Farm: El Retiro
Varietal: 100% Bernardina
Altitude: 1,412 meters above sea level
Owner: The Pacas family
Town / City: Cantón Buenos Aires, El Retiro Volcano
Region: Apaneca-Ilamatepec Mountain Range
El Retiro - El Salvador
Finca El Retiro was founded in 1927 by Fernando Alberto Pacas Figueroa. The farm has since passed down four generations and is now owned and managed by Alfredo Pacas and his family: it is one of several small estates that the family oversees in this privileged location high in El Salvador’s rich Apaneca-Ilamatepec Mountain Range.
Alfredo has passed his heritage and a love for coffee farming to his children – Alfredo and Maria – who bring new energy and a modern approach to coffee production. They have a clear vision for the specialty coffee sector in El Salvador; specifically on their own farms. Alfredo and Maria are continuously pushing boundaries to improve quality; mixing traditional best practice (like using the agobio method of pruning, planting varietals and implementing careful soil and shade management) with cutting edge quality control systems and techniques. Management and record-keeping techniques from harvest to harvest are notably important for their stringency and scientific approach.
El Retiro’s coffee grows under a protective canopy of shade, made up of indigenous tree varieties such as the leguminous balsam and ingas. Both of these trees are chosen for their heavy leaf fall, which provides rich, natural mulch that fertilizes the trees. The farm also provides the perfect habitat for wildlife, including squirrels, armadillos, wild cats and quail.
This 100% Bernardina lot has been processed using a natural method, which the farm has been perfecting since 2012. The coffee is hand-picked only when perfectly ripe and is delivered to the Pacas’ family wet mill, Vidagua, on the same day. On arrival the cherries are immediately laid on the mill’s raised beds. The cherries are dried for around 20 days and turned regularly (around 9 times a day) to ensure even drying. After reaching optimal humidity, samples of the beans from the dried cherry are taken and cupped at the Pacas family’s in-house cupping lab; to ensure quality, before being moved and stored at the farm’s parchment warehouse; giving the beans an adequate “reposo” (rest). When the coffee is ready to be exported, it is finally passed through the dry mill before being vacuum packed.
Bernardina?! “What is that?” you may ask. Well, this is where it gets interesting.
The Pacas family purchased a farm called Finca Los Bellotos at the end of 2012. They were drawn in by the beautiful location and well-maintained farm, including Bourbon and Pacas plantations. When they first saw the farm, they fell in love with the land, the views, and 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, the farm is protected from the strong winds, however, the evening always brings a heavy fog covering, which cools the air and contributes to slow maturation of the cherry trees.
When the family first started work on the farm, Ruperto, the farm manager, mentioned that he had noticed peculiar trees growing on the farm. He said that when he tasted their fruit the flavour was really distinct and noticeably complex. Ruperto had brought this to the attention of the previous owners on a number of occasions; however, they chose to dismiss his observations and continued to mix the unusual cherries with the rest of the harvest.
The Pacas family already had some experience in identifying unique varieties, and was intrigued; they wanted to taste these “peculiar” cherries that Ruperto was describing. And he was right! When they came to taste the cherries they were amazed by their sweetness. There were clear 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. The special trees were scattered all over, but mostly in Tablon El Limón. In total, 46 trees were identified.
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 quantity 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 required moisture level and was put into storage. 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.
At this point the Pacas family were still unclear as to the variety of the special coffee. Some of the coffee was gifted to special clients who visited from around the world. They roasted and cupped the coffee in the local lab facilities. Some said it was a geisha, but the Pacas were not sure. Then, one of their clients, 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, they showed that the sample did not correspond to any documented coffee variety. This meant that a new variety had been discovered at Finca Los Bellotos!
Of course, the family were given the honour of naming the new variety. They couldn’t go with THEIR family name as it’s already taken! They decided that the only way to go was to recognise the person who had pointed out the trees in the first place. After all, it was Farm Manager, Ruperto Bernardino Merche, who had made the initial discovery. This is why the exceptional variety now bears the name “Bernardina”, in his honour.
Sustainability is hugely important to the Pacas family at all of their farms. The philosophy is that of ‘Nutrient Closed Cycling’ – meaning that whatever is extracted (in this case, only coffee cherry) should be returned in full. All coffee pulp and organic matter is put into a compost mix which is eventually added back to the land. This organic compost is used for “Fosas” as a way of passing vital nutrients to plants the following year.
“FOSAS”: Small holes dug to trap and retain moisture and organic matter in the coffee plantation.
Before new seedlings are planted, a hole is dug, and a bit of calcium carbonate and composted coffee pulp is added. The new hole is left open for a few months to trap moisture and organic matter. A month before the seed is planted, the hole is closed and a smaller hole is drilled in the centre of the old hole for the seed. Prep work like this takes planning and discipline, but it is worthwhile to give new trees the best possible start.
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.
As well as the farm, Maria and the Pacas family also place great importance on the wellbeing of their staff. The farm employs 35 permanent workers and provides seasonal work for a further 105 temporary workers at the peak of the harvest. Free medical care is offered to all of the farm’s employees. The Team at Finca La Retiro can also participate in wellness programs, where they build self-esteem, teamwork and conflict resolution skills; amongst other things. Working with two NPO’s to help deliver these projects, FUNPRES and FORJA, has meant that over 250 people have benefited across El Retiro and other Pacas farms from the scheme.