Juan Alfredo Pacas’ background is impressive: he’s a fifth-generation Salvadoran specialty coffee farmer, award-winning rum producer, and an industrial engineer – oh, and he also happens to hold an MSc in Coffee Economics and Science.
He, his father, and his two sisters form Café Pacas, a family business dedicated to growing, processing, and exporting high-cupping coffees. They’ve won numerous awards and his great-grandfather even holds responsibility for discovering the Pacas tree, which was then cross-bred to create Pacamara.
I sat down with him to discover what it’s like to work in a place like Café Pacas, why he’s so dedicated to learning and education, and how he thinks we can get more consumers interested in coffee.
Cherry ripeness is key. Credit: Café Pacas
Café Pacas: A Family Business
The first thing he does is tell me to call him Alfredo. Then he starts explaining how the business works.
“We’re a family company,” he says. “My father is the president, the boss. My sister Maria is head of Marketing and Sales, responsible for establishing relationships with our clients and our roaster friends. My other sister, Marcella, is in charge of HR and social responsibility. We think that maintaining our relationships with the communities and people that work with us is crucial to the sustainability of our business. As for myself, I am in charge of the production at the farm level and the processing of the coffee at the mill. “
With the three siblings being made up of an economist, a teacher, and an industrial engineer, Alfredo explains that they all bring something distinctive to the company – just like the previous generations.
“This all started for us five generations ago,” he says, “when my great-great-grandfather decided to buy his first coffee farm on the slopes of Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador. So I’ve always grown up with coffee in my life.”
“My great-grandfather, Alberto Pacas, noticed that there were some plants that looked different and were more resistant to rocky soils and drought,” he continues, growing more enthusiastic with every word. “He was selective with this plant and sent samples of the plant to a university in Florida. There they decided that it was a mutation of one single varietal, Bourbon. They decided to name it after his family name, Pacas.”
And that was how his family discovered Pacas. Yet it’s not just his great-grandfather that inspires Alfredo – his father, Fernando Alfredo Pacas, does too.
“In 1991, my father established a mill with the idea of processing the coffee that he was producing at his farms… with the main focus being quality. He wanted to create great quality coffee at the farms and then enhance that quality through processing.”
This drive to improve quality, both on the farm and in the mill, characterises Café Pacas today.
Careful processing means Café Pacas produces a range of coffees with different profiles. Credit: Café Pacas
A Passion That Sprung From the Farm
Even though it was a family business, Alfredo wasn’t always certain that he wanted to dedicate his life to coffee. But then, when he was 15 years old, he spent a summer working for his father.
It was then that he realised that the science of coffee is quantifiable, and that changing just a few variables can have a strong impact on the cup quality. He saw how people’s lives are affected by the industry. And he also experienced, for the first time, both the world of the consumer and the world of the producer.
“For me, it’s fascinating how many people are involved in creating one bag of coffee,” he says. “Being able to contribute to the wellbeing of people on both sides of this world…” His passion is clear.
Analysing plant quality helps to producer better coffees. Credit: Café Pacas
Yet for Alfredo, passion alone is not enough.
He initially achieved a degree in industrial engineering at Purdue University, Indiana before attaining a master’s degree in coffee economics and science at the Universita del Caffé, in Italy. The latter was awarded by Illy Cafe in partnership with two Italian universities.
Formally studying coffee was, for Alfredo, invaluable. “It opened world of possibilities,” he says, “[by] allowing me to innovate based on traditions.”
For example, realising that coffee cherry ripeness was only assessed on the basis of the colour of the cherry, he put other methods to the test. Making decisions based on empirical data means he can be more confident in his coffee quality.
What’s more, he also works to help others learn. Working with the Illy Foundation and a group of Illy Master’s students, he has set up an education programme for third-year students at Zamorano University, Honduras. He teaches harvesting and post-harvest processing, seeing it as an opportunity to share the knowledge and research that he does at the farm with some of the future entrepreneurs of the specialty coffee industry.
And, keen to learn more about the chemistry and microbiology surrounding coffee, Alfredo next wants to study a master’s in food science. “I am always looking to keep learning,” he tells me.
Café Pacas evaluates over 60 different varieties in their varietal garden. Credit: Café Pacas
Nurturing a Healthy Community
It’s not just their plants that Café Pacas cares about – it’s also their local communities.
“My sister Marcella is the head of social responsibility in our company,” Alfredo reminds me. “One of the programmes we partner with a local non-profit organisation for. It’s focussed on working with people to promote values and give them psychological support. In El Salvador, we’re going through a rough time with crime and security… We know people in the surrounding communities have access to medicine and food and water, but we noticed that there was no one there to offer psychological support to those that need it.”
I ask him what prompted this initiative. “Staff were suffering from stress that wasn’t related to the job at all,” he says. “People were unhappy within the communities that they were going home to. This is about giving people tools to make their communities happier.”
Quality control is crucial – you can taste the difference in the cup. Credit: Café Pacas
A Rum Deal Proves Sweet
What with coffee and studying, you might think Alfredo’s days would be full. Yet he’s also the Vice President of an internationally acclaimed rum distillery, Licorera Cihuatan.
“Rum had never been produced in El Salvador before and for me this was a challenge that I just couldn’t turn down,” he explains. “It began at a sugar mill in El Salvador in 2004… In 2004 they started aging the rum and by 2012 we discovered that it was showing signs of maturity for high-quality rum.”
Last year, they were finally able to start selling it – and then this year, they exported their first container to Europe. And their Ron Cihuatan 12-year aged rum has already won awards: at Congreso Internacional Del Ron Madrid 2016, it was awarded double gold.
Ron Cihuatán ageing in Bourbon casks. Credit: Ron Cihuatán
The Route to Success
Alfredo may seem to have the Midas touch, but he says that it’s not a case of whatever he touches turning to gold. “For every success,” he tells me, “there have been failures.” And this is especially true of farming. “There are so many variables that are beyond our control. Working in agriculture, you’re reliant on the weather conditions and the different diseases that can affect your crops. You do all that you can, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”
So what would his advice to new farmers be?
“First, have a clear idea of exactly what you want to achieve. In coffee there are so many decisions that you have to make, for example the varieties that you are going to plant and what farm you are going to buy. All of these are long-term decisions. Making them is about having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and how to do it.”
Ron Cihuatán rum. Credit: Ron Cihuatán.
Relationships With Consumers
Alfredo feels a lot of responsibilities: to the future coffee producers he trains, to the communities around his farm, and also to the consumer.
“The consumer, that person that walks into the coffee shop, needs to get the best cup of coffee that they have ever had,” he stresses. “They need to really enjoy that cup of coffee… I feel that it’s the responsibility of everybody within the industry to give [them that]. Once they’ve fallen in love with that cup of coffee, they’ll want to know more.”
But this awareness goes both ways for him. “The most important thing that a consumer can know is the amount of hands that have touched the coffee that they are having in their coffee shop.”
“Traditionally, consumers didn’t know where their products came from. However, I feel that it’s beginning to change… Once people see that there is something different about the coffee, compared to the one that they were having a few months ago, they become interested and want to learn about it. I think that driving that willingness to learn is our responsibility as an industry. We cannot just expect people to want to learn about it.”
Written by J. Stapleton, with thanks to Juan Alfredo Pacas of Café Pacas and Licorera Cihuatan.
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