Emilio Lopez Diaz on coffee from seed to cup

Emilio Lopez Diaz

Emilio Lopez Diaz is a champion of El Salvador’s coffee industry. Through Topeca Coffee Roasters, he operates a vertically integrated company from production and milling to roasting and retailing.

In 2000, Emilio Lopez Diaz had a decision to make. A recent graduate of an engineering management degree at the University of Portland, Emilio could follow his original plan to open a microbrewery in his home country of El Salvador, or, he could join the family coffee business.

“At one point, my family was producing and exporting a lot of coffee. But my mother was one of 11 and so was my grandmother. The land had been divided to the point where we only owned 25 hectares,” Emilio tells BeanScene.

“About nine months before I graduated, my dad visited me. He said we needed to either sell or grow my mother’s business. The coffee price was too low, and to continue, we would need to invest in becoming millers or exporters to add value to the raw product.”

Emilio had his father send him 150 pounds of green coffee, the least he could send via courier, so he could experiment with roasting and selling it while in the United States.

“Before I graduated, I remember holding a program in each hand, one for the American Brewers Guild, the other for the Roasters Guild of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. I chose the Roasters Guild and joined them that year,” Emilio says.

Emilio learnt to roast through the guild, of which he became Chair in 2017, as well as through networking and connecting with other roasters. He brought this knowledge with him when he returned home after graduating.

“When I came back to El Salvador, I went online and searched for the company that could sell me the smallest and most affordable equipment for depulping, milling, hulling, and roasting I could do business with,” Emilio says. 

Emilio Lopez Diaz
Emilio Lopez Diaz visited Australia as part of Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters’ 2019 Knowledge Talks series.

“I found a company called Pinhalense, a Brazilian milling manufacturer of machines that had that option. In my first year, I only produced 100 bags of green coffee. No-one else back then had machinery capable of processing such a small amount of coffee per hour or harvest. We’ve since grown, but from the very start, we’ve done it all ourselves. It’s been a vertically integrated company.”

Emilio sells his roasted coffee under the brand Topeca Coffee Roasters in El Salvador and the US. He now distributes Pinhalense equipment in El Salvador, owns a farm in Brazil, where he also manages exporting operations, and sells green coffee to buyers from more than 40 countries.

“A big challenge for most farmers is to find the right home for their coffees,” Emilio says.

“In my case, I have a lot of options. I don’t sell a single bean to someone I don’t know. I have personally visited almost every single roastery, know the machine, the roaster, and have been to the coffee shops and met the baristas. We don’t roast all of our coffee, and we have many other customers who buy our green coffee. Diversifying risk is the main thing I’ve accomplished by being so spread out.”

It’s this presence in multiple facets of the coffee industry that gives Emilio an enhanced appreciation of the issues faced at every level of the supply chain. Emilio shared this perspective when he toured Australia for Toby’s Estate’s Knowledge Talks series in July 2019.

“I want to raise awareness of the realities actors across the chain face on a daily basis, not just what I and other farmers go through at origin, but the roaster and retailer too,” Emilio says.

“The challenges Australian cafés face might be different to the US or Italy. For example, by law, Italian cafés can’t sell an espresso for more than €1. Many coffee shops are struggling because of this.”

In the US, Emilio says many café owners struggle to make a profit unless they are able to open multiple outlets.

“It’s almost impossible to be competitive or profitable in only one location. You need to have five or more shops to compete. Otherwise, you’re just one more shop and someone can take over your business,” Emilio says.

“A single café might succeed with great food or a point of difference, but for the most part, business is about real estate and financing.”

Emilio Lopez Diaz
In 2018, Emilo’s coffees placed first and second in the El Salvador Cup of Excellence.

For roasters around the world, Emilio believes competition and differentiation have become the biggest challenges. 

“Countries like Australia – with only a few major cities – are completely saturated. How many Australian roasters have opened up shop in other countries?” he asks.

“They go to the US, Europe, or Asia to expand. However, Aussies do coffee in a different way to everywhere else, so it has worked in many other countries.”

While these issues are hitting the consumption side of coffee, Emilio says it’s the problems at origin that require urgent action. This includes commodity coffee prices declining below many farmers’ production costs.

“People selling specialty get a better price, but 80 per cent of world’s coffee supply depends on the C market,” he says. 

“I wish all coffee was specialty, but that’s not the case and we need to change its perception. With wine, for example, you have table wine, reserve, and the elite. There’s a bit of everything. Wine has been de-commodified, except for that much lower quality. We have not been able to do that for coffee yet.”

Individual producing countries also face problems of their own. In El Salvador, Emilio says the country’s coffee industry is still struggling to recover from a decline in production that started in the 1980s.

“El Salvador’s industry has completely diminished, and we touched rock bottom two years ago. We went from producing around 4.7 million [60-kilogram]  bags in 1980 to 500,000 bags last crop year,” he says. 

“The government had so much control over coffee, and agriculture in general. For the last 40 years, it’s kept the control, but abandoned investment, aid, and incentivisation in the industry.

“Then, in the early 2000s, coffee prices went as low as 40 US cents per pound on the stock exchange and 80 per cent of producers went bankrupt.”

The nation was dealt another blow when coffee leaf rust reached its shores in 2012.

“Part of what makes El Salvador coffee special is our unique varietals, like Pacamara and Pacas, or the traditional Bourbon and Typica. We were so controlled and blocked by the government in the 70s and 80s – the years a lot of rust-resistant varieties were spread around the world – that some of us had never even planted a rust-resistant variety,” Emilio says.

“Then, when a plague hits a country in a bad situation, it completely kills it. Only a few farms survived. But we’re still up on our feet. We are the smallest country in Latin America, but coffee on one side of the country is completely different to the other. We’re putting El Salvador out there and making it work.”

This article appears in FULL in the August edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

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