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Cafe Pacas Bernardina: Keeping Your Eyes Open

Metropolis’ green coffee buyer Amy Lawlor and roaster Luc Rodgers traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala in February and March of 2018 to visit several coffee farms to experience the farms our beans originate from first-hand. Below is an account of Luc’s experience at Cafe Pacas in El Salvador.

We awoke early at our hotel in Guatemala City, so early in fact that coffee was not yet brewed. The irony is lost on us, a group of coffee professionals (roasters, green buyers, and two fine folks from Mercanta, the importer and longtime Metropolis partner who was also responsible for putting this trip together), as it is fairly normal to rise before the sun in this industry. In the days leading up we had filled our minds and notebooks full of facts, names, varietals, regions, farms, processing methods, and everything in between. The transparency between quality coffee farming and the consumer leave little left to wonder; farmers are proud to show what they do, how much they pay, and the positive impact they provide to not only their immediate surroundings but also in the eventual cup, wherever it may be enjoyed. This day we set out for El Salvador, more specifically the Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range and home to Cafe Pacas. 

El Salvadoran coffee, as a whole, is known for quality and consistency, albeit lacking in the “exciting” and “complex” offerings from more well-known coffee producing countries. Honestly I was excited to check out what El Salvador was like, sure, but wasn’t expecting much as far as finding a real gem of a cup. Those familiar with El Salvadoran coffees know to expect notes of chocolate and nuts, i.e. basic blenders or “house” blends. There is definitely a place and a need for such coffees but, man, I didn’t come here for 82s and 83s (low-average scores for specialty-grade blenders) …I wanted to be confused. I wanted to marvel at what I just loudly slurped into my quacker. I wanted to be so overcome with excitement that I broke the main cupping rule (no talking or showing of emotions during evaluation) with a sudden burst of, “what? Where the hell did this come from?!” Maybe my expectations were a little unfair, maybe not. That’s the magic of the cupping table: each set a mystery, each step a clue, and each reveal another notch in the memory post. I rested my head and gazed out of the window at the passing landscape, yellow with sun and warm with tropic February air. 

Having spent the week traversing many corners of Guatemala and the few hours already in El Salvador, the heavily armed guard at the gate of Cafe Pacas no longer yielded a feeling of alarm but of safety. The gates swung open and we found ourselves inside a beautifully manicured patio area connecting a few single-story buildings reminiscent of Cameron Frye’s beautiful, A. James Speyer-designed home in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Maria Pacas, Sales Director and part of the fifth generation of the family-run farm, greeted us with genuine sincerity and escorted us into the conference room. Sandwiches, sodas, and air conditioning brightened our eyes while Maria began her PowerPoint presentation. 

As stated before, the farm is now run by the fifth generation of the Pacas family. During harvest season (October to March) they employ upwards of 850 in the fields and 54 in the mills, in addition to administrators, managers, and the family themselves. While that seems to be quite a large number of employees, once one takes into account the amount of work and attention to detail that is required for specialty coffee it begins to make sense. A single cup of coffee needs roughly 50-70 beans. One coffee cherry yields two beans. 

Maria Pacas displays green coffee

After picking, the beans enter the water tanks where the first round of defective ones (called “floaters” as the non-defective beans will sink) can be separated and discarded. The majority of processing mills stop there but here a few more steps have been added. A monochromatic machine is utilized to toss out any that are “white” or “black” (the result of an underripe, or diseased cherry), keeping the desired greenish color to continue to the next, and final, step, manual hand sorting. The beans that have made it through each step successfully now travel down a conveyor belt where specially trained women (“Women have a much better eye for detail here, and in addition we provide them with more training and continuous follow ups,” Maria explained) pick out any defects that somehow made it to this step. Wow.

As we toured the mills and drying patios, Maria continued explaining each process and eventually moved onto the subject of employee benefits. It was here that I went from impressed to simply amazed. Coffee quality is, of course, the main priority of the business. All the steps taken to ensure this can only work if the people responsible for these are healthy, happy, and loyal. But how does one accomplish such a feat with such a large staff? The answer is simple: fair wages, access to healthcare (including preventative), education for children and adults alike, and even an onsite psychiatrist to help with conflict resolution, personal issues, and the sorely-overlooked mental well-being. What I was hearing and what I was seeing started to meld together as one. Those women working the conveyor? Laughter and casual conversation. Workers walking by, lightly soiled from their various duties? A smile and a greeting. Sure, Maria was of the Pacas bloodline, but the family didn’t stop there. She knew everyone’s names. When Maria entered a room business continued as usual. There was a silent, mutual respect between manager and employee, an honest-to-goodness transparency and trust that is rare to find anywhere. A great product is not simply the end result of one thing, but many, and not only was this understood, it was put in practice to the equal benefit of everyone involved. 

But back to the product. Yes, this all looks great on paper and in-person but what about the coffee? We gathered in the cupping lab where the lab techs had already set up round one of two for the afternoon. We donned our aprons, chose our spoons, and prepared our clipboards. There’s no reason to bore you with every step of the cupping process so to sum it up succinctly: f***ing bonkers. Represented were the various varietals grown (Bourbon [yellow and red], Pacas, Pacamara, Bernardina, and Mocca), different processing methods (natural, washed, and honey), and some that they were currently experimenting with. Sure, there were the aforementioned mid-to-low 80s found all across Central and South Americas but not many. The excitement of everyone’s demeanor was evident as we shared our notes. One cupper would get hard candy while the same coffee presented itself as a peach cobbler to another. Black pepper, basil, grapefruit, honeycomb, sugar cookie dough, pillowy… those were just a few of the descriptors being bounced around. It was here that I went from amazement to begin questioning everything I knew about coffee after 20 years in the business. These were treasures. These were the fruits of not just hard labor, but love, trust, and commitment. I tasted God in a cup and she is full of pleasant surprises. 

Cupping at Cafe Pacas

It was time for Amy (the trusty, gold-palated green buyer for Metropolis) and myself to choose a coffee to purchase. We discussed and she ultimately left the decision to myself, an unexpected surprise. Nearly all of the offerings had something truly unique to showcase but I had already fallen in love with a bean named Bernardina. This varietal was discovered on the Pacas farm in 2012 by one of the farm managers named… Bernardino. I love it. After observing what looked like a mutation of some sort on one of the trees, a sample was sent for DNA analysis and, sure enough, a new varietal appeared on the coffee family tree. (In addition to the Bernardina, the Pacas family is also responsible for the discovery of another varietal, appropriately named Pacas, in the 1940s by Maria’s Great-Grandfather.) I asked how was it that two varietals had been discovered on their farm, seeing as how it is rare for even one to be found, to which Maria simply responded, “it’s about paying close attention to the trees. Keep your eyes open. That’s it.” What makes this coffee even more special to me is that it is a natural process (the bean is dried with the cherry intact adding a fruity sweetness not found in washed offerings), one that I usually find too overwhelming to enjoy. The amount of “aha moments”, mixed with a general confusion and self-doubt, were becoming nearly exhausting, but in the best way possible. 

Coffee seedlings at Cafe Pacas

Unfortunately it was time for us to journey back to Guatemala. Returning to the window entertainment of the long drive, the excitement of returning to my few possessions and early morning departure back to the States were muddled with such a fantastic, educational, and awe-inspiring time with Maria and the Cafe Pacas family. I will be forever grateful not just for the hospitality and opportunity, but mostly the realization that no matter how much you know, or think you know, there is always so much more to discover and learn about. It’s great to have confidence in one’s knowledge, sure, but it’s immeasurably more beneficial to sometimes feel small and vulnerable in the very thing you thought you had conquered.

El Salvador Bernardina Natural is available for a limited time here.

Luc and Maria inspect coffee drying racks
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