Our focus on speciality coffee origins takes us to Central America, a wide and diverse area famed for brilliantly sweet beans. In this article we visit El Salvador, the smallest country in the region.
There must be something about the sea-air that rises from the Pacific Ocean and sweeps up the hills in Central America. Good coffee can generally be grown all the way down the Pacific coastline, from Mexico right down and into Bolivia. If you were to take that journey you would pass-through El Salvador, a tiny nation that is densely populated.
The country sits alongside the Pacific Ocean and is bordered by two other countries renowned for their prolific coffee production, Guatemala to the north-west and Honduras to the East. With a total area of just 21,000km2 it is the smallest geographically in Central America. Which makes it all the more incredible that El Salvador exports more than half a million bags, equating to around 50,000 tonnes of green coffee each year. You could fit the whole country in the space that is dedicated to Brazil’s coffee plantations.
Despite its acclaim coffee is not one of the country’s top exports. El Salvador is better known for its fabric and clothing trade which contributes around $1.2 billion to its economy each year. Coffee was once a major player in its overall economic output, and in the 1920’s made up as much as 90% of its exports. Unfortunately a combination of natural disasters, corruption, over-farming, fierce competition, and even war have taken a massive toll on Salvadoran coffee. Most lately leaf-rot obliterated some 20% of its coffee cultivation from 2011-2013.
Coffee farming in El Salvador
Nevertheless, coffee is still produced in El Salvador and some very good coffee at that! The country is even birthplace to its own varietals such as the famous Pacamaras, a real delicacy and certainly worth a try if ever you come across it. Typically the country produces mostly Bourbon varieties. Just over 10% of the available farming land is dedicated to coffee production.
Some 165,000 hectares are shared by smallholders, and cooperative unions that account for around 25% of the green coffee trade. There are around 20,000 farmers in total, with over 100,000 more workers benefiting from coffee production each year. If you’re after a sense of scale, Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer has approximately 350,000 coffee farmers!
Being small may have been the cause for the country’s popular approach to coffee farming. A lot of El Salvador’s coffee is grown under the canopy of trees as opposed to out in the open, a method known as ‘shade-growing’. This actually makes perfect sense as coffea arabica naturally thrives in forests, under the shade of other plants and trees.
As well as protection from harsh sunlight (El Salvador is just 940 miles from the Equator), this can also have a positive effect on the soil within which the plants dwell, as greater leaf litter helps to enrich it. The harvest usually takes place in the winter from late October right through to April.
Climate in El Salvador
There are plenty of highlands and mountain ranges in El Salvador and even volcanoes too. The country sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, making it highly prone to earthquakes. It’s also prone to bouts of severe weather conditions thanks to the effects of El Nino and La Nina. What a place to grow coffee right?
Overall the country has a fairly stable tropical climate with consistent dry and wet spells. In San Salvador the yearly average temperature is 22 ℃, with highs of 32 ℃. Up in the mountain ranges it falls between 12 ℃ and 22 °C throughout the year, with plenty of rainfall in the winter. So, when there aren’t earthquakes and hurricanes to contend with, El Salvador has pretty close to perfect conditions for growing coffee.
Apaneca is the largest growing region where lots are found as high as 2,300 masl. There are smaller concentrated regions along the northern border in Chalatenango and Metapan. Also, there are much smaller areas dotted around the country in places like La Libertad and Tecapa-Chinameca.
What to expect from Salvadoran Coffee
You’ll only find arabica coffees grown in El Salvador, and the country uses its own system for grading beans. The tiered system is simply based on altitude, the Central Standard (500-900 masl), High Grown (900-1200 masl), and Strictly High Grown (1200+ masl). Washing is the most common processing method although you can find some naturals.
These environmental factors along with the varietals available, makes El Salvadoran coffee unique cupping experience. Like other Central American coffees, they are well-balanced with sweet citrus acidity. Coffees from here are often notable for their buttery mouthfeel and toffee notes. This makes speciality El Salvadoran coffees excellent for medium espresso roasts, blends and as a filter option.
According to Cafe Imports, “It is often said that the Cup of Excellence competition, which came to El Salvador in 2003, was the beginning of the new “wave” of interest in Salvadoran coffee, shining the first light on some of the special varieties the small country grows.”
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Country: El Salvador
Famous Regions: Apaneca, Metapán, Tecapa-Chinameca
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Paca
Common Processing Methods: Usually washed
Growing Altitude: 900-2300+ masl
Flavour Notes: Sweet citrus acidity, medium-full body with buttery mouthfeel