Guatemalan coffee is arguably the crown jewel of Central America. That doesn't not mean all Guatemalan coffees are good ... but it does means that the potential on the upside, the possibility of 88+ point coffees, is greater from regions in Guatemala than its neighboring countries. Great Guatemalan coffees have a bright cup character, floral hints, clean fruited notes, moderate body, and a lingering clean aftertaste. With varying qualities, farms ranging from huge estates to tiny small-holders perched on steep slopes, and different cup characteristics from within the same micro-regions, there is much to learn to appreciate the complexity of Guatemala coffee.

There are diverse growing regions within Guatemala that have the altitude, soil and climate conditions to produce great coffee. Antigua is home to some of the older estates in Latin American coffee, some handed down from original land grants within the same family. In Antigua you might see the best, most systematic farm management methods employed on some farms, while just over the fence a neighbors coffee receives little care, and near leafless coffee shrubs seem forlorn and abandoned. This might be due to complex land-sharing arrangements, as more and more heirs from old families must cooperate to effectively manage the family farm without a genuine interest in coffee farming. In other cases, well-educated offspring might have attended the elite Latin American agronomy schools of Zamorano in Honduras, or EARTH in Costa Rica. These farms are well prepared to increase volume, cup quality, and fight the battle against the leaf fungus Roya.

With land values increasing and Guatemala City sprawling over an ever-wider swath of land, you see coffee farms face difficult decisions in Antigua, as well as those near the capital, such as Fraijanes, or those around Lake Atitlan. They could sell land for housing development, or for business development to serve the city, rather than farm coffee. Farms also face competition for their labor force, as more job options outside agriculture offer better salaries and (sometimes) better futures. Younger generations show less interest in coffee farming, unless it can offer better returns. While the hectares dedicated to coffee farming in Fraijanes are dropping, it seems that other areas with rising populations are holding steady at present.

Acatenango is near Antigua and for years they were sold as "Antigua-type" coffee. Small farmers still deliver coffee or sell to coyotes (coffee-buyers who drive around in trucks paying ready cash for coffee) who deliver to mills in Antigua. There is still a premium for Antigua coffee, but this is dwindling as buyers realize that Acatenango and other nearby areas (Jocotenango, Alotenango, Patzun, Chimeltenango) all have fine coffees in their own right. Acatenango has been the epicenter of the Roya blight for the past 2 years, severely affected because of the humidity of the Pacific ocean climactic influence on this zone. Roya is the Spanish name for Rust, a leaf fungus that slowly kills the plant if left untreated. I have an in-depth article on Roya.

Huehuetenango from the northern highlands up to the border with Mexico can be exceptional and brightly acidic. Atitlan, Fraijanes and Quiche can all produce top lots, but we have less consistent success in those areas for various reasons. We have not found good Coban coffees for years, but the potential is there. It's a humid area, which creates problem with effective drying of the coffee after wet-processing.

We are now working in areas that really don't conform to these ANACAFE (the coffee farmers association) regional names. For the sake of expanding the search for great coffees and sharing the rewards that come with it (much higher prices at the farm level), we feel strongly that real coffee buyers need to branch out from the known farms and well-trod pathways.

In any case, the key to a great coffee isn't in the regional demarcation, but in the characteristics specific to the coffee itself, a product of the farmer that creates it, and certain immutable factors. Is the health of the soil maintained with good agricultural practices? Is the picking done with care, excluding under-ripe and over-ripe fruits? Is the wet-process performed with diligence and consistency? Is the coffee tree a sustainable variety, or a newer over-producing hybrid?

Political instability has often interfered with the quality of Guatemalan coffee, and more importantly, the shared success of the coffee farmer great and small. The critical issue affecting rural Guatemalans and those from the city is crime and general insecurity, much of it linked to the drug trade routes passing through the countryside, en route to the United States. But there is a dynamic and democratic process in place, and we hope to see peace and prosperity return to the countryside.

Many of Sweet Maria's coffees from Guatemala are bought with direct contact from the farm, and prices are negotiated with the farmer per our Farm Gate Coffee program. We continue to work here on the ground in new ways; while there are well-known farms like El Injerto that garner much attention, there are also countless others capable of producing great quality, but who don't have access to the needed financing in order to improve processing or care of the trees. When all buyers crowd around a few select farms, they do not spread the benefit of the higher prices they might pay to the vast majority of farmers, many right across the valley or over the hill from popular coffee buying routes.

Way back, I did one of my first travelogues for a trip to northern Guatemala. I have published some more recent travelogues as well, but since we take quite a few trips a year, reporting on each and every one has become both a huge job of work and not entirely necessary. - Tom

Guatemala Acatenango Finca San Diego Buena Vista
Ripe coffee on the tree at Finca San Diego Buena Vista.
Arrival dateApril 2014 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 17-18 Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium Intensity / Classic Guatemala character, amazing body, balanced flavors
RoastCity+ to Full City+. This coffee works best with a bit more roast, and FC to FC+ makes great SO espresso as well!

Acatenango is one of the under appreciated growing regions of Guatemala. It has always been overshadowed by nearby Antigua, and in fact many Acatenango coffees were sold as Antigua lots for many years. In mill-mark Antiguas, this is still the case, since farmers who sell cherries or the collectors who round it up and bring it to the mill rarely respect such boundaries. But Acatenango coffees come from some of the most beautiful farms I have seen in Guatemala, and San Diego Buena Vista is a case in point. I have visited this farm and was impressed with their practices, the way they have separated all the cultivars on the farm, and the beautiful condition of the mill. When I was there, all the harvest was in, and they were reconditioning the mill, replacing bearings, cleaning and painting. Reinvestment and pride are always good signs at a mill! Cleanliness doesn't hurt either, and the SDBV mill, while quite old, was beautiful, even down to the flowers rimming the office alongside the drying patio.

San Diego Buena Vista has a balanced and well-structured flavor profile that makes for a 'classic' Guatemalan coffee. The dry fragrance of the SDVB is restrained and sweet, with notes of demerara sugar and shortbread cookie. There's a refined sweetness that builds momentum when adding hot water, and light roasts have allusions to berry jam. The wet aromatics of dark roasts also share a pectin sweetness but more in the dark chocolate matrix. At City+, the cup has a fairly straight forward brown sugar and almond flavor - think toffee covered almond. It has a nice dark chocolate flavor too, that's most like high % cacao bar. It's a great relationship between sweetness and bittersweetness, striking a nice balance in the cup. There's a citrus element too, but more like citrus zest in the finish, and not so much the 'juicy' aspect. The cooling cup shows a bit of raisin, but overall, this coffee is less about fruits and most about structured sweetness and definition. This tastes like a well-rested Guatemala - something often lacking in these early harvest coffees. As espresso, this one's a killer - dark cacao, candied nut, and citrus oil. Nice.

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Guatemala Alotenango Finca Candelaria
Blossoms from the next crop at Finca Candelaria, earlier this year
Arrival dateApril 2014 Arrival
Appearance.4 d/300gr, 17-18 Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionAlotenango, Sacatepequez
Varietal(s)Bourbon, Caturra, Villa Sarchi
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium intensity/ Unique honey sweetness, layered chocolate in darker roasts, refreshing acidity
RoastCity to Full City+ is recommended for this coffee.

Candelaria is a large farm located in the Alotenango area, not far from Antigua. The farm is at the base of the sweeping ascent to the peak of Volcan de Fuego, with coffee grown between 1220 and 1500 meters. Much of the farm is set aside as natural forest. Candelaria was an old farm that was in poor condition when it came under the ownership and management of Luis Pedro Zelaya Sr. There has been a process of revitalization at Candelaria for some years now, as older trees are heavily pruned back (which takes them our of production for 2 years) or replaced completely with new plant material. Luis Pedro inherited a farm with a severe nematode problem, so all the trees at Candelaria must be grafts with robusta rootstock. The varietals grown are Caturra, Villa Sarchi, Bourbon Anano, and the dwarf Bourboncito. Ungrafted trees of any variety will not survive in these soils. The area has a severe problem with Roya, leaf rust fungus, as well. This has been addressed through localized treatment, pruning of shade trees, and dramatic pruning of every 3rd row of coffee trees to limit humidity and shade. Neighboring farms are decimated by Roya, and the trees look like leafless sticks, whereas Candelaria is thriving. The farm is still very traditional in most ways, using a shading of Grevillea and Inga trees, and processing using the typical wet-process fermentation method. This batch is one we built from day lots, which were all dried in an enclosed, green house. This provides for a much gentler drying of parchment, and is much better for cup quality.

Another great early-crop Guatemala offering that is head and shoulders above past crop offers on the market right now. The dry fragrance has the sweetness of wildflower honey, and with a praline nut note. The darker roasts have a bit of dried berry and aromatic wood. The wet aromatics have an intensity to the sweetness, honey and wheat, and a hazelnut note. There's a bittersweet resinous roast aroma in Full City roasts, especially on the break, and smells like pine syrup and blackberry. The cup has a clean brightness to it, with mild citrus acidity which shifts toward citrus zest in the finish. It has a hefty sugar caramelization flavor, like blackstrap molasses - surprisingly strong at light roast levels. This sweet aspect hangs on to the finish and shifts toward more flavors of honey and milk chocolate. Dark roasts have a dense brownie note, but still showcases refreshing acidity breathing life into layered chocolate flavors. This makes for a great brewed cup, pleasing and balanced, and espresso is so chocolatey sweet, and with an up-front, piquant berry brightness.

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Guatemala Volcan de Fuego Guacatepeque
New growth of a very old Bourbon coffee tree, from a contributor to Guacatepeque coffee
Arrival dateApril 2014 Arrival
Appearance.4 d/300gr, 17-18 Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionAlotenango, Sacatepequez
Varietal(s)Bourbon, Caturra
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium intensity/ Caramelizing sugars, hazelnut, honeyed mouthfeel, clean finish
RoastCity+ to Full City+ - darker roasts develop chocolate roast notes in this coffee. Lighter roasts are brighter and show praline nut characteristics.

Guacatepeque is an ancient local name for the area this coffee comes from, a group of small coffee producers in the Alotenango area. The farms are on the rising slopes of the Volcan de Fuego, which has been moderately active in the past few months. The soil in the area is unique, and contains quite a lot of sand and ash from Fuego. Producers must take care to balance this with organic materials to keep the coffee trees in production. Some of the small farms I visited in the area were very casually tended, with large, long-branched old Bourbon trees, unkempt and in need of a good pruning. Other producers were clearly more active, and had been re-planting the trees on a regular cycle to achieve better production and quality. The area these small farmers work in is adjacent to the large La Candelaria farm, in fact they are just upslope from it on the same side of the Fuego volcano. Much of the area is forest preserve, which protects the water supply, as well as providing the much needed organic soil inputs. We find the cup to be uniquely different than other coffees in the zone. We built this lot of Guacatepeque by cupping each day lot batch, looking for a target flavor profile.

This is a classic crowd-pleaser coffee. The dry fragrance has baking spice (especially at City+ roast), maltose, and some slight herbal sweetness. The wet aromatics have honey and oats, like granola, and with a roasted almond scent, and dark roasts hit on the molasses part of raw sugar. The cup has caramelized-sugar sweetness, and notes of almond and tangerine are complimentary top notes. It has a honeyed mouthfeel, silky and cleansing, and with a mandarin like acidity. There's a 'freshness' to this coffee that is expressed as raw nuts like Brazil and hazelnut, and with a bit of Ricola, and coriander. More developed roasts reveal a bit of milk chocolate melding with smokey roast flavors. It's not an overly complex coffee, but delicious all the same. And as a new 2013 crop coffee, it blows the top off all the past crop offerings out there. It's lively, clean and fresh, and it makes a great SO espresso as well.

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