All that we’ve written about Central America and the coffee pickers would fall on deaf ears if the coffee was of poor quality. The coffee had to be exceptional for a viable business focused solely on Central American coffee to survive. So what then, makes coffee from these lands unique? What is it about Central American coffee that stands out as some of the best coffee in the world?
Tasked with reporting on the coffee industry in Central America, Louise Hearst wrote that the coffees produced from these countries are “unique in that its quality is usually high and that it, therefore, is in great demand for use in blending with the best commercial grades” (Hearst, 53). But she doesn’t specify what those conditions are. Could those conditions refer to the equatorial climate? Yes...but that answer is too general. Coffee grows in equatorial regions all over the world, in between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. In order to really drill down and identify what is unique about Central American coffee, I’d have to attempt to outclass Robert William’s detailed-yet-succinct analysis on the topic, and since I can’t do that, here is his explanation in full:
“Central America has perfect soil and climate for growing arabica coffee, the most sought after of the three coffee species. A chain of volcanoes runs from the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico all the way down the Central American isthmus into Panama. Over the centuries the prevailing winds from the Caribbean Sea have dumped volcanic ash onto the Pacific slopes and plateaus, where deep, rich pockets of earth have formed as tropical forests deposited abundant organic matter. The coffee plant thrives in a mixture of organic matter, which provides nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace minerals for strong stems, penetrating roots, a healthy immune system, abundant flowers, and good fruiting. Rainfall along this strip varies around the ideal for coffee of seventy inches per year, but even in drier places there is usually an abundance of rainfall during the period when the fruit is set, followed by a dry season favorable for the final ripening of berries and the harvest. The temperature in this zone varies around the ideal for coffee of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with danger of damaging frosts at elevations exceeding five thousand feet and low-quality berries because of excessive heat at elevations below a thousand feet. The slopes of this zone provide good drainage and protection from excessive sun, wind, and cold, and numerous rivers provide power to run the coffee mills and water to wash the berries. Although coffee can be grown in some of the wetter zones toward the Caribbean, there are few places in the world so blessed for coffee growing as the Pacific piedmont of Central America’” (Robert Williams in his book States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America - pages 21-22)
I think we can agree that Central America produces high quality coffee. The next question might be, is there a general flavor profile for coffee produced in this region? And if so, how does it compare with the other famous growing regions around the world, such as Hawaii, Ethiopia, Sulawesi and many more?
A Central American Coffee Flavor?
I personally find this to be an almost impossible task. To pin down a single flavor profile for the whole region is doing a disservice to the remarkable variance in taste between countries. I’ve read some authors characterize Central American coffees as having ‘bright acidity’ which is a good thing with coffee. Elba oftens tells me that a cup of coffee without acidity is bland. I should note that when people speak of acidity in a brew, it does not mean a sour or bitter taste, but instead can be characterized as an added sharpness to the drink. The flavor compounds of coffee emanate from many of these acids during the roasting process. I’ve also read that Central American coffee tends to have sweeter, almost fruitier tones, as opposed to the stronger body of an Indonesian or Ethiopian coffee (Sinnott, 29-32).
Orange Tree Growing Alongside Coffee Trees in Nicaragua
Again, these are just generalities. Even though other regions of the world are known for producing stronger, full-bodied coffees, you can’t deny the strength of a high-grown Guatemalan coffee. In reality, there can be a lot of variance in taste between the Central American countries, and even sometimes within the same country (due to ‘microclimates’). It's possible to have a mediocre coffee grown from one plantation and a great coffee from another plantation in the same country and even from the same growing region.
Our Central American Coffees
Most of the countries of Central America share a similar history in terms of the coffee industry. To see more on that, see my blog titled Central America and Coffee: Coffee is in our Blood. Here, I will only briefly mention each country’s coffee growing regions.
- El Salvador: The main export crop of this small, densely populated country is coffee. Famous for the sweet tasting bourbon variety of the arabica coffee plant, most of the coffee is grown in the Western provinces. Many coffee plantations straddle the mountain slopes of the famous Ilamatepec volcano.
- Guatemala: There are eight recognized coffee growing regions in Guatemala, spread throughout the country. We receive most of our coffee from the north-Western region of Guatemala, which happens to produce some of the highest-grown coffee in the world.
- Nicaragua: The northern region of Nicaragua produces wonderful coffee, specifically in the Jinotega and Matagalpa provinces.
- Honduras: Due to a lack of infrastructure, coffee production started relatively late here. However the situation has completely reversed and Honduras is currently the largest exporter of coffee in Central America, although the bulk of that is commercial-grade coffee (as opposed to the better tasting specialty-grade coffee). In the past decade, Honduras has begun producing specialty coffee and is now an up-and-comer in the specialty coffee industry. Note that we purchase only specialty-grade coffee from Honduras.
- Costa Rica: Some of the most advanced coffee mills and processing facilities exist in Costa Rica. They no doubt help give Costa Rica the envious reputation as producers of some of the most well-balanced clean-tasting cups of coffee in the world. The Tarrazu region, in the Central Valley, just south of the capital city San Jose, is where we purchase most of our Costa Rican coffee.
- Panama: Panama started coffee production later than all other countries (except Belize). Although it accounts for only .1% of the global coffee production, in the past 20 years, Panama has produced some award-winning coffee such as the Geisha varietal (which originated in Ethiopia). We purchase coffee from the western highland region, close to Costa Rica. Elba loves the unique, fruity taste of a great Panamanian coffee.
- Belize: Belize has a very small coffee industry. It is much different than the other Central American countries in this regard. The British set up Belize (then called British Honduras) as a timber-based economy. Elba would like to try coffee from Belize one day and has expressed interest at one day roasting them if they are of good quality.
Cash Crops, Export Economies & ‘Dependent Development’
Before closing out this discussion, I think it’s important to write a few words about the nature of Central American economies. Scholars of the Latin American countries have characterized the region’s economic development as being constrained by its very nature, which is one of dependency. Skidmore and Smith describe “a situation in which the economy of certain countries are conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subjected. A typical case might involve a country whose economic growth relied on a single export crop, such as coffee or sugar” (Skidmore et al., 8). They call this process ‘dependent development’.
Elba holding a cacao pod in Nicaragua. Hard to imagine that the chocolate we all know and love comes from this pod.
When tasked with studying the coffee industry in Central America, Louise Hearst wrote how the best arable land was used for export-crops, while only small allotments were used for subsistence agriculture (Hearst, 57). Why did these countries adopt this economic model for development? Before we can answer that question, we need to understand what ‘export economies’ are. To help with that, I’ll include Edwin Williamson’s thorough definition:
“The crucial feature of an export-economy is that the major productive resources of a country are geared to supply external markets. Because the range of exports is very limited, and usually confined to primary goods and raw materials, such economies are extremely vulnerable to changes in world prices and follow unpredictable boom-and-bust cycles. These countries depend heavily on a wide variety of imports, especially of manufactured goods. When export prices are low, necessary imports can be bought only by contracting foreign loans or by printing money; export-economies are therefore prone to external debt and high inflation. Moreover, the ownership and control of the basic resources for export are largely in the hands of foreign business interests”. (Edwin Williamson in his book The Penguin History of Latin America - page 281)
Now is a good time to state the obvious...that coffee, in and of itself, is not to blame. This process had begun long before coffee arrived in the Americas. Soon after the Spanish colonized the area, they quickly exported all the best that Central America had to offer, in terms of natural resources. These exports chiefly consisted of cochineal and indigo, cacao, cotton and sugar. These uneven trade agreements (if you can call it that) carried on past Independence from Spain. Making matters worse, much of the capital that was received from Central American exports would be used to “import high-cost consumer goods from Europe, and the merchants (if foreign) would remit profits to their home countries. The export earnings would therefore provide precious little capital for diversifying the local economy” (Skidmore et al., 8).
But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when the situation turned bleak. “Central American lands were comparatively unmolested up until the middle of the past century. In addition to food, the area produced cochineal and indigo with modest capital”, wrote Eduardo Galeano in his now classic book, The Open Veins of Latin America. These two sources of natural pigments were the primary export commodities of Central American countries...but when German chemists invented cheap synthetic dyes in the 1850s, the textile industry no longer required the chief Central American exports (Galeano, 119). This provoked landowners in Central America to search for the next lucrative product to satiate the global market’s demand. And this is where the story of coffee and bananas began (for more on Central America, ‘Banana Republics’ and the infamous United Fruit Company, see Open Veins of Latin America).
Coffee plantations sprung up everywhere. Within 50 years, the coffee industry dominated Central American economies. “The coffee growers’ voracity virtually ended the system under which plantation workers could grow food crops on their own” (Galeano, 111). The dominance of an agricultural product in the economy is called a ‘monoculture’, an ecological problem which not only hurts the people's chances at developing a diverse subsistence agriculture, but also harms soil health and productivity. Galeano gives us the example of El Salvador, where “monoculture makes it necessary to import the beans - the people’s only source of protein - corn, vegetables, and other foods the country traditionally produced” (Galeano, 112).
Beautiful view, but you can see the native forestry is long gone in this region in El Salvador.
When you add up all these factors (monoculture, low wages received, export-based ‘dependent’ economies) you can better understand why Central American countries struggled to develop an internal consumer market which would help spur economic growth. Instead, “the ever expanding cultivation of coffee discouraged food-raising for the home market. These countries were condemned to a chronic scarcity of rice, beans, corn, wheat, tobacco, and meat” (Galeano, 120).
Central Americans are rightly proud of their high quality coffee. Some of the best coffee-growing lands in the world are located along its tropical mountainsides. But this comes at a price. The arrival of coffee in the mid-1800s fundamentally changed the economy, and therefore, the lives of millions of people. When we look at economic development, there are no easy paths towards true free-market liberalism, if there even exists such a thing. An alternative economic policy for developing countries is called; ‘import-substitution’ economies. In this economic model, state-subsidized development (infrastructure, industry, agriculture) replaces foreign imports. The goal is to reduce a country’s dependence on foreign investments and the fickle nature of the global markets.
While ‘import-substitution’ sounds great, it does have its limits. Williamson notes that “the process of state-subsidized inward-looking development could be kept going only by borrowing abroad to cover the yawning deficits between national income and expenditure. There followed a mad spiral of irresponsible, profit-driven lending and unwise borrowing, in which Western bankers as much as Latin American officials appeared to overlook the implications of taking out huge loans on ‘floating’ instead of fixed interest rates” (Williamson, 365). This unmitigated lending adds yet another layer to the mountain of foreign debt accumulated by Central American countries, so much so that by the 1980s “most Third World countries found it impossible to meet their interest payments” (Williamson, 366).
Yes...the situation is bleak. Is there a hope for change somewhere on the horizon? What can a small coffee roasting company like Cafe Elba do? Since we are a coffee company, are we not, in effect, part of the problem? To get an answer on those questions, I refer you to the blog titled The Coffee Pickers! Pt. 3: Front and Center! I’ll close out this blog by including a quote from Jeffery Paige, who has summed up the situation nicely in his book Coffee and Power:
“A single commodity has dominated these small export economies from the nineteenth century to the present - coffee. The Central American dynastic elite is overwhelmingly an elite of coffee producers, processors, and exporters that rose to power everywhere on the Isthmus (except in Honduras) between 1850 and 1893. This coffee elite shaped the political institutions that emerged in the early twentieth century and survived the collapse of these institutions in the economic and political crises of the 1930s. When the world economy again entered a prolonged downturn after 1970, the elites faced a political crisis that was even more profound than the one they had faced in the 1930s. Once again, however, they appear to have survived a determined revolutionary challenge from below. Coffee and power have been closely linked in Central America since the nineteenth century.”. (Jeffery Paige in his book Coffee and Power - page 3)
- Written by Coffee Mike
I like to include the following disclaimer below each of my blogs. I try to make references wherever applicable, but I’ve read many books, dozens of articles, watched documentaries and taken courses on these subjects over the years. I mention this because sometimes I may forget the exact source of my information, so I ask the authors to forgive me if I have not cited some information where I should have.
Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Uruguay: Monthly Review Press, 1971. Pages 111-112, 119-120.
Hearst, Louise. “Coffee Industry of Central America.” Economic Geography 1932. Page 53, 57.
Paige, Jeffery. Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Page 3.
Sinnott, Kevin. The Art and Craft of Coffee: An Enthusiast’s Guide to Selecting, Roasting, and Brewing Exquisite Coffee. Beverly: Quarry Books, 2010. Pages 29-32
Skidmore, Tom, Peter Smith & James Green. Modern Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Page 8.
Williams, Robert. States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. Pages 21-22.
Williamson, Edwin. The Penguin History of Latin America. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Pages 281, 365.