Coffee looks so peaceful in the cup. Fragrant. Evocative. But its journey there has often been anything but. This is especially true of coffee from El Salvador. “El grano de oro,”--the “grain of gold”-- came to El Salvador near the end of the 1700’s, and at first was only consumed in country, a drink for the ones who grew it. But before long, the government started giving tax breaks and military exemption for coffee workers, and eliminated export duties. With these incentives, coffee soon surpassed indigo as the nation’s leading export crop. Obviously, this was good news for coffee drinkers the world over, but it set the stage for coffee barons, a class of wealthy landowning elitists who rose to power on the labor of the less priviliged.
Thus for nearly 200 years, the El Salvadorian coffee scene has been one of conflict, hardship, and economic depression. By the 1970s, the country had become the 4th largest coffee exporter on the globe, but laborers still suffered under almost non-existent wages, few rights, little recognition. Time and again, the country was ripped by civil war as plantation owners and workers clashed.
Interestingly, though coffee cultivation led to the amassing of wealth for the few, it also ultimately provided the golden ticket to reform. Fair Trade cooperatives and human rights activists began to bring change, and by the 1990s, over 78% of coffee farms were in the hands of small coffee producers. Through these cooperatives, members obtain help in production, sales, and exporting, as well as better prices for their coffee beans. Furthermore, the years of conflict inadvertently preserved the more traditional coffee cultivars, preventing replacement by higher yielding, less flavorful sun-grown hybrids.
El Salvador’s ocean-influenced climate and mild topography tends to produce softer, less acidic coffees than neighboring countries, but some very complex, deep offerings reminiscent of the finest Central American coffees are finding their way onto cupping tables. Most El Salvadorian coffee is shade grown. In addition, some farmers are cultivating a pacamara hybrid (often marketed under the name Tizapa)--large-beaned and fascinating in that it surpasses both parent varieties in cup quality.