Guatemala’s Coffee Journey: From Volcanic Lands to Jungle Serenity

Luis Tredicucci
Luis Tredicucci

Exploring Antigua: A Unique Coffee Odissey

Friso and I began our Guatemalan trip in the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage town, Antigua, surrounded by active volcanoes, one of which, Fuego, erupts on a daily basis. Having thoroughly explored and studied our Entre Volcanes lots from Antigua, I was eager to unravel the intricacies of coffee cultivation, processing, and commercialization in such a challenging environment.

Our initial exploration included a stroll through the town and a round of tacos. Later, we met with our local partners, Adrian and Sebastian of San Miguel Coffees, at their third-generation Falla family farm, Tempixque. The immaculate grounds, state-of-the-art facilities, and a quick chat set the stage for our ascent to meet one of the 500 producers in the Entre Volcanes program.

Ascending a steep and windy road 1700 metres above sea level (masl), we arrived at El Cerro greeted by Francisco JR. Volcano Fuego, threatening to pop at any second, felt only a stone’s throw away. Showing it through his 5 Hectare farm of Caturra and Bourbon, Francisco detailed how he and his father built the roads here, and planted most of the trees in sight.

The realisation dawned on me that fostering a coffee plantation in this terrain was an arduous undertaking, extending beyond the cultivation of any crop. The soil, notably loose underfoot – a fact underscored by Friso’s occasional stumble – became a focal point of discussion. Suppressing smirks, we avidly absorbed Francisco’s insights into the challenging nature of volcanic soil; porous yet struggling to retain essential moisture. The aridity of the soil, paired with fluctuating rainfall, emerged as a constant challenge. The ongoing 23’ harvest from Entre Volcanes smallholders is marked by a 30% decrease from the previous year, a consequence of the plants contending with inconsistent water availability. While these conditions may sound grim, the paradox lies in the revelation that lower water levels contribute to sweeter cherries. Challenging as it seems, the oscillation between high and low seasons is deeply woven into the fabric of this region, shaping the unique character of each harvest.

The terrain poses not only a formidable challenge for plant life but also creates a demanding work environment for human labour. With its steep inclines and rocky volcanic terroir, the use of machinery for harvesting is impossible. Consequently, Francisco must source day labourers who navigate the terrain on foot to meticulously handpick the cherries. The current season’s low cherry yield adds an additional layer of complexity, due to the compensation structure being calculated by the weight of cherries picked rather than an hourly wage. Nonetheless, pickers passing by are friendly, throwing out a big grin, and a “Que Tal”, as they climb on.

We ate a few cherries and shook hands with Francisco, making our way back to our accommodation, lucky enough to catch a plume of smoke erupt from Fuego. The impressive showcase of nature’s force heightened the rugged, untamed essence of this location.

Huehuetenango: Cowboys and Jungles

Early in the morning, we linked up with our partner Juan from Vides58, bound for Huehuetenango. We hit the road, and four hours later, we began ascending through thick clouds – we started noticing the colors of the coffee plants changing. Juan explained that due to the heightened moisture levels here, the colors of the plants are darker. They were a noticeable dark, blackish-green color compared to the brighter, lime-green plants in Antigua. This heightened moisture paired with colder temperatures prolongs the cherry-ripening process – great for cup quality.

We took a left turn at a Santa Barbera sign, a name I’d grown familiar with from coffee bags and café menus over the years. The paved bike lanes of Amsterdam couldn’t be a more stark comparison to these rocky, unsealed roads. Dry tall grass and cowboy hats alongside rough peaks and creeks characterized this new area. The earth became a rich ochre as we continued higher. We noticed otherworldly curved formations emerging, rolling upon one another, appearing almost unnatural. Juan assured us these were natural. Further elaborating, he highlighted the distinctiveness of this soil in contrast to the volcanic soil of Antigua—remarkably rich in minerals, a characteristic that inevitably leaves its mark on the flavor profile of the coffee cherries. This revelation illuminated just one facet of the unique terroirs that Huehuetenango, with its expansive landscapes, brings to the world of coffee cultivation.

We pulled over to allow local-legend coffee producer Don Elmer a seat in the back of the truck. He directed us up a winding narrow road to 2400 masl. We then descended 200m atop a valley arriving at his first farm, Los Pinos. The air is cold and dense with moisture. Clouds billowed over the valley, drenching his plantation in mist among others. Friso and I noticed his plants don’t look so good – small, malformed, leaves drooping. Don Elmer passed us both a cherry in hand, evident, these aren’t the first cherries picked by these hands. For what can be quite an unsatisfying, fleshless fruit, Don-Elmers were flavorsome, vibrant, juicy, and with notably higher levels of sugar. We realized the combination of altitude, moisture, rich soils, and varietal has a truly unique impact on the flavor of these cherries. Although the plants appear stressed and unhealthy, his cherries are magnificent; this is largely due to a prolonged Krebs cycle. 

Krebs Cicle

The Krebs Cycle is a process where the plant converts acetate (which is derived from the carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in the cherry) into carbon dioxide. The Krebs cycle occurs more slowly at higher altitudes, which is why high altitude coffee cherries ripen slowly, allowing for maximum flavor and acidity development, characterizing high-quality Arabica coffee.

Desperate to try his coffees, Don Elmer confesses these factors also make for a late harvest. He gives an example of how due to the importer/exporter timeline, some of the best coffees are left in Guatemala annually, as they are often the last to be harvested.

We pulled away from Don Elmer’s farm descending back into the clouds, this time jungle-bound. We drove for a further four hours into what looks like a scene from Jumanji. Banana plants and bright orange flowers line this tropical jungle landscape. Eventually, we arrived at Finca La Bolsa, the primary farm of Vides58. With no time to spare, we took spots on the tray of the farm truck and began to ascend yet another rocky dirty road, our destination, Las Camelias, with special interest in their lot, El Panal. This was one of our most celebrated lots from last year’s season composed of Bourbon and Caturra, so we are eager to bask in the origin of this great coffee.

We received a local picker as our tour guide. He explained the range of the Las Camelias farm, going from 1300-1600 masl and explained the cherries at higher altitudes will also be harvested later. These are the cherries selected for El Panal, although, it’s not just the cherries which make this lot unique.

We arrived back at the patio of La Bolsa where Juan began to unpack their refined processing method. El Panal is dried on the large patio in the basin of the mountains. Many lots in neatly divided squares create a mesmerizing red and yellow patchwork across the patio. The sun is beaming down on cherries in yellow parchment, drying after undergoing the washed process, as well as plots of coffee still in-cherry, undergoing the natural process.

This natural process is how our El Panal lot ends up with its fruity chocolatey profile, slightly boozy – an expertly controlled fermentation. Juan explains that even the drying phase of Huehuetenango is longer and requires close attention due to the moisture levels. They are all hoping they do not have any more rain during this pivotal part of their final cherry maturation and drying phases.

Two Distinct Regions, A Unique Diversity

In conclusion, our journey through the contrasting regions of Antigua and Huehuetenango unveiled the resilience and uniqueness of Guatemalan coffee production. Antigua, surrounded by active volcanoes, presented a challenging yet rewarding environment for coffee cultivation. The volcanic soil, arid conditions, and fluctuating rainfall showcased the tenacity required for farming in this UNESCO World Heritage town. Entre Volcanes, nestled between three volcanoes, exemplified the dedication of local producers like Francisco, who strategically managed his farm’s challenges, producing cherries with unparalleled sweetness.

Transitioning to Huehuetenango, we explored the lush landscapes and encountered the intricate relationships between altitude, moisture, and soil composition. Don Elmer’s farm, Los Pinos, showcased the impact of high altitude on the slow ripening of cherries, contributing to a unique flavor profile. Despite appearances of stress, the cherries exhibited exceptional taste, a testament to the prolonged Krebs cycle at higher altitudes. Further, at Finca La Bolsa, we witnessed Vides58’s meticulous processing methods, emphasizing the significance of weather management in the extended drying phase.

Both regions, while distinct in their challenges and terroirs, underscored Guatemala’s position as a coffee origin bursting with diversity. The struggle for optimal conditions in Antigua and the careful orchestration of factors in Huehuetenango both contribute to the exceptional quality and flavor nuances found in Guatemalan coffees. As we departed, Fuego’s eruption served as a fitting symbol of the dynamic forces shaping these coffee-growing landscapes, reminding us of the untamed beauty and wildness inherent in every cup brewed from this extraordinary Central American nation.

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