Do you like sweet, smooth coffee with just enough complexity and acidity to engage your taste buds? Then let me introduce you to an origin you may have overlooked, El Salvador coffee.
El Salvador is well known among coffee industry experts, if not the general drinking public, for its high-quality, shade-grown Arabica coffee. Indeed, it is the homeland of two of the most prized varietals, Pacas and Pacamara.
Keep reading to learn what else you’ve been missing from this small but valuable growing region – plus our picks for some of the best El Salvador coffee beans.
A Complete Guide to El Salvador Coffee Beans
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, but that hasn’t kept it from making a significant mark on the global coffee scene. It’s the 19th largest coffee producer worldwide, with a reputation for high-quality Arabica coffee beans. While El Salvador coffee shares some similarities with neighboring regions like Costa Rican coffee, Haitian coffee, and the best Guatemalan coffees, it has a sweet and complex flavor that’s well worth seeking out.
History of El Salvador Coffee Beans
Coffee has played a significant role in the history and development of El Salvador beginning in the late 19th century when it was first introduced (1). By 1920, coffee exports comprised 90% of the country’s trade and were a significant economic driver. In the 1970s, this tiny, densely populated country was ranked 4th among coffee producers worldwide!
Then a civil war broke out in 1979. When the war ended in 1992, El Salvador’s coffee production fell dramatically and faced increased competition from other origins.
The evolving demands of consumers and climate change have further stressed the industry in recent years, but there is cause for optimism for many coffee farmers (2). In 2015, the Salvadoran Coffee Council laid out a 5-year plan to improve coffee quality, increase global recognition, and encourage domestic consumption.
In 2019, El Salvador exported 546,000 sacks of coffee, which amounts to less than 2% of El Salvador’s exports. In the same year, domestic consumption of El Salvador coffee beans was a relatively high 2.8 kg per person.
El Salvador Coffee Growing Regions
Despite its small geographic area, El Salvador has a remarkably growing regional diversity. As elsewhere in the world, mountain ranges provide the best conditions for growing coffee.
The most famous El Salvador coffee growing region is the Apaneca-Ilamatepec Mountain Range, which ranges from 500 to 2365 meters in elevation.
It is located in the west of the country and includes the Santa Ana volcano, whose rich volcanic soil houses some of the largest El Salvador coffee farms. Check out the Volcanica El Salvador Peaberry below for a delightful example of a coffee from this region.
The other primary regions in El Salvador are:
- Central Belt/El Básalmo-Quezaltepec Mountain Range – home to the San Salvador volcano.
- Tecapa-Chinchontepec Mountain Range – includes the tallest peak in the country, the San Miguel or Chaparrastique volcano.
- Cacahuatique Mountain Range – known for its distinct clay-like soil.
- Nahuaterique Mountain Range – found on the border with Honduras in the north.
- Alotepeque-Metapan – the northernmost region known for high altitudes and highest-quality beans.
- Chinchontepec (San Vicente) Volcano – a new coffee-growing region already renowned for excellent Bourbon and Pacas coffee beans.
Varieties, Processing Methods, and Flavor Profiles
Tiny El Salvador has cultivated an important niche in the global coffee community because much of its exported coffee is incredibly high quality. Almost all El Salvador coffee beans are Arabica, and 95% are shade grown. According to Kenneth Davids, author of 21st Century Coffee: A Guide, the main varieties are Bourbon, Pacas, and Pacamara, followed by Caturra and Catuai (3).
El Salvador farms growing Bourbon and Pacamara, in particular, have given us extraordinary coffees in recent decades.
Over 60% of El Salvador coffee beans are the Bourbon variety, which is unusual in Central America. The best Bourbon beans have a clean and sweet flavor profile with bright citrus acidity. However, Bourbon plants are highly susceptible to coffee leaf rust, so the El Salvador coffee crop is constantly at risk.
The Pacas varietal makes up another 25% of El Salvador coffee production, followed by Pacamara, a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogype. Both Pacas and Pacamara coffees trace their origins to coffee research in El Salvador. The region’s Pacamara coffee is world-renowned for its creamy mouthfeel and rich chocolate, fruit, and butterscotch flavors. Check out our pick from Passenger Coffee below to try it for yourself.
Most El Salvador coffee beans undergo washed processing, resulting in a clean cup profile. Honey processing is also reasonably common, and the Equator coffee suggested below is a great example. More experimental processing methods are growing in popularity to add value to beans. While natural processing is less common, you can find some unique and delicious naturally-processed Pacamaras.
Our Top Three El Salvador Coffee Beans in 2022
|Volcanica El Salvador Peaberry Coffee||
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|Passenger Montecarlos Pacamara||
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|Equator El Salvador Finca Himalaya Honey Espresso||
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Now that you know the basics of El Salvador coffee production, I’m sure you’re itching to try some for yourself. There are many wonderful El Salvador coffees, but we’ve chosen three that showcase diverse flavor profiles and various brewing methods.
If you can get your hands on a peaberry coffee, it’s usually worth the extra expense. There’s a good reason they come highly recommended, and that reason is flavor.
Peaberry coffee is a natural mutation that causes the fruit of the coffee plants to grow one coffee bean rather than two.
That bean, the peaberry, gets twice the nutrients, causing it to develop a sweeter and more complex flavor.
The medium roast Volcanica El Salvador Peaberry is a smooth and full-body brew with sweet, nutty flavors, a gentle floral aroma, and medium acidity level. Delivered freshly roasted, it’s a subtle but compelling brew you can sip all day long.
The Passenger Monecarlos Pacamara is a light roast, providing a wonderful opportunity to taste the nuances of El Salvador’s famed Pacamara varietal. Passenger has been working with the farmers growing these beans since 2017, and that long-term relationship has garnered some high-quality coffee that only improves yearly.
The current lot showcases bright fruit flavors of kiwi and lemon with a sweet brown butter finish. Brewing it as a pour over allows you to experience the complexity of the flavors, though we also enjoy it as a smooth and unusual cold brew in the summer.
While we typically associate espresso with coffee blends, a balanced and complex single-origin coffee makes for an extra-special shot. According to the roasting team, this honey-processed medium roast from Equator coffee is precisely that.
After initially tasting this coffee on the cupping table, we knew that we wanted to taste it as espresso, and we were blown away by its intense sweetness and delicate nuance!
Grown in the Apaneca mountain range, the Finca Himalaya Honey Espresso beans are the Bourbon variety, which offers rich flavors of creamy hazelnut, spicy cinnamon, and ripe fruit. The honey processing enhances the natural sweetness to make a compelling espresso.
Though small in area, El Salvador looms large in the international coffee industry thanks to its high-quality Bourbon, Pacas, and Pacamara coffee beans. If you enjoy coffee with a sweet and complex flavor profile, creamy body, and bright acidity, we recommend picking up some El Salvador coffee beans. You might just discover a new favorite origin!
How many coffee growers are there in El Salvador?
There are approximately 20,000 coffee growers in El Salvador. 95% of farms in the country are under 20 hectares, with most under 2 hectares. By law, no grower can own more than 245 hectares.
Where does El Salvador export its coffee?
El Salvador exports its coffee primarily to the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Singapore. Only about 20% of the coffee grown in El Salvador is consumed domestically.
What drinks are most popular in El Salvador?
The most popular drinks in El Salvador are beer, mostly pilsner; fruit juices, especially sweet-and-sour tamarind juice; a local version of horchata; Tic Tack, the national liquor; and, of course, coffee. Other popular hot drinks include hot chocolate and atole de elote.