El Salvador has suffered through a tumultuous coffee history, with periods as one of the world’s leading coffee producers (fourth or fifth in volume in the world in the early 1970s) through a murderous civil war in 1980–92 during which right-wing death squads assassinated leaders of coffee cooperatives (among many others), to a more recent period of success as a producer of elite specialty coffees.
Bourbon, Pacamara and Rust
Starting in 2012, however, still another disaster struck the El Salvador coffee industry. And regrettably, one of the very tendencies that helped make El Salvador such a treasured source of fine, differentiated coffees over the preceding two decades contributed to that disaster: the admirable loyalty of El Salvador growers and coffee leaders to traditional, distinctive-tasting varieties of Arabica. For about two decades El Salvador producers avoided planting taste-suspect, disease-resistant hybrids and remained devoted above all to selections of the great heirloom variety Bourbon and to Pacamara, a distinctive variety first devised and grown in El Salvador that crosses the giant-beaned Maragogipe with the compact-growing Pacas variety.
El Salvador farms growing Bourbon and Pacamara in particular have given us extraordinary coffees in recent decades. Unfortunately, neither of these varieties displays much resistance to the leaf-rust disease that erupted in epidemic proportions in Central America starting in 2012–13. Under the onslaught of the epidemic, coffee production in El Salvador fell dramatically, registering an extraordinary 60% drop from 2012–13 to 2013–14.
According to a 2018 USDA report on the El Salvador coffee sector, the country has lost an estimated 40,000 coffee jobs since the onset of the rust epidemic, contributing to crime, social unrest and the wave of migration north. The Migration Policy Institute reports that nearly 20% of El Salvador’s population now lives in the United States.
Splendid and distinctive coffees continue to be produced by the sophisticated El Salvador producers who are finding ways to protect their precious Bourbons and Pacamaras from the continuing rust threat, but theirs is a desperate battle at present.
El Salvador Varieties
El Salvador coffee leaders and growers have been consistent supporters of the great heirloom Bourbon variety since the 1930s. Before the leaf-rust epidemic struck in 2012–13, an estimated 70% of El Salvador coffee came from trees of the Bourbon variety, including the widely planted Bourbon selection Tekisic. All-Bourbon lots still are common from El Salvador, though Bourbon is also frequently sold mixed with other varieties, particularly with Pacas, a compact-growing, usually less distinctive-tasting selection of Bourbon.
Newly Introduced Varieties.
The Pacamara variety was developed by the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research, with experiments starting in 1958. This great variety is a cross between the giantbeaned Maragogipe, a spontaneous mutant of Typica, and Pacas, the compact mutant of Bourbon. It produces large beans (though overall a bit smaller than the Maragogipe) and nets a quite distinctive, usually deep, savory-sweet, complex cup. Unfortunately, about 10% to 40% of Pacamara seedlings revert to one of their two parents, so growers must separate seedlings carefully before transferring them to fields. Even more unfortunately for this precious variety, it is susceptible to leaf rust.
At this writing, any commodity coffees from El Salvador are probably more and more likely to be produced from disease-resistant, hybrid varieties owing to the continuing threat of leaf rust. It does appear, however, that specialty producers are doing their best to maintain their production of fine Bourbon and Pacamara.
El Salvador Processing Methods
Traditional high-grown specialty El Salvador export coffees are wet processed, most by meticulous, traditional ferment-and-wash procedures.
Newer Non-Traditional Methods.
However, specialty producers have been experimenting for some years, often quite successfully, with alternative processing methods, including both the dried-in-the-fruit natural and the honey methods. Natural-processed Pacamaras can be a particular and often unique pleasure, with a savory-sweet, resonant depth supporting musky floral notes. This experimentation with alternative processing methods has accelerated since the onset of the rust epidemic and the global drop in green coffee prices, as growers attempt to boost revenue by creating differentiated cup profiles.
El Salvador Growing Regions
Although the various El Salvador growing regions reflect general geographic and climate commonalities, predictable impact on cup is difficult to generalize. A cluster of growing regions in the center-west of the country, including the Apaneca and Santa Ana regions, produce the most coffee. Pockets of coffee production in the far northwest of the country, in the mountains near the border with Honduras, grow modest volumes of excellent coffee.
The Traditional El Salvador Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
Generally quite sweet, smooth, usually clean and pure. All-Bourbon lots tend to be more robustly juicy and pungently fruit-toned. Those from all-Pacamara lots are typically deep, savory-sweet, resonant, often complicated by floral top notes. Strictly High Grown grades of El Salvador coffee may be brighter and bigger in body than the more delicate High Grown grades.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
For Bourbon and Pacas: Quiet flowers, stone fruit and berry, gently pungent citrus (tangerine, grapefruit), sometimes chocolate-related notes (roasted cacao nib, baking chocolate, dark chocolate). For Pacamara: Aromatic wood, musk, dry berry, savory-sweet herb, lily-like floral notes.
El Salvador Coffee Ratings and Reviews
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