The smallest country in Central America may also be considered one of the mightiest due to its innovation and presence within the coffee industry. Hugged between Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean, El Salvador produces nearly 500,000 – 600,000 bags of coffee each year. Its high altitudes are rich with biodiversity, carpeted with healthy volcanic soil; the atmosphere permeating with ideal temperatures and moisture for high-yielding coffee trees.
Coffee was first introduced to El Salvador in the 1700s, becoming a prominent export by the late 1800s, replacing its main export, indigo. After the country was heavily deforested, coffee lent support towards its reforestation. By the mid-1900s, El Salvador had become the world’s 4th leading exporter of coffee. Yet, after the civil war and a shift in governance, coffee production shifted in the 1990s with land redistribution and a restriction on the amount of coffee land owned by one entity. Large estates were divided into smaller farms; now 95% of the country’s coffee producers grow coffee on less than 20 hectares.
El Salvador was known for widespread planting of the Bourbon varietal until innovation and climate change forced producers to shift to other options. This led to a new variety being discovered in this small Central American wonder, the now well-known Pacas. It was stumbled upon by none other than the Pacas family in the 1960s along the Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range in western El Salvador, where fertile soils and climbing elevations make perfect conditions for coffee production.
The family’s enterprise goes back five generations, spanning across 150 years. Today, Café Pacas is comprised of various farms owned by the Pacas family, and neighboring friends who supply coffee to be processed at the family-owned mill, Beneficio Vivagua. By working with Café Pacas, producers are fully supported with processing and exporting; all the while able to maintain clear traceability.
Maria Pacas, Marketing Manager for Café Pacas, reminisces on her family’s history within the coffee industry all the way back into the late 1800s, as her great-grandfather initiated coffee production in El Salvador. At the turn of the century, Fernando Alberto Pacas Figueroa, Maria’s grandfather, was planting Maragojipe, San Ramón, Bourbon, and Arábigo within the Santa Ana region on the San Rafael farm.
The 1930s brought not only a spread of coffee production into all regions of the farm, but with it the discovery of a new coffee tree, one that was high-yielding and different in stature. The Pacas family believed this to be the famed “Híbrido San Ramón Borbón.” After careful observation, it was discovered that this was a completely new variety – thus named Pacas thanks to observations by Dr. William Cowgill from the University of Florida.
From the small gardens of San Rafael, the Pacas variety has spread to other areas of Latin America, Africa and even some regions of Asia. It provided producers with high-yielding crops in crowded areas; a resilient variety able to withstand varying altitudes and threats from pests/diseases, wind resistance and a new flavor profile. The Pacas family have had a significant impact on coffee production, impressive, especially considering not only the size of the country, but the farms themselves.
Over time, the Pacas family have incorporated 19 farms into the organization, with the 2020/21 harvest yielding 6,000 bags of coffee. These include El Retiro, La Guachoca, La Providencia as well as several others. The farms range in altitude from 1000 – 1750 meters above sea level, allowing for the slow maturation of the coffee cherry. The Pacas family supports roughly 850 farm workers in addition to 54 mill workers and 12 admin staff that organize the picking, processing, and shipping of coffee to over 61 clients worldwide; a truly marvelous feat that would be tested.
In 2013, as with many producers in Central America, La Roya, or Coffee Leaf Rust, slowly crept throughout the Pacas farms, leading to a 40% decrease in yields. This forced the family and producers to adapt – removing old trees and planting newer varieties, pruning, incorporating more shade, and wind breakers to protect the coffee. Nutrient programs were generated to ensure each tree received the necessary nutrients. The carefully orchestrated recovery process has proven to be successful as the Pacas farms have recuperated and built resilience, equipping them with the necessary protective tools for future threats.
Shade trees are important throughout the Pacas farms – with species ranging from Ingas and Jocote de Corona to Avocado and Lengua de Vaca. The shade trees are pruned during the growing stage to ensure the coffee receives a healthy 70% sunlight and left untouched to reduce sunlight to 30% once cherries begin to form, enhancing the slow fruit development. Thus, allowing for a slow development of the sugars and unique characteristics.
Additionally, in order to protect the sloping coffee farms from erosion, native izote trees were planted amongst the hills, with extensive root systems intertwining throughout the soil, anchoring it to the mountainsides. Fosas, or large ditches, were dug to trap excess rainwater, retaining moisture and organic matter in the soil. Soil health is preserved thanks to the organic fertilizer provided by coffee pulp and the leaves of various shade trees. The diverse array of native trees interspersed throughout the farm promote biodiversity within the Pacas farms with numerous reptiles, bird, and wildcat species. Increased diversity also allows an extra layer of protection for the coffee; more natural predators live within the native trees to fend off various pests.
At the end of 2012, the Pacas family acquired Finca Los Bellotos on the western side of the Izalco Volcano. Deep in the misty jungles of the inclining farm, this region was notoriously cool and filled with nutrient-rich soils. The name is derived from the rare Belloto trees growing throughout the farm, creating a dense canopy of shade for the coffee. Farm manager Ruperto Bernardino Merche noticed a unique bush during his treks through the jungle of coffee trees. He plucked, and gently tasted the cherries – experiencing flavors of peach and papaya, far different from anything ever experienced before. After an extensive and careful set of genetic tests, it was discovered to be a completely new varietal. Therefore, the Pacas family decided to name the rare finding after its founder, Bernadina.
As leading innovators in the coffee industry, and pioneers in discovering unique coffee varieties – the Pacas family have helped shape the coffee industry in El Salvador and have introduced the world to new crops found deep within the volcanic reaches of the small country.
They are also dedicated to improving the lives of producers and workers throughout the region. Various projects are in place to educate producers about diversifying income by planting cacao in addition to the creation of orchards, helping promote nutritious diets. Quality of life is highly valued within the Pacas farms – healthy and happy workers and producers lend support to creating a future for coffee production.
Care and dedication to the land and the workers are reflected in the quality of the coffee produced by the Pacas family. We are lucky to have called Maria and her family partners for 15 years and look forward to seeing what new variety they discover next. Coffee from La Guachoca is currently available in the US.