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Farm: Finca La Esperanza
Varietal(s): 100% Bernardina
Processing: Fully washed & sun dried on raised beds
Altitude: 1,000 -1,800 meters above sea level
Owner: Maria Pacas & Family
Region: Canton el Porvenir, Municipio de Chalchuapa (Santa Ana)
Country: El Salvador
Total size of farm: 87.5 hectares
Area under coffee: 66.5 hectares
Recommendation: Excellent choice for filter coffee and also for espresso. Placed #3 on the cup of excellence 2019 edition.
This 100% Bernardina lot – produced by El Salvador’s renowned Pacas family - is completely unique, not to mention exquisite. The story takes a bit of time to tell, but bear with us. It is worth it!
Finca La Esperanza, where this lot was grown, belonged originally to Mrs. Sonia Moran. She inherited the farm from her parents when she was very young, but over the years, as she grew older, she realized that she had neither the capacity nor the interest to continue farming coffee. She decided to sell the farm, but she was emotionally attached, as she had grown up there. The farm, which is high in the hills, protected from wind and hard weather, and rich volcanic soil, the farm had long been sought after by many buyers. She needed to make the right decision and find the right buyer for her home.
In July 2010 Mrs. Sonia Moran met Alfredo Pacas Diaz and his son, Juan Alfredo Pacas Martinez. They had a long talk about coffee farming, farm management, varietals, quality, etc. Alfredo expressed his interest in buying the farm, and to his surprise, Sonia agreed, having so enjoyed their conversation. She realized that the Pacas family shared her views on farming and on the future of coffee, and that helped her make up her mind. The business was finalised on November 12, 2010. A new adventure for the Pacas Family had begun.
Today, under the management of the Pacas family, Finca La Esperanza has been divided into 18 different tablones (lots) each of which has different characteristics and microclimates. The very highest one on the farm is called “La Cima” (The Top) and is mostly planted under Bourbon coffee trees.
The Pacas family, true to their word, has established a strict regime of farm management at Esperanza. Much of the work entails soil conservation efforts, which is absolutely necessary due to the farm’s very steep terrain. The farm’s 87.5 hectares start at 1,000 metres above sea level at the lowest altitude and rise to nearly 1,800 metres at the highest. Those steep hillsides leech vital nutrients during the rainy season if they aren’t treated properly. This means that the Pacas family has to take the following measures:
Suachado: soil removal manually on the entire farm with a tool called Suacho, a kind of large fork that removes soil and mix organic matter. This work is done every four years at the farm.
Planting Izote: This is the main work of soil conservation. ‘Shelterbelts’ (lines of plantings horizontal to the hillside) are planted each year with quick growing Izote (Yucca elephantipes). Izote also happens to be the national flower of El Salvador!
Make “FOSAS”: Small holes are dug to trap and retain moisture and organic matter in the coffee plantation.
Other work includes digging holes for new plants. Before new seedlings are planted out, a hole is dug and then a bit of calcium carbonate and composted coffee pulp is added first. The new hole is then left open for a few months to trap moisture and organic matter and a month before planting the plants it is closed and a small hole is drilled in the centre of the old hole. Prep work like this takes planning and discipline, but it is worth it to give the new trees their best possible start.
The Pacas family tried to minimise the use of herbicides wherever possible. In newly planted areas they absolutely NEVER use chemicals. Weed control is completely manual, which helps ensure the optimal development of the plants without phytotoxicity. It also (and this is something the family always considers) keeps more workers in permanent employment.
On older coffee plantations, they usually alternate manual control of weeds with some chemical controls. This ensures that during the dry season, vegetation covers the ground and helps to conserve moisture. It also means that potential pests, such as grasshoppers, have other food (weeds) to focus on and leave the coffee cherries alone! Leaving a bit of vegetation also has the added benefit of preventing soil erosion – again, very important in this steep farm.
Sustainability is hugely important to the Pacas family on all their farms. The philosophy is that of ‘Nutrient Closed Cycling’ – meaning that whatever is extracted (in this case, only coffee cherries) is then returned in full. All coffee pulp and all organic matter as by-products of processing or farm management (coffee pulp, leaves and branches) is composted down and then mixed back into the soil, returning vital nutrients to the plants the following year. Erosion is further prevented through soil contour ploughing, planting live barriers, drilling pits in the ground and maintaining permanent vegetative cover on new plantings.
The family also invests in environmental projects, such as Carbon Capture and Identification and conservation of native flora and fauna. The primary forest in El Salvador is the coffee forest, and maintaining the ‘lungs’ of the country through photosynthesis of shade trees and coffee plants is of the utmost importance .
The coffee harvest at Esperanza starts in October and continues through to March. During the harvest, great care is taken to only pick fully ripe cherries, which means sometimes up to four passes are needed to finish picking various sections for the season. This ensures quality by picking off one hundred percent mature cherries, and (again) pickers are ensured of work for six months or more.
The Pacas family are very innovative and have many interesting plans for the future, including diversification of the shade canopy, development of milling infrastructure, housing and facilities for permanent and seasonal workers, etc. Perhaps the most interesting, however (and the most relevant for our story) is the creation of the farm as a sort of varietal garden
As mentioned before, Esperanza is divided into 18 Tablones. On each of these, the family has started cultivating a wealth of varieties of coffee. They have Pacas (itself discovered by, developed by and named for the family!), Pacamara, Ethiopian Heirloom, Kenya, Moka, Yellow Bourbon, Orange Bourbon, Geisha and………….
Bernardina?! “What is that?” you say. Well, this is where things get really interesting.
The Pacas family purchased a farm called Finca Los Bellotos at the end of 2012. They liked the location and the farm was already well maintained with strong Bourbon and Pacas plantations. When they first saw the farm, they fell in love with the land, the views, the people. The farm itself is located on the western part of a volcano called “Cerro Verde”. Elevation ranges between 1,400 and 1,600 masl. Facing the Izalco Volcano, it is protected from wind by this massive giant neighbour, and the evening always brings a vast amount of fog, which cools the air and contributes to slow maturation of the cherry trees.
When the family first started their work on the farm, Ruperto, the farm manager, mentioned that he had noticed these peculiar trees growing in the farm. He said that when he tasted their fruit and that their flavour was incredibly distinct. Repeatedly he had mentioned this to the previous owner of the farm, but the owner dismissed his comments and never instructed the pickers to separate those cherries from the rest.
The Pacas family already had some experience in identifying unique volunteer varieties, and they were intrigued. They wanted to taste for ourselves those “peculiar” cherries that Ruperto was describing. And he was right! When the cherries were tried, everyone was amazed by their sweetness. There were notes of peach, papaya and mango in the pulp.
They immediately marked all the “different” trees that they could find in the farm. Finca Los Bellotos has a total of 6 tablones: La Calandria, El Gorrioncillo, El Limon, Ninia Chica, Teshcal and El Capulin. These special trees were scattered all over, but mostly in Tablon El Limón. In total, they identified 46 special trees.
In 2013 they picked and processed this unique coffee from Finca Los Bellotos. December 16, 2013 was the night they first received the cherries at Beneficio Vivagua (the farm’s wet mill). The amount of cherries was tiny – only ½ a bag! So small, in fact, that they had to use a manual depulper to remove the cherry skin from the parchment. While doing that, the smell of fruit coming off the freshly pulped cherries was overwhelming. Everyone, including the truck driver, came over to find out what that smell was. The family treated the pulped coffee very carefully, fermenting it perfectly and drying it on raised beds. In the words of Maria Pacas, “We knew it was special.” They just didn’t know what it was.
After 8 days on the beds, the parchment reached the appropriate moisture level and was stored in parchment. A few days later, they milled and cupped a sample. The results were amazing! Its attributes were well defined and unlike anything else on the farm at that time. It was sweet, elegant, peachy, citric, with notes of mandarin, ginger and lemon tea. Thank god they had saved some of the seed for the nursery.
Up to then, they still did not know what variety it was. Part of the coffee was used to give as a special present to clients who visited from all over the world. They roasted it and cupped it at their labs. Some said it was a geisha, but the Pacas were not sure.
Then, one of their clients, who is a geisha buyer, asked if he could visit the farm and see the trees. When he looked at them, he said: “These trees don’t look like geisha to me”. At that point, they decided that a DNA test was in order. They contacted a specialist lab in Italy called Analytica. When the results came back, it said that the sample they had received did not correspond to any documented coffee variety. This meant that a new variety had been discovered in Finca Los Bellotos!
The family of course had the task of naming this new finding. They couldn’t go with THEIR family name: that’s already taken! They decided that the only way to go was to honour the person who had pointed out the trees in the first place. Farm Manager, Ruperto Bernardino Merche, had realised the plant was special from the start. This is why this exceptional variety bears the name “Bernardina”, in his honour.