“Focus” is the word that defines our coffees from El Salvador this year, and it’s what makes the incoming crop so special and exciting for us. While the country’s overall production is still reeling from a high prevalence of coffee-leaf rust, farmers are combatting lower yields (up to 35% less than last year) with improved processing, more and better variety selection, and a growing commitment to innovation.
“El Salvador has been the country in Central America that has been hit the most by rust,” says Cafe Imports’ green buyer Piero Cristiani, who grew up in and is currently based in El Salvador, where his mother has been involved in the coffee industry for decades. “Other countries have returned to levels where they were, but El Salvador has been stuck at half a million exportable bags for two or three years now.”
This decline in supply, in past years, has also been evident in lower quality coffee, especially with the less-hardy Pacas variety lots, which led to offerings more dominated by varieties with “mild” profiles, such as the nutty-sweet Bourbon. “This year we’ve seen much better Pacas, so it’s a bit more balanced,” Piero says, though Pacamara yields have struggled a bit more. “There was a drought here, it didn’t rain as much as it should have,” Piero says, “so some of the Pacamara would dry on the trees, and it wouldn’t fully develop, but in general we were able to find good Pacamaras.”
For the past few years, Piero has been on the ground in El Salvador more and more, developing relationships that have turned into long-term partnerships with producers whose coffee we buy year in and year out, often in parchment, which allows him direct oversight in the dry-milling process. This makes it possible for Piero to build specific lots, perform quality-control checks, and even choose the bag size for individual coffees. The majority of the coffee we can expect this year are microlots from Chalatenango, which will again be offered in 35-kilo “Pequeños” bags, which allows us to spread the love a little, making those very small lots available to more roasters, and spreading the word (and flavor) of fantastic El Salvadoran coffee.
Piero is very enthusiastic about the dynamism of the profiles coming out of Chalatenango in particular, thanks to the focus that farmers have been able to place on making their smaller crops healthy, and in processing them well. “Because Chalate’s production is so small, the fact that these coffees are able to stand up to a Colombian or an African coffee — more complex, higher acidity, more sweetness — is what gets us excited. To be able to see a more complex coffee from El Salvador, rather than the more traditional, sweet, chocolatey profile.” “Since we’re buying coffees all the way from 1,200 meters to 2,200 meters in Chalate, the fermentation times will vary quite a bit between those ranges.
We’re seeing that more producers are trying honeys, and this is the first year that we’re buying a natural,” Piero says. “A lot of producers are just curious to try something new, and I think they want to innovate and try different things.” Many of our producing partners of the Chalatenango microlots are also winners in this year’s Cup of Excellence competition, a testament to their obsession with quality and their ability to repeatedly produce outstanding crops despite hardships.
Piero’s picks for the lots to watch are the natural from Ignacio Gutierrez, which is the first natural we’ve brought in from the country, as well as a lot from Ever Sosa, grown at 1,900 meters, which is “not a very typical altitude in El Salvador,” Piero says.
Meanwhile, in Santa Ana, the milder and more straightforward coffees that are perfect components to add sweetness and body to a blend or espresso coffee, will turn up in our warehouse as solid regional blended lots — good performers at a mid-range price.
From his home base in El Sal, Piero reports that the first rains are already started, which has triggered promising flowering in the fields. “It’s still too early to tell,” he says, “but it looks like it could be a good season.” We look forward to celebrating the focus and flavor of El Salvador with you all shortly, as the first coffees will be landing in no time at all.