Coffee Origin Trip: Guatemala 2014
Words by Grady Buhler, JJ Bean Coffee Quality Leader. Photos by David Long, JJ Bean Roasting Supervisor.
The trip started off on the right foot with our connecting flight to Dallas being cancelled due to freezing rain. The result was that we eventually got off the plane in Guatemala City at 6:30am feeling like we’d been run over by a truck (except for JJ, whose spiritual gift is sleeping literally anywhere). Our good friend Genaro Batres from SERVEX picked us up from the airport and we were on the road to Quezaltepeque in no time. Fortunately the ever-gallant Genaro had a pot of freshly brewed new crop coffee for us in the truck! What a guy.
After around three hours of inappropriate touching in the back of the truck, we arrived at ADISQUE Co-op. Coffee from ADISQUE makes up the largest percentage of our Eastside espresso, and is also a component of Espresso JJ. JJ Bean buys around half of ADISQUE’s highest grade of coffee, which works out to a third of their total production. It was a pleasure to meet the President of the Co-op, Avelino Perez, and the Agriculture Manager, Toribio Aldana. Much of our conversation (translated by the remarkable Genaro) centered on the growing challenges of combating leaf rust, a disease that is devastating coffee farms in Central America. Because ADISQUE is certified organic, they may not use conventional chemicals, relying solely on copper sulphate and calcium carbonate to fight the rust. While we were at ADISQUE, JJ committed to donating $2000 to the Co-op for purchasing copper sulphate. We brought home a sample of this year’s harvest of ADISQUE and it is cupping out beautifully!
ADISQUE, or the “Asociacion Desarrollo Integral Sostenible Quezaltepeque,” has worked hard to be a positive presence in the region. The co-op is located in an area with high poverty and mortality rates. Many of the locals are subsistence farmers of beans and corn. ADISQUE has helped to alleviate poverty in the region through the production of high quality organic coffee. Formed in 1995, the co-op focuses on education for adults through night and weekend school.
That evening we had dinner with Genaro and his father Louis Roberto with their lovely wives back in Guatemala City. The ceviche was delicious. Genaro and Roberto own SERVEX, the export company we work with in Guatemala. They are wonderful people.
Finca La Providencia
Up and at ‘em at 6:30am for the 4.5 hour drive north to La Libertad. I was really looking forward to today because we were on our way to Finca La Providencia in Huehuetenango, a coffee I have loved and purchased for many years. The owner, Max Palacios, welcomed us to a delicious lunch of chicken stew at the farm. It’s so nice to know that a coffee we admire so much is produced by such a warm and friendly man. After a cup of coffee and possibly a nip of Zacapa rum (not our last of the trip), we took a tour of the farm and mill.
The kids at this farm were delightful. They tried to get as close to us as they could before David raised is camera, causing them to scatter and squeal with delight. A couple of the boys kept imitating my ‘gringo’ mannerisms; it was good to get a taste of my own medicine.
Max employs around 1000 pickers during harvest time. He pays them way above average, almost double minimum wage in Guatemala. Around 70% of the trees on the farm are the Caturra variety. La Providencia has features common to many high quality producers, including mechanical dryers and tile-lined fermentation takes. Only ripe cherry is accepted at the mill, and the farm is Rainforest Alliance certified.
Before heading to our hotel in a very small town, we stopped in at Finca Santa Rosa Buenos Aires, owned by Gustavo Alfaro. Gustavo was working as a Biochemist in South Africa, but when his father died he left everything to take over the family farm. Gustavo’s dream is for the farm to become a destination for roasters and their clients to come and learn about coffee. The environmentally focused farm includes much natural forest that is home to diverse animal life. We walked upstream through a portion of the forest that is home to thousands of monarch butterflies; a heavenly sight!
Gustavo’s Mundo Novo variety won 4th place in the 2012 Guatemalan Cup of Excellence.
Finca El Injerto
The next morning started with breakfast at Finca El Injerto with our friends Arturo Aguirre Sr. and Jr. After loading up on huevos, frijoles and the best fried plantains (all washed down with mugs of El Injerto!) we set out to take a tour of the farm. I’ve already written quite a bit about this majestic farm in other places so I’ll restrict my treatment to El Tanque and the varietal cupping.
We are very fortunate to be able to buy a very special micro-lot of Bourbon variety from El Injerto called El Tanque. On this trip, Arturo Jr. took us to the area of the farm that produces El Tanque. Only 30 bags of this special coffee is produced by Bourbon trees at 6,000 feet, and all 30 bags are destined for JJ Bean. The area is named after a small “tank” of rainwater that stands under a rock face in region no. 212 of the farm. The portion of the farm that produces El Tanque is exotic and beautiful, like something out of Tarzan. While we were there the trees were in full cherry, almost ready to be picked. Only the second picking of the trees makes it into the micro-lot, as the second picking is of the highest quality and the most uniform. It is impossible to describe our elation at the thought of standing on the very spot where coffee for JJ Bean is growing. What a life!
Later in the day we cupped a number of different varieties with Arturo Jr., including his Yellow Catuaí, Red Catuaí, Pacamara, Bourbon, Maragogype, Geisha, and a new hybrid of Ethiopian Heirloom and Caturra. We had a little competition (shocking) to see who could pick out the most varieties on the table. I won’t tell you the score, but we were all quite proud of ourselves!
All of our serious coffee talk and cupping at El Injerto was balanced out with a large measure of tomfoolery and laughter, especially over supper. Even Arturo got in a few hilarious zingers (of which I was the unfortunate but deserving recipient), and the steadfast Genaro was ridiculous enough to be dubbed an honourary member of the JJ Bean family. The Zacapa had nothing to do with it.
La Libertad And The Road To Antigua
After a good night’s sleep at El Injerto we had breakfast and took a closer look at Arturo’s wet mill and drying patios before hitting the road for the long drive to Antigua. Before leaving the region we stopped in at the Slow Food Presidium in La Libertad for a presentation and some more cupping. We have purchased coffee from this co-op in the past.
The rest of the drive to Antigua is a blurry recollection of extremely high speeds, hairpin turns, Coca-Cola, stinky onion-ring chips, and carsickness. Add to that some sleep deprivation and a whiff of Montezuma’s Revenge, and you’ll have a sense of the general tone of the day’s travels. But the only time we cried was from too much laughter! Pulling into the amazing city of Antigua was like arriving at paradise. It was time for some margaritas.
Finca Santa Clara And Cupping With Mercanta
Ricardo Zelaya has the best laugh in the coffee industry, and he employs it often, to our very great delight. Our friend Christian from Mercanta picked us up from our hotel today and soon we were having coffee with the gregarious Ricardo at his farm, Finca Santa Clara. Santa Clara is an immaculate farm, with the rows of coffee and shade trees spaced flawlessly in long, perfectly straight rows. We explored the farm on ATVs, taking in the beautiful views of Antigua along with some pretty epic sunburns. David got the worst of the burns, and of course we didn’t let him forget it.
Thanks to Mercanta, Santa Clara is a coffee we look forward to buying year after year. Christian and Ricardo are currently doing some interesting processing experiments at Santa Clara, including some natural process coffees. Ricardo has built a beautiful greenhouse that enables him to control the temperature of the drying on raised beds. It will be interesting to cup the final results of his experiments.
That afternoon and evening we cupped 21 coffees at Mercanta back in Guatemala City with Christian. The coffees from Antigua were some of our favourites, cupping out with rich chocolate and fruit in good balance. After cupping we needed to balance out our systems with some beer, food, and lively conversation… and beer. There is never a dull moment when Christian is around.
El Injerto Café And Final Thoughts
On our final morning in “Guate” we met Arturo Jr. and the indefatigable Genaro at the El Injerto Café in Guatemala City (is there anything El Injerto can’t do?). We said goodbye to Guatemala over a Chemex of Pacamara and a French press of Bourbon. We pledged our love to Genaro and vowed to see him again one day (fortunately he’s coming to Vancouver in April).
My thoughts upon arriving home have been very similar to my feelings after our last trip to origin: I’m humbled! After being in a coffee producing country it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about “our” coffee. Like I said after our last origin trip, we didn’t plant or cultivate the coffee. We didn’t tend the trees or do the picking, milling, or drying. We’re not farmers or agronomists!
We are incredibly privileged to be able buy some of the best coffees in the world, and we feel a responsibility to roast and brew these coffees for our customers in a way that honours all the hands it took to get these coffees to Vancouver. And at the end of the day, that is what JJ Bean is all about: honouring people through great coffee.