A Short Guide to El Salvador Coffee Exports

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El Salvador, located in one of the coffee sweet spots on the planet, at one time produced 17% of coffee consumed in the world. With fertile volcanic soil and tropical climate to support the plants, it is an ideal coffee producer.

Even though its production cycles have been interrupted by global or local strife, this small tropical paradise continues to be a major factor in development of coffee worldwide, both with farming practices, as well as with roasting principles.

Image Credit: Maren Barbee via flickr.com

Brief History of El Salvador Coffee

After the first seeds were brought in through Honduras, the first Salvadoran coffee farms began in the latter 18thcentury (somewhere between 1770 and 1790). Some of the difficulty with growing coffee in El Salvador was in its initial export, as coffee was not a sustainment crop. It did not feed the local populace. Neither was it easy to get to shipping on the coast.

However, as a luxury crop, once imports of coffee from El Salvador began to make inroads with European powers on both sides of the Atlantic, it established the product and the country for the next two centuries.

With the primacy of coffee and its effect on the Salvadoran economy, the government took steps to encourage its growth and export. 

In the 1850’s they took steps to exempt coffee farmers from the nation’s draft and withheld taxation on the crop for at least a decade after it was harvested, giving the farmers time to make maximum profit.

In the 1880’s it surpassed indigo as the nation’s major export. At the same time, the nation barred communal ownership of land and required private ownership to grow and export any product.

Much of the nation’s indigenous population became homeless as the land upon which they lived had been their home, even though they did not own or lease to live on it. Impoverished farmers with no talent became, essentially, indentured slaves with the stroke of a pen.

Farming Abroad - Coffee Harvest in El Salvador

During the American roaring 20’s coffee enriched the nation of El Salvador and many of its coffee barons. But with the great depression and the cut of global value to 1/3 of its previous value, coffee barons lost money, poor farmers lost livelihoods and El Salvador lost its peace.

Tens of thousands lost their lives in the ensuing riots, a moment in time that would echo in history four decades later.

Because of tensions that arose in the 70’s a civil war was fomented in El Salvador between coffee land owners and the families who worked their farms.

Fueled by Western nations attempting to put down what they saw as rising communism and Communist-bloc nations, eager to see a new proxy in the Western Hemisphere, the war dragged on for 12 years.

When the dust settled, the nation that once produced nearly a fifth of the world’s consumed coffee had to fight its way back to being accepted as more than “death squad coffee.”

Today, most regions are restructured, not as much in private ownership. Many farms are owned under fair trade coops, providing for the workforce and their families, while safeguarding the quality of the export.

How is Coffee Grown and Produced in El Salvador?

One of the key advantages El Salvador has in its coffee growing environment is the canopy of trees that regulate the sun from destroying the crop and the highly aerated soil from the volcanic origins of the mountains.

Thanks to the innovations of the 20th century, Salvadoran coffee growers have strict standards that the soil itself must pass before the crop can be sold.

It has three categories of value: Central Value, High Grown, and Strictly High Grown.

Because of the canopy surrounding the crops, it takes longer for them to grow, but most tasters find the coffee to be much less acidic.

Thanks to the reforms of the 1990s and the time since, free trade standards exist for workers on the farms and strict rules for safety and humane treatment of working families are observed.

One quarter of the coffee grown in El Salvador is of the Pacas variety (named for the family that discovered it). A mutation of the bourbon variety, it grows more densely on the coffee plant, making for higher yield over less ground.


What are the Main Growing Regions in El Salvador?

The regions where coffee is grown are as follows:

  • Apaneca-Ilamatapec, which is located in the western regions is a popular tourist stop for farm tours and taste testing, while also visiting the volcano that gave the area its name.
  • Central Region, named for its location on the map is less of an exporter to the world as much as it exports to the rest of the country. Many famous restaurants serve Central Region coffee in San Salvador.
  • San Miguel is the main workhorse of Salvadoran coffee, while not as culturally sophisticated as other regions, its hardiness and volume make it a key region.
  • San Vicente is the little engine that could of Salvadoran coffee. With rising taste in specialized coffee and thanks to the attractiveness of buying fair trade, their coffee production has increased.

Does El Salvador Import a Lot of Coffee?

The importation of coffee has undergone a cyclical rise and fall over the last decade. In 2012 El Salvador imported 674,000 kilograms of coffee, an amount that rose until 2016 when it peaked at 1.8 million kilograms.

The following year saw a drop off of importation down to 479,000 kilograms and has risen again until 2020, when 1.3 million kilograms were imported.

What Does Coffee From El Salvador Taste Like?

The acidity of Salvadoran coffee is between mild and mellow, and its shape is complex. The flavor exhibits taste of nut, chocolate, dark stone fruit notes, and caramel notes.

Its potency and strength of flavor make it a perfect candidate for light and medium roasting to maximize caffeine output.

How is Salvadorian Coffee Different From Other Coffee Producers?

The big difference between El Salvador’s coffee and coffee grown in the rest of the world is twofold.

First, the coffee of El Salvador is consistent. It is rated as consistently above average. While that may sound like a backhanded compliment especially in the day of coffee elitism, it is still a great business model.

While coffee from any of the world’s arguable best quality in coffees may produce exultant flavors, they are also plagued with unstandardized growth and production values. In those places it comes down to individual farms to produce excellent quality.

El Salvador, however, because of the standards put into place, the quality will never dip below a specific threshold.

Secondly, the coffee produced in El Salvador, especially that grown at higher elevation, carries more caffeine as it takes longer to grow and ingests less water, rendering it a perfect coffee to blend with other varieties as well as grind fine and serve in espresso.


One of the great signals that El Salvador, as a nation, is healing from its violent past is in its personal consumption of its own crop. In 2020, it produced 760,000 kilograms of coffee, an increase of 20,000 kilograms from the previous year.

It exported only 580,000 kilograms that year, a reduction of 20,000 kilograms from the previous year. That means that the nation is improving enough to enjoy the fruits of its own labor.

And those fruits are fine indeed, with both innovation of new crow types as well as standardization of quality, El Salvador has fought its way back to one of the top ten coffee producers worldwide again; a spot it is likely to hold onto for quite some time.

Take a look at the troubled past and highly optimistic future of this tiny volcanic paradise and the coffee she loves to grow.

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