Words and photos by Zack Burnett.
From Cobán we fly back to Guatemala city to roast and cup the samples we had picked-up from producers during our trip so far. We will be cupping at Su Beneficio, a dry mill located in a suburb of Guatemala City. The mill houses a cupping lab where hundreds if not thousands of lots of coffee are cupped each harvest as well as advanced machinery for milling, sorting and bagging coffees from all over the country. This is where the coffees we buy will be prepared for exportation. We cup around 70 coffees from Huehuetenango, Cobán, Acatenango, San Marcos and Fraijanes. There are several coffees from Huehue that impress us along with some offerings from Don Beto in Fraijanes, a farmer we have work with in the past. We end up buying three lots from 3 Huehue producers; ASODIETT, a co-operative coffee from Todos Santos, Finca El Limonar from Rogelio Aguirre Ovalle in La Libertad and Finca La Esperanza from Aurelio Villatoro in Hoja Blanca. We are interested in 2 lots from Don Beto and we plan a trip to his farm for the following day.
It's a pretty quick drive from the city up to Don Beto's farm right outside the town of Palencia. After navigating the congested traffic of the city, the road slowly gives way to a semi-arid countryside. It's very dry this time of year in this part of Guatemala and the countryside of rolling golden hills looks similar to that of rural Central California. The climate changes noticeably as we near Don Beto's farm and the land starts to look more green. We arrive at Finca San Patricio El Limón a couple of hours before dark and Don Beto is at the wet-mill to greet us.
Don Beto is excited to show us improvements he has made on his farm since we last visited. We quickly jump in his truck and begin a tour of his 150 acre farm. Don Beto is an energetic man and he is constantly looking for ways to increase the quality of his already very good production. One of the reasons we look to continue working with Beto aside from his great coffee is the fact that he is always looking to progress in everything he does on the farm. This includes keeping detailed notes on processing so he can improve his methods every year, planting varietals that are well suited to his land and possess great cup qualities, and implementing smart methods and technology into his farming methods.
We check on lots that we purchased the past year to see how the harvest is coming along this year. Beto's plants look healthy and the coffee fruit tastes sweet. His farm has largely escaped a disease called coffee rust has terribly affected coffee growers throughout Central America for the past couple of years. It's a tough disease to manage and it can be detrimental to the health of the plants and the livelihood of coffee farmers. Beto, however, has done a great job of controlling the disease on his farm with proper planting practices and plant management. We climb in altitude as the drive takes us through the farm. At the highest point Beto is preparing land to plant more Pacamara coffee trees. He has terraced the land in rows and has also installed drip irrigation on this piece of land. The terraces will allow more nutrients to be kept by the coffee plants rather than running down the hill. With drip irrigation, something very uncommon on coffee farms, Beto will be able to control how much water his plants get through the dry season. The soil has been prepared on this lot using natural amendments to enrich it's health and Beto has spaces the trees comfortably apart and planted shade trees throughout the lot. Proper plant spacing will create happy plants and will help Beto continue to control plant diseases on his farm.
The tour of the farm ends back at the wet-mill. The day's delivery of cherries has arrived just as we do. Tonight the men will be processing red and yellow bourbon. We watch as three men unload bag after bag of cherries into the tanks at the top of the mill.
The cherries are unloaded at the top and moved with recycled water through channels first to a floating tank where the undeveloped and over ripe cherries will float to the top along with leaves and sticks and the ripe coffee cherries will sink. The "floaters" are separated and the ripe coffee gets sent to the de-pupler."
After the ripe cherries are depulped, the mucilage covered seeds are sent to the fermentation tanks with water through PVC pipes. The coffee at Don Beto's farm is wet-fermented, which means the coffee seeds will soak in the fermentation tanks with water for an amount of time until all of the mucilage covering the seeds breaks down. This time can vary depending on weather. Cooler weather necessitates a longer fermentation time and the fermentation will occur in a shorter period of time in warmer weather.
Beto closely monitors the fermentation process as it greatly impacts the quality of coffee in the cup. Over fermentation can result in vinegary or rotten tasting coffee. Under fermentation can leave too much mucilage on the bean. This can lead to the mucilage rotting on the coffee as it drys. This too will result in a rotten fruit taste in the cup. Fermentation is one of the most important steps in coffee processing. Average fermentation time for Don Beto is 18 hours.
After fermentation is complete the tanks are drained and the coffee is moved to drying patios. The coffee will dry on patios for anywhere between 2 and 3 weeks depending on weather. Proper drying ensures positive flavor attributes will be preserved in the coffee beans. Improper drying will result in cardboardy, earthy or mildew-like flavors in the cup. For optimal results, the coffee must be dried to a moisture content between 10 and 11%. Once the coffee is dried it is sent to a dry mill in Guatemala City. At the dry mill the coffee will be de-hulled from the papery parchment layer that covers the seed and then it'll be sorted by density, color and by hand. It will then be bagged and ready for export.
The day ends with dinner at Beto's home with his family. Don Beto is pround of his wife's cooking and rightly so. We enjoy each other's company over a meal of grilled steak, rice and beans, plantains, salsa and queso blanco. After dinner we head back to the city and the next morning head home.