Andrew McCaslin, Kaldi's Roaster and Barista Trainer, tells us about a new coffee variety discovered at one of our Relationship Farms in El Salvador: Bernardina.
On our latest origin trip to El Salvador, we had the opportunity to visit with Maria Pacas. Maria and her family have been producing coffee for 6 generations and currently operate multiple farms. They have complete control over the quality of their coffee as they also operate their own wet and dry mill. Our relationship with the Pacas family started in 2013 when we bought our first lot of coffee from their farm Los Bellotos. Their operations were truly impressive and the farms, covered by shade trees, exhibited a beautiful array of biodiversity.
I absolutely loved walking through La Providencia listening to Maria expand on their farming practices and innovations they had been working on. We started on the topic of varieties as she was walking us through a small plot of land dedicated to varieties typically not found in El Salvador. One such variety was called Bernardina and they had actually discovered it on their own farm.
This was incredibly interesting as the Pacas family seems to have a knack for discovering new varieties of coffee. Maria’s great grandfather, Fernando Alberto Pacas Figueroa, discovered the Pacas variety on Finca San Rafael in 1945. I took an interest in this new variety and couldn’t wait to learn as much as I could about it. We also had the opportunity to cup and evaluate a fresh lot of the Bernardina; it was absolutely amazing! The rest of this post is all the information I could get out of Maria regarding this new variety from its discovery to what the future might look like.
Portrait of Fernando Alberto Pacas Figueroa
The variety was discovered after Ruperto Bernardino Merche insisted that a few of the plants on Los Bellotos were producing different fruit than the others. Ruperto is the farm manager of Los Bellotos and had known for years that these plants were unique. However, it was not until the Pacas family took ownership that this claim was taken seriously. The Pacas family had to taste the fruit from these puzzling plants to identify any unique characteristics. After trying the cherry, they realized they had their first clue that these plants were special. The pulp was filled with tropical notes of mango and papaya along with an amazing sweetness. Their next step was to identify all of these trees on the farm so they could begin picking enough cherry to then process.
Ruperto Bernardino Merche
In December 2008, a humble ½ bag of coffee cherry was brought to the Pacas family’s wet mill, Beneficio Vivagua. This was such a small amount, they had to remove the cherry skin from the parchment by means of a manual depulper. Maria said that once they began this process the smell that emanated was intriguing. So intriguing, that others, including the truck driver, wanted to come over and find out what was causing it. The coffee was then carefully fermented, washed and dried on raised beds. After drying the coffee was stored in parchment until it could be roasted and evaluated.
Once the coffee was milled and roasted, the Pacas family was able to taste the Bernardina variety for the first time. The results did not disappoint! Floral notes of jasmine and coffee blossom accompanied by tropical and stone fruits along with bergamot were some of Maria’s first tasting notes. They knew they needed to plant some of the seeds in their nursery to develop more of this wonderful coffee.
After cupping, the Pacas family still was not sure what they had; however, they thought maybe it could be the famed geisha variety. This was amazing as at that time the geisha variety was not being grown in El Salvador. They invited an Australian coffee buyer to come down and take a look at the plants. The buyer was very familiar with the geisha variety and would be able to tell them more about it. However, when he took a look at the plants he remarked that they did not look like geisha. This kicked off the decision to have the plant’s DNA tested in Italy by Analytica. The results showed that the variety has some relation to geisha and to the agaro variety found in the Agaro region of Ethiopia. A region in south-west Ethiopia known for coffees that produce complex floral aromatics. Essentially the Pacas family had discovered a previously undocumented variety of coffee. With this information, they dubbed the new variety Bernardina in honor of Ruperto.
The Future of Bernardina
Since Bernardina’s discovery, the Pacas family has been seeking to understand this new variety to the fullest. They have planted the variety on different farms and at different altitudes to understand how it reacts to differences in microclimate. They have even planted as low as 900masl to evaluate its potential at low altitudes. While they are excited to learn more, varietal research can take years. Many of the steps they are taking will not bear fruit until a few years from now. What has been learned though is that Bernardina has performed well on all the farms they have planted it. Consistent yields and cup quality have been a couple of the high points. The variety is also less susceptible than Bourbon to coffee leaf rust, which devastated El Salvador in 2013. They have also found that Bernardina has at least two phenotypes. While these two phenotypes cup the same in terms of quality they do show differences in the rate at which the coffee cherry ripens.
As the Pacas family continues to learn more about Bernardina, at Kaldi’s we are incredibly excited to bring this coffee to our cafes. During the trip we were able to cup a natural process Bernardina. It was truly a unique experience and the cup quality was mesmeric. With only two bags available we immediately booked them both. This will be the next coffee in our Cupping Room Series and we couldn't be more excited to bring it to our guests.