El Salvador has been a tiny giant in the specialty coffee world for over a decade now, but recent changes have threatened that position. In a very short time, it has become much more difficult to get fresh, high-quality specialty coffee from that famous country. As always, geography and climate play a large factor.
This country is small, but full of life and energy. It holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first “origin country” that I got to know intimately. I took my first Q-grader certification class there way back in 2008, when I was the only “gringo” in a room full of Salvadoreños (there is another story to tell about this — about how different people can develop different palates in different parts of the world). I spent the next two years traveling there many times a year, cupping coffee and working closely with farmers on a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development.
El Salvador is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in Central America, but it is the second-most populous, meaning it is heavily urbanized. There was extensive civil war in the 1980s, which had a lasting impact on coffee production.
As always — beyond the stories and the people — we must look at the geography and resulting climate if we want to understand the coffee industry.
El Salvador is the only country in Central America that borders only the Pacific Ocean (and not the Atlantic/Caribbean). Two narrow mountain ranges run east-to-west across the country, with the large cities on the plateau in between.
Most of the coffee production, occurs in the southern band of mountains. This region includes the famous volcanoes of Itzalco and Santa Ana, and the eastern producing region of San Miguel.
In the north, along the border with Honduras and Guatemala, there is the much smaller area of Chalatenango, which holds special interest for specialty coffee lovers — home of the famous Salvador pacamara.
The Human Climate of War
I’m not a historian or a political guru, so I have no comments to offer on the bloody civil war that El Salvador suffered from 1979 to 1992, but one interesting factor is how it affected the production of coffee.
The 1980s were a time across Central America that traditional bourbon plantations were being replaced with catimor, caturra and catuaí and other high-yield, disease-resistant varieties. By the late 1990s, El Salvador was “behind” its neighbor countries in crop modernization, which could have been a negative. However, this small country seized on the disadvantage and turned it into an advantage. Two-thirds of the coffee land was planted with bourbon, which has a flavor profile highly sought-after among specialty coffee consumers. They focused heavily on specialty production, and over the last 15 years, El Salvador has become widely known as a source for excellent, high-scoring bourbon and pacamara lots.
Recently, gang warfare and social instability have affected every part of this country’s culture and economy, and coffee is no exception. It remains to be seen if-and-when greater peace and stability can emerge again. But in the meantime, there is another striking development at play — a development tied to geography and climate.
Coffee Rust and El Niño
The 2015-2016 crop year was dominated by the biggest El Niño event in decades. Data is still coming out about just how big this year’s climate event was, but by all measures, it was either the largest or second-largest such climate event since the 1950s.
El Niño is a complex event, but in summary, it is a regularly occurring phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, when huge masses of warm water move from west to east along the equator and accumulate into a stable warm water patch off the coast of Central and South America. There’s nothing unusual about El Niño — it’s part of a naturally occurring global movement of water currents — and so there it is a mistake to assume that it’s caused by long-term global climate change.
However, the short-term changes are real, and there is evidence and speculation that the magnitude of an El Niño event (or corresponding cold-water La Niña event) could be tied to larger global developments.
In any case, the second half of 2015 saw the growth and development of a strong El Niño that climate observers called the biggest since at least 1997, and perhaps the biggest ever recorded with modern instruments (beginning in the 1950s). The effects of an El Niño can vary greatly from place to place, but in general it brings warmer temperatures and dramatically increased rainfall to the coast of Central America, where El Salvador is particularly affected.
The long term affects of this monster El Niño remain to be seen, as data is still coming out. However, estimates are that production of Arabica will be as low as 350,000 bags (60 kg each), which could be the lowest production in 80 years.
Part of the low-tide in production is due to a natural bi-annual variation. El Niño climate disruptions also have a huge effect. But the real devil afflicting coffee production in El Salvador right now is all-too familiar around the region: Roya, or Coffee Leaf Rust.
CLR is well-known to have devastated crops around the world, most notably in Colombia in recent years. But tiny El Salvador is at a unique disadvantage in dealing with this disease. The bourbon which comprises up to 80% of production is particularly vulnerable to this disease. Plus the relative social unrest of recent months means that the government and producer groups have a difficult time implementing counter-measures on a large scale. Producers are often on their own when it comes to combating CLR. And finally, a historically dramatic El Niño event causes elevated heat and humidity, which CLR thrives on.
Additionally, many producers consider older root stock of bourbon to be stronger when resisting disease, when most scientific research shows that it is younger, more vibrant trees that bounce back better when attacked by CLR. Unfortunately, many producers have lost a lot of trees as a result of sticking to the older ideas.
El Salvador has survived dramatic hardships before, notably the civil war of the 1980s, the El Niño of 1997, and the “Coffee Crisis” caused by worldwide price crashes around 1999-2001. Many dedicated coffee professionals are working to survive and thrive in the current situation. But the country faces deep challenges, and we are beginning to see the result with a relative rarity of great fresh crop El Salvadors available in the Asian specialty market.
A cool-climate hidden gem
In the northwest corner of little El Salvador is a place called Chalatenango, near to a nature reserve called El Trifinio, along the triangular border shared with Honduras and Guatemala. Elevations are high here — but cooler climate overall means that 1200 meters here feels much cooler than 1200 meters in a place like San Miguel in the southeast.
Chalatenango is a small producing area, compared with the much more famous and productive area around Santa Ana, west of San Salvador. Unique climate, soils and varietals lead to a flavor that I have come to love and cherish: The Chalatenango Pacamara.
In 2010 I conducted some training exercises in the small town of La Palma in the Chalatenango area, teaching farmers to evaluate their own coffee. I discovered something that savvy coffee buyers have long known — Chalatenango produces excellent coffee, even by already elevated El Salvador specialty standards. The pacamara variety grows especially well there, interacting with a sticky, clay-rich soil not found in the southern areas. Cool temperatures and higher elevation add to the recipe for quality.
I talked to Piero Cristiani, green coffee buyer for Café Imports in the United States, and native of El Salvador, about this. He explained that while patios are common here, you see more raised drying beds too, and farmers do their drying right at the farm.
I can tell you that this leads to higher variance. The advantage of large centralized processing stations is that there is uniformity and fewer mistakes. Small producers can sometimes ruin lots with poor practices. But the small producers, when they do things right, can also give a level of care and detail that leads to super high quality that is difficult to produce at a huge mill.
Cristiani says he buys more and more from “Chalate” lately, and that he looks for more complexity, more intensity and more fruit flavors from the coffees he finds there. This is exactly what I found when conducting my training there, as well.
There is also a beautiful, buttery herbaceous quality to very fine pacamaras from Chalatenango. Even within a small country like El Salvador, with so many recent difficulties, it is remarkable to see how much difference there can be from one micro-region to another.
Even a very strong El Niño can retreat remarkably rapidly. Look what happened to water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific in just 6 weeks last year:
By spring of this year, the massive monster El Niño was in retreat, and things were returning somewhat to normal in El Salvador, climate-wise. Many farmers have lost their crops in recent years, and some farms have been abandoned. CLR is still a huge and ongoing threat, and political instability makes fixing the problem difficult. But El Salvador has a long history of quality coffee production, and I expect to see them bounce back in the future. Even now, it is still possible to find wonderful, unique coffees from this little country.
We shall see what the future brings.
A Chinese language version of this article first appeared in Coffee T&I Magazine.