El Carmen Estate is located at 1,300m above sea level in El Salvador’s Apaneca-Ilamatepec mountain range, one of Central America’s prime specialty coffee producing areas. The estate has been farmed by the Alfaro family for over a century. El Carmen lies in the heart of El Salvador’s main ‘protected highway’ of forest, a part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor System that stretches from Mexico down to Panama. In El Salvador, where more than 80% of the country’s coffee is produced under shade, this eco-system is based mainly in the coffee forest. For this reason, coffee farms such as El Carmen play a vital role as a sanctuary for hundreds of migratory and native bird species found in this part of the world. The estate was founded in the middle of the 19th century when Antonio José Alfaro acquired a plot of land near the village of Ataco – meaning ‘Site of Elevated Springs’ in the indigenous Nahuatl language – where he started to produce coffee. His son, Agustin Alfaro, founder of the Salvadoran National Coffee Company, followed in his father’s footsteps and established El Carmen as one of El Salvador’s leading exporters. His efforts were continued by Antonio Alfaro, head of the third generation of this coffee family and are carried through today by Fernando Alfaro, the fourth generation of his family to farm coffee.
El Carmen is a well-run specialty estate and is managed with scrupulous attention to detail, with great emphasis placed on maintaining the identity of each lot from the moment its coffee cherries are harvested until the point when the green beans are ready for export. The estate’s coffee is produced under approximately 60% shade cover, which is required for the coffee to ripen evenly. Before the rainy season, shade trees are then pruned to about 40% shade to allow the access of light necessary for new foliage growth.
El Carmen cultivates a number of Orange (sometimes called ‘pink’ Bourbon trees), which are natural mutations of the famous Red Bourbon. During the harvest, the bourbon cherries are hand-picked only when perfectly ripe. They are kept separate from other varieties and floated to remove any debris or underweight cherries. After this, the cleaned cherries are placed in plastic barrels and sealed making sure they are airtight.
Once sealed, the coffee is left to slowly ferment for between 96 – 120 hours (4 to 5 days), helping develop new and interesting flavour profiles. During the process, the team at El Carmen perform regular temperature checks to make sure the mass is stable.
Once complete, the fermented cherries are delivered to dry on African Beds for 21 days, where they are regularly raked (initially every 20 minutes) to ensure even drying. They spend an additional three to four days on clay patios, for a total drying time of around 26 days. Finally, the beans are prepared and all defects removed and screened to uniform size.El Carmen has also expanded into tourism services in recent years, offering coffee tours and overnight accommodation in the farm’s original family home. Aninstitution in the area, it has become a proud symbol of Ataco village.