El Salvador can produce very good coffee. Bourbon varietal coffees are at one end of the spectrum, with a balanced, classic "Central" profile, a good alternative to Brazil as a base for espresso; Pacamara varietal coffees are their opposite, quirky and full of character. High altitudes and good, dense traditional varietals are a factor in the quality of El Salvador coffees. The country also produces an abundance of lower-grown coffee with fairly average cup quality.
Overcoming a Bad Rep
El Salvador coffee had a poor reputation for years, marred mostly by the inability to deliver coffee of high quality within an unstable social climate. Unfortunately, agriculture is the first to suffer in revolution and civil insecurity, since it requires years to rebuild a farm if it is neglected. In El Salvador the coffee trade, like the government in general, was controlled by a ruling elite, a handful of wealthy families that operated many farms. El Salvador had leaned toward the right politically, and the smaller coffee farmers and coffee workers fared poorly in this climate.
But the democratic movement and decades of civil war have changed many things. It shows in the coffee quality, and the availability of small lots from good small-to-medium sized farms; we now see an eruption of farm-specific regional offerings from small farms. El Salvador always had the right ingredients ---soil, altitude, climate ---to produce coffee on par with its neighbors. Most of all, it has the cultivars: Bourbon, the classic old-world coffee and good-tasting natural hybrids of Bourbon, Pacas and Caturra.
In the last few years, though, the growing reputation of El Salvador may have out-paced the reality. Competition for certain farms drove prices to levels that were not commensurate with the cup quality. Much El Salvador coffee is a great option for blending, especially as a base in espresso. But coffee from some of the big farms can be a bit ho-hum, and doesn't necessarily rate well next to the best coffees of its neighbors, like Guatemala. El Salvador's traditional practices in terms of selecting ripe cherry when harvesting, and traditional fermentation process have been good. But large operations don't often maintain their drying patios, dry too hot, or use poorly maintained brick surfaces that trap coffee in cracks or hold too much heat. Some traditions make for a great basis for cup quality, but others need revision.
As with any coffee origin, there is the good and the bad. We spend time sorting through coffees to find producers who can consistently deliver quality lots. If you like, you can read about my earliest trip there, and my role as a judge in the Cup of Excellence competition. I visited some of our important coffee sources, such as Kilimanjaro farm, Finca Siberia and Finca Matalapa. All the travelogues are collected in the travelogue section of the Coffee Library .
Check out our El Salvador Travelogue from 2006