History of Coffee from El Salvador
Coffee from El Salvador is blessed with the richest of soils: volcanic soil. The country also has very favorable conditions in the form of high-altitude farms (over 5000 feet) that give coffee from these lands a mild yet very complex flavor. Pronounced wet and dry seasons make growing coffee easy, as it’s easy to predict the weather and plan harvests accordingly years in advance.
One of the most famous coffees from El Salvador is the Red Bourbon variety, which yields a sweet coffee with hints of brown sugar, dark chocolate, and prunes. It is highly sought-after and usually sold as single-origin. Blends containing this bean are ideal for filtered coffee.
Recently, El Salvador has been re-discovered along with some other Central American countries because of their high-quality coffee. Let’s talk about El Salvador and its history with coffee:
History of Coffee in El Salvador
Uprisings, conspiracies, and utter economic dominance. Coffee has had a fascinating history in this Central American country which was once the most prolific coffee grower in the whole world. But greed would change all that…
Throughout the history of Latin America, it was Spanish colonizers that ended up establishing most of the coffee farms. But the case was different in El Salvador. The potential for coffee growing was largely untapped when British immigrant and ambitious 18-year-old James Hill came to the country. He thought he would try to make a business growing and exporting coffee beans.
And business was booming.
It turns out that El Salvador had a combination of factors that resulted in a very high yield that was unmatched by any other country— most likely a combination of climate and richness of the earth. It was also true that the natives were coming from a similar business (mass growing Indigofera, a plant to make Indigo blue dye) that was seeing its end around the time that growing coffee started becoming viable for these same farmers. Experienced hands were readily available.
The Fourteen Families
During the 20th century, coffee completely dominated El Salvador’s economy. It accounted for over 90% of the GNP at one point. But of course, nothing is ever as good as it seems.
Plantation owners became richer and richer. They became able to buy all the land they pleased and workers had few options other than growing coffee for a living. In such a monopolized economy, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. This is the recipe for turmoil.
Tensions escalated over decades, with the highest point being the kidnapping of James Hill’s grandson in 1979.
Jamie Hill was kidnapped for over 4 months and released once his family paid out almost $4 million dollars in ransom. Yet the war waged by guerrillas would last about twelve more years. They decried the “14 families”, which they claimed controlled the economy and politics of the country.
And they were right, although the figure wasn’t as low as they thought. In fact, it was over a hundred families that benefited from this abusive relationship, but in the end had to cave in to their demands for fair wages.
The Fall of Coffee
Production of coffee in the country reached its peak during 1980. It has since been steadily declining and it is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their jobs in the years since the decline started.
However, this is far from being a tragedy. El Salvador quickly began diversifying its country so that there were jobs for everyone and coffee is still the pride of El Salvador- while large operations have since dissipated, old farms that produced the best of this country’s coffee still function. Instead of growing coffee to export en masse like Brazil or Colombia, El Salvador grows mostly premium quality and specialty coffee, almost all of it of the arabica variety.
After The War
Post-war El Salvador enjoys a reasonably peaceful democracy, and a majority of coffee growers are well-paid and are part of coffee programs such as the Rainforest Alliance and others.
The country doesn’t depend so heavily on coffee anymore, and produces only a fraction of what it used to. The quality, however, is exquisite and there are many controls now placed in the industry to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself in the form of monopolies and bad conditions for coffee growers; child labor, for example, is rampant when it comes to coffee farms. El Salvador has one of the lowest percentages thanks to the strict controls and safety nets they have.
So not only is El Salvador a source of great-tasting coffee, but some of the most ethically grown coffee you can get.