As we were waiting in the Los Angeles Airport for our flight to Guatemala, we (by absolute chance) met a lady who was a Guatemalan native. She was ecstatic that we were visiting her country, and insisted that we visit the nightclubs in ‘Zona Rosa’, a district in Guatemala City. This was in stark contrast to what other people had been telling us, which was mainly along the lines of “Do not leave your hotel!” We’d been told that both Guatemala City and Guatemala in general are extremely dangerous, which made me question why we don’t hear about it on the news here in Australia. We knew when we got there that we would have to be careful… no getting into strange taxis, for one thing!
Flying into Guatemala City, we could see volcanoes on its periphery. This was a hint as to why the coffee produced here is so good, as the nutrient rich and well-drained volcanic soil makes for the ideal coffee growing environment. After waiting for a minute at customs, we headed to a small kiosk to grab our first Guatemalan coffee. “Dos espressos por favor!” Wow… they ground the coffee on demand and flushed the group heads… they really do take their coffee seriously here. The coffee was strong and smooth, definitely better than what was on offer in the airline lounges of Sydney and Los Angeles. Man, why can’t everyone get it right? To many, coffee is just a job… Okay fine, it’s definitely just a job, but no matter what you do, you should always strive to be professional about it!
In the car park, we tried to speak to two female municipal police officers. They don’t speak English, however when I hear the word ‘camunetta’, I immediately say “SI!” and they direct us to a spot about 50 metres away, where our minibus will leave from. The driver asks us how much Spanish we know, and if it’s “Enough to get a girl?” It seems that Guatemalans are relaxed and straightforward. After settling into our hotel rooms, we set out for a stroll around ‘Zone 10’. “Hey, Mister Supershine, I have your colour!” There are plenty of men wanting to shine my shoes around the vicinity of the hotel.
After a while, we stumbled on a specialty coffee shop called Café Divino. Again, the grinding on demand. An Anfim grinder, a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia espresso machine, Hario V60’s for the pour-overs, and sample roasters in the back corner of the shop. Pablo, the Barista, says to us, “Whatever you have heard about Guatemala, all the bad things, please give my country a chance.” So, that’s what I decided to do, and this comment really set the tone for the rest of the trip.
A tour of Guatemala’s coffee farms
Finca La Esperanza
The next day, we met a guy called Kai. Kai works for CAMEC, a 60-year-old, family-run company that processes and exports Guatemalan coffee all over the world. He takes us to a farm and wet mill called Finca La Esperanza near Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala. He tells us that the land is increasing in value, and people are selling their farms to make way for urban development. Some people are selling half their coffee farms, and then investing that money back into the farm. There is no coffee processing taking place as we are in between seasons. The flowering of the trees has already taken place, but it won’t be until January that the peak of production will hit. I try and imagine trucks entering the mill to be weighed, cherries being de-pulped and then dried in their parchment on concrete patios or in drying machines fuelled by parchment from the dry mill. There are two types of mechanical dryers – vertical and drum. The drum dryer is known as a ‘guardiola’.
We go for lunch near the main square of Antigua. Meats, corn tortillas, bean paste and fried bananas will be the staple for the next couple of weeks. As the Marimba band plays in the town square, we visit a church, then grab a pastry and some more great coffees. Kai tells us that he is involved with a yearly procession, where about 40 people carry a float of Jesus through the streets of Antigua. Family and faith play a big part in the lives of Guatemalans. About 50% of the population live in poverty, and 13 people are murdered every day, but they are amongst some of the happiest people on the planet. They are resilient and content with what they have.
Finca La Joya Grande
The next day, we meet a guy called Hans, and head to a farm called Finca La Joya Grande, meaning ‘The Big Jewel Farm’. We have a ute in front of us as an armed escort, with shotguns being the weapon of choice. Armed guards are a fact of life in Guatemala. They patrol at CAMEC’s city office, wet and dry mills and almost every convenience store in Guatemala City. We soon discover that we are in a four wheel drive for a reason. There are no roads where we are going, only tracks with large potholes and shot-put sized rocks to navigate around. Even wearing seatbelts, if the car goes too fast you fly out of your seat, and we spend the next day nursing very sore necks!
We start seeing more and more coffee trees, and then we make our first stop. We are introduced to Tito, an agronomist with loads of coffee and farming knowledge. Here, the temperature is cooler and not as humid as Guatemala City. The first thing he points out is that the soil in this part of the farm is a bit clay-like, so it must be monitored and worked to achieve good drainage. We are taken to a plot where different varietals are growing, with each varietal signposted and monitored to assess which conditions are best suited to each plant, in order to achieve superior production and cup profiles.
Everything here is so well organised. Coffee plants are planted under the shade of banana trees, with the other farm workers walking with us all carry machetes to slash weeds.. The scenery here is what Tim and I describe as ‘crazy beautiful’. We visit other microlots with names such as Tombes (Tombs) or Siete Camises (Seven Shirts) with Tito and another agronomist from Anacafe (the Guatemalan Coffee Association). Together with producers and exporters, they are helping to ensure the Guatemalan coffee industry stays strong.
For morning tea, we stop for a honey processed coffee that really doesn’t have any ferment to it at all. It was clean, smooth and balanced. After visiting the small wet mill, composting area, nursery and worm farm, Tito shows us how they are grafting Arabica stems to robusta roots, because the robusta plants have a larger root system. We then head back to the farm’s main building for lunch. On the way, we see a funeral procession for a young child. The leader is reading verses from the Bible as they walk. The day has been a day of highs and lows. There is a kindergarten and nurse’s station on the farm to help the workers and their children when required, and it seems that every farm has a football pitch located close by for this soccer mad nation.
For me, ‘Finca La Joya Grande’ is the most impressive and progressive farm we visited. The trees. Their age. The distance between them. The terracing. The stress needed for flowering. The moisture in the soil. The soil and its nutrients. The temperature. The altitude. The humidity. The varietal. The shade needed. The position of some of the coffee trees. How do the pickers do it? It’s an absolute wonder that it all comes together. Then, there is leaf rust, or ‘roya’. A certain amount of leaf rust is acceptable, but in 2013 this fungus decreased coffee production in Central America by more than half. There is also coffee borer, or ‘broca’, to add to the mix. This small beetle makes its way into the cherry and eats nothing but the seed. I still can’t believe how much work is needed to bring a crop into production in Guatemala. A lot of people are working extremely hard to bring us this beautiful coffee, including the producers, workers, exporters and government officials. The only thing is, the farmers are barely meeting their production costs. For a lot of us in the coffee industry, coffee is not just a drink, but something extremely special, and going to origin makes you see why. As a whole, I think there should be a fixed price structure along the coffee chain, so that workers, producers, exporters, importers, roasters and cafes are all able to make a decent profit.
CAMEC’s dry mill
The next day, we visit CAMEC’s dry mill to see how the parchment is removed from the seed. The green bean is sorted by screen size, density and colour. The dry mill is able to easily separate microlots when necessary. After a quick lunch, we head to a nearby café called ‘Paradigma’ to be served coffee by the 2012 World Barista Champion, Raul Rodas. Another great coffee. We go for a quick cupping at CAMEC’s city office, but not after being stuck in the most insane traffic I have ever seen. I could not believe how bad peak hour was, and how Australia’s traffic problems pale in significance. If anything is going to hurt us, it will be the traffic.
The following day, we leave Guatemala and fly into San Pedro Sula in Honduras – the murder capital of the world…