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Field Report: A Coffee Odyssey through Guatemala

Guatemala is a coffee lover's paradise, renowned for its rich landscapes, diverse microclimates, and, of course, exceptional coffee. In March, after leaving Mexico, I travelled to Guatemala to explore the coffee farms of Jutiapa, Huehuetenango, Acatenango and Antigua, all coffee-growing regions in the country. From lush mountain vistas to bustling coffee mills, the trip was filled with extraordinary experiences. Here's a glimpse into my journey through Guatemala's coffee heartland.

Volcan Alzatate peaking through the coffee trees on Jose Adolfo Morales' plot of land in Jutiapa

My adventure began in the hills and mountains in Jutiapa, about 78 miles east of Guatemala City. We started the day by visiting the smallholder producers who have been contributing to the Blue Ayarza, Guatemala coffee since 2017. We visited the coffee kindergarten that has been established to provide education to the children of the community, as well as the medical clinic that is available for all of the coffee producers of Jutiapa.

We drove down a narrow back road to get a clearer view of Volcan Alzatate before us, at the highest point in the community, when we stumbled upon the producer Jose Adolfo Morales. He owns 3 parcels of land, each around 0.7 hectares (~1.73 acres). On the parcel of land that we found him on, he had picked 24 quintales of coffee cherry that day (about 1,100 Kilograms), and he estimated that he would have 35 more quintalesto pick before the harvest was finished on that land. In the evening, he would be taking the day’s harvest to the Ayarza Wet Mill for selling and processing. His experience is average for the producers in this part of Guatemala- holding small plots of land, harvesting themselves, without help from others, and selling it to the large mill. His main concerns at the moment are fighting a fungus called ‘Die-off’ and ensuring that he has enough plants to help with nitrogen-fixing once the harvest is over.

As dusk fell, we headed to the Ayarza Mill to taste this year’s crop thus far and to observe the delivery of the day’s pickings to the mill for processing, which includes quality evaluation of the coffee cherry. The Mill had a queue of trucks, heavily laden with the day’s harvest, each waiting their turn to drive onto the scales to have the weight taken, before depositing the cherries at the top of the receiving channels.

The day's harvest being received at the Ayarza Wet Mill

The next day, we headed to Palín, a town just south of Guatemala City. Palín has a very dry climate, making it an ideal location for dry milling coffee, to make it ready for export. We were invited by Olam Guatemala to check out their dry mill and quality control departments, where they process tonnes upon tonnes of dry green coffee every day. At this mill, the team is processing, sorting, and packaging everything from one bag microlots to large, blended regional lots. After walking through the facility, we had a chance to sample 21 coffees that were on the Quality Control team’s docket for the day. We tried everything from Specialty Robusta to high-grade gesha coffee from a farm that we would be visiting later on in this journey. My palate had been intrigued by the gesha coffees and I was looking forward to meeting the producers and understanding a bit more about their coffees.

Tasting some exciting Natural Gesha coffees at the Olam Dry Mill in Palín

The next day, we headed to Finca La Hermosa, owned and operated by Max and Claudia Perez. Max Perez is a fourth generation farmer from Huehuetenango. Meeting at the University in Guatemala City, he and his wife, Claudia, both trained to be lawyers. Their shared dream was to have their own coffee farm. In 2010, after searching for land in Antigua to begin their coffee farm, they bought their farm. On the day of signing the contract to purchase the 320-hectare farm, they realised that the land was in Acatenango, not Antigua as previously mentioned. The farm has been abandoned for 30 years, with low-productivity Typica trees.

Claudia and Max Perez in front of their new gesha plants at Finca La Hermosa

Claudia had no experience with coffee farming, but she says ‘I was in love with Max but now I fell in love with the farm and the land’. They both wanted to try out growing lots of different types of varieties. In 2012, Max travelled to Panama to find coffee seeds at special farms, such as Finca La Esmeralda. From that year on, he has travelled all over the world to bring in new varieties of coffee that are not typical of Guatemala, such as Choiso from Colombia and Pacamara from El Salvador and has developed a nursery to propagate plants. At the moment, 70% of the production is certified organic, using chicken manure from their on-site egg farm, fruit pulp, and special compost made from coffee husks to fertilise the coffee trees.

Max and Claudia have their own Gesha Forest. About 20% of the 120 productive hectares of the farm is planted with gesha plants, all propagated from successful coffee farms that grow award-winning coffees. I had the privilege of walking amongst the gesha forest with Claudia and Max, a now unforgettable memory for me.

On our fourth day in Guatemala, we hopped on the smallest plane that I have ever been on to fly to Huehuetenango. Upon arrival, we piled into a truck to travel to Santa Barbara, at 2300 masl to meet with the president of Cooperativa Integral Agricola Cruz Grande R.L, Bernabé Calmo Sales. We spoke at length with Don Bernabé, discussing all of the difficulties that the 70 coop members and himself face every year. The costs of labour are very high, and consistent quality is challenging, with climate change and access to water being the largest contributing factors to quality. Bernabe has five boys and three girls, one of which has learned English and has migrated to the United States. Migration is a major contributing factor to the cost of labour being so high- there are simply not enough people to harvest the coffee cherries.

Freshly processed washed coffee, drying on a patio in Santa Barbara, Huehuetenango

In the past, in this community, the rain would begin on or around the 5th of April and you could plan your harvest and planting schedule around the rains. In the past few years, it has been hard to plan, as the rain is intermittent and does not come when it is expected. As a result, water is in short supply. There is a water truck that comes through the community once a week, for people to buy water. However, the water from the local river is rarely clean and can make people sick. Bernabe has drilled his own well to access the underground aquifers that have the cleanest water available. He sells his water in the community and uses it for processing the coffee at the coop. He is grateful for the coffee buyers, like me and the others that I was travelling with, as he is able to avoid working with intermediaries by selling to people like us. Intermediaries often mix coffees together, mixing in the high-quality coffee from this small community in Santa Barbara with lesser quality coffees. These intermediaries often do not have accurate scales, which will result in less profit for the producers in the community.

Each producer in the Coopertiva Integral Agricola Cruz Grande R.L has about 1 hectare of productive land. Last year, the Coop was able to produce 688 69 KG bags of coffee last year. He was unsure of what would happen this year; in 2023, May June and July had a flowering period, which was hopeful, but a heavy rain came and washed off the flowers. There was a second flowering later in the year, which resulted in lower production than expected.

A brightly painted 'chicken bus' passes through the centre of Huehuetenango. These buses are everywhere throughout Guatemala and are the most economical way of getting from place to place. They are called 'chicken bus' because they used to transport everything including chickens, though seeing livestock on one is now a rarity.

The 5th day was a Sunday and was spent exploring the city of Antigua. I was lucky enough to visit during lent, and the whole city was covered in purple flowers from the Jacaranda trees that line the cobbled streets on the UNESCO World Heritage site. The shops were filled with handmade artisanal goods, and every shopkeeper was eager to help me find the perfect souvenir to take back home. Already my case was filled with green coffee to bring back to London, so I had very little space for any trinkets, in lieu of shopping, I spent the day making memories at the local specialty coffee shop, Artista De Cafe, and witnessing the opulent processions of gold and silver adorned floats being carried by men, women and children through the streets in commemoration of Lent.

I enjoyed my first flat white in weeks at Artista De Cafe in the heart of Antigua.  

On my last day visiting coffee farms, I had the chance to visit Finca El Valle in Antigua. Pablo Gonzales is a fourth-generation coffee producer. I had known his mother, Cristina Gonzales, when I had purchased her coffee when I was working in the US. Halfway through my visit, we realised that we had known each other before and reminisced over our shared mutual friends. He is growing 100% red, orange, and yellow bourbon on his farm which are the same genetics as the plants that grew on the land 100 years ago. The farm is situated on the hillside of Vulcan de Agua, and in 2017 there was a big volcanic eruption that resulted in a lot of destruction in communities nearby, but Finca El Valle escaped unscathed, except for some volcanic dust that settled on the coffee plant’s leaves. The climate is warm during the day and cool at night, and they often hear the ‘retumbo’ from the volcano, their windows will rattle but they are used to it at this point.

Volcanic ash settles on the coffee tree leaves throughout the day, as Finca El Valle is close to an active volcano.

Don Pablo has a very holistic approach to life. The 39 hectares are all planted with coffee trees, with Gravillea, Higuerillo, and Macadamia trees planted to provide 40-60% shade throughout. Pablo values having lots of natural wildlife and fauna around and he controls pests using natural methods. He has made Broca traps with ethyl and methyl that make them drunk. The coffee broca female makes a smell that is similar to the traps. The males are attracted to the traps and die. They do their best to not use insecticide. There are 78 types of herbs growing on the land with five that only exist at Finca El Valle. These 5 rarities, such as the aphrodisiac hilipliegue, are currently being investigated by San Carlos University. Wild tomatoes grow on the ground around the trees and they do not remove any moss from the trees, as the moss is home to beneficial insects.

Yellow, Red and Orange Bourbon coffee fruit at Finca El Valle, Antigua

Across the street from his home and massage studio, Don Pablo has a wet mill to process all of the coffee from Finca El Valle. The mill processes 20-50 quintales per day at the peak of the harvest season. Cherries are fermented for 36 hours before they are run through the mill to remove the fruit. This fermentation is monitored closely by Pablo and his experienced team. Finca El Valle is a magical place, and I felt so drawn to Pablo and his brother, Rigoberto, the farm’s general manager. They had already sold all of their 2024 crop by the time I arrived, but I hope to be able to buy some of their coffee in the coming years.

General Manager, Rigoberto Gonzales and Pablo Gonzales at Finca El Valle, Antigua

My trip concluded with a visit to the Producer Roaster Forum, a gathering of coffee producers, roasters, and enthusiasts from around the world. The forum was a fantastic opportunity to network, learn about the latest trends in the coffee industry, and sample some incredible coffee. I ran into friends, new and old, from all over the world, that I had never imagined I would see in Guatemala.

One of the highlights of the forum was the cupping sessions, where I had the chance to taste a wide variety of coffees from different regions. It was amazing to experience the diverse flavours and profiles that Guatemala has to offer. I also attended workshops and panel discussions, gaining insights into the latest techniques and innovations in coffee production and roasting and emerging trends.

As I reflect on my journey through Guatemala, I'm struck by the passion and dedication of the coffee producers I met along the way. From the high-altitude farms in Huehuetenango to the family-run operations in Antigua, each stop offered a unique perspective on the world of coffee, rich traditions and warm hospitality that I won't soon forget.

The ubiquitous Jacaranda trees, littered the ground with vibrant purple flowers