Let’s talk about El Salvador. More specifically, let’s talk about how El Salvador has shaped coffee as we know it today. There are a number of countries that are inextricably linked with the development of coffee throughout the past two centuries. Among them are giants in the industry like Brazil, the top producer of coffee in the world, and Ethiopia, heralded as the home of coffee. Others are less important in today’s market than they once were, but have forever left a mark on coffee culture- such as the island of Java (where we get the coffee synonym “java” from), where the Dutch commanded a large coffee trade a century ago, and Moka, the port in Yemen where coffee was first exported broadly. El Salvador is among these influential countries, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
When many people think of coffee from El Salvador they think of big, chocolatey tasting notes with strong almond, caramel and maple flavors. Others may think of the poverty that still pervades the nation, even when there has been high quality coffee exported from the country for decades that should have had a hand in raising the standard of living. What doesn’t often come to the surface is that El Salvador provides a unique picture of what happens when modern capitalism and old world values collide.
If you’re wondering why I’m all of a sudden an expert on the history of El Salvador, I will happily confess that I’m not. I just read sometimes… well, I listen to books sometimes. A book came out recently called Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick. Although the title casts the book as a melodrama it’s more of a narrative history detailing the role of a small group of farmers, led by a man named James Hill, as they pursued profits over people in their quest to make their millions in the coffee trade- basically the same sort of behavior that characterized colonialism and grew with the rise of capitalism on a global scale. Although there is much to mourn over when we look at the effect of this elitist group of farmers in El Salvador (a concentration of about 14 families ran the coffee trade in almost its entirety for decades), there is also the reality that what has happened in El Salvador doesn’t determine what will and is happening there.
More and more coffee professionals are becoming interested in El Salvador. The unique coffee profiles that the region is capable of are worth seeking after. The smaller farmers (like Hilda Contreras who grows our El Salvador: Monte Verde coffee) who may not have had access to the coffee monopoly that dominated El Salvador for generations are worth investing in. The story doesn’t end in El Salvador with the 14 families and the evils of profit over people and we plan to play our part as we are able. If you get the chance I’d encourage you to pick up Coffeeland or download the audiobook (like me!) and experience the difficult and unique history that has tied coffee and El Salvador together.