Words and photos by Zack Burnett
Shortly after taking off, ariel views of Huehuetenango city gave way to semi-arid countryside. We cross one mountain range and the climate immediately changes to cool and damp. It's amazing in this part of the world how much the climate and whether patterns are affected by the topography and traveling by air really highlights this sudden change. The flight from Huehuetenango to Cobán lasts about half an hour. It's a steep landing in the rain and after we touch down we are headed to the coffee lands right outside of the city.
We are visiting a farm that Sam, our partner in Guatemala, is helping transition into the specialty market from the commodity market. As consumer appreciation of specialty coffee grows more coffee farmers around the world are beginning to see the benefits of producing specialty coffee. When practiced properly, speciality coffee production allows producers to meet and exceed their costs. Much of the coffee sold on the commodity market is sold for less than the cost of production, so even large farms producing great volumes struggle to break even over the course of a decade. This is driving the producers who own land situated in areas capable of producing specialty coffee to adopt the quality model over the quantity model. Many of the farmers we talk to around the world view specialty coffee production as their biggest opportunity for maintaining a sustainable lifestyle through coffee farming.
There are many factors that affect the quality of coffee at the farm level. A couple of them being coffee varietal and proper plant spacing. Agronomists that work with Sam on other projects around the country have identified varietals that are well suited to the micro-climates that encompass this farm. This is based on many factors including climate, sun, rain, soil composition and pest and disease resistance. Once land is prepped, they properly space the planting of these trees. Planting fewer trees on a plot of land will result in happier coffee trees with less susceptibility to disease resulting in better coffee.
The crew at this farm is trying a technique on the coffee plants pictured above that is similar to the way wine grapes are planted. These wide aisles between the rows of plants give the harvesters plenty of room to work so they can easily be very selective in the harvesting of only ripe coffee cherries. This planting method also makes upkeep of the farm easier. The cloudy climate in Cobán makes shade growing not as important as it is in other regions but if you look closely you can still see some baby shade trees that will add to the biodiversity of the plot of land and help create healthier soil. This plot of land was used to raise livestock before coffee was planted.
After coffee is planted and grown properly it has to be harvested and sorted properly to ensure quality. For speciality coffee, only ripe coffee cherries must make it into the the bag. The crew at this farm are working to train their harvesters on more selective harvesting and for their speciality coffee production have started implementing more selective sorting at the wet mill. All of the green, underripe, overripe and black coffee that makes into the wet mill will now be sorted out and be sold on the commodity market. These defects all wind up in cheap coffee around the world and is one of the big reasons bad coffee tastes the way it does. The sweetness of specialty coffee is closely tied to the selection of only ripe coffee cherries.
Another factor that affects the quality of coffee is the drying. After the seeds are removed from the coffee cherry, they leave the wet mill soaking wet. The coffee must be dried properly to prevent mold growth and to properly cure the seeds for shipping. Improper drying can result in moldy or cardboard tasting coffee and it can severely shorten the stability of coffee once it reaches the roastery. This causes quality that may start high to dramatically decrease over the life of the green coffee. There are a few ways to try coffee, one of them being mechanical dryer. For a number of reasons most specialty coffee producers do not use mechanical dryers because they are seen as producing inferior coffee. The damp climate in Cobán however necessitates the use of mechanical dryers for coffee when possible and guidelines have been put in place at this farm for the proper use to result in nice coffee.
These dryers are big machines that look a lot like a drum coffee roaster. Ideally, they slowly dry the coffee with heat. These machines can produce good coffee if used properly but very often they are used on large coffee farms that are driven by volume so they heat the machines too high and dry the coffee too fast. This uneven drying negatively affects the cup quality. For proper drying, these machines are not to exceed 104 degrees fahrenheit. Lower temperature drying in mechanical dryers will mimic natural sun drying and is capable of producing a nice coffee.
In addition to mechanical dryers, the team has begun experimenting with drying on covered, raised beds. This style of drying is more manual but it can result in some great coffees when practiced properly. If these experiments work out, this farm is looking to dry all of their speciality coffees using this method.
We were able to cup some coffees from this farm a few days after our visit back in Guatemala City. The results were nice! Very fruity, sweet, interesting and unique. The coffees did not fit into the profile we were looking for this year but we are very interested to see how this project progresses. These improvements in methods will result in even more of an increase in quality on this farm in the coming years.
We hope this served to give you a little bit of insight on some of the factors that go into producing great coffee. Check back soon for Part 3. -Zack