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Guatemala Trip Report: Part 2

Words and photos by Zack Burnett

Guatemala.

Guatemala.

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.

Cobán Airport.

Cobán Airport.

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.

Coffee farm. Cobán, Guatemala

Coffee farm. Cobán, Guatemala

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.  

Newly planted coffee lot.

Newly planted coffee lot.

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.  

Coffee cherries.

Coffee cherries.

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.          

Wet mill.

Wet mill.

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.    

Mechanical dryer.

Mechanical dryer.

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.    

Covered drying beds.

Covered drying beds.

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.

Parchment storage house.

Parchment storage house.

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    

      

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Guatemala Trip Report: Part 1

Words and photos by Zack Burnett

Mayan Pyramid at Zaculeu. Huehuetenango, Guatemala

Mayan Pyramid at Zaculeu. Huehuetenango, Guatemala

We entered Guatemala by bus from El Salvador.  The border crossing is uneventful, we sit on the bus on the Salvadoran side for an hour or so while our paperwork is taken care of passing time watching money changers, stray dogs and idle members of the military border police.  Once everything is in order and the bus is searched, we cross the Rio de Paz and just like that we are in Guatemala.

Roadside El Salvador/Guatemala

Roadside El Salvador/Guatemala

 

There's not an immediate change in scenery upon crossing the border.  The hilly, semi-arid countryside flows seamlessly together and the biggest noticeable change is the pupusa* stands begin advertising their prices in Quetzales rather than Dollars.  

*Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador and are popular throughout Guatemala and Honduras as well.  Similar to an arepa, corn masa is filled with meat, cheese, vegetables or a combination of all and then hand formed into a thin patty and cooked on a griddle.  Pupusas are topped with pickled cabbage slaw and homemade hot sauce.  So good, and they go great with beer! 

On the road from El Salvador to Guatemala City.

On the road from El Salvador to Guatemala City.

It’s a few hours drive from the Salvadoran border to Guatemala city where we are headed.  The altitude gradually increases and the hills become greener.  The countryside gives way pretty quickly to higher populated urban areas.  The city sits in a valley and as we approach it after dark the entire valley is lit with civilization.  Once we arrive to the city, we meet with Samuel Coto, our "Guy in Guatemala" for a dinner of pupusas and beer and discuss our plans for the week.  We will drive to Huehuetanango the next afternoon. 

Volcan de Fuego as seen from Guatemala City

Volcan de Fuego as seen from Guatemala City

Huehuetenengo (Huehue for short) is the capitol of the department of the same name.  It’s a busy town of 81,000 in the northwestern part of the country.  This part of the country supports itself almost entirely through agriculture and coffees from Huehuetenango are considered as some of the best in the world.  Much of the support for the coffee industry in this part of the country is located in the town of Huehuetenango.  

The road to Huehuetenango.

The road to Huehuetenango.

 

The drive to Huehuetenengo is long but the scenery is beautiful.  We pass through countless tiny, picturesque mountain towns, past highland lakes and numerous volcanos.  At points the altitude increases enough that the landscape becomes somewhat lunar and the vegetation becomes sparse and shrublike.  We arrive in Huehue after dark, it’s cold and we called it an early night.  In the morning we will drive a couple of hours to the north, within view of the Mexican border, to visit a few farms in the area.  

Roadside market outside Quetzaltenango on the road to Huehuetenango.  *The suffix "tenango" is popular in Guatemala.  It's a Nahuatl word with basically, but not quite, the same meaning as "ville".  So, if Jacksonville was located in Guatemala it would likely be called Jacksontenango.

Roadside market outside Quetzaltenango on the road to Huehuetenango.  *The suffix "tenango" is popular in Guatemala.  It's a Nahuatl word with basically, but not quite, the same meaning as "ville".  So, if Jacksonville was located in Guatemala it would likely be called Jacksontenango.

We awake to cold fog in Huehue, have a traditional everyday breakfast of eggs, sweet plantains, tortilla, white cheese, super-rich refried black beans cooked with lard and a thick sour cream just called crema.  This is called Desayuno Chapin and everyone in the country serves it the same.  Full, we set off for the farms.  

Headed to the farms.

Headed to the farms.

Unfortunately we are unable to make it to the Huehue farms.  An hour and half down the road we hit a standstill.  We get out of the car to find a protest and a road block and learn that a large group of farmers from around Guatemala have grouped together to block all of the major roads in the country.  They were protesting against the government for, among other things, allowing multi-national mining companies to operate without regard for the environment.   For about 30 minutes we try to map out a way around the roadblock.  In that time, the crowd grows to over 100 people and we can’t find a way around so we head back towards Huehue. 

Roadblock. 

Roadblock. 

We get to the entrance of the town before we hit the next roadblock.  We are forced to stash the truck and walk through the roadblock/protest to get back into town.  All logistics in the country are temporarily stopped.  The protesters seem pretty angry.  People trying to travel the road are posted up not knowing how long this will last.  The roadside vendors, bars and restaurants are having their best day of the year.

Folks headed to protest.

Folks headed to protest.

A couple of the farmers we were planning to visit got caught on the Huehue side of the roadblock so luckily the day is not lost and after checking out the Mayan ruins at Zaculeu we have a chance to meet with them in town. 

The first farmer we were able to meet with is named Rogelio Aguirre OvalleHe manages Finca El Limonar which sits between 4,300 and 6,100 feet above sea level near the town of La Libertad.  Rogelio grows mainly Bourbon varietal with some Caturra, Pacamara and Maragoype in the mix.  His farm has placed very well in the Cup of Excellence the past two years. 

Rogelio Aguirre Ovalle.  

Rogelio Aguirre Ovalle.  

Rogelio is excited about speciality coffee.  We share a common vision for the advancement of the entire supply chain through the production of better coffee and trade that values coffee as a specialty product rather than a commodity.  We believe that increasing transparency in trade and paying fair prices based on quality and cost of input will ensure the sustainability of the speciality industry and help guarantee  that we all continue to have the option to consume a special, traceable, sustainable product.  

Rogelio, like many of the farmers we meet, puts a lot of faith in the speciality coffee industry as a means to finally earn a fair wage for the coffee he grows.  His land has great terroir and he is detailed in his methods starting with proper planting and agricultural practices and continuing to selective harvesting, meticulous wet processing and proper drying.  The attention to detail pays off and his coffee cups great.  

We are excited to bring you Rogelio’s coffee early this fall.  Finca El Limonar is a sweet and juicy coffee with notes of pulpy orange and hard candy.  

Huehuetenango Roadside.

Huehuetenango Roadside.

 

After meeting with Rogelio, we next meet Aurelio Villatorro.  Aurelio manages Finca La Esperanza.  He has been producing high quality coffee for years on the 35 hectare (88 acre) farm that sits between 4,500 and 6,000 feet above sea level near La Libertad, Huehuetanango. 

La Esperanza was purchased by Aurelio's father, Heleodoro Villatoro, in 1956.  Mr. Villatoro, an honest, dedicated and hard working-man has been a great example for his children, grand children and the rest of his family. He implemented a culture of support, which his family greatly honor. They are all proud to be part of the farm, which produces outstanding quality coffee for coffee drinkers around the world.

Aurelio Villatoro.

Aurelio Villatoro.

Talking with Aurelio it is clear how passionate he is about his coffee, his farm and his family's history as coffee producers.  Their farm is situated beautifully for growing speciality coffee and the family is knowledgable and takes care in what they do.  As a result, they have been awarded the Cup of Excellence 5 out of the past 6 years in Guatemala.  The farm took 7th place in this years Guatemalan Cup of Excellence. 

This is our first year working with Aurelio and Finca La Esperanza.  We look forward to sharing their coffee with you later this fall and are excited about the potential of this newly formed relationship.  Look for Finca La Esperanza to be released October 2015.             

Pyramid steps.  Zaculeu. 

Pyramid steps.  Zaculeu. 

Armando Gomez was the next producer we were able to meet.  Armondo met us with samples of parchment coffee from the ASODIETT cooperative.  ASODIETT is made up of 30 producer families near Todos Santos, Huehuetenango.  Their production is very manual but they produce nice coffees despite their lack of infrastructure.  No members of the ASODIETT cooperative use automatic processing machinery.  A few of them have hand cranked de-pulpers while other members of the cooperative de-plup their coffee by squeezing individual coffee cherries by hand.  This type of processing is not only labor intensive but it can also lead to drastic inconsistencies in the final cup.  However, the lot we purchased is sweet ad balanced with notes of chocolate and molasses and it has proven to be very consistent from bag to bag. 

Armando Gomez.

Armando Gomez.

We worked with three producers in the cooperative whose coffee cupped great on the table in Guatemala.  We are excited to work with the producers of ASODIETT because in addition to their coffee being very nice presently, we also see a lot of potential to work with them on steadily increasing their quality year after year.  

Macario.  Community Leader ASODIETT.  Photo credit: Sam Coto

Macario.  Community Leader ASODIETT.  Photo credit: Sam Coto

After our meeting with Armando we tried our luck at heading back to the hotel just outside of Huehuetenango city.  The protests proved to be short lived and the streets were clear.  We ended the night with dinner and a couple glasses of 23 year old Ron Zacapa.  The next morning we had desayuno Chapin before heading to the airstrip to catch a plane to Cobán.     

Guatemala from above.

Guatemala from above.

Check back soon for part 2!

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Trip Report: Costa Rica Part 2

Words and photos by Zack Burnett  

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Day three was spent cupping.  We cupped 75 coffees from the Tarrazú region.  It's extremely tiring cupping coffee all day but it's always a nice experience to cup so many coffees from the same area side by side.  Different varietals, micro-climates and processing styles present themselves uniquely in each cup. 

We came away with what we felt were the four highest cupping coffees of the day, all scoring between 87.5 and 89.5 on the SCAA cupping scale.  Two of the coffees are from families we have worked with in the past and two are new relationship coffees for us.  Our first lot, Finca Cirri, is currently available.  Look for the others to be released throughout the fall.  

The following day we drove to the Acosta region of Tarrazú to catch up with farmers that have been part of the micro-lot program since the beginning.  The mountains in the Acosta area are high, many over 6,000 feet, and covered in mist.  These mountains are home to countless micro-climates which create distinct ecosystems and display a great diversity of flora and fauna in a very small area.  Small changes in altitude in the tropical latitudes allows for extreme bio-diversity.  This all affects how coffee is cultivated in these areas and is responsible for distinct differences in the cup between coffees grown in a geographically small area.  

As we drive, we pass through the clouds and arrive at an area that has been designated for coffee growing.  This area is home to 4 farms all owned by members of the extended Monge family.   The Monge family has been in coffee for generations and they continually push themselves to produce better coffee.  They are inspiring people to work with.  We purchased a couple of coffees from this family last year and are excited to work with them again this year. 

The coffee we purchased from this area this year comes from Finca El Boyerito, owned by Ismael Monge Garbonzo.  His coffee displayed beautiful notes of raspberry, black tea and tropical fruits on the cupping table.  Look for his coffee to be released this fall.  

It was great catching up with the Monge family.  They have been a big part of the micro-lot program since it's inception.  They are great people who grow spectacular coffee and are dedicated to the further advancement of speciality coffee in Costa Rica.  We look forward to continuing our relationship with them over the years.

The Monge Family.  Ismael pictured left, Carlos pictured second from right.

The Monge Family.  Ismael pictured left, Carlos pictured second from right.

Next we took the short trip to Finca Maria Rita.  This farm is another that has been part of the micro-lot program from the beginning.  It is a beautiful area and the coffee is typically one of the highest cupping in the program.  Many of the coffee trees were in bloom at Maria Rita.  It was a breezy and misty evening and the air was filled with the jasmine-like scent of coffee blossom.  They day ended with an incredible sunset and pulls of Aguardiente from Carlos Monge's bottle, a nice way to wrap-up another exciting and successful sourcing trip to Costa Rica.

A big thanks goes to Royal Coffee New York, STC Coffee, the ASOPROAAA cooperative, and all of the Costa Rican farmers and families who make all of this possible.  See you again next year!  ¡Salud!

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