Those of us who live and breathe specialty coffee have probably become used to associating high-quality and innovation with a few familiar names by now: the Mierisch family in Nicaragua, or the Zelayas in Guatemala, for example, have been doing wonderful things for the specialty coffee industry and their local communities for years. Producers like Camilo Merizalde and Elkin Guzman have been breaking barriers and leading the way for innovation in Colombia, while the Pereira family in Brazil has set the standard for high-quality coffee production across Minas Gerais. When it comes to Salvadoran coffee, you can’t not be aware of (and astounded by) the influence and importance the Pacas family has had in their country’s coffee industry.
The Pacas began their affaire de coeur with coffee when Gerardo Barrios, the Salvadoran president between 1859-63, introduced the idea of growing coffee as a permanent crop. A very forward-thinking president, he saw potential in the volcanic soils of El Salvador and made it easy for people to purchase land for the purpose of coffee-growing. Don Jose Rosa Pacas, a lawyer by profession, seized this opportunity and 150 years of hard work later, the family hasn’t looked back.
From left to right: Maria Pacas, Juan Alfredo Pacas (director of quality and productivity), Marcela Pacas (director of HR & Social Impact), Alfredo Pacas (CEO), William Zuniga (agronomic manager), Danilo Arriaza (agronomist), Antonio Melendez (farm manager), and Carlos Carcamo.
A couple of weeks ago, as I sat on my couch on a grey Friday morning (the type Melbourne nails to perfection), I had the privilege of getting schooled in coffee-growing by Maria Pacas (Don Jose’s great-great granddaughter) over the phone. While discussing her family’s successes, challenges, and everything in between, one thing became very clear: coffee at Cafe Pacas is both a family affair and an expression of love for one’s country - no wonder the coffee is delicious!
(The following has been edited for brevity and clarity; full transcript can be found here)
How long have the Pacas been working with coffee?
My family has been involved in the coffee business for five generations. My siblings and I are the fifth generation to be working with coffee; however, the generation previous to my father was only focused on the producing part of the coffee, but not on the processing. The family produced coffee and sold the cherries to a local mill, not really knowing what happened to that coffee afterwards. Now, and for the last 30 or so years, we have full traceability of every coffee produced and are able to have direct relationships with our clients.
Do you mainly grow coffee in the Santa Ana department?
Yes, our main production is on the western side of El Salvador, on the Santa Ana volcano, and another volcano that is beside it, Cerro Verde. Los Bellotos, the washed coffee you have, is from Cerro Verde; La Providencia is from the Santa Ana volcano. Los Bellotos in particular is a very special farm for us, it really shows us that the different microclimates really contribute to the flavour profile of each farm. It’s amazing how even the same variety of coffee can taste very different from one farm to another!
Growing coffee on a volcano requires heaps of meticulous work, as seen at Finca La Providencia
Do you have many memories of coffee being grown as a child?
Oh totally, we grew up going to the farm regularly. My father and grandfather always transmitted the love for coffee that we should have, and it was great to hang out and to run around the coffee trees. Talking to the various people who work at the farm was especially important in developing a sense of family. We still have people working with Cafe Pacas who actually started when I was a kid, and their families continue to work with us. It really is like one big family that we have here.
How many people benefit from the work done by Cafe Pacas?
In the whole organisation, Cafe Pacas, we have nineteen different farms. In total, during harvest season, we provide jobs for around 900 people. During non-harvest season, which is from May-October, we provide jobs for around 450 people. For us it’s very important to continue in this business, and to be sustainable, because coffee is very important to El Salvador, as many families depend on this work to subsist. Coffee is also the most important forest that El Salvador has: the environmental impact we provide for the country is quite important.
How do you guys approach innovation at Cafe Pacas?
We are always seeking out things to innovate, all the time. The good thing is that our team also recognises the importance of innovation. The coffee varietal Bernardina is a perfect example of that, because it was discovered by the farm manager of Finca Los Bellotos. We couldn’t tell you we spend a specific amount of time thinking about innovation, because we are actually always doing it. We are constantly looking for opportunities. We are constantly receiving visitors who have travelled to other producing countries, and in conversation they may share what they have seen in countries like Panama, Brazil, etc. Then you start getting ideas and then you start making experiments and trials to find ways to improve quality. For us, innovation goes very much in hand with our everyday production.
We still have people working with Cafe Pacas who actually started when I was a kid, and their families continue to work with us. It really is like one big family that we have here
What are the most exciting things to look forward to from Cafe Pacas in the coming years?
At Cafe Pacas the most exciting thing we are doing is experimenting with different cultivars of coffee. The quality we are getting with them is really, really outstanding. We have a renovation plan in the farms that we have identified as having the most potential to produce specialty coffee where we are going to use these varietals, so we will have new coffees coming out!
What are the biggest challenges you foresee in the coming years?
Well, there are many challenges we have to face as coffee producers! The biggest one for us is the high cost of coffee production in El Salvador. It’s a crop that is very vulnerable, and there are many farmers who don’t meet their cost, so they are just abandoning the farms. We are actively participating with different associations and non-profits to help these producers to continue in the coffee business. One of these associations is the Alliance for Women in Coffee. I’m part of the board for that association, and we organise many events to motivate and encourage coffee producers to continue their work.
Also, the prices of coffee in El Salvador are very low. At Cafe Pacas we are mitigating that risk by producing higher quality coffee and establishing direct relationships with our clients, so that we can work on a ‘fixed price’ basis, not one related to the C-Market, but rather to the cost of production for the year.
Another challenge we have is the amount of labour required to produce coffee in El Salvador. Since coffee prices are low, and productivity is low, producers have a hard time committing to growing coffee. At Cafe Pacas we have to find different ways to attract people who have the talent to produce specialty coffee, and then to stay with us too.
Biodiversity is key in creating the type of healthy environment required for growing specialty coffee
How badly were you affected by La Roya (coffee leaf rust), and does it continue to be a challenge?
La Roya attack started in 2012, and the worst year was 2013. We took a huge hit that year, and we are slowly recovering from that, but we are still battling it. We take roya samples every fifteen days during the rainy season to monitor it. Many people in El Salvador decided to grow varietals (like catimor) that are supposed to be more resistant, but we chose not to because those varietals didn’t meet the quality we wanted in our coffee. In addition, Roya mutates: those varietals may be resistant to it this year, but they may not be resistant to the type of roya experienced the following year. Our philosophy with roya is to learn to coexist with it without sacrificing quality; we try to keep our farms as healthy as we can, because it’s not possible to eradicate it completely.
As a producer, what would you tell the people who drink your coffee all the way across the world?
I’d like to make them aware of how many hands had to touch that coffee before it got into their cup, and how many lives had to be involved in order for the consumer to get to drink that special cup of coffee. Their consumption of the coffee contributes in such a positive way to the people in El Salvador, and to the environment of El Salvador as well!