Market Reports

Discovering Guatemala’s coffee diversity

 Story by Anacafe’s Doris Quijivix   Eduardo Ambrocio lifts the spoon to his mouth and with a loud slurp he ingests the coffee, swirling it in his mouth. “Huehuetenango,” he says. Ambrocio is referring to the Huehuetenango department, or region – one of 22 that make up this country. Despite Ambrocio cupping between 8,000 and 10,000 samples each year for the Guatemalan Coffee Association, Anacafé, he can still accurately pick the origin of each one. “They are all different,” he explains. “Some delicate, others with a pronounced acidity, or with fresh fruit notes, but each of Guatemala’s regional coffees have something in common: a full body, delightful aroma and elegant balance.” Guatemala is a unique place, blessed with an ideal terroir for coffee growing. It is a small country, just 173,529 square kilometres or about the size of Europe’s Lichtenstein. But the geography is diverse, with crisscrossing mountain ranges that create more than 300 micro-climates. There are also major influences from the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, large crater lakes and volcanic activity, all of which combine to create the distinct cup characteristics found in each region. Coffee is grown just about everywhere in Guatemala on over 270,000 hectares. Since the 1990s, however, a pioneering effort led by Anacafé has defined eight distinct regions based on cup profile, climate, soil and altitude. This in-depth research continues to this day. The history of coffee in Guatemala begins in one place, Antigua. Nestled beneath awe-inspiring volcanoes in a wide valley, Antigua was once the colonial capital of Central America. It was here amid the 16th Century baroque buildings that the first coffee plant was brought from the Caribbean as an ornamental plant. Coffee production began in earnest here in the late 1880s. This region is characterised by its low humidity, bright sun-filled days and cool nights. Seasons are clearly marked, allowing for the coffee to be sun-dried.   In this setting, Antigua’s coffee farms are mainly family affairs, handed down through the generations. On the outskirts of the Acatenango volcano, 1,500 metres above sea level, San Sebastian is one such farm. Founded in 1890 by Salvador Falla, the farm is now run by his great-grandson Estuardo using many of the same artisanal coffee processing practices. Coffee, usually of the Bourbon variety, is picked crimson-red, fermented slowly and washed with fresh water. The resulting cup is quintessential Antigua Coffee: well-balanced with a rich aroma and a sweet, chocolate-like taste. Just on the other side the volcano from Antigua is the Acatenango Valley region. This verdant region, with its undulating green mountains, is synonymous with coffee. Here, the warm moist air from the Pacific rises, allowing coffee to be cultivated as high as 2,000 metres. This combined with a dense shade and nearly constant dustings from the active Fuego volcano give way to a coffee with a marked acidity and a lingering finish. The acidity is still present in the cup at the nearby Traditional Atitlan region, but now it is brighter and more citrus-like. The deep azure crater Lake Atitlán plays a distinct role in this region, infusing the air with humidity and the soils with rich organic matter. Guatemala’s rich culture also comes alive here. Coffee around Lake Atitlán is cultivated by many small-scale Kakchiquel and Tzutujil Indigenous growers who have a long artisanal culture of producing quality coffee with the same level of care as their famed weavings. North of the Atilán region rainfall increases greatly and the pine and cypress forests give way to tree ferns and mosses. This is Rainforest Coban, the wettest of the coffee growing regions. It is a land of clayish soils and constant rain. With annual rainfalls of close to 4,000 millilitres, Cobán’s coffee is frequently bathed in a light mist called chipi chipi. Originally cultivated by German immigrants at the end of the 19th Century, Cobán’s coffee continues to delight with distinct fresh fruit notes, a fine, well-balanced acidity and a pleasant aroma.   To the west, and high into the mountains
Further up the Sierra Madre chain, in a land of jagged tooth-like mountains that rise more than 3,000 metres, the coffee growers of Volcanic San Marcos produce a coffee with delicate floral notes, good body and pronounced acidity. This region is a land of extremes, with the highest temperatures, rainfalls and altitudes of all the coffee growing regions. Here, on these unimaginable slopes, Agapito Orozco plants coffee like his grandfather and father, on 10 hectares of land shaded by avocado, jocote and chalum trees. His land is barely visible from the other side of the river: “Like a pearl,” he says. Today, the majority of coffee in Guatemala is produced by small-scale growers like Agapito, in contrast to the large-scale, low altitude, single-owner farms of earlier growing days. It’s a welcome change, given that it turns what were once just day labourers into stakeholders. On the northernmost lands, on the border with Mexico, is the Highland Huehue region. This region is infused with a dry, hot wind that blows in from Mexico’s Tehuantepec plain allowing coffee to be grown to the dizzying heights of more than 2,000 metres. The rugged mountains are filled with small producers and co-ops which, utilising the many water sources, wet-mill on site to ensure quality. This former Mam Maya kingdom is now famed for its coffee, making a favourable showing at many an auction. Arturo Aguirre, owner of the farm El Injerto in Huehuetenango, has been dedicated to meticulous coffee cultivation since he took over his family’s century-old farm at 15. Here passion and science combine to create outstanding quality. “You have to be disciplined in your search for quality,” says Arturo.  There are the larger than normal drains, the height of the fermentation tanks, the exact number of centimetres that the pile of coffee should not exceed – a plethora of details that makes all the difference. For Arturo, the bet on quality has paid off. El Injerto is a proud eight-time winner of the Cup of Excellence, earning the highest price to date. These days, Arturo forges new paths with different varietals. Whether it be the melon-sweet Pacamara or the large-bean Maragogypes, it seems coffee is right at home on the perpendicular slopes of Huehuetenango. Collaboration coffee
Not all coffee in Guatemala is grown off the beaten track. In fact, the coffee from the Fraijanes Plateau region is downright urban. Surrounded by skylines, housing and commercial developments, Fraijanes faces multiple challenges, from dealing with a lack of labour to addressing contamination and crime. Its coffee farms offer more than just coffee; they are the green lungs of a rapidly growing city. Challenges aside, Fraijanes is an ideal coffee region. High altitudes, volcanic soils, well-defined seasons and a temperate climate from 12 to 26 degrees Celsius produce a notable, intense cup with a bright acidity. Due to the low rainfall in Fraijanes, producers in this region are also very innovative with their water use and management. One example is the farm, San Augustin Las Minas. This Rainforest Alliance certified farm not only recycles its de-pulping waters and treats its wastewater, but also those of the nearby city.   “Daily, 10,000 litres of wastewater from 6,000 families in the surrounding communities enter the farm’s lagoon,” explains Tessa Fitzpatrick, the energetic 20-something manager of the farm. In just 30 days, the water travels through a variety of pools, using sunlight and finally water lilies to filter it. Without this collaborative effort, sewage would make its way untreated to Lake Amatitlán. What’s more, the purified water is used to irrigate the nursery, while cuttings from the lilies are used as feed for the fertiliser-producing red earthworms. Towards the future with new production
In 2010, Guatemala produced 4.4 million quintals of green coffee, a 60 per cent rise in the last 30 years. Much of this increase can be credited to new plantings in the east of the country in the New Oriente region.
This region, cultivated almost exclusively by small producers since the 1950s, has seen a radical change from being isolated and underdeveloped to vibrant and growing. The coffee of the region has an aromatic, rich bodied cup. In New Oriente though, there is not just quality but quantity. The metamorphic soils of this region are so well balanced in minerals that it is not uncommon to find yields double the national average. The red, clayish soils are also excellent at retaining water during the dry season, keeping the coffee plants a deep, pine-green colour year round. Guatemala’s nature and culture are brimming with diversity and this is reflected in the cup. What’s more, coffee quality has been significantly improving in the last 15 years. In 1995, just 1.03 million bags of exported coffee were categorised as Strictly Hard Bean (SHB). Today, that number is up to 2.45 million bags. All of which makes Guatemala a country of coffees worth discovering. Coffee fact
Antigua was once the colonial capital of Central America. It was here amid the 16th Century baroque buildings that the first coffee plant was brought from the Caribbean as an ornamental plant.

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