Late summer: you’re figuring out how to pack the last few beach days in your schedule, fresh tomatoes and corn salads are at their peak of powers, and Guatemalan coffees are roaring onto roasters’ shelves faster than you can say “Huehuetenango.”
In terms of flavor, Guatemalan coffee is hard to pigeonhole. I don’t think it’s an insult to these wonderful country growing countries to say that, for example, if you serve a washed Ethiopian coffee, I’ll have a good chance of being right in anticipating a tea-like body and floral aromatics. If you serve me a natural Brazil, I’ll expect some peanut butter and chocolate. I won’t be right 100 percent of the time, but I could definitely make some money placing those bets. I expect washed Guatemalans to be balanced, but as far as specific flavor notes I’ll probably lose my shirt trying to wager what any given coffee is going to taste like.
Dan Griffin, Co-Founder of Los Volcanes Coffee, an exporter (though that’s oversimplifying things greatly) that works in Guatemala and Brazil, helped me understand why Guatemalan coffee is so diverse. He said that while Guatemala is very small, “It’s packed with an extreme mountainous and volcanic environment, so the country has over 300 different microclimates.” The country’s proximity to three tectonic plates greatly impacts the terrain, creating “whole strings of volcanoes” and “incredibly fertile growing environments with high elevation.”
These different environments impact the flavors of the coffee — a lot. Los Volcanes operates a mill near the city of Antigua, which processes coffee from a 60 km radius. Even in that small area (for scale, it’s around 150 km from New York City to Philidelphia), there are six different growing regions with noticeably different flavor profiles. And that's just a small chunk of Guatemala, far from other famous growing regions like Huehuetenango (that’s “way-way-teh-NAHN-go” one of every fledgling coffee enthusiasts favorite geographical words to learn to pronounce) San Marcos, and Cobán, which provide many profiles all their own. That diversity makes Guatemala a sneaky choice for the “if you were only going to drink coffee from one origin” hypothetical that pops up in coffee convos.
While the situation in Guatemala might look rosy based on the availability of delicious coffees, the situation on the ground is way more uncertain (as in most coffee producing countries). Dan has heard estimates of 700 to 1,000 people leaving the rural communities that grow Guatemala’s coffee every day. At that rate, the continuing existence of large amounts of specialty coffee in Guatemala won’t be sustainable. It’s a high-level version of a problem that permeates the coffee growing world: farmers simply don’t make enough money for coffee growing to be economically sustainable.
Dan knows that “creating a marketplace where people are not losing money every year ... is really challenging and requires a lot of work,” but he thinks it’s possible. “We know that we’re at minimum at a break even point,” he says, “we don’t think we’re paying enough, and we’re trying to figure out how we can pay more and subsidize the costs at these small farms, but our model is working.”
One area where Dan sees great hope is the continued development of organic fertilizers. The effort has already been a “game changer” at the small farm that adjoins Los Volcanes’ mill in Antigua. Dividing the farm into quadrants and using different kinds of fertilizers for each, they saw massive increases in productivity on the quadrant of the farm using an organic fertilizer created on the farm itself.
Working with Andrew Timko from Blueprint Coffee, they’ve further studied and developed techniques that could be a boon to the farmers they work with. Instead of pumping the soil full of nutrients for the plants to eat, this organic method provides the plants with microorganisms that allow the plants to break down and eat the food that’s already in the soil. “For someone who has a really small amount of land,” Dan says, “there’s not an opportunity for them to plant more coffee.” So fertilizers that contribute to the overall soil health while increasing the yield a farmer can get from the same amount of plants do indeed seem like an invaluable tool.
For the time being, at least, there is plenty of delicious Guatemalan coffee to be had. And we’re proud to work with roasters that are supporting the kinds of efforts that give us hope for the future. As we sit on the precipice of summer, get to know this growing country that really runs the gamut from comforting chocolaty cups to gentle floral coffees and beyond.