A Coffee Love Story: when Pacas and Maragogype had a baby, it helped save Central American coffee
At Seattle Coffee Works, we specialize in
importing coffee directly from individual small coffee farms for which we
know the quality and practices are top notch. But we rarely offer a
single variety of coffee. (More about that below.) An exception is our Guatemala Pacamara, which we are featuring in early September 2020.
How Pacamara Was Born
First let’s take a look at where Pacamara came from. We’re going to get a little botanical.
Pacamara is a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogipe (also spelled Maragogype) coffee varieties. (For a crash course on coffee varieties check out this article.)
What we know about Pacas is that it is the result of a natural mutation of the Bourbon coffee variety. It was first discovered by the Pacas family on their farm in El Salvador. Some of the distinctive characteristics of Pacas are: a very small plant that has compact foliage which is well adapted to the windy conditions in this zone of El Salvador. Pacas produce
relatively large quantities of coffee cherries per plant, are fairly
resistant to diseases, and exhibit an excellent flavor profile that is derived
from their Bourbon ancestors.
Maragogipe is also a result of natural mutation from the Typica variety,
discovered in Brazil in a town called Maragogipe. This plant is a tall
and robust tree that produces fewer coffee cherries, but the beans are
*very* big. They are sometimes referred to as “elephant beans.” While Maragogipe plants are very susceptible to disease, they still have a decent flavor profile.
Back in 1958, the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research
started crossing Pacas and Maragogipe varieties. They were trying to
get the best of the two varieties and compensate for the weaknesses of
each one. It took until the 1980s, to get a coffee that had the large
beans of Maragogipe and the flavor profile of Pacas, with
an acceptable level of disease resistance and a decent yield of coffee
cherries each year. It’s not easy to get all of these characteristics
into one plant. Finally, after a lot of patience, a new
coffee was born!
PACAMARA was the name given to this novel variety, using the first four letters of each parent variety: PACAs and MARAgogipe = PACAMARA.
This chart from the Specialty Coffee Association’s Botanists Guide to Specialty Coffee
illustrates where Pacamara falls on the family tree of coffee
varieties. You can see that Pacamara is like a grandchild of Bourbon.
What Happened to Bourbon?
Pacamara arrived on the scene just in time.
Up until the 2010s, Bourbon coffee plants were very common in El
Salvador and throughout Central America. Some farms had been growing
Bourbon for a century or more! Bourbon coffees were prized for their
sweet flavors. Often the cherries were even sorted for sale separately,
because like some other coffee varieties, Bourbon produces both yellow
and red cherries. You may have enjoyed “Yellow Bourbon” coffee in the
past, though probably not recently.
A Crisis of Rust
During the 2011-12 season, farms across
Central America noticed a substantial increase in coffee leaf rust.
Caused by a fungus that turns coffee leaves rusty orange, rust kills the
leaves and halts the plant’s ability to produce fruit. Within years,
this fungus affected 70% of coffee farms in the region, wiping out as
much as 80% of production for one, two, or more seasons. This crisis
prompted international emergency actions to counteract leaf rust, but
not before many of the long-standing coffee plants died. Now, Bourbon
coffee plants are hard to find on Central American farms.
While research institutes raced to find
varieties that would be more resistant to leaf rust, or fungicides that
could kill it off, farmers needed a more immediate action. Many reached
for the already-existing variety, Pacamara. More resistant to leaf rust
than Bourbon, the Pacamara still carried on some of the legendary flavor profile of its renowned ancestor.
Although Pacamara is not completely resistant to rust, with adequate
care and some luck, it continues to survive and offer extremely high
quality coffee from Central America, especially when grown at higher
To help prevent rust and other diseases,
coffee farmers typically space apart plants and interplant different
coffee varieties. This increases the biological diversity somewhat.
(Arabica coffees are precariously non-diverse in their gene pool, as the
SCA botanical chart above shows.) The hope is that if a new infestation
or disease occurs, it will not wipe out all of the coffee plants on a
What We Can Do to Prevent Another Wipe-Out
Roasters and importers, like Seattle Coffee
Works, can support interplanting of different varieties by NOT
requesting coffee lots of a single variety, as was done in the past with
Bourbon. Likewise, coffee drinkers can look for coffees that include
multiple varieties rather than prizing a single variety. We make a small
exception for truly outstanding coffees like Geisha or Pacamara, but
intentionally keep these lots very small. This incentivizes farms to
increase biodiversity without sacrificing the price of their crop or
Finca La Esperanza Pacamara - Why this Coffee is Special
Our special lot of Pacamara coffee from Finca
La Esperanza is unique among all the coffee beans in our roastery.
First, the size of the beans, as well as the plant, leaves and coffee
cherries, is remarkable. It’s cultivated in an altitude between 1600 to
1800 meters above sea level, which is very high for Central America. The
area where it is cultivated on the farm means that the Pacamara
receives little direct sunlight. The altitude and microclimate mean that
the coffee ripens very slowly, resulting in a coffee with more mucilage
and sweetness than usual. This gives the bean more flavor and
Giving Geisha a Run for the Money
It was this coffee that the Villatoro family
at Finca La Esperanza submitted for the first time in 2011 to
Guatemala’s national Cup of Excellence competition. It obtained second
place at the national level! This Pacamara continues to compete well in
competitions, as it’s a consistently rich, flavorful coffee. We have had
the pleasure of carrying it for seven consecutive years.
What you will taste in Pacamara coffee from Finca La Esperanza:
- intense and complex aromas;
- creamy texture;
- flavors that range from sweet notes of chocolate, to citrus fruits, red berries and stone fruits.
As to the Villatoro family: Don Aurelio
Villatoro is one of the kindest people I know. This matters, because we
value working with people who share our values of integrity, learning,
and compassion. Some of our team members have had the opportunity to get
to know Don Aurelio and his extended family, and to walk among the
Pacamara plants on his family’s farm. Every year, I lead a group of
Seattle Coffee Works team members on a trip that includes this farm.
What really makes this lot of Pacamara coffee
so special is not its provenance or the role it’s played in saving
Central American coffee. What’s special about this limited edition
coffee is the team at Finca La Esperanza. Each member of the family is
constantly focused and passionate about the handling of each lot. They
achieve excellence through dedication and love.