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. Around 30 years ago they began processing the coffees produced at their farms and they began to export that coffee as well. Before that, the family produced coffee and sold the cherries to a local mill, not really knowing what happened to that coffee afterwards. Now we have full traceability of every coffee produced and are able to have direct relationships with our clients. The coffee business for us has changed a lot since my ancestors were working it.
Why did the family choose to grow coffee?
Well, in El Salvador, back when my great-great-grandfather decided to start growing coffee, the president at the time (Gerardo Barrios) introduced the idea of growing coffee as a permanent crop. He was a very forward-thinking president, who saw potential in the type of land that El Salvador, as the volcanic soils here are very good for growing Arabica coffee. Before that, people used to plant crops that weren’t permanent, but this president really pushed for people to grow coffee and made it easy for people to purchase land that was to be used for coffee-growing. My great-great-grandfather saw that as an opportunity, and here we are, still doing it!
Do you mainly grow coffee in the Santa Ana department?
Yes, our main production is on the western side of El Salvador, in 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.
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. Some of those belong to my family, while others belong to different relatives, and we process all coffees from those 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, for two main reasons: First of all, because coffee is very important to El Salvador, as many families depend on this work to subsist. Second of all, the environmental impact coffee has in our country is also very strong. Coffee is the most important forest that El Salvador has: the environmental impact we provide for the country is quite important.
Do you grow other crops at your farm?
As a family, we also grow sugar cane and local fruit called jocotes (side note: this is probably one of the most delicious fruits you’ve never tasted!).
Is the main production of Cafe Pacas specialty-grade coffee?
Ever since my father started processing his own coffee, his vision and focus has been quality. Quality is something we always keep in mind and strive to improve year after year. We are always innovating in terms of the different processes and drying methods used on our coffees! We have grown in specialty; however, it’s difficult because to grow specialty coffee is very difficult and requires a lot of work. With time, we have been able to achieve it, as we’ve had to convince the whole team at Cafe Pacas of the importance of growing specialty coffee. Everybody has to be convinced about the benefits of specialty coffee, because so many hands touch the coffee that everyone has to be convinced and willing to go the extra mile in order to achieve the quality we want. With time, we have been able to train a very nice team of people to work towards that.
In terms of the varieties we choose to re-plant we are 100% focused on quality. Even before deciding on any of the processing methods used, we test on small batches first so we don’t ruin the whole crop. We are very focused on quality!
How do you guys approach innovation at Cafe Pacas?
We are always seeking for things to innovate, all the time. The good thing is that our team also recognises the importance of innovation. 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 But for us, innovation goes very much in hand with our everyday production.
What do you think are the most exciting things to look forward to for coffee in El Salvador?
At Cafe Pacas the most exciting thing we are doing is experimenting with different cultivars of coffee. We are blessed because we have had access to a lot of different varietals that not many people have had access to, and we are doing a lot of research with thm. 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. I believe that is something that’ll give us different things to offer our clients, and that diversity is positive in the coffee world.
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. As a country in general, that is not good (not just for us at Cafe Pacas!) 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. Im 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 producing coffee in El Salvador requires. 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.
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 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 maybe not the type of roya experienced next year. Our philosophy with roya is to learn to coexist with it, and to keep our farms as healthy as we can. We focus on providing shade, providing enough nutrients, and all the conditions necessary to have as little roya as possible. However, it’s not possible to eradicate it completely. We want to coexist with it without sacrificing quality. It is more work and more costly to produce these varietals right now, but we just wouldn’t want to sacrifice quality.
As a producer, what would you tell the people who consume 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 the environment of El Salvador as well!