Coffee in El Salvador

Ripe coffee “cherries” are ready to pick when a deep red color.

I have been remiss in not posting about coffee; the countryside is crowded with coffee, it has taken over the hills anywhere the elevation is above 3,000 feet. Below that elevation, corn is king for a while, and then the sugarcane takes over in the lowlands. By the middle of the 19th Century, the Salvadoran government saw the promise of coffee as a major export crop and bestowed preferential treatment on it and its workers. The government granted tax breaks for producers, exempted coffee workers from military service, and eliminated export duties for new producers. The result was that by 1880, coffee had indeed become the dominant export crop, replacing indigo. This boom in the coffee industry serves as a catalyst to develop roads and other infrastructure around the countryside.

Hiking up through a newly re-planted coffee field.

By the 1920’s, coffee accounted for nearly 90% of the country’s exports, and so when the depression hit in the early 30’s, coffee prices fell by one-third and so the finca (farm) owners cut wages and laid off workers. Coffee prices were so low that coffee berries were left to rot on the plants, and widespread rural unemployment skyrocketed, causing extreme discontent among the indigenous campesinos. The widespread layoff fueled a fire that had been burning among the landless rural poor, and this discontent culminated in a large, well-organized uprising across nearly the entire country, but primarily the west. This uprising, where the campesinos were demanding fair access to land and placing the coffee fincas into cooperatives, was seen as an insurgence of communism, and thus squashed with particular brutality. Estimates report 30,000 campesinos were killed during the retaliation, effectively erasing the remaining few indigenous faces, quelling the uprising, and instilling a sense of fear among the rural poor that still exists today. (This according to a movie I watched on this massacre: 1932, Cicatriz de la Memoria.)

Family: Rubiaceae, Genus: Coffea, Species: C. arabica, variety: Bourbon

Coffee prices recovered during the 40’s and 50s, but then the coffee industry in El Salvador took another huge hit with the start of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1979, and was further crippled by a worldwide decline in coffee prices in 1987 – the prices fell by 35%. Today, coffee only represents a small portion of El Salvador’s GDP, and most coffee farmers are struggling. Some cooperatives have joined with Equal Exchange, a fair-trade organization. Coffee fincas can be a large and risky investment. The most productive coffee plants are between 10 and 15 years old, which is quite a long time to wait from planting to reaping the full benefits of your investment. A hurricane could come through after year eight, and wipe out all of your efforts. However, the coffee fincas around El Salvador are well established, and the farmers tend to replace 5% of their coffee plants each year, reflecting the number of “retiring” plants. Coffee harvesting is done from October through March, and is picked by hand since almost all coffee is planted on steep hillsides.

The village of Tacuba is surrounded by hills of coffee, much of it shade-grown.

Once the coffee is harvested, it needs to be cleaned, dried, and hulled. The simplest method for this is to pick out the damaged cherries, twigs, and other debris by hand, then lay the cherries out in the sun for up to four weeks to fully dry, and once fully dry they are sent through a hulling machine that pulls off the outer husk of the cherry. A slightly more advanced method for this requires quite a bit of water, but ensures a more homogeneous quality and a better-preserved bean. The washing is done in tanks of flowing water, and then – while still wet – the pulp is removed from the cherries in large machines that squeeze the pulp off from around the beans. To ensure all pulp is removed, the nearly-naked beans are placed in a large fermentation tank for 24-36 hours to allow the remaining pulp to break down naturally and separate from the bean. The beans are washed again and then dried using a mechanical dryer or in the sun (where it takes 8-10 days, or less if dried on a raised mesh bed). Immediately before export, the dried beans (café en pergamino) are passed through a hulling machine that removed the fine layer of parchment from around the bean. The first method is used for Robusta coffee, and the second is normally used for the Arabica variety. In El Salvador, primarily Arabica coffee is grown in the high elevations.

Here you can see the different stages of coffee: freshly picked, hulled, dried, and finally roasted.
Coffee from Tacuba – grown organically.
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