced coffee isn’t the loudest, the most exotic in flavor, the most extreme. It’s not the one roasters crow about, or that gets 99.9 points in coffee reviews or competitions. But it’s the one you might want to drink, and have a second cup, and third … if you’re like me. A balanced coffee is quiet, has restraint in it’s individual characteristics, but seems “complete” in it’s sum total.
The challenges in El Salvador seems to spring from the same core issues as it’s strengths. It’s quiet, it’s balanced, it’s easily overlooked.
It’s amazing in espresso as a base coffee. (I think it’s much better than Brazil as a blend base, but different too). But the smaller scale of coffee farming in El Salvador means farmers need to make more money, and the cost-to-quality ratio does not always benefit this origin.
Then there is politics and history. Few at the top have owned so much here, and these elite families have been in conflict with the general population of working people for so many years. The result is swings to the right and the left, state power at the service of the few, and sometimes accountable to no-one.
Agriculture is the first to suffer in revolution and civil war. You can’t pick up a farm and move it. Between the conflict of the police and the maras (gangs), the military and the left, between conflict of land ownership / gang territory, a farmer can’t often find the stability to flourish.
Historically, in El Salvador the coffee trade was controlled by a ruling elite, a handful of wealthy families that operated many farms. El Salvador had leaned toward the right politically, and the smaller coffee farmers and coffee workers fared poorly in this climate.
In times of stability El Salvador has flourished in terms of coffee quality. It’s been able to adapt to the needs of the small specialty coffee roaster, with increased availability of small lots from good small-to-medium sized farms.
We now see an eruption of farm-specific regional offerings from these producers. El Salvador always had the right ingredients —soil, altitude, climate —to produce coffee on par with its neighbors. Most of all, it has the cultivars: Bourbon, the classic old-world coffee and good-tasting natural hybrids of Bourbon, Pacas and Caturra.
El Salvador does have a secret up it’s sleeve. It’s the Pacamara variety, a natural cross between Pacas and the large-bean Maragogype variety. It can have quite exotic flavors spanning a range of fruits and spices. At its worst though, it tastes a lot like green onion! But I think the best Pacamara coffee in the world comes from El Salvador and we love to feature these when we find a delicious one! (Hold the onions).
There’s been a further conundrum in the marketing of El Salvador coffees though. In the last few years, though, the growing reputation of El Salvador may have out-paced the reality. Competition for certain well-known farms drove prices to levels that were not commensurate with the cup quality.
This may be the after-effect of coffee competitions; unsustainable expectations from top coffee producers, and farm-business models based on pricing that doesn’t work in the long term. A smaller specialty roaster can buy a bit of coffee, let’s say 5 or 10 bags, at a really great price that is double the larger buyer. But that doesn’t mean a producer can get that price for a full container of 250-300 bags.
The niche of premium coffee does not scale up that well, and in hard times there aren’t as many buyers to satisfy the price expectation set in formats like coffee competitions and such.
As stated much El Salvador coffee is a great option for blending, especially as a base in espresso. But coffee from some of the big farms can be a bit ho-hum, and doesn’t necessarily rate well next to the best coffees of its neighbors, like Guatemala. El Salvador’s traditional practices in terms of selecting ripe cherry when harvesting, and traditional wet process have been outstanding. But large operations don’t often maintain their drying patios sometimes, dry too hot, or use poorly maintained brick surfaces that trap coffee in cracks or hold too much heat.
Some traditions make for a great basis for cup quality, but others need revision. El Salvadorian coffee can express both, but a great coffee, well-selected in picking, well-processed, can be ruined in one misstep along the way, like mixing lots in the fermentation tank, or over-drying on a patio. Coffee quality is tough to achieve consistently, tough to scale up, and tough to maintain harvest to harvest. The most important factor in coffee quality is the work of people, from the picker to the mill manager.
For me, sustainability here means finding a way to pay those people, and have an efficient system as well that maintains quality at a smaller scale farm. That is not easy at all, but I see it in El Salvador, and have great hope for the future of coffee here!