A Coffee Love Story

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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.)

About Pacas

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.

About Maragogipe

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.

Getting Together

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.

Coffee Varieties - Specialty Coffee Association

https://sca.coffee/research/botany

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 altitudes.

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 farm.

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 consumer demand.

Seattle Coffee Works team members visiting Finca La Esperanza in February 2020

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 complexity.

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.
Don Aurelio Villatoro among the coffee trees above the village of Hoja Blanca

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.