China ‘good client’ now of Salvadoran special coffee sellers
SAN SALVADOR — Mauricio Samour watched as freshly-roasted mountain-grown coffee beans cascaded onto a tray for cooling. Each bean had the same brown luster, he pointed out — a sign of quality and care in the processing.
Nestled in the El Balsamo mountain range in western El Salvador, Samour’s coffee plantation, called Las Tinieblas (The Dusk), exports gourmet coffee to German, British and US markets.
Samour decided seven years ago to dedicate his 180-hectare property in the central department of La Libertad solely to growing and processing premium coffee beans, using a painstaking process. Naturally drying the beans alone can take up to 20 days.
“I control the entire process from planting to port,” Samour said. “I can offer coffee to any market that values specialty coffee.”
The plantation exports El Salvador’s high-end “Pacamara Honey” variety around the globe, as part of the country’s push to cater to the gourmet coffee market following the industry’s recovery from coffee rust, a blight that hit Central America at the start of the decade.
Hugo Hernandez, executive director of the state-run Salvadoran Coffee Council, said public policy aimed to reactivate the sector after the disease dented output by destroying the plant’s leaves, leaving coffee beans exposed to sunlight, changes in weather and insects.
The recent harvest yielded 905,000 quintals (or 40-kilo sacks), a 14-percent increase over the previous harvest. An estimated 700,000 quintals will be exported, he said.
“We know we have a low production compared to what El Salvador had in prior decades. However, we are specializing in quality,” said Hernandez.
“We are betting on improving productivity, by growing output, but with a focus on quality ... from the moment the seed is produced to the picking and processing.”
Producers can sell gourmet coffee for upwards of $300 per quintal, triple the average international price of $100 for regular coffee, which means workers earn more as well.
“They get paid a little better because it’s specialized work,” said Hernandez.
El Salvador’s Arabica coffee bean, which along with sugar is the country’s top agricultural product, generates some 100,000 direct jobs and 400,000 indirect jobs, according to the coffee council.
Las Tinieblas, located 1,250 meters above the sea level, employs as many as 70 families, and from 200 to 400 families during the picking season.
Today, Japan and the United States are the main buyers of Salvadoran gourmet coffee. But since the Central American country established diplomatic ties with China in August, trade between the two countries is expected to pick up, with coffee topping the list of exports, said Hernandez.
China is already familiar with El Salvador’s specialty coffee, importing small shipments from the last two har- vests since 2016 before ties were announced on Aug 20.
“Of the 2017/2018 harvest, we succeeded in exporting 1,400 quintals at an average price that surpassed $500 per quintal. For us it was quite an important indicator that in China we are going to find a market for specialty coffees,” said Hernandez.
The sector is looking to partner with Chinese coffee associations or industry groups, and participate in the coffee fairs China holds annually.
Orestes Fredesman Ortez, El Salvador’s agriculture minister, agrees the fairs are the best way to promote the premium product.
“In addition to coffee, they can make various other products, I’m sure, with all the ingenuity of Salvadoran producers,” said Ortez.
One example of an addedvalue coffee product is coffee liqueur, which Salvadorans are accustomed to drinking as after-dinner drink, or using as an ingredient in desserts.
Ana Maria de Jacome works for Bosque Lya, a premium coffee producer in the western mountains of Apaneca that makes a line of coffee liqueurs. The company produces some 2,000 bottles a year and exports part of its output to Germany.
“Our manager was invited to a liquor and wine fair, so we took this (liqueur) and found that is was well liked,” said De Jacome.
El Salvador also invested in promoting its premium coffee at home, with the council opening up El Salvador’s School of Coffee to train baristas.
Since it began operating 12 years ago, the center has trained some 7,000 national and international students to distinguish different types of coffee and roasts, and handle an espresso machine.
The council’s head of quality control, Ernesto Velasquez, believes the more consumers know about coffee, the more they will be able to appreciate its qualities.
“We would like to be educators in China because you may have good coffee that has been treated correctly agriculturally speaking — in picking, processing and roasting — but something goes wrong when it comes to preparing the coffee,” said Velasquez.
New diplomatic ties can be an opportunity for Chinese interested in the industry to travel to El Salvador and train at the school, he said.
Meanwhile Samour, the owner of the Las Tinieblas plantation, is looking forward to expanded trade ties boosting coffee exports.
“We believe China can be a very good client. It has potential. I would like to sell to just 1 percent of China,” Samour said. “It would make me the happiest person in the world.”