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